When talking about high stakes gambling, it’s important to make a distinction between the term “whale” and “high roller” since in the eyes of the casino they are two very different things. While there is no exact definition of what constitutes each category, a general assumption would be that a high roller has a gambling budget of anywhere from $100,000 up to around $1M for a typical 3 day weekend trip to the casino.
When we start to get over the $1M bankroll mark, this is when the casino would probably start considering the player a whale. Whales typically have a budget (front money or a credit line) ranging anywhere from $1M to $20M and in a weekend could easily be up or down millions.
They are usually betting over $25,000 per hand and enjoy the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to comps, freebies and other perks from the casino.
Throughout the world, it’s estimated that there is probably less than 200 mega whales ($10M bankroll and up) so the casinos are fiercely competing for this segment of the market since it can have a huge effect on their profits each quarter. So who are the biggest whales of all time? Below we’ve compiled a comprehensive that profiles some of the most prolific and high rolling gamblers ever to grace Las Vegas:
Stories Of The Top Casino Whales Of All Time
Adnan Khashoggi – an international arms dealer that stiffed the Ritz Casino in London, England for over £3.2M over 12 visits to the casinos in the 1980’s. The son of a the personal physician to the Saudi King, Khasoggi mainly played Baccarat during his gambling sprees and was known to spend long amounts of time playing whenever he was on trips to the casinos in London.
Archie Karas – on his arrival in Las Vegas, Karas had only $50 in his pocket, and somehow managed to run this up to over $40M before losing it all. Although he’s an avid poker player, his love of Craps is ultimately what allowed for this massive run to take place, which occurred over a number of years across multiple casinos in Las Vegas – he still plays to this day.
Akio Kashiwagi – perhaps the biggest gambler to grace Las Vegas during the 70’s and 80’s, Kashiwagi was a fearless Baccarat player and often wagered upwards of $100,000 to $200,000 per hand during his sessions. Akio was found murdered in his home in Japan in 1992 and it’s widely suspected that organized crime played a role in his demise.
Charles Barkley – famous NBA star Charles Barkley is admittedly fond of gambling and estimates he’s lost close to $30M over his life time. His main game is Blackjack and the Vegas Guy team has actually seen him play live at The Wynn hotel before. He usually plays on the main open floor and is very friendly allowing people to watch him play.
Don Johnson – Mr. Johnson became famous after the media published articles on how he won almost $15M from two different casinos. It turns out that the casino weren’t very good at math and offered Don a comp plan that basically flipped the house edge in his favour. This allowed him to amass huge winnings playing blackjack and working his advantage.
Fouad al-Zayat – Fouad is a Syrian businessman that is estimated to have lost over $42M over a 12 year gambling binge. Known as “The Fat Man” in gambling circles, Al-Zayat visited some of London’s top casinos over 600 times during the binge and was ultimately sued by one casino for bouncing a cheque for millions in gambling debt. – he says he’s stopped now.
Kamel Nacif – Nacif is a very successful businessman from Mexico who made his fortune in the textile business. He visits Las Vegas many times per year and as with most whales plays almost exclusively Baccarat, wagering up to $200,000 per hand. He’s said to have a hair trigger temper during his sessions if his luck turns for the worse.
Kerry Packer – An Australian business magnet, Kerry Packer was one of the most fearless gamblers of all time, constantly risking tens of millions on every session he played and he won a lot. Packer booked estimated wins of $9M from Hilton Las Vegas in 1992, and it’s also rumoured that he won upwards of $33M from MGM in one particular session at $300K per hand.
Larry Flynt – Larry Flynt is the founder of Hustler adult magazine and has been a frequent Las Vegas visitor for decades. He’s mainly a Blackjack player and risks up to $50,000 per hand when he plays. Historically Flynt played mainly at the Las Vegas Hilton but then moved to Hard Rock and other hotels as new hosts courted his action with generous comps.
Mo Chan – A Chinese native high roller, Mo Chan went on an infamous run in Australian casinos taking over $10M from the table playing $300K – $500K per hand in Baccarat. Apparently he had a falling out with the casino when they limited his played and he vowed never to return. He’s also an elusive gambler as we couldn’t find a picture of him for the page!
Phil Ivey – Arguably the best poker player of all-time, Phil Ivey is the embodiment of a true gambler and is known for going on worldwide “craps tours” where he flies to 5 or more casinos in different places around the world. No one knows exactly how much he’s up or down, but he wagers over $100K+ per roll on the craps table and is known to play Baccarat up to $200K/hand.
Ramon DeSage – Ramon was a very well known whale on the Strip and was indicted in a Fraud scheme by the US Government. It’s estimated that using the funds obtained from his frauds, he wagered and lost close to $175M in various Las Vegas casinos. He’s one of the biggest gamblers of all time to ever grace the Strip and will probably hold onto that record.
Sultan of Brunei – known as an avid gambler both in London and Las Vegas, the Sultan of Brunei has be known to lose up to $1M per day inside casinos. His main game is Baccarat and he was known to go on long and highly secretive trips where he would spend hours on end at the tables and enjoying all of the comps provided by the casinos.
Terrance Watanabe – Watanabe is the man who is arguably lost the most ever in the history of gamblers throughout the entire world. While the numbers have never been 100% verified, it’s estimated that he lost upwards of $220M in Las Vegas over a 5 year period. A true house player, Terrance played everything from Blackjack to Keno and slot machines at the casino.
Zhenli Ye Gon – owner of a huge chemical company in Mexico, Zhenli has been accused of supplying the Mexican drug cartels with precursor chemicals for drug production. He’s also a huge Vegas gambler and is estimated to have lost over $100,000,000 in numerous Las Vegas casinos. When police raided his house, they found over $207M in cash in a room…must be nice.
How Casinos Attract Players
As we mentioned earlier, every casino in the world is faced with the same problem – they all have the same product! There is only so many ways to dress up a blackjack table, baccarat game or roulette wheel but in the end the majority of product offerings are very similar. Because of this, casinos must take a dynamic approach to gain a competitive advantage over the competition which includes the design of their property, its amenities, the level of customer service provided and their rewards program.
Keep in mind that both high rollers and whales are already wealthy individuals who are accustomed to the finer things in life, and will absolutely not risk their hard earned money at a property unless it delivers on each of the criteria mentioned above. The whale world is a buyers market and a finicky player can easily decide to switch properties if they are unhappy with how they are treated during their stay.
Because of this, a great deal of effort is put into making sure every detail of their requests and expectations are met each time they visit the property to build both brand loyalty and long term profits. Below are some of the expectations and incentives that are used to lure whales to different casinos:
Suites & Villas – Always free for these players, accommodations are the first step in courting the biggest players and since they usually are travelling with family and/or friends, we are talking multi-bedroom penthouse suites or villas that are thousands of square feet. These will always include a butler to attend to any needs, personal chef, private pool, massage rooms, fully stocked bars and the list goes on and on.
Casino Host – The casino host is the gatekeeper, confidant and make things happen person that works for the casino and manages the relationship with big players. Their only job is to keep players happy and deal with their requests, which could range from organizing a dinner to getting free show tickets, booking a jet, arranging private gaming tables and much more. The host is the most important player facing person in any casinos operation and a good host can easily help bring in millions of dollars in revenue each and every month.
Comps & Perks – In addition to the host, the player will also have negotiated a list of comps, perks and incentives with the casino in order for their action. This would include things such as upfront cash bonuses, discounts on losses above a certain amount, free dining credit and lots more. The range of comps provided to high rollers and whales can vary greatly depending on their play, but when you get to this level you can be sure that you will receive pretty much anything you want from the casino to keep you gambling within their property.