hey are rumored to number less than 250, and with each passing year fewer are seen in their natural habitat, the deserts of southern Nevada. I am referring, of course, to whales.

Whales are those near-legendary gamblers with credit lines hovering around $5 million who are likely to bet $100,000 a hand and who are the focus of intense competition among casinos. Their contribution to -- or withdrawal from -- an establishment's purse can determine whether it has been a very good week or a very bad one. Given that the odds are with the house, the presence of whales at baccarat tables is, in the long run, a good thing for the gaming industry.

A couple of whale tales were told at the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum held last week at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The first involved a repeat guest who had run up losses of almost $700,000 in an evening. The casino management, hoping to assuage his disappointment, presented him with a $75,000 Mercedes. He was overjoyed -- visibly moved by the gesture -- and never appeared to consider that he had, in essence, paid something over $600,000 for the car.

Another story told of an Arabian prince who had won $10 million and was being driven to the airport for the flight back home in the casino's private jet. But there was a mechanical problem with the plane. Apologies were made, and of course the casino put him in the best suite that night, gratis. By the time the plane was fixed the next day, the prince had managed to lose the $10 million, and another $2 million on top of that.

Whales, most of whom are Asian, used to shun their regional casinos in favor of Las Vegas. And if you had visited a gambling hall in Macao up until a few years ago, you'd understand why -- they were dimly lit, noisy and smoky, the visual definition of "lowlife."

But gaming analyst Ray Neidl of Blaylock and Partners told attendees at Travel Weekly's forum that Asia is cleaning up its casinos and making a strong bid for whales -- not to mention other Asian upscale gamblers -- and that this was being noted by the investment community.

Later that day, I caught a glimpse of what was in Las Vegas' bait box to attract whales when I was given a tour of an area of the MGM Grand known as The Mansion.

Down a nondescript hall and through an unmarked door is a re-created Tuscