Despite a slowdown in China, the world's largest gaming center is doubling down on its future. ... Barely 10 years ago, Francis Lui and his family were building a relatively modest fortune largely from quarrying rock in Hong Kong and processing slag from blast furnaces on mainland China. Today, in the Chinese enclave of Macau, they preside over two palatial casinos that alone generate vastly more gaming revenue than the entire Las Vegas Strip. They're also acquiring a stake in the Monaco royal family-controlled company that operates the Casino de Monte-Carlo. ... the soft-spoken, U.S.-educated billionaire is in the process of placing a far bigger bet than any of the high rollers who wager as much as $250,000 a hand in the Galaxy’s most exclusive VIP rooms. Having just spent $3.1 billion doubling the size of the Galaxy, he’s now pressing ahead with another $7.4 billion worth of investments. And that’s just a part of the $27 billion that global casino companies such as Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, and MGM Resorts International plan to spend over the next few years in the world’s largest but most-troubled gaming market. ... Macau’s gaming revenue plummeted 37 percent to $15.2 billion in the first half of the year. During the 18 months ended in June, the decline wiped more than $100 billion from the value of six of the world’s biggest casino companies. ... Macau’s fate may be tied to developments on Hengqin, an island triple its size that’s located across a narrow strait. Galaxy is the first of Macau’s six casino licensees to acquire land on Hengqin, which is part of Guangdong province and which Beijing wants to develop into a nongaming leisure destination full of golf courses, Disney-esque theme parks, and other family-focused attractions. ... It all sounds like a pharaonic exercise in overbuilding. And yet tiny Macau, with only 27,000 hotel rooms, compared with Las Vegas’s 150,000, attracted 31.5 million visitors last year, two-thirds of them from the mainland and many of them day-trippers. The new construction aims to add 19,000 more rooms by 2018.
For years, Phua has navigated the globe in an ultra-long-range business jet, its tail designation -- N888XS -- a nod to the Chinese belief in lucky number eight and the overindulgence that often accompanies a gambling windfall. With billions of dollars reportedly at hand, Phua has erected a gaming empire, touching down in Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Melbourne and anyplace in between where there are casinos, nosebleed poker games and gamblers ready to place max bets on the world's most lucrative sporting events. ... an unassuming 51-year-old Malaysian and the reputed principal owner of the world's largest sportsbook, IBCBet. ... What follows is the story of Phua's rise from a Borneo numbers runner to the biggest bookie around -- as well as the most powerful figure in poker. And how the FBI finally hooked him, only to watch him walk away a free man. ... According to trade estimates, IBCBet handles roughly $60 billion of betting per year. With a 1 percent take, the book clears $600 million annually. An IBCBet source in Manila says Phua owns 70 percent of the enterprise. ... By 2013, Macau's annual gaming revenue had grown to more than $45 billion. This growth -- which Adelson and Wynn publicly fronted -- was propelled in part by Phua, who for the moment remained unknown to those located anywhere but at the center of the industry.