Christina Binkley. Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas. New York: Hyperion, 2008. 304 pages, hardcover.
Over the last decade, the Las Vegas Strip has become increasingly consolidated. Once, there were a host of casino owners: Aztar, Bally Gaming, Boyd Gaming, Circus Circus Enterprises, Grand Casinos (if you count Grand’s stake in the Strat) Hilton Hotels, Mirage Resorts, MGM Grand, Inc, Primadonna, the folks who owned the Frontier, Riviera, Sahara, Imperial Palace, and a few other “non-aligned” casinos. Today, the list is smaller: MGM Mirage, Harrah’s Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, and Las Vegas Sands, Inc. dominate the market, though a number of “non-aligned” casinos remain, and Boyd is set to return to the Strip soon with the mega-development Echelon Place.
In Winner Takes All, Binkley examines a few of the major players in the Strip consolidation sweepstakes. She parlays her access (she’s the former lead Vegas reporter for the Wall Street Journal) into a truly insightful book. Unless you’ve spent the past few years sitting in the executive offices of MGM Mirage, Wynn, and Harrah’s, you’ll definitely learn something from reading this. Binkley does a solid job of pulling back the curtain on the motivations and rivalries that unite and divide the movers and shakers on the Strip.
Binkley goes beyond petty corporate politics, though, and discusses the underlying business strategies that differentiate Wynn, Kerkorian (and his executives), and Loveman. Wynn believes in luxury above all; Kerkorian thinks that size matters (he’s opened the world’s biggest casino hotel three times) and is a consummate deal-maker’ and Loveman brings scientific management to the wild west of the casino floor. If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, you might learn a few lessons from each of these three approaches. If you’re just a person who likes to come to Vegas, you’ll get an insider’s peek into some of your favorite resorts.
As a historian, I’ve got to grouse at a few historical inaccuracies. The most egregious is on page 16, where Binkley contends that the original MGM Grand had “shoddily built rooms” and that the tragic 1980 conflagration was the result of a “grease fire,” making it sound like this was a roadside greasy spoon that went up in smoke after the deep-fryer was left unattended. Actually, it was an electrical fire that sparked the blaze, and though construction faults did exacerbate the fire (smoke was able to get into the guest tower, and sprinklers were not installed in the deli or casino), the casino was, when it opened, the biggest and most expensive building in the history of Las Vegas. Though we now know that its builders cut corners, at the time few disputed that it was a “grand” casino. There are a few other minor issues I have, but I won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say that Binkley is an outstanding source for the material that she personally reported on, but might have relied on lesser sources for some of the background.
Although (or maybe because) the book is about Las Vegas, 1999-2007, it is dominated by Steve Wynn. Even when he’s not there, he’s there, haunting the thoughts of the author and the principals. In simple terms, MGM Grand, Inc. wants to be like Wynn, so the company buys Mirage Resorts. Harrah’s realizes it can’t compete with Wynn, so it relies on “propeller heads” (management wonks) rather than exploding volcanoes to better its bottom line. Las Vegas, it seems, is divided into wanna-be Wynns and anti-Wynns, but there is no one who is unaffected by Wynn.
This is, of course, unfair to the men and women who’ve built up Harrah’s, MGM, and even Wynn, to say nothing of the crowd at Las Vegas Sands. There are a host of principals in this book who deserve to stand on their own: Terry Lanni, Jim Murren, Bobby Baldwin, and Glenn Schaeffer are not “title characters,” but each has contributed significantly to the creation of modern Vegas, so it’s not entirely accurate to dismiss them as Wynn clones or antitheses. But Wynn’s all-pervading presence in the book is unavoidable.
Which leads to the big question: how is Wynn treated? Like the people she writes about, Binkley is hardly agnostic when it comes to Wynn. I’m not giving much away here: the prologue features Wynn, apoplectic with rage, screaming at Binkley that the MGM Grand buyout of Mirage was a friendly deal. So it’s obvious that Binkley isn’t going to be disinterested. But she veers into caricature at times (“His capped teeth gleam white, white, white.”), which paradoxically makes Wynn even more of a larger-than-life character. Wynn-haters will glory in the chronicles of corporate extravagance; Wynn-lovers will say, “So he likes plastic surgery–he still knows how to build the best casinos in the world.”
Winner Takes All is a valuable look inside the boardrooms of Las Vegas during one of its most explosive eras. I recommend it to those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the titans who have rebuilt the Las Vegas Strip.