Winner Takes All: How Casino Mogul Steve Wynn Won—and Lost—the High Stakes Gamble to Own Las Vegas

Winner Takes All: How Casino Mogul Steve Wynn Won—and Lost—the High Stakes Gamble to Own Las Vegas

by Christina Binkley


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From Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and culture critic Christina Binkley comes an updated edition of her New York Times bestselling account of sex, drugs, and the rise of Las Vegas. With a new prologue on the rise and fall of Steve Wynn.

The Strip. Home to some of the world's grandest, flashiest, and most lucrative casino resorts, Las Vegas, with its multitude of attractions, draws millions of tourists from around the world every year. But Sin City hasn't always been booming: modern Vegas exists largely thanks to the extraordinary vision, and remarkable hubris, of three competing business moguls: Kirk Kerkorian, Dr. Gary Loveman, and Steve Wynn. And in the wake of #MeToo revelations, not all empires survive.

Having had personal access to all three tycoons, Binkley explains how their audacious efforts to reach the top-and to top one another-shaped the city as it stands. She takes us inside their grandest schemes, their riskiest deals, and the personalities that drove them to their greatest successes, and their most painful defeats. In this updated edition, she reveals the inside story of how Steve Wynn, the winner who took all, ultimately lost everything-twice.

Sharp, insightful, and revealing, Winner Takes All is the gripping story of how billions of dollars and the unparalleled drive for power turned dreams into larger-than-life reality.

"It's a great drama on the greatest stage. . . Wynn, Kerkorian, and Loveman represent three opposing business personalities, three styles of achieving success. On the Vegas Strip, they're pitted against one another like gladiators, and we've got front-row seats. Kapow!" - bestselling author Po Bronson

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316487924
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 226,932
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Christina Binkley is an award-winning journalist who writes and chats about the business of culture. At The Wall Street Journal for 23 years, she covered fashion, gambling, and other topics that familiarized her with larger-than-life personalities.

Binkley contributes to WSJ Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, DesignLA and appears periodically on venues such as CNN and National Public Radio. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Binkley was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of 9/11. She was awarded the Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline News Reporting by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Binkley lives in the hills of Los Angeles with her husband and two teens, with cats, a dog, a passel of chickens, and a dead-on view of the Hollywood sign.

Read an Excerpt

By Christina Binkley
HYPERION Copyright © 2008 Christina Binkley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-0236-8


In this town, nobody likes each other: It's all veneer covering the seething hate. -Jan Jones, former Las Vegas mayor

The dust has cleared. Kirk Kerkorian controls the western half of the Las Vegas Strip. Gary Loveman and the vast Harrah's and Caesars empire commands the central zone. Steve Wynn is the overlord of an island to the north.

So Las Vegas is set for a showdown. The town is in the full swing of its most robust renaissance. A good $60 billion worth of new casino resorts is under way there-more than the United States' planned spending on Homeland Security in 2007.

A recent Google search for "Las Vegas" revealed 179 million hits. This compared with 132 million hits for "Rome," a city some 2,700 years older than Las Vegas but with a similar history of gluttony. What this tells us is that Las Vegas, as a cultural reference and as a city, has taken on greater worldwide significance than the place may deserve. Also, it's heavily advertised.

Yet there it is. Las Vegas is visited annually by forty million people and it is growing like mad. Like mad.

Las Vegas has been reborn many times, always emerging bigger and more boisterous, wriggling and howling to make its presence known. Pioneers Bugsy Siegel and Gus Greenbaum built the Flamingo in 1946: a two-hundred-room resort that cost $6 million. That is less than one-third the $20 million that Caesars Palace recently spent on each of six snazzy new high-roller suites.

These huge casinos are the result of an extraordinary partnership of ego, nerve and greed on the part of a handful of men. But they couldn't fill them without you, the public-people who can't get enough of Las Vegas, and those who hate it but go anyway.

Each year, at least a million more people visit Las Vegas than the year before. The city has twice as many hotel rooms as New York City, and on many weekends all 135,000 of them are sold out.

The town's popularity conquers many inconveniences. Las Vegas Boulevard is tackier than the old Times Square-children can collect prostitution fliers from the sidewalk in front of Caesars Palace. In Las Vegas, visitors stand in queues: at airports, hotels, buffets, valet parking, taxi stands, and theater box offices. The only places where there are no lines are at the slot machines.

