Want to sing a duet with Tony Bennett? Play tennis with Agassi? Travel in style by private jet? Steve Cyr is the man who can make it happen. You just need to bet $50k a hand on blackjacks first.
‘I had to kick Bill Gates out of his $10,000 hotel suite the other night because one of my players had come to town. I told him “The most I can make from you is $10,000 a night — my guy bets that on his first hand. You can move now or security will be here in an hour.”‘
Welcome to Vegas. Your host, if you’re willing to bet big, is Steve Cyr — otherwise knows as The Whale Hunter. He’s a swashbuckling mercenary who lures the industry’s highest rollers — whales in casino parlance — to wager millions of dollars a night at the world’s most exclusive resorts. Promised a share of their fat losses by the casinos, the former vitamin seller uses a combination of genial charm, rocket-fuelled salesmanship and eye-popping ‘comps’ as bait. With private jets, palatial penthouse suites and the most beautiful women on the planet at his disposal, Cyr rarely misses his target.
The charismatic 42-year-old last year succeeded in wooing port impresario Larry Flynt into visiting the Las Vegas Hilton. ‘It took me a long time to get him,’ he says. ‘I sent him a fruit basket every Monday for six months then the one week I skipped a delivery he called me up and said “Hey, where’s my basket?” Larry’s a real motherfucker but I like him.’ When Flynt finally relented, Cyr still didn’t get the massive payday he was hoping for. ‘He’s very disciplined and has got his own plane so he flew in on a Friday, won a million playing blackjack and then left,’ says the casino host, still flinching at the memory. ‘It took me two years to get it back, but I did.’
Basketball legend Michael Jordan is another big-name client. To even get close to the NBA giant, Cyr had to pay $15,000 just to enrol in Senior Flight School, Jordan’s annual basketball academy for over-35s. Once in the zone though, The Whale Hunter worked his magic. ‘I was the youngest guy in the group and so I played up to my role as the casino host and got to know him,’ says Cyr, admiring his own moves in action replay. ‘Then at night, when we were done playing, I’d be like, “Let’s go out to one of my casinos” and we just hit it off.’
According to Cyr, however, most of his high rollers aren’t famous. ‘Stars are stiffs and you can quote me on that,’ he says. ‘They’re a pain in the arse. You would never know my whales. They’re stockbrokers. They won restaurants, strip clubs and car washes. The great thing about Vegas is that anyone can be a star there as long as they gamble big.’
Ironically, for a man who makes his living from gambling, Cyr leaves nothing to chance. Before choosing his clients he’ll meticulously pore over every last bit of their credit information and casino records. ‘I’ll know your average bet, how long yo play and what game you like. I’ll even know how well you play,’ he says. ‘If I’ve got one hotel suite left and have to choose between a good and a bad player, then I want the loser every time.’
Every minute detail is taken care of to maximise the casino’s chance of skinning the whale. If the player’s wife is proving a distraction then Cyr will take care of that too, sending her on a $10,000 shopping spree while her husband sheds $250,000 at the blackjack table. ‘Wives can be the kill when a guy is playing great so we drive them to the spa or the Grand Canyon for lunch,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I just tell them we’re taking their husband to play golf when he’s really downstairs in the private room gambling. Anything just to get them out.’
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Smart, brash ad with balls the size of Nevada, Steve Cyr may have grown up in Kansas but he was born for the Glitter Gulch. The son of a hotelier, he intended to go into the family business but was bitten by the games bug while studying at the University of Las Vegas and ended up taking a slot host job at Caesars Palace. He made his first big break dumpster-diving outside a competing casino, where he found a long list of big-betting customers . Using his brazen telephone style, he promptly stole their business. These Machiavellian methods have become the key to Cyr’s success.
Unlike the other casino hosts who wait for whales to wash up on their shore, Cyr rides out to catch them. ‘I’m a networker,’ he says. ‘If there’s party in LA, the Indy 500 or a race meet, I’ll be there looking for new players.’ It’s this nitro-fuelled approach that propelled Cyr’s earning for the Las Vegas Hilton to a remarkable $33 million in his first two years as senior host. ‘When I started in 1986, most of the hosts were burnt-out pit bosses in their 60s,’ he says. ‘I was the youngest by 35 years and I’d never been a dealer, floorman or pit boss. Fuck those guys. I was a salesman!’
Gambling’s a cut-throat world and Cyr’s not averse to using dirty tricks just to stay ahead. ‘There’s a big player arriving at the Bellagio this weekend and I’m trying to get him because his host is a prick,’ he says grinning. ‘I’ll cancel his reservations so there’s no one waiting for him at the airport. Then I’ll tip my guys a couple of hundred dollars to pick him up in a limo and tell him to call Steve Cyr.’
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
If you want to sing a duet with Tony Bennett, play tennis against Andre Agassi or get a lesson Tiger Woods’ coach then Steve will sort it… just as long as you’re prepared to bet five-figure sums. In his 2004 biography Whale Hunt in the Desert, Cyr reveals how he drove all the way from Vegas to Montana in a rented van so he could deliver a specially engraved dice table to a craps-loving megaroller on his birthday. The mission was a success. The gambling giant was so enamoured with his gift, he immediately flew back to Vegas with Cyr, hitting the craps table at $40,000 a throw.
Of course, things don’t always run quite so smoothly. In 2003, Cyr managed to entire a cone-in-a-lifetime-sized whale, let’s call him Mr. B, to join him for the Super Bowl and a weekend of Everest-high stakes gambling at the Barona Valley Ranch Resort in San Diego. After 24 hours, Mr. B was $2 million down, while Cyr was looking at a cool $200,000 profit. Then the whale’s luck turned and he started winning everything. By Sunday night, Mr. B had recouped all his losses plus an extra $2 million. Despite his painstaking planning, Cyr was going to get paid jack. ‘It took me a whole year to get him and all of his entourage out there,’ he says, clearly still irked. ‘Then, when he starts winning, I have to high five him, when all I really want to do is throw up in a trash can.’
Still it’s difficult to feel sorry for a man who earns a salary derived from other people’s misfortune. ‘Sometimes it is tough to have to conceal my pleasure when a guy loses,’ smiles Cyr mischievously, ‘but I do get the biggest buzz when a guys drops a lot of money.’
There are other perks to the job, too. Consider the all-expenses-paid white water rafting trip to Costa Rica that Cyr enjoyed last summer or the $35,000 Trans Am sports car he received as a tip. ‘My wife saw her first football game last year. It was the Super Bowl and we watched it from a $100,000 sky box before flying home in a private jet. We could never afford that kind off stuff but it’s all paid for by the casinos when I’m hosting one of my million-dollar players.’
Of course, there are some down sides. ‘I’m motherfucked every Saturday about two in the morning, whether it’s because a guy wants more credit or thinks he deserves a better suite,’ says Cyr. ‘I’m not a librarian so a lot of my customers aren’t the nicest people but then not everybody I enjoy hanging out with is prepared to lose $50,000.’
The worst part of the business is the debit collecting. When the stakes are this high, even whales can drown in the casino’s nets. Some of his favorite clients have ended up with their houses repossessed or even wound up in prison.
Not that Steve Cyr mourns them for too long. After all, there’s always another whale out there just waiting to be caught.