Whales in the Desert


By Byron Craft

We all know that whales are massive marine mammals that live in the oceans and typically stay close to the surface for a series of short, shallow dives while building their oxygen reserves. Common sense would tell us that whales are not active in the desert…right? Wrong!

Here in The Meadows, commonly called Las Vegas, there is a different species of whales that are very lively.

High rollers, also referred to as “whales” in the casino industry, are gamblers who wager huge sums of money. Whales often have very high table limits, allowing for high roller exclusive use. In Las Vegas, casinos compete on bet limits and those ceilings normally run between $150,000 and $300,000. Only casinos with substantial financial firepower can accommodate high-stakes gambling due to the volatility of the results.

What do casinos do to accommodate them? 

Whales often receive lavish comps (compensations) from casinos to entice them to the gambling floors, such as free private jet transfers, limousine use and use of the casino’s best suites. How about a duet with the most popular Diva in Sin City, or tennis with Andre Agassi? They may even comp the wife’s $10,000 shopping spree, just as long as hubby’s prepared to drop $250,000 on the blackjack table.

Casinos may also extend credit to a player to continue betting, offering rebates on betting turnover or losses. Casino employees’ salaries may also contain incentive arrangements to bring in high rollers. 

High rollers may also be subject to exceptions from various rules and regulations, for example: Ben Affleck was escorted out of the Hard Rock Casino after security labeled him an “advantage player,” believing he was counting cards in blackjack. But Mr. Affleck will keep ‘doubling down’ and ‘splitting aces’ in Sin City, because he was offered a blackjack safe haven where he won’t be 86’d for card counting.

The D Casino Hotel in Downtown Vegas wants Ben to bring his chips from the Strip, without worrying about getting swooped up by security. They were not afraid of Ben Affleck winning a few hands in a row. It is a small price to pay to have the megastar sitting at your blackjack table drawing in hundreds of tourists to watch him play. Heading off the Strip didn’t mean that Ben lost his whale status… The D can accommodate high rollers up to $10K per hand.

Although the hunting of ocean whales is illegal in most parts of the world, these desert mammals are fair game for any casino. Even though fifty percent of Nevada’s gambling income comes from slot machines as opposed to the card tables, you would think that it would be an indication that high rollers are not the main source of revenue. Whales are said to provide only a small fraction of casino action. In reality, gamblers from the lower and lower-middle classes in the U.S.A. are the ones that provide the majority of the gambling revenue. The occasional wealthy “whale” does indeed exist, but he is the exception, not the standard. 

It is fully understandable though why a casino would want a player under their 40% revenue share losing thousands of dollars on a monthly basis. While high stakes gamblers may not provide a substantial portion of the revenues in the casino industry as a whole, they can have a major effect on the income of casinos that cater to them. There are considerable costs associated with attracting the whales, so if a casino takes the chance and the whale wins, its expenses can be extraordinarily large. On the other hand, if the casino’s investment pays off and the whale loses, the casino’s gain can far exceed its expenses for the big time gambler’s visit.

Fishing for whales can have spectacular results and sometimes a catastrophic outcome.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan became a big-name client for a whale hunter/casino host. To get close to the NBA giant, the hunter had to pay $15,000 to enroll in Jordan’s annual basketball academy. Once in the zone though, the whale hunter worked his magic. He played up his role as the casino host and got to know him, admiring his own moves in action replay. Then in the evening, when they were done playing, he talked him into going to his casino. The game stakes were high that night.

Some casino hosts wait for whales to wash up on their shore, while others ride out to catch them. Many of them painstakingly network by going to lavish parties in Los Angeles, the Indy 500, or a race meet looking for new players.

Top whale hunters leave nothing to chance before choosing a client. They’ll meticulously pore over every bit of a high roller’s credit information and casino records. When done, they will know their average bet, how long they play and what game they like. They will even know how well the whale plays. If there is only one hotel suite left and they have to choose between a good and a bad player, they will choose the loser every time.

One cutthroat hunter kicked Bill Gates out of his $10,000 hotel suite, because one of his players had come to town. He allegedly told Gates, “The most I can make from you is $10,000 a night. My guy bets that on his first hand. You can move now or security will be here in an hour.”

A very motivated whale hunter drove all the way from Vegas to Montana in a rented van so he could deliver a specially engraved dice table to a craps-loving mega-roller on his birthday. The mission was accomplished. The gambling giant was so in love with his gift, he flew back to Vegas with the hunter/host, hitting the craps table at $40,000 a throw.

Sometimes an attempt to catch a whale can end up being a big fish story about “the one that got away.” A charismatic whale hunter once succeeded in wooing porn impresario Larry Flynt into visiting the Las Vegas Hilton. After sending him sumptuous gift baskets for several months, Flynt finally relented. Unfortunately, the bait he used didn’t obtain the massive payday the hunter desired. Larry Flynt is a much-disciplined man. He got his own plane, flew in on a Friday, won a million playing blackjack and then left. The casino host still flinches at the memory. 

Most high rollers are not famous people. They are stockbrokers, they own restaurants, strip clubs, car washes, and many are Asian billionaires. The great thing about Vegas is that anyone can be a star there, as long as they gamble big. There is always another whale out there just waiting to be caught.

Gambling at such high stakes is, of course, a sickness. If one of these whales lays down a bet for 250 grand in my presence, you will probably hear me plead, “Hey, I’ll settle for half that in cash.”

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