Yet in a time when vacations have been so curtailed that they amount to long weekends, people visit Las Vegas for a whopping average of 4.5 days. They arrive prepared to spend cash and, while there, they dutifully participate in an ecstasy of consumerism.

Roughly as many people visit Las Vegas as New York City each year, but Sin City's visitors spent 62 percent more in 2005 than their counterparts touring the Big Apple. This explains why Guy Savoy has opened a restaurant in Las Vegas; by most estimates, it is the most expensive restaurant in the world. Luxury retailers have noticed too. By 2009, if all goes as planned, Chanel will have more clothing boutiques in Las Vegas than in New York. And if you desire a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes, you will find no larger a collection anywhere than at the Blahnik boutique in Las Vegas.

One might easily assume that people go to Las Vegas to gamble. But of the $36.7 billion that sinners spent in Las Vegas in 2005, only $9.7 billion was wagered away, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. If not to gamble, why go? When it's all averaged out, most folks see a show, spend $248 on food and drinks, $136 on shopping, and $60 on local transportation. Those who did gamble sat at slot machines or tables for an average 3.6 hours per day. Which is, when you think about it, a long stretch spent on your butt.

People go to Las Vegas for things that are plastic but couldn't happen anyplace else. Kobe beef for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A Nordic sake sommelier. A massage at Canyon Ranch before a six-hour blackjack spree. Even the entertainment is mind-bending: if you haven't seen Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, then you haven't seen what Cirque can do on a stage that will disappear underwater or flip sideways and toss its actors into space.

There are many other stunning and stimulating parts of Nevada, but few visitors bother to venture even a few miles to see Hoover Dam, Lake Mead or the vast, lovely lunar landscape that stretches past Death Valley to the west and the Grand Canyon to the east. On average, sightseeing absorbed a mere $8.21 of visitors' trip budgets. That won't buy entry to the Liberace Museum-not even with the senior discount.

The convention authority understandably did not account for how much people spent on sex, sex shows, drugs, or other illegal activities. Given the billboards, advertising fliers, and prostitutes visible around Las Vegas, it's a safe bet that this, too, plays as significant a role in the Las Vegas economy as gambling.

So. If that many people are having so much fun visiting Las Vegas casinos, just imagine what it's like to own one. No industrial titan is likely to equal the lifestyle of an average Las Vegas casino boss. A trip to the Far East for a casino mogul is likely to include socializing with the wealthiest industrialists in China as well as eager dignitaries in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore. For a dinner at his home several years ago, Steve Wynn simultaneously hosted his friends former U.S. President George H. W. Bush and the actor Bruce Willis. Clint Eastwood got married on the Wynns' Las Vegas terrace; Wynn has vacationed with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and has hosted the Dalai Lama at his home.

Kirk Kerkorian has owned his own movie studio and spends part of nearly every year on the French Riviera. Glenn Schaeffer, the former president of Mandalay Resort Group, snared a recurring role on the television show Las Vegas. He played a casino owner alongside actor James Caan, whom Schaeffer took to calling "Jimmy."

As investments go, casinos sure beat pork bellies.

Las Vegas is headed toward being a "major city," visited each year by more than four million international travelers, including business and political leaders who come to use Las Vegas for their own devices.

Yet, for all its phenomenal growth, Las Vegas behaves like a small town. The Strip pulses with the testosterone of casino bosses who are locked in treacherous rivalries but attend one another's birthdays and charity galas and send their kids to the same two private schools.

Las Vegas may be plastic and modern, but it retains a libidinous frontier air-a pioneering, can-do zeal to improve. This is a city that will send in road-building crews on the graveyard shift in order to avoid disrupting the flow of traffic into a new casino. It's a mindset that comes from the knowledge that Las Vegas initially had nothing, really nothing, going for it except its willingness to be bulldozed.

And imploded. And bulldozed again into resurrection.

