Photo: Aaron Tam/ Getty Images.

Macau Lights

Flirting with losers in China's casino capital


After she’s tumbled the three dice with an automatic shaker, the dealer rings a bell signaling the last chance to get in any bets. The board is a complicated series of squares marked with numbers and illustrations of dice faces, but most players place their chips on two boxes marked “big” and “small,” meaning above or below the average sum, with double or nothing payout. If there’s any strategy in playing a game of pure chance like Sic Bo, it’s knowing the odds. Every roll will either end up “big” or “small,” but there’s 105 different combinations that will generate each. Still, if four rolls in a row have ended up “small,” most people will bet “big” next, or feel the thrill of going against their better judgement. I soon became convinced I could find the rhythm of high and low by aligning my gut instincts with the room’s vibrational frequencies, centering myself by focusing on the energy just below my belly button. It took me only 20 minutes to lose 1,200 patacas.

Macau is the only place in China where casinos are legal. Made up of a peninsula and three small islands just off of the country’s southern coast, the territory was a Portuguese colony until 1999. China regained possession two years after Hong Kong changed hands, making it the last European territory in Asia. Macau had long been a gambling hub. Their casino licensing system dates back to the 19th century, and by the sixties, half the region’s official revenue was coming from gambling. But it’s only in the past 15 years that the city has seen massive development. In 2001, the local government ended a four-decade-long monopoly on casino licenses, attracting foreign players like Wynn, Sands, and MGM. Two years later, Chinese authorities loosened up rules for visitors coming over from the mainland. Among other new resorts, the 546,000-square-foot Venetian Macao opened in 2007, pronounced the largest casino in the world. Gaming revenues soon dwarfed Vegas.

With blinking lights and electronic whirs, casinos stimulate you into infantile submission. They disorient by design too. Their cunning curves weave labyrinthian pathways devised to leave one dazed, unsure which way’s the exit, each cluster of table games, every console of slot machines, looking just like the last. In this way, the big casino complexes in Macau are just like the ones in America. And the same as any other large open ersatz-compound with recirculated air and faux luxe finishings, they’re also comforting to anyone who spent the better part of their youth as a mall rat.

With around-the-clock gaming and no windows, the only clue as to whether it’s 3pm or 3am is if some of the restaurants or shops have shuttered for the evening. They don’t serve alcohol on the casino floors in Macau. Through the night, waitresses come around with carts of coffee they pour into paper cups. Smoking isn’t allowed either, except in closed-door smoking rooms. That rule must be new though, or frequently broken, because everywhere it still stinks like stale cigarettes and chemical citrus air freshener.

Some of the casinos were crowded, others weren’t, but the ones that were busy were full of locals and middle-class tourists. The VIP rooms were mostly empty. In recent years, there’s been a crackdown on the money laundering that’s attracted the Mainland Chinese elite to Macau. The Chinese government has limits as to how much each citizen can invest outside the country. There are ways around these regulations. One is to take millions of dollars for a gambling trip in Macau and pretend to gamble it all away while really only gambling a little bit away and transferring the rest to an offshore account. It’s getting harder to get away with this kind of thing.

While the big spenders tend to play baccarat, the largest crowds I saw were around the Sic Bo tables. Hardly anyone bothers with the slots in Macau, which means these casinos aren’t filled with the same breed of low-risk-low-reward zombies that haunt their American equivalents. While there might not be any strategy to Sic Bo, it’s social. Without a word, you feel the push and pull of the pack between “big” and “small.” You can follow or you can rebel, still you can’t help but be shaped by the mood.

I started to sense the presence of the man to my left. He had more chips than me in his hands but he seemed younger. We got into sync somehow, like there was an invisible string connecting us, betting “small” when everyone else was betting “big,” betting “big” when everyone else was betting “small.” We took turns following. Sometimes he put his chips down first. Sometimes I did. I only looked at him sideways. He had delicate features and black hair in a K-pop swoop. In a city of strangers, this is what I paid for, a fleeting connection across the gaming table, playing to win, but losing together.