The award-winning documentarian Louis Theroux toured the USA in 2012 to look at some controversial topics. In Theroux’s Gambling in Las Vegas episode, the audience gets to take a peek into the life of the high rolling VIPs. We also learn valuable lessons from both sides of the gaming tables.
The documentary takes us to the legendary Las Vegas Hilton. Back in the 1960s and 70s this casino and hotel had Elvis as their headline act. Along with Hilton’s high rolling clientele we get to meet the casino professionals running the show.
The VIP players gambling in Vegas have grown accustomed to getting the best. The more money they’re likely to spend during their stay, the bigger fuss the casinos make.
Casinos fight over the big players, also known as “whales” in the gambling lingo. Since the recession of the late noughties, this competition has grown ever more fierce.
Many of the casino patrons previously headed for Vegas are now staying closer to home. For almost 40 years, the east coast players have had the option of gambling in Atlantic City. In addition, there are now plenty of local casinos around the USA.
Many Asian gamblers play in Macau instead of crossing the Pacific. The Chinese gambling Mecca has long since surpassed Vegas in gaming revenue.
Finally, the global popularity of safe online casinos has put pressure on the casino industry to offer an experience their digital counterparts have a hard time matching.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to understand the lavish treatment of the high-rollers. Even when the players win, the odds are that casinos make money off them in the long run. That’s why it’s vital to keep them happy and coming back, even if it means a bit of splurging on the way.
During his stay, Louis tags along the Las Vegas Hilton’s VIP relations manager Richard Wilk and one of his top clients, Alan the Mattress King – a Canadian high roller. He’s also introduced to a high stakes slots player, doctor Martha Ogman.
On their coattails, Louis gets a taste of the exclusive life of ultra-rich Vegas gamblers.
Since Alan stops by regularly to gamble obscene amounts in Vegas casinos, he can expect some special attention. The comped 15,000 square foot suite is the biggest one in North America and comes with a personal butler.
While Alan focuses in sticking $100 notes into three different slot machines, Richard is negotiating his top player $3,000 of complimentary spending money. Shopping time!
Martha too has enjoyed her share of Hilton’s generosity. When her husband passed away, Hilton organised the lavish funeral. And it didn’t cost her a dime. According to the casino staff, she can ask for pretty much everything and expect to get it.
It seems like Hilton VIP people know what they’re doing, though. Each one of Alan’s Vegas forays can easily net the casino a 6-figure sum. Martha is a good customer as well: during her 10 years of gambling in Hilton, she has lost over $4,000,000. As she tells it, she’s enjoyed every moment of it.
The difficulty of knowing when to quit seems to be the main theme of the documentary. Gambling happens to be fun. Despite taking your money and running away while you're ahead seems like the sensible thing to do, it's rarely done.
When Alan gets lucky at the roulette table and is $50,000 up, he explains his willingness to keep playing. For Alan, it doesn't make sense to fly six hours to play for 20 minutes.
Not letting the fun stop too soon is a big part of gambling psychology. Success creates anticipation for more wins. Jimmy, Hilton's Night Shift Manager, sums it up perfectly:
"We want people to win, that way they’ll come back. If they never win, they would never come back. We want them to win a little bit and then we take all their money."
Ultimately every player is measured by their sportsmanship. According to Alan, a good gambler is the one who can smile, whether he wins or loses.
That's sound advice: gambling should always be considered entertainment and not a way to make money. Like the responsible gaming campaign from The Senet Group says, When the fun stops, stop.
Whether you’re a VIP or a low-stakes gambler, bankroll management is a huge part of the game. Set aside a gambling budget and stick to it. It prevents you from going crazy and risking more than you intended. This is a fundamental aspect of responsible gaming.
During Louis' visit, we get to witness gaming gone wrong. When the audience is first introduced to a player called John, he is up $10,000. After 24 hours at the blackjack table, he’s lost $24,000. Yet he keeps on playing:
“I’m not a quitter. No, I’ll get it back. I know it sounds sick and demented, but I will get it back. I just need one good streak.”
Knowing when to quit is something the casino staff has to keep in their minds as well. At times Louis presses the Hilton employees about whether they should take action when someone is playing too much.
Tommy Brown, who works with high-limit slot players, tends to stay out of it. But if he sees a regular player spending way more than he or she normally does, it raises a flag.
"A lot of times, I will go up and ask them, 'Are you sure that you can do this?' I don’t want to bury you, I don’t want you losing your house, I don’t want you doing that. I want you to come out here and have a good time."
Not everybody in the industry is so conscientious. According to the VIP liaison Richard, his players are big boys who can take care of themselves. They're so well off that an occasional gambling spree won't make a dent in their livelihood. Also, they don’t appreciate people telling them what to do with their money.
"I’m here to invite you in and entertain you, and I’ll watch your back. At the same time, you’re gambling. I don’t want to interfere with your gambling business. It’s none of my business."
These are tough decisions to make: by stepping in the casino staff risk offending some of their most valuable customers. At the same time, a reality check can be welcome for the player too, even if it’s not instantly appreciated.
The documentary shows Louis Theroux gambling in Vegas together with some experienced high rollers. In addition to $3,000 of his own money, he takes his attitude to the tables. Inquisitive to the point of irritation he doesn’t just go with the flow, he questions it.
Even though the seasoned players know more about the games, sometimes Louis has a childlike clarity when looking at the emperor’s new clothes. Occasionally, though, he comes across as a party pooper.
If you’re looking for a feel-good Las Vegas gambling documentary, this flick is not for you. It shows people with a lot of money losing a small but steady portion of it. At the same time, the casino personnel is towing the line between killing a cash cow and maintaining their human touch.
Some of them are incentivised to be thick-skinned. For example, the VIP contact Richard says his job is to bring the players in, show them a good time and keep them playing, whether they win or lose.
However, in our view Theroux paints an unnecessarily callous image of most casino employees. Most seem to genuinely care about the players and at least claim to take an action when their gambling seems excessive.
Even if the core idea of gambling has remained the same for millennia, in some respects we can say that even in 2007 the times were different. It’s only been 11 years since Theroux’s Vegas film, but the casino industry has evolved.
Our society now takes a more permissive attitude towards games of chance. That is in part due to a more sober approach by the gaming establishments themselves and increased government regulation. Responsible gaming has made it easier for casinos and players to prevent, recognise and act upon risky behaviour. This can be seen both in brick and mortar casinos and online.
For example, many jurisdictions have adopted mandatory ID verification and strongly encourage the use of player cards for all forms of gambling. With a database keeping tabs on every transaction, it’s easier to know when there’s a reason for worry.
Players have many self-exclusion and limitation tools at their disposal. In addition, the employees are coached in intervening with problem gambling.
Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States. It shouldn’t surprise you that the Sin City has to keep up with changing times.
Eleven years have passed since Louis’ Vegas visit, and there are plenty of fresh documentaries and interesting clips to watch.
Here’s a Bojoko sampler. If you have others you’d like to share, let us know in the comments!
Piers Morgan, one of the UK's favourite TV hosts, explores Las Vegas with some of America's top celebrities.
The last moments of a true Las Vegas landmark, the Riviera Casino. Even if you don’t have time for the whole 41 minutes of the documentary, check out the opening credits. What could be better than old casinos imploding to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust?
Jacob Orth, a Las Vegas local, talks about interesting aspects of life in Vegas. Ranging from the casino industry to food, sports and the dating scene, his 10-minute videos give practical info to anybody living in and traveling to the legendary gambling city.
Watch Jacob explain the new rules for complimentary drinks on the casino floor: