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Sheldon Adelson, creator of the Cotai Strip, Marina Bay Sands, dies at 87

Sheldon Adelson at the opening of Parisian Macao in Macau, China, 2016. Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip.

Combative self-made billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who assembled the world’s largest casino empire and used his fortune to nurture conservative politicians and policies in the US and Israel, has died at age 87.

The American casino mogul, raised in a poor Jewish immigrant family in Boston as the son of a cab driver, established lavish hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore, and headed the world’s largest casino company, Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Adelson’s wealth made him a formidable figure in American and Israel politics and in the news media. He was a vigorous supporter of US President Donald Trump, former US President George W Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as a prolific donor to US Republican politicians and foe of Democrats, including former US President Barack Obama.

Adelson died on Monday night from complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, Las Vegas Sands said in a statement on Tuesday.

With a net worth of US$33.4 billion as of this week, Adelson ranked as the world’s 38th richest person on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Adelson, a college dropout, was short and stocky, had thinning red hair and in later years used a motorised scooter because of a medical condition that made it difficult to walk. But his appearance belied his clout and drive.

His empire in the US, Macau and Singapore was exemplified by the Venetian resort casino in Las Vegas, which boasted replicas of landmarks from Venice, Italy, like canals, the Rialto Bridge and the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica. He filled his gambling hubs with trendy restaurants and shops, making them luxury destinations for business travellers and tourists alike.

Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson in Singapore in 2009. Image: Reuters/Tim Chong

“I know that a lot of people think that guys like me succeed by stepping on the broken backs of employees and other people, but they don’t understand that we, too, have philosophies and ideals that we adhere to very scrupulously,” Adelson said at a Las Vegas event in 2008, according to the New Yorker magazine.

Detractors described Adelson – who engaged in a court battle with his own sons, feuds with former associates and lawsuits against journalists – as vengeful and mean.

“Over time, I observed Mr Adelson plot vendettas against anyone whom he believed stood in his way. However minuscule the perceived affront, he was certain to go ballistic, using his money and position to bully any ‘opponent’ – great or small – into submission,” Shelley Berkley, who worked for Adelson before serving from 1999 to 2013 as a Democratic US congresswoman from Nevada, wrote in a Las Vegas newspaper in 1998.

Adelson was born in Boston in 1933. At age 12, he began selling newspapers on street corners. By 16, he ran a candy vending-machine business.

Earlier in his business career Adelson dabbled in entrepreneurial ventures before launching in 1979 a Las Vegas computer trade show that became the world’s biggest. He used its success as a springboard to buy the aging Las Vegas Sands Hotel, then built the largest privately owned US convention centre and later the Venetian.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony Macau and Hong Kong neighbour known for gambling, reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. Foreign casino companies got their shot after a Hong Kong businessman’s Macau gambling monopoly ended.

When China opened up Macau’s gambling sector to foreign casino operators in 2001, Adelson was the quickest off the mark, building Sands Macau and then resorts and a convention centre on Macau’s Vegas style Cotai Strip, ushering in an era of staggering growth.

By 2004 Adelson opened his first casino and Macau later became the world’s top gambling center. Las Vegas Sands’ initial public offering in December 2004 made him a multibillionaire.

Adelson has been credited with helping to broaden Macau’s appeal away from the hard-core gambling parlors that had flourished for decades under the monopoly of former gambling kingpin Stanley Ho.

While visiting a Macau casino project in 2007, Adelson defended China’s communist rulers against critics of the Asian giant’s human rights record, including US lawmakers.

His domain also included the $6 billion Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, which opened in 2010, and a casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

After his first marriage ended, in 1991 Adelson married Miriam Ochshorn, a doctor who specialised in drug addiction treatment. One of Adelson’s sons from his previous marriage, Mitchell, died in 2005 at age 48 of a drug overdose.

  • Reporting by Will Dunham; Additional reporting by Leslie Adler, Doina Chiacu and Farah Master; Editing by Bill Trott and Edward Tobin, of Reuters.

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