10/13/2006 12:00AM

Gaming moguls hitting the jackpot


The popularity of gaming not only has spurred investment and opportunity both here and abroad - it's making a lot of people rich. On the heels of a then-record MGM Mirage deal and Harrah's Gaming gulping down Caesars Entertainment, comes word that a private investment group wants to plunk down more than $15 billion to take Harrah's Entertainment private. After the feeding frenzy that surrounded the newly acquired Tropicana properties, additional offers for the world's largest gaming company are not out of the question before a new chapter is written.

And, of the world's richest people, gaming proprietors are climbing the billion-dollar ladder of wealth as a result of the burgeoning industry.

Last month's release of Forbes magazine's annual list of the 400 richest Americans shows that Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas Sand Inc. boss, climbed from No. 15 to No. 3 on the shoulders of his newest gaming cash cow on the inlet of Macau. The little spot just off the shoreline of China has become the world's latest gaming "hot spot," and Adelson sits firmly at the base of the boom. Although Steve Wynn, of Wynn Las Vegas, and MGM Mirage are following suit, Adelson, who owns the Venetian, has already started plans for a mini-Strip of Macau casinos to accommodate a population that has yet to satisfy its appetite for gaming.

The deepest pockets in America are still with 50-year-old Bill Gates, of Microsoft, with $53 billion. He has held the top spot on the Forbes list - now totally occupied by billionaires - for 13 straight years, while Warren Buffett, 76, of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. ($46 billion) has held the two hole every year since 1994, excepting a hiccup in 2000. The 73-year-old Adelson's $20.5 billion ranks him as the richest Nevadan and gaming operator in America at No. 3. Forbes estimates that Adelson has earned about $1 million an hour for the past two years. Supporting that hourly wage is the Sands Macau, which had a net revenue of $310.4 million in the second quarter compared to the $205.1 million racked up in the same quarter a year ago.

All told, the Forbes 400 are worth a combined record of $1.25 trillion, topping last year's $1.13 trillion.

Others on the list with Las Vegas ties include: the Mars candy moguls Forrest Edward Mars Jr., Jacqueline Mars, and John Frank Mars, each with $10.5 billion at No. 21; Carl Icahn (Stratosphere and Arizona Charlie's casinos), $9.7 billion, No. 24; Kirk Kerkorian (MGM Mirage Inc.), $9 billion, No. 26; Pierre Omidyar (eBay), $7.7 billion, No. 32; Donald Trump (Trump Towers of Las Vegas), $2.9 billion, No. 94; Steve Wynn (Wynn Las Vegas), $2.6 billion, No. 107; Edward Roski Jr. (Silverton Hotel Casino), $1.8 billion, No. 197; Phillip Ruffin (New Frontier Hotel Casino) and Bruton Smith (Las Vegas Motor Speedway), tied at No. 278 with $1.4 billion; and Bill Boyd (Boyd Gaming Inc.) and David Duffield (Incline Village), tied at No. 322 with $1.2 billion.

It seems that the odds of gambling on gaming are no longer as risky for industry investors as they are for its customers.