How Macau Overtook Las Vegas as the World's Top Gambling Destination
Gambling in Macau has been legal since the 1850s, yet just 20 years ago, this was a grimy, down-at-heel city with a seedy and dangerous underbelly controlled by the Triads.
Fast forward to 2017 and the place is almost unrecognizable; the transformation is that stark. Grandiose, gilded and glassed gambling palaces bathed in neon now dominate the skyline of what has become not only the gambling capital of the Far East, but also of the world.
Measuring 30 square kilometers, Macau is home to 600,000 people, but the former Portuguese colony received a whopping 30 million visitors in 2016.
The majority of these travelers were from Mainland China, though increasing numbers are flocking from across Asia and further afield to experience all that this distinctive destination has to offer.
While Las Vegas holds the title for 'world's party capital,' Macau is the undisputed gambling Mecca after eclipsing Sin City more than a decade ago in terms of sums wagered.
The numbers these days are quite staggering; gamblers in Macau wagered US$28 billion in 2016, dwarfing the $6.3 billion casino resorts that hug Las Vegas' famous Strip took in bets.
"The culture between Macau and Las Vegas is extremely different," said Shanghai-born Team PokerStars Pro Celina Lin. "People don't come to Macau to party or see shows; they enjoy the casino games too much."
Those who have experienced Las Vegas casinos will soon discover a pronounced dichotomy between gaming floors there and what Macau has to offer. Familiar fixtures like roulette, blackjack, craps and slots are nowhere near as popular in Macau as they are in the U.S.
Instead, the Chinese are besotted by baccarat. In fact, the game accounts for approximately 90 percent of all gaming revenue generated by Macau's 39 casinos and is especially popular among the high rollers who play in luxuriously private VIP rooms.
"When you come to Macau, you will find a lot of baccarat," Lin said.
Venture onto a casino floor and you'll be confronted by a sea of baccarat tables occupied by players carefully squeezing the cards and hoping Lady Luck is on their side.
Indeed, Chinese gamblers are notoriously superstitious. It's why Macau's casinos meticulously observe the laws of feng shui (literally translated as wind and water) when it comes to architectural design, layout and décor, while the color red is associated with prosperity, good fortune and warding off evil spirits.
Numbers such as eight and nine are also considered lucky, yet the number four is avoided at all costs, including in casino construction (seat four is usually omitted at a baccarat table for instance), as it is largely associated with death.
Chinese gamblers also don't tend to drink nearly as much alcohol as Western casino players, preferring instead to knock back caffeinated beverages to keep themselves mentally alert. Casino gambling is taken much more seriously in Macau than Las Vegas.
A new game in town
While baccarat dominates, poker's appeal continues to spread as more and more Chinese begin to take up this skill-based card game.
In fact, Macau is home to some of the highest-stakes cash games in the world, which is why elite poker pros regularly jet there to lock horns with fellow pros and affluent Asian tycoons who love to gamble.
And now, of course, the PokerStars Championship makes its debut in Macau, heralding a new chapter in the game's growth in the city and across the region.
Poker is on the cusp of a massive upward trajectory in this corner of Asia, which makes Macau one of the "last untapped markets" in the world, according to Director of Live Events at PokerStars Edgar Stuchly.
"It's why the world's biggest cash games are being run there and why the tournaments are continuously able to grow year on year," he said. "Macau draws on the many new markets in the region to continually build its poker games and this provides a great mix of players from all backgrounds and experience levels coming together on the felt."
These sentiments are echoed by Lin, who called Macau home for seven years.
"I see players who learn to play poker and they start to play baccarat less and, at times, stop altogether because they see poker as more fun," she said. "Instead of playing against the house, they enjoy chatting and the social environment poker has to offer. This is most prevalent in the younger generation who enjoy a challenging, thinking game."
A passion for games is ingrained in Chinese culture, and with a population of 1.35 billion on its doorstep in Mainland China, the future certainly looks bright for the game.
The 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event champion, Chris Moneymaker, recently returned from a trip to Sanya, a city on the southern edge of China's Hainan Island and was "amazed" to witness firsthand poker's growing appeal.
"The Chinese are passionate about games of skill and games in general and you can tell poker is about to explode," he explained. "There are already many poker clubs and leagues set up throughout China but much of the poker knowledge is untapped. When China gets more poker training platforms for the game, I expect there to be the biggest poker boom since 2003."
That's a bold statement, but if anyone knows a thing or two about sparking a poker boom, it's this famous Team PokerStars Pro.
Things to do in Macau
Away from the felt at the PokerStars Championship Macau, there's plenty for visitors to explore. Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999, so the city is still a melting pot of Chinese and Portuguese cultures and influences. And this includes food.
For authentic Cantonese cuisine, Lai Heen is a ten-minute taxi drive away from City of Dreams and is also the highest Chinese restaurant in Macau, perched on the 51st floor of the Ritz Carlton. Those looking to sample some Portuguese cooking should look no further than O Santos Comida Portuguesa on Rua do Cunha in the heart of Taipa.
"Macau has some amazing food from all over the world, but it's a unique opportunity to try some of the best Chinese cuisine too," said Team PokerStars Pro Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier.
If you're looking to celebrate a win or unwind after a sedentary session at the poker tables, Club Cubic is the place to go. Spread over 30,000 square feet and two levels, this is one of Macau's largest and most exclusive night clubs and includes Asia's first Perrier-Jouët champagne bar.
Alternatively, check out Sky 21 atop a downtown high-rise building. It boasts fabulous, sweeping views of Macau and is the perfect spot for enjoying a cocktail at sunset and watching the casino resorts' spectacular lights flicker into life, illuminating the evening sky.
More breathtaking views of the city can be found by ascending the 338-meter-high Macau Tower. The famous landmark includes a revolving, 360-degree café and fine Chinese dining at Lua Azul.
From the observation deck, you can see Hong Kong on a clear day. Those with or without a head for heights can't leave Macau without experiencing The House of Dancing Water, the largest water-based show in the world.
Performed at City of Dreams, it involves dazzling dance routines, breathtaking gymnastics and high-performance diving in a purpose-built, 270-degree theater. Lin said it is, without a doubt, the best show Macau has to offer.
So whatever you choose to do, you'll discover there's more to Macau than just baccarat. Indeed, poker players arriving for the PokerStars Championship Macau are in for a real treat.
"Personally, I really love Macau," said ElkY. "It has a very unique vibe and a wonderful mix of cultures, from some lavishly luxurious settings in the most well-known hotels to some of the most traditional Portuguese or Chinese places."
If Lin had to choose between Las Vegas and Macau, there's no question.
"A lot of people compare Macau to Las Vegas, but to me, I've always felt Macau has much more to offer."