Thursday, May 04, 2006

Cousin Nick breaks the bank in Macau

. . . Well, not really, but it was better than anything I've done in North America lately.

Sorry for the delay in posting, but Nick and I have been either too busy or too tired to formulate our thoughts. I decided to sleep in today (it's Friday morning as I write this) while Nick and his friend Ed are out on the town, so now's a good a time as any to catch up.

As I alluded in a previous post, I left Hong Kong briefly Tuesday and went to Macau, which is about a one-hour boat trip across the Pearl River delta. Macau is a former Portuguese colony that was handed back to China in 1999, just like HK was in 1997. Macau is a lot smaller than HK in population (about 500,000) and area (I don't know exactly how big it is, but let's just say "not very"). The city is more laid-back and less crowded than HK; the main square is full of colorful, colonial-style building that don't seem to exist in its bigger, British brother (maybe they have similar styles in Lisbon, I haven't been there). Macau is also a good place to get a Portuguese dinner and some Portuguese wine (I bought a bottle of port for about $10 US).

But Macau's main lure is its casinos. There are about 10 in the territory right now. Until about three years ago, all of them were owned and operated by one guy. Then the Chinese decided to allow competiton. (Funny that an allegedly "free" country like Portugal promoted monopoly while the communists opened the market.) The Las Vegas titans have invaded. The Sands opened a casino in Macau about a year ago, and the Venetian and Wynn Macau (which looks just like the Wynn Las Vegas) are under construction.

I started my casino blitz at the Casino Lisboa, one of the original casinos in the monopoly. It was unlike any casino I've been to. Instead of a big room, like most casinos have in the U.S., Casino Lisboa is subdivided into scores of smaller rooms, all very tastefully decorated -- no flashing lights or bells and whistles. Most of the tables are baccarat; there are a few blackjack tables, but no craps and no slot machines. Gambling there is a joyless experience. It was as quiet as a church; the dealers didn't encourage much conversation, aside from what was necessary. My few questions were met with curt responses, and I got waved off more than once from the casino cashier. Not a place I'd want to return to anytime soon.

The Sands, however, was a different story. You could have taken it straight out of Vegas and dropped it in Macau without missing a beat. All kinds of glitz -- and all kinds of noise and people on the expansive casino floor. I've never seen a casino so packed -- moving through the aisles was almost impossible in some places, and this was at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The pit bosses and cashiers were universally friendly. I enjoyed the Sands immensely, and if I ever get back to Macau, I'll return. I suspect that the Wynn and the Venetian will be the same way, and they'll increase pressure on the Lisboa and others of its ilk to change their ways or else.

Oh, how did I do? Well, once I figured out the intricasies of Macau-style blackjack, I managed to turn a stake of $1,000 Macau patacas (about $125 US) to $3,000. All those winnings came at the Lisboa. I guess I can overlook bad attitudes if I end up making a profit.

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