Las Vegas Sands founder championed Wire Act expansion, but his death won't end the fight

Sheldon Adelson, Casino Magnate And Online Gambling Opponent, Dead At 87

Sheldon Adelson, founder of Las Vegas Sands (LVS), has passed away at age 87.

He was suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer, and died of complications from his treatment for the disease.

Adelson’s impact on the gambling industry was huge, but also paradoxical. He and his company played a big role in making the Las Vegas Strip what it is today. At the same time, he was arguably the single greatest adversary to further modernization of the industry.

LVS is the largest casino company in the world, yet consists of a relatively small number of properties. The size and opulence of The Venetian, The Palazzo and other Sands properties reflected Adelson’s vision for what gambling should be. That reinvention of the Strip has come to shape how the rest of the world thinks about resort-style casinos as well.

However, he was adamant that online gambling would be a bad idea, and spent much of the last decades of his life fighting against it. It’s generally understood that he was the driving force behind the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling (CSIG) and various attempts to intervene in online gambling at the federal level.

It is in that role that many OnlinePokerReport readers will be most familiar with him. Among online poker players in particular, he had become a figure of supervillain proportions, almost synonymous with the anti-online gambling movement itself. The reality, however, is that he was merely one of its many opponents, and that his fight against it was only one facet of his life.

A convoluted path to the gambling industry

Most of Adelson’s life did not in fact have anything to do with gambling at all. He was, however, keen on entrepreneurship from a young age.

His life story is often presented as a “rags to riches” tale. The truth, however is that he did have some important early help.

Adelson began selling newspapers at age 10. Soon after, he realized that he could make more money if he bought a permit and managed the business himself. To that end, he convinced an uncle, who worked at a credit union, to lend him the not-insubstantial money required to do so. That early experience with obtaining and leveraging capital paved the way for what was to come.

Following a stint in the Army – as a stenographer for military courts – he got back into entrepreneurship in a bigger way. He achieved success with a charter tours company. It fragmented after the market crash of 1969 and Adelson was left with the publishing wing.

In a roundabout way, that led him to the idea of organizing trade shows. His light bulb moment was realizing that these were a way of filling Las Vegas hotel rooms during weekdays. Sin City had, to that point, been largely a weekend destination.

He purchased the aging Sands Hotel in 1989, and named his company for it. The first order of business was to build a massive convention center next door. This proved to be a huge success and paved the way for what would come to be an empire of high-end casino resorts. These positioned gambling as one amenity among many, rather than at the core of the business.

Adelson’s fight against online gambling

The convoluted way in which Adelson landed in the gambling space explains how he was able to square his participation in the industry with political views that were overall rather moralistic. He saw it as an acceptable diversion for those who could afford it. At the same time, he felt it would create problems if it became too widespread. That, as well as protecting his own business interests, formed the root of his opposition to online gambling.

Although he was a supporter of the Republican Party from long before Black Friday, it was only afterwards that he became prominent as an opponent of online gambling. After the Department of Justice had shut down the online poker sites still serving American customers, it issued the opinion that the Wire Act applied only to sports betting, not other forms of gambling. This opinion allowed states to begin paving the way for online gambling in the US to come back in a more legitimate form.

That led Adelson to form CSIG in 2014 and begin pushing for the bill that would come to be called Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA). Though that effort ultimately failed, the cause lives on. With Adelson’s influence, the Department of Justice attempted to reverse its own opinion in 2018. That sparked a lawsuit which is still playing out, and may eventually wind up in front of the Supreme Court.

The online gambling debate isn’t going anywhere

Adelson’s role as a Republican power broker and the face of online gambling opposition naturally made him a polarizing figure. Even as his death is mourned by friends and family, there are those expressing the hope that resistance to online gambling will die with him. This is not very likely.

One person, no matter how wealthy and outspoken, does not determine the politics of a nation of 330 million. Yes, Adelson’s words and dollars have been tremendously helpful to those in his camp. However, the movement itself wouldn’t exist if fears about online gambling weren’t widespread to begin with. About a quarter of US adults still consider all gambling to be morally wrong, and they aren’t going anywhere.

That said, the tides have been turning. They will continue to turn, but not because of Adelson’s death.

Once Michigan online casinos launch, there will be four states with a full-featured online gambling industry. Sports betting is sweeping the nation to an even greater degree. We’re also likely to see more states pass gambling expansion bills this year.

Even Sands itself realizes this. There are indications that it sees the battle is lost and is considering how to adjust. On the one hand, it has been looking at disposing of its US properties and focusing on Asia. There, online gambling opposition by the Chinese government is still going strong. On the other hand, Adelson’s replacement as CEO, Rob Goldstein, is already discussing the company’s possible entry to the sports betting space.

With Adelson gone, the latter path now seems more likely. But either way, it is a company reacting to circumstances beyond its control. The fight is bigger than Adelson or Sands, and the pace at which online gambling expands – or doesn’t – will be largely unaffected by his passing.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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