LAS VEGAS -- Warren Buffett, of course, and then Bill Gates, but can you name the third-richest American? He is Sheldon Adelson, 74, whose net worth is, according to Forbes, $26 billion. He made his first fortune by founding and then selling a computer exposition here. Today he is thriving in part thanks to Asians who gamble here and in Macao, a tiny appendage of China. His Las Vegas Sands Corporation is the largest investor in China, ever.
Compact and combative as a bantam rooster, Adelson, son of a Boston cab driver, used $128 million to buy the old Sands, the haunt of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. Adelson tore it down and built the $1.5 billion, 4,000-room Venetian. Two months ago it became the world's largest hotel when it opened the $1.9 billion, 3,000-suite Palazzo hotel, which is physically connected to the Venetian. In Macao, Adelson has two resorts, including a Venetian with a casino three times larger than the largest in Las Vegas.
He is spending upward of $9 billion more to build 13 additional casino hotels in Macao, and about $4 billion on one in Singapore. Next? Perhaps India, Japan, Korea, Thailand. Certainly Bethlehem (Pennsylvania, that is -- really).
Macao's gambling revenues, which surpassed the Strip's in 2006, soared 46.6 percent last year to $10.4 billion. Macao's February revenues were up 67 percent over February 2007. Las Vegas is largely immune to U.S. economic cycles: In January, the Strip's casino gambling revenues fell only 1.3 percent, and a few "whales" could make up that margin over a weekend.
Whales, in the language of Las Vegas, are, Adelson says, those who can win or lose $3 million in one stay. There are only a few thousand whales in the world, but they are multiplying fast in China -- thank you, the People's Republic. Adelson says that when 60,000 people a day are gambling at Macao's Venetian, 40 percent of the casino's revenues come from 59,700 of them, and 60 percent from 300 others, probably including three to eight whales. In the Venetian here, 20 percent of the gamblers provide 80 percent of the revenues. Business cycles do not dent Adelson's confidence that the rich will always be with us: "The upper end is never vulnerable."