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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Tropicana owner hires a Mr. Fix-It

26 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Over the past year, the owner of the Tropicana casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City has alienated regulators and politicians, upset lenders and agitated labor unions and employees.

But last week's appointment of Scott Butera as president of Tropicana Entertainment is the most dramatic sign yet the company is starting to patch up relationships with regulators and business associates while attempting to shore up performance at its casinos in Nevada and other states that have lost ground to competitors.

Butera leaves the Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino, an under-construction megaresort on the Las Vegas Strip for which lenders are seeking a new buyer with more equity in the project, for Tropicana, the gaming subsidiary of hotel chain Columbia Sussex.

He previously served as chief operating officer of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, where he restructured the company out of bankruptcy.

Butera's reputation as a Mr. Fix-It will be put to the test with Tropicana, which will be evaluating its properties over the next several months, determining which are worthy of additional reinvestment and which, if any, are better off in other hands. The company's Tropicana casino in Atlantic City is moving through a forced sale process after New Jersey regulators denied the company a gaming license in December. And bondholders have sued the company, seeking immediate payment of loans Columbia Sussex used to acquire Aztar Corp. and its Tropicana casinos.

• • •

Las Vegas Sands Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson has big plans to build giant convention halls and casino resorts across Asia modeled after his Venetian resorts in Las Vegas and Macau. But he's also eyeing other parts of the world, such as Europe and Latin America.

Without the infrastructure of Macau, other destinations would have to open thousands of rooms at once to drive significant tourism traffic, Adelson told a recent gathering of Wall Street bankers in Las Vegas.

"Latin Vegas, Euro Vegas, India Vegas — we'll see which one comes first," he said.

In recent years, the British government has downsized plans for major resorts in the United Kingdom because of controversy about problem gambling. In other parts of Europe, casinos are generally small and cater to a select group of gamblers.

"There are very few people in Europe on the political side who have actually been to Las Vegas," Adelson said. "When they come here ... they say to themselves, 'I wish I'd been here before because it's a lot more acceptable to our society than I thought.'?"

Adelson said his company's success in Macau and progress building a similar resort in Singapore makes Las Vegas Sands the forerunner in a global resort boom now in its infancy.

"Who wants to bid the highest to have the Europe Vegas? Who's going to pay the biggest bucks?" Adelson said.

• • •

The card-counting strategies revealed in "Beat the Dealer" made author Ed Thorp a gambling giant and a whole lot of money in the 1960s.

And yet the former MIT math professor, who made a rare appearance in Las Vegas at last month's World Game Protection Conference, admitted that he hasn't gambled in a casino since 1974. That year, a stopover at Harrah's Tahoe paid for his family's trip to the Spokane World's Fair.

He moved on because he was making a lot more money in the stock market.

After proving his counting theory in casinos, Thorp quickly ditched the tedium and hassle of gambling for investing, making incremental market inefficiencies — much like the fractional percentage point advantages in card counting — work in his favor.

Arbitrage trading on Wall Street also turned out to be a safer bet for Thorp, who was repeatedly threatened in his brief tenure as a gambler during Las Vegas' mob days.

Thorp's Newport Beach investment company, and its returns, are private. But the little-known book he wrote in 1967, "Beat the Market: a Scientific Stock Market System," is selling for more than $440 a pop on

Tropicana owner hires a Mr. Fix-It is republished from