The casino tycoon who loved China

All that cash the rest of the world is sending to China? Sheldon Adelson, the third-richest American, is recycling it.

Published July 2, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

Like apparently a whole lot of people, I was unaware that Sheldon Adelson, the casino tycoon, is currently the third-richest American, ranking behind only Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. And I wasn't sure that I cared. Bugsy Siegel -- now there was a glamorous Las Vegas gambling magnate. A newbie like Adelson just didn't pique my curiosity. But by the fourth or fifth time I saw Connie Bruck's humongous and fascinating New Yorker profile of the multibillionaire mentioned in the blogosphere, I realized I was going to have to set aside the rest of my afternoon and become more informed.

In the course of her reporting Bruck provides a crash course in current Jewish politics -- Adelson is as right-wing on Israel as you can get, and is also attempting to be a major player in the Republican Party in the U.S. But what struck me most was the account of how Adelson made the jump from just a really rich guy to one of the super-rich. By getting a gaming license in Macao just before the Chinese government liberalized travel restrictions from the mainland to the former Portuguese territory and longtime gambling enclave, Adelson was effectively granted the right to mint money.

In May, 2004, the first gamblers entered the Sands Macao. Its construction costs were two hundred and sixty-five million dollars, and Adelson made back his initial investment in a year. In December, 2004, Adelson took Las Vegas Sands public (according to Forbes, he owns sixty-nine per cent of the stock) and became a multibillionaire, overnight. The following year, Macao drew 10.5 million mainland Chinese visitors, a hundred and forty-seven per cent more than three years earlier -- reflecting an easing of travel restrictions and an increase in the number of newly wealthy Chinese. By the end of 2006, Macao had become the top gambling center in the world, with gaming revenues exceeding $6.9 billion, a quarter of a billion dollars more than those on the Las Vegas Strip. In 2007, revenues climbed to $10.3 billion. That year, Adelson opened the $2.4-billion Venetian Macao -- with canals and stripe-shirted gondoliers, as well as an extensive shopping mall and a five-hundred-and-forty-six-thousand-square-foot casino, which is the largest in the world. Since the Sands Macao opened, his personal wealth has multiplied more than fourteen times, and, according to the Times, in the two years after his company went public he earned roughly a million dollars an hour.

So here's how the world works, today. Americans spend their cash at Wal-Mart buying goods made in China. The Chinese take that cash and gamble it away in Macao. And then Sheldon Adelson spends it trying to defeat Barack Obama in the U.S. and get Ehud Olmert ousted as prime minister of Israel.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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