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Inside Gaming: Portugal and Macau forever linked despite distance of 6,800 miles

13 May 2015

ESTORIL, Portugal — Outside the primary entrance to Casino Estoril, a stone marker with colorful tiles recognizes the one-time kingpin of Macau’s gaming industry.

Portugal and Macau are forever connected despite a separation of more than 6,800 miles.

Much of the relationship hinged on controversial Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho. Thanks to Portugal, Ho owned a monopoly on Macau’s casino market for nearly 40 years.

The Portuguese colonized Macau in the 16th century as the first European settlement in the Far East. In 1987, China and Portugal signed an agreement to create the Macau Special Administrative Region and the area was returned to Chinese rule in December 1999.

Ho’s control over Macau’s casino industry ended in 2002 when the market was opened to new operators, including American companies.

Ho, 92, withdrew from public view following brain surgery in 2009. A legal fight among his extensive family members in 2011 all but removed him from STDM, his Hong Kong conglomerate. The business owns casinos, Macau’s airport, and a helicopter and water ferry service that shuttles customers between Macau and Hong Kong.

China took control of Macau 15 years ago, but there is still evidence of Portugal’s influence. Sedano Square, Macau’s centuries-old Portuguese themed urban center, is paved with wave-pattern blue and white mosaic tiles, similar to squares in Portugal. Portuguese restaurants are still a part of the Macau community.

Meanwhile, Casino Estoril pays homage to Ho. The street marker shows the property’s address: Avenida Dr. Stanley Ho.

According to the casino’s website, Stanley Ho is chairman of Estoril Sol, the Portuguese company that owns four casinos. Ho’s daughter, Pansy Ho, is a company board member. The Hong Kong businesswoman and partner of MGM Resorts International in Macau, is chairwoman of the board’s executive committee.

In 2008, STDM subsidiary SJM Holdings, said in a securities filing that Stanley Ho had a nearly 92 percent interest in Estoril Sol. The Portuguese company did not compete with the SJM’s Macau casinos. SJM has 18 large and small casinos and a 19th, Lisboa Palace, is expected to open in 2017.

There is a Macau connection inside Casino Estoril. Television monitors advertise SJM’s casinos in Macau, including the Grand Lisboa. Table games include blackjack, roulette, poker, Banca Francesa, and baccarat is referred to as Macau.

Located 11 miles southwest of Lisbon, Casino Estoril is considered Europe’s largest casino with more than 1,000 slot machines, table games, restaurants, nightclubs and a large theater.

The building fronts the Central Park-like Jardim do Estoril and is a short walk from the picturesque beach community of Cascais. At night, fountains at the base of the casino provide a lighted musical performance for visitors.

Casino Estoril has a colorful history. It has been in existence since long before World War II and was rumored to be the hangout for espionage agents. It is believed British author Ian Fleming used Casino Estoril as the inspiration for “Casino Royale,” his first novel that introduced secret agent 007 James Bond.

Today, Casino Estoril has access conditions. A cloak room is provided for items such as backpacks and photography equipment. A security officer checks identification at the front door. Hats — other than religious or medical garments — are strictly forbidden.

Unlike Las Vegas, access is denied to those who “show no interest in consuming and using the services available.” In other words, if you’re not gambling or visiting a bar or restaurant, it’s time to leave.

The Estoril’s slot machines are similar to the games found on the Strip and manufactured by several of the major American companies, including International Game Technology and WMS Industries. Casino Estoril’s floor is nonsmoking and is only open from 3 p.m. until 3 am. daily.

Estoril Sol also owns the Casino Lisboa in Lisbon.

According to the company’s 2014 financial report, gaming revenue in Portugal fell 2 percent last year to $267 million euros, with cumulative losses of 31 percent over the past six years. The Estoril Sol casinos combined for gaming revenue of 168 million euros in 2014, 63 percent of the total market.

Next month, Portugal plans to launch online gaming that was approved by the country’s Council of Ministers in March. It’s unclear what effect the Internet games will have on Casino Estoril.