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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Macau Gambling King Prepares for Showdown

MACAU, China -- Looking like a giant, twinkling Faberge egg, and topped by a 52-story hotel tower in the shape of a soaring lotus flower, the new Grand Lisboa casino here caters to tens of thousands of tourists, mostly Chinese.

They crowd around 170 baccarat tables and yank levers on hundreds of slot machines in a round-the-clock gambling frenzy, making it quite clear why this tiny territory west of Hong Kong is known as "Asia's Las Vegas."

The Grand Lisboa is also the crown jewel of a casino empire controlled by Stanley Ho, the strong-willed and secretive billionaire who for 40 years held the city's only gambling license. Ho maintained a lock on the gambling trade here despite longstanding allegations by government authorities worldwide that his casinos had ties to organized crime and were engaged in money laundering, loan sharking and prostitution, allegations that his competitors have been more than happy to keep in play.

Today, five years after Ho's gambling monopoly expired, his casinos are under assault from a group of ambitious Las Vegas tycoons who are investing billions of dollars in a city that recently passed the Las Vegas Strip as the world's biggest gambling destination.

"Stanley Ho's not going to do very well," boasts Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and one of the big new investors here. "He's always been a monopolist. He's never had to compete in a real market."

To counter this foreign invasion, Ho, 85, has announced a clutch of his own outsized projects, which include the Grand Lisboa, a pair of huge real estate and casino developments named Oceanus and Ponte 16, and a giant theme park called Fisherman's Wharf.

Last year, 22 million tourists visited Macau -- up from about 7 million in 1999. Most visit the casinos.

Consider this: the average table in Macau earns three times more than a comparable table in Las Vegas, according to CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, the investment bank. And some of China's high rollers are placing $200,000 bets in exclusive VIP rooms.

That's also why Ho is one of the world's biggest casino operators.

But the circus-like atmosphere here has only deepened the mystery surrounding Ho, whose long career is a touchstone for all the financial torrents that have washed across Macao -- and China as a whole -- in recent decades.

Ho is a legend -- the man whose wealth helped build the city's roads, bridges and a landmark tower, as well as the city's ferry terminal and its international airport.

According to gambling historians here, the bulk of Ho's gambling revenue came from VIP rooms he subcontracted out to groups that lured Asia's high rollers to Macau.

Ho's past continues to haunt efforts to revitalize his casino empire. Regulators in Canada, Australia, the Philippines and Singapore have repeatedly investigated his background.

But Ho says he can battle the Vegas giants because his casino company is the toughest.

"You see, the word 'no' never appears in my dictionary," he said. "All my life, I love challenges and never accept the answer 'no' so easily."