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Chinese are avid gamblers

MACAU—When tensions mount at the baccarat tables in Macau, gamblers don't reach for a stiff drink. They quaff hot green tea, and instead of cocktail waitresses, some casinos have "tea boys."

"You find that the customers don't really drink alcohol," said Buddy Lam, a spokesman for the Sands Macau, a U.S.-operated casino with 438 tables here.

That's one of the many differences between gamblers in China and elsewhere.

Chinese gamblers love baccarat, a card game in which players bet against a dealer, but they aren't fond of slot machines. Cantonese speakers refer to the slots as "hungry tigers" that eat you alive. To foster business, some casinos have created special slot machines with themes that allow players to "slay" tigers, but slots generated only about 2 percent of Macau's gaming revenue in 2004, compared with 45 percent in Las Vegas, according to the CLSA report.

Many Chinese gamers also are willing to bet more of their income, hoping for a big win. Most Chinese attach no stigma to gambling, and instead hold a deeply rooted belief in the pursuit of winning.

A belief in luck "leads many to gamble their meager savings in the hope of becoming rich," the investment bank CLSA said in its 2005 "Macau Mania" report. The report described "a much higher level of player intensity in Macau" than in Las Vegas.

Some poor villagers arrive in Macau with pooled money to bet on behalf of a family, clan or village. Richer mainland tourists often are advanced money through illegal brokers or junket operators who have murky ways of collecting on losses.

Gamblers commonly spend all day and all night at the casinos. Of the 10.4 million visitors from mainland China in 2005, only about half spent a night in a hotel room, even though the average stay was 1.2 days. Rather than go to a hotel, Chinese gamblers often retreat to an all-night sauna for an hour or two of rest, then return to the tables.

Gambling is illegal in China, but Chinese are avid gamblers, betting illicitly on everything from cricket fights to mah-jongg, a traditional tile game among four players.

Nearby Hong Kong, a former British colony where betting on horses is legal, takes in $10 billion a year at the races, about a third of the $30 billion a year that the entire U.S. gambling industry earns.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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