Tuesday, October 30, 2007

It's like Vegas, minus the fun

This weekend, as part of my alcohol-and-sleep-deprivation treatment program for my tonsillitis, I decided to take an all-night trip to Macau. I'm not sure where my mental image of Macau came from, but for whatever reason, I arrived in Macau expecting to find a high-class Las Vegas, a place that preserved the style and low-level debauchery and lost some of the too-egregious kitsch and Midwesterners in fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts. While the scene was definitely fanny packed-Midwesterner-free, though, Macau fell short in almost every other way. I can see the marketing now…

Macau: Where It's Amateur Hour 24 Hours a Day!

We started with the Wynn, which was a lot like its identically-named Vegas equivalent, but smaller and gaudier. The carpets looked like the hottest-selling hotel carpet of 1977, elaborately patterned and distractingly colorful. The chandeliers in the main reception area were epic, baroque monstrosities that looked like they were crafted from a combination of plasticine and red wax. The restaurants all seemed good, and the flagship restaurant at the Wynn was an Italian restaurant that was surprisingly reasonably-priced for its class. But inexplicably, the large second-floor space looked out over the hectic street and neon hotel marquee, rather than over the peaceful and tastefully-arranged swimming pool area. Our window-side table overlooked a large fountain in front of the hotel, which would have been lovely if the fountain wasn't shut off for this whole week.

The gambling floor was a disappointment, in part because of cultural preferences and in part because of bad policy and poor execution. Asian gamblers simply prefer different games than their western counterparts. As you might expect, baccarat is everywhere, as is a game called sic bo, a kind of dice-based roulette in which three dice are shaken up in an opaque bobble-like container and players bet on what numbers have come up. Blackjack is easy to find, but there was no poker room, only one craps table in the whole house (a tragedy, if you ask me), and one table of casino war (like the kids' game of 1-on-1 high-card).

Now, I can't complain too much about the decisions on table space to the extent they're based on cultural preferences. But the one craps table and the one casino war table were overflowing full the whole time we were there, while there were seas of baccarat tables with one or zero players each. The misallocation of resources was obvious to even the most casual observer.

I was also struck by how much the Wynn - and later the Venetian - had fudged the rules on blackjack to turn the odds in their favor. I expected that Macau would offer comparatively favorable odds for gamblers…in Vegas, most “whales” (the super big-money gamblers) come from Asia, and whales generally demand favorable rules when deciding when to take their (massive amounts of) money. And maybe they got those rules in the VIP sections. But us plebeians had to deal with no 5-card blackjacks, no surrender with an ace showing, no surrender after the first player has made any decisions no matter what your position, no pre-checks for dealer blackjacks (meaning you could decline insurance, double down or split, and still lose to a blackjack), and only one card per hand when splitting aces.

The dealers themselves seemed flummoxed by the process, stumbling in their deals, getting cards caught in chip trays, and sometimes even struggling to add up the value of the cards. And what they lacked in basic competence, they did not make up for in personality. Perhaps because there's less of a tipping culture here, dealers don't feel as much of an obligation to be fun, enjoyable individuals. Or to learn English. With only one exception of note, the attitude of the dealers ranged from glassy-eyed and bored to sullen and morose.

That lack of personality extends to Macau gamblers generally. Even without the benefit of a classier environment, Macau casinos managed to suck the vibrancy out of gambling. Middle-aged men hunched over the tables, placing their bets in chain-smoking silence. Victories and defeats were met with equal indifference. Their body language suggested that the gaming is a chore rather than recreation.

Any break from this standard was met with caution and skepticism by casino officials. Down HKD $2,000 at the Wynn and with no chips in hand, I decided to change HKD $1,000 into a single chip and bet it all on one hand of blackjack. Even if HKD $1,000 is actually only US $120, it felt like a lot of money in context (a thousand!). We decided to create some drama for ourselves…the other people in my group placed back-up bets on my hand, and we watched rapt as the hand unfolded. When I won, we cheered and clapped loudly, only to attract the nervous attention of several security guards, who stood quietly by our table for the next several minutes.

We eventually left for the Venetian, the largest hotel-casino in the world, and even more than the Wynn, a clone of its Vegas counterpart. The reception area at the Venetian faithfully replicates the Vegas reception, as does the Grand Canal shopping mall. The gaming floor is as big as three football fields, and with high ceilings and a wide-open design, looks every bit as big as it is. Visually, it is far more pleasing than the Wynn. But functionally, it was just as frustrating. Like the Wynn before it, the Venetian gaming floor was plagued by seas of empty or mostly-empty baccarat and sic bo tables. And how many craps tables were included in the largest casino in the world?

None.

And how many poker tables?

None.

When we arrived at the Venetian, we joined a few players at a casino war table. Once we were seated, the table was completely full. Within a few minutes, though, a pit boss arrived and shut down the table without warning. Why shut down a full table where the money is flowing? Just bizarre. When we arrived at a distant batch of war tables, set alongside the blackjack section, our ears were assaulted by the musical stylings of a singer whose skills would have guaranteed him a spot on American Idol…in the season premiere that showcases the most tragic applicants. And that's when the theme of Macau became apparent: amateur hour. Wherever you go in Macau, whatever time it is, whoever you deal with (singers, dealers, pit bosses, bartenders), it's amateur hour.

The rest of our time at the Venetian was equally unimpressive. Drink service was next to nonexistent, and when it did come, the alcohol was unmistakably straight-out-the-well. Cocktail waitresses had about as much English proficiency and joie de vive as the dealers, though one did know enough English to tell me, “You look very tired, sir” when she served me my coffee at 3 am. Thanks, dear.

I eventually tired of gambling under these suboptimal conditions, but there was no Plan B. There are no clubs in Macau, no after hours shopping or dining, really no late-night entertainment options at all. When you're bored of gambling, you sleep. Or in our case, when you're bored of gambling you try to catch the 4 am ferry back to Hong Kong, only to find that it's sold out and the next ferry isn't until 6:30 am, because scalpers have bought up the tickets and are reselling them with mark-up.

Going to Macau is worth it for the fact of going to Macau. And I might even come back during the day to tour the old Portuguese colonial areas elsewhere on the island. But as far as I'm concerned, for every dollar I lose to a crappy Macau casino that I sort of resent, I could instead lose a dollar to a great Vegas casino that I actually like. See y'all in Sin City.

1 comment:

WhyNot said...

I love gambling in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Macau.