Friday, Sept. 8, 2006 | 7:28 a.m.
MACAU - As I maneuver down the ferry gangway, dozens of fellow passengers from Hong Kong run by, racing to get into this city.
I ask the official manning the passport desk at the Macau ferry terminal what the hurry is. She smiles and says, simply, "Casino."
I have heard stories about how Chinese gamble so intensely in Macau - but was told that I wouldn't believe it until I saw it firsthand.
They were right.
There's some serious gambling inside Las Vegas casinos, but it doesn't compare to what takes place in Macau.
And nowhere is the betting more frenzied in the former Portuguese enclave than at the Sands casino, owned by Venetian owner Las Vegas Sands.
The Sands is filled with 740 gambling tables, more than any other casino in the world, and about as many as the combined number of tables at Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mirage, Mandalay Bay and Luxor.
Most are for baccarat, with bets starting at 200 or 300 Hong Kong dollars (about $26 or $38 U.S.) but with bettors frequently wagering five times that much or more per hand without turning heads.
The casino looks like a five-story department store for gamblers, with the ground floor reserved for nonsmokers. Escalators carry gamblers from one floor of baccarat tables to the next. Scattered about are a few blackjack tables and more traditional Chinese games such as pai gow, sic bo, big and small, fan tan, and Chicken, Crab and Fish.
Lines of hungry gamblers form for a small buffet, KFC and McDonald's, but they don't linger over their meals.
Players on a roll attract crowds standing two or three deep who join in, betting the same action. Unlike in Las Vegas, nobody in Macau worries about giving their fellow gamblers space.
Macau gamblers play passionately - even at baccarat, where the only decisions to make are how much to bet and what to bet on (banker, player or tie). With excruciating drama, they slowly bend each card to see its numerical value. They shout with happiness or yell in disgust before showing their cards. James Bond might have played baccarat with cool detachment, but in this city, gamblers anxiously switch their bets around, following trends or anticipating reversals.
Until Wynn Macau opened Tuesday evening, the Sands was the nicest and most luxurious among Macau's casinos. But everything is relative. Signs at the Sands warn against spitting - something I saw at smaller casinos. At one casino, small spittoons are thoughtfully placed near each table.
Much of the high-end gambling business that Steve Wynn wants to capture now takes place at the Lisboa, across the street from Wynn Macau.
Set in a downtown district about as large as downtown Las Vegas, the Lisboa was Macau's flagship casino when owner Stanley Ho enjoyed a casino monopoly.
The Lisboa complex looks somewhat like Fremont Street's Plaza Hotel, but its gaming action is spread across many floors, in several different casinos arrayed throughout the mazelike building.
Ho owns the main Lisboa casino and leases space in several others to independent operators that some experts have said have ties to Chinese organized crime and loan-sharking operations.
In Lisboa's main casino, gamblers crowd three deep around a spirited game of fan tan, which is played with a big pile of small ivory buttons. The dealer uses an upside-down cup to capture a random number of the buttons.
The players bet on whether there will be zero, one, two or three leftover buttons after the captured pile is divided into groups of four. After the dealer rings a bell signifying "no more bets" (the bell is used at other communal betting games such as baccarat as well), he turns over the cup and begins forming the groups of four buttons. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars are bet on each game.
Big betting action is taking place in one of the smaller Lisboa casinos. A single player is seated at the table, betting plastic-wrapped packs of 20 rectangular casino chips. Each chip is worth 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,286 ), and each pack worth 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,718 ). The gambler I'm watching is betting five or more packs at a time, on banker or player - action that would rank with the biggest play on the Las Vegas Strip.
It's the kind of action that gets people running off ferries when they arrive from Hong Kong.