Chapter Two "RIFLE RIGHT"

There was a time I was aiming at $100,000. Then I thought I'd have it made if I got a million dollars. Now it isn't the money. -Kirk Kerkorian

Kirk Kerkorian, clad in gray pants and a blue dinner jacket, strolled into the ballroom of the Mirage hotel in late November 2005. He was flanked by a couple of old friends. His little entourage made its way to a table front and center, where a line of white-coated waiters stood at attention-the only line of waiters in the ballroom.

This year, the Nevada Cancer Institute's Rock for the Cure gala had an angelic theme. Hors d'oeuvres were served by leggy "rock angels" wearing white hot pants, white platform go-go boots, and four-foot-long feathered wings. A topless angel with silver sparkles painted on her nipples swung lazily from a trapeze bar on the ceiling. She looked bored. The actor George Hamilton strolled by with his famous ochre complexion.

Onstage, television personality Larry King chitchatted from a dais. King's trademark suspenders were slung over his bony shoulders.

"He's gonna hate me for doing this," King confided to the microphone, "but he's one of the world's great entrepreneurs and he's here tonight! Kirk Kerkorian, folks! Give 'im a hand. Take a bow, Kirk."

The room rose en masse, people in gowns and tuxedoes throwing their hands together in applause. Kerkorian nodded politely, a movie studio owner who waits in line to see films anonymously in theaters, a casino mogul who views boxing bouts in his own casinos from the nosebleed section.

Rock for the Cure is one of the big charity balls in Las Vegas, where the town's elite bid each year on such desirables as a golden retriever puppy, Muhammad Ali boxing mitts, and dinners cooked by Wolfgang Puck. The other elite charity events of the year in Las Vegas are an Alzheimer's gala headed by Larry Ruvo, who runs the region's dominant wine and liquor distributorship, Southern Wine and Spirits; and Andre Agassi's annual Grand Slam for local children's causes.

"There's no more Howard Hughes," King continued, his gravelly basso rising like a carnival barker. "We have Kirk Kerkorian!"

The Mirage's ballroom was full of designer gowns glued to artificially augmented bodies-a blend of Hollywood va-va-voom and Kansas City spangles. At some point during the evening, a Bentley Continental Flying Spur was auctioned off for $220,000, and an outing with Tiger Woods went for $350,000.

A date with flirtatious Fox weathergirl Jillian Barberie was sold twice-each time for $100,000-with coaxing from Larry King. "Larry's my pimp," Barberie joked from the stage.

Later, the comedienne Rita Rudner performed. Rudner lives in Las Vegas. She began her routine by voicing one of Las Vegans' fondest hopes: that they might become a legitimate city. Not just white-glove, but world-class.

The Nevada Cancer Institute, one month old, was promising Las Vegans the panache of real medical research. It was founded by one of the town's new power couples, Heather and Jim Murren. Jim Murten was president and chief financial officer of Kerkorian's casino company, MGM Mirage. Heather Murren had abandoned a seven-figure income as a Wall Street analyst to found the institute.

In her speech that evening, Heather Murren noted that patients had already flown in for treatment from as far as Arkansas. A murmur of awe rippled through the ballroom. "We're getting so sophisticated," Rudner said dryly. "I tell people in New York not to get too uppity."

Then she gazed across a glittering sea of rock angels and trophy wives. "Here, breasts-they're more than a body part," Rudner deadpanned, "they're entertainment."

The singer Stevie Nicks was preparing to take the stage as Kerkorian was leaving, still flanked by his pals, a few minutes before ten p.m. Larry King was back at the microphone.

"On Saturday, I am seventy-goddamned-two years old and Kirk Kerkorian is my hero," King told the crowd. "He'll live forever. And if he doesn't, he'll buy heaven and sell shares."

* * *

Kerkorian's office is in the leafy commercial district of Beverly Hills, on Rodeo Drive, just around the corner and across the street from the Barneys New York store. It is separated from the paparazzi tourist movie-star hubbub part of Rodeo by the automotive whoosh of Wilshire Boulevard. Down one more block, the neighborhood turns to homes with small, neatly kept backyards.

The office building, a modern low-rise with a dozen or so tenants, is unmarked by Kerkorian's name or the names of any of the companies that he controls. One must simply know.

