Christina Binkley,
Winner Takes All
(Hyperion, 2007)

With this book, Wall Street Journal columnist Christina Binkley, who spent 10 years covering Las Vegas for the newspaper, takes on the city. Her thesis is that a handful of people -- Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian and Gary Loveman most prominent among them -- are competing to control Las Vegas. As a result of their competition, the city has changed beyond recognition and will continue to change.

The star of the book is Steve Wynn, who built, among other casinos, the Bellagio, a multi-billion-dollar palace that, like Vegas itself and Wynn himself, is excessive in every possible way. Wynn is the man who brought world-class shops and restaurants to town and who thought it natural to build up one of the world's finest art collections and display it inside his casinos. He also brought dolphins to Vegas so he and his rollers of choice could swim with them.

Kirk Kerkorian is the Hollywood mogul who set out to bring Wynn down and took over his properties, spending untold billions in an effort to best Wynn. He's the big-time buyer and seller of the piece, a man whose eye is firmly on the bottom line and who is excessive only in the amounts of money he is willing to throw around.

The third spoke of the wheel, Gary Loveman, is the economist of the bunch. A former professor at Harvard, he went to Las Vegas as a man conducting an economics experiment; he wanted to see if he could restructure Harrah's Casinos by using market research and other business practices. He is the guy who brought modern-day marketing to the business of gambling.

To a certain extent, the story of these guys is fascinating. After a while, though, you find yourself, despite Binkley's solid research, marvelous grasp of the facts and smooth writing, getting just a little tired of them. The amounts of money thrown around in an attempt to lure more money out of gamblers and to satisfy the gigantic egos of the owners is ludicrous and more than a little obscene. Casinos, after all, make their profits by creating gambling addicts.

Winner Takes All is a solid piece of work, enlightening even as it entertains. Its only problem is that it is about a sordid industry.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

5 April 2008

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