Kerkorian stands 5'11" or thereabouts and has an etched face, a pugilist's nose, and stubborn, wavy white hair. Even in his ninth decade, he is tennis svelte. He goes just about everywhere with a posse of loyal cronies who are willing and able to jet off with him at a moment's notice. Yet aside from being a billionaire, a sometime Hollywood studio mogul, and a casino tycoon, Kerkorian is quirky and old-fashioned-a relic. Most of his contemporaries are six feet underground. At midlife, he was Howard Hughes's nemesis and Cary Grant's buddy. In his youth, he boxed and flew airplanes.

He keeps life as simple as any mogul can. He doesn't use credit cards or wear a watch most days, according to friends. Embarrassed about his lack of formal education, he doesn't make speeches or accept awards. He has donated millions of dollars to charitable causes-many of them in Armenia, and even including the Armenian government-but he won't allow any of the roads, buildings, or other projects to be named for him and he has not so much as visited any of them, according to a longtime friend. Kerkorian is as likely to lunch with his bookkeeper as with another business titan-perhaps more likely. He drives himself around in regular-guy vehicles. Recently it was a pair of white Jeep Cherokees-one in L.A., another in Las Vegas.

To meet Kerkorian is to receive a polite handshake, a nod, a restrained smile. He is unreadable. People say it's an adrenaline rush to do business with Kerkorian, but this comes as much from people's imaginations-"He is a legend!"-than from anything in his unextraordinary behavior.

Kerkorian runs two primary companies. One is called the Tracinda Corporation. The other is the Lincy Foundation. Both are an amalgam of the names of Tracy and Linda-his two grown daughters from his second marriage to a former Las Vegas showgirl named Jean Maree Hardy. Linda is adopted, according to several accounts. Kerkorian is legally the father of a third daughter, Kira Rose Kerkorian, though the girl turned out to be another rich man's progeny.

Tracinda owns his holdings in the other companies that Kerkorian controls. Its offices on Rodeo are quiet and genteel, according to several people who have worked there. The receptionists, accountants, and lawyers begin to arrive around nine a.m. to begin a day that is steeped in tradition, as some have worked there for three decades. They leave at the stroke of noon to lunch together, typically at one of three restaurants. The choices include a Mexican eatery, a French bistro, or a soup-and-sandwich shop. Kerkorian often eats a sandwich at his desk or lunches at a restaurant around the corner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, his colleagues say.

No one seems to be particularly clear on how Kerkorian spends his hours in his office, other than to say that he isn't pushing papers or sweating details. He speaks on the telephone. He thinks.

Everyone heads home around five p.m.

Widespread beliefs that Kerkorian leads a frugal life are just false.

Kerkorian maintains large homes in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He travels in his own Boeing 737, which according to legal records is furnished with a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and seats for twenty-one passengers. In addition to walking around with a wad of thousands of dollars in his pocket, he has also had a long and fickle relationship with a yacht-a 192-foot, German steel-hulled boat with two 1,750 horsepower Caterpillar engines, a teak sun deck, a gymnasium-plenty of comfort but no "frou-frou" details-with room for ten guests and a dozen crew members.

It's the twenty-second largest yacht in the world, according to Power & Motoryacht magazine's 2005 rankings. The yacht is one of those assets, like the MGM movie studio and his early airline, that Kerkorian keeps buying and selling.

Kerkorian chartered the yacht in her earlier life, liked her, bought her, named her the October Rose (his sister's name is Rose), sold her, and after she underwent a series of new owners (including Larry Ellison) and new names (Libertad, Sakura), bought her back again. And named her October Rose again. Then sold her again.

"It's a guy's boat," says Douglas Sharp, of Sharp Design in San Diego. Kerkorian hired Sharp to refurbish the yacht, but didn't seem much interested in the details. "We just met him once," says Sharp, who had traveled to Las Vegas with a set of plans for the yacht's refurbishment.

"One of the meetings was really bizarre. We sat in the outer office and sent the designs into an inner office," Sharp says. Kerkorian sent an emissary with his comments, but didn't bother to step outside his office or invite Sharp in. "We never saw him."

When Kerkorian kept the yacht in San Diego, Sharp says, "She was always on the move. His crew would get a call and have to take her out. It was for his friends to use-and for him to use. It was never chartered."


Excerpted from WINNER TAKES ALL by Christina Binkley Copyright © 2008 by Christina Binkley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Prologue: FRIENDLY....................ix
One: BULLDOZED....................1
Two: "RIFLE RIGHT"....................5
Three: SAY "HAIR-UHS"....................18
Four: 1989....................21
Five: THE GREAT RACE....................31
Six: BLIND....................41
Seven: BRASS BALLS....................44
Eight: THE OUTSIDERS....................62
Nine: HIGH LIFE....................70
Ten: CRUSHED VELVET WORLD....................84
Eleven: HUNGRY ALLIGATOR....................101
Twelve: TAA-DAAAAH!....................103
Thirteen: SOUTHERN BLUES....................106
Fourteen: IMPLOSION....................119
Fifteen: MISS SPECTACULAR....................132
Sixteen: CHOMP....................145
Seventeen: WALKING ON AIR....................157
Eighteen: DUPED....................164
Nineteen: PROPELLER HEADS....................169
Twenty: AVID....................183
Twenty-one: VICE....................190
Twenty-two: PICASSO'S PENIS....................199
Twenty-three: SUNDAY NIGHT FEVER....................217
Twenty-four: CAESARS....................230
Twenty-five: RETURN OF THE KING....................240
Twenty-six: BLIND MAN'S BLUFF....................256
Twenty-seven: META-VEGAS....................266
Twenty-eight: NO END....................283
Author's Note....................285

What People are Saying About This

Po Bronson

"It's a great drama on the greatest stage. . . . Wynn, Kerkorian, and Loveman represent three opposing business personalities, three styles of achieving success. On the Vegas Strip, they're pitted against one another like gladiators, and we've got front-row seats. Kapow!"--(Po Bronson, author of WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?)

From the Publisher

"As exhilarating as a high-stakes game of craps." —-Kirkus

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Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found Winner Takes All highly enjoyable and a quick and interesting read. The author doesn't burden us with heavy facts, figures or long ago history. She also gives us a quick look into the main powerbrokers that have reengineered Las Vegas. If you have ever been to Las Vegas or were curious about it, I highly recommend Winner Takes All
kd9 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Now THIS is the book on Las Vegas I have been searching for. Not merely a history or list of developers, but profiles of the people and their visions that have made Las Vegas the sparkly, shiny growth capital that it is.The author addresses both the tacky beginnings and the underlying unease that people, even people who live here, find in an economy built on vice. Kerkorian (MGM) and Loveman (Harrah's-Caesar's) both covet the potential that is here, but live elsewhere. Wynn (Mirage, then Wynn) has been a Las Vegas booster from the first day that he moved here, but has also tried to bring his childhood memories of eastern tall tree forests and lakes for waterskiing to this desert community. While Kerkorian and Wynn are rivals, they both want to built temples to their vision. Wynn has Wynn and Encore, Kerkorian is building CityCenter. Loveman is a Harvard labor economist who brought an intense analysis of how people gamble and how he can encourage them to gamble only at his casinos via Reward Cards and contests and chatty personalized emails. Each of these men have brought a piece of their vision and made Las Vegas what it is today. Kerkorian brought in Wall Street investors and made casinos corporate. Wynn saw that Las Vegas was more than gambling and brought in the first Ferrari dealership and other upscale retailers into Nevada while building his disneyesque casinos. Loveman carved out the science of blue collar gambling and brought hordes of people to his low cost, low glitz casinos.If Las Vegas is a puzzle, then it is a puzzle made of the pieces that these men and their staffs originated. Without them Las Vegas would be a low rent poker palace with a few dusty suburbs. I'm glad it is not.
Driving-Listener More than 1 year ago
Tells the story about the big owners in vegas and their casino investments in other areas. Gives the backgrounds of the three big names as well as others involved. Very informative!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Poorly written..more like a newspaper article than a book. Interesting facts but your could read them in the newspapers. Did not like the very negative way she treated Mr. Wynn. Evident, that she does not like the gentleman at all! Facts are he did make Las Vegas a very elegant City to visit. Save your money and read the newspapers.
chrisromano More than 1 year ago
A great effort looking at the personalities that define modern Vegas; Steve Wynn and Kirk Krekorian. A view inside the acquisition of Wynn's empire and the financial deals that make Vegas tick. A great look at Vegas as an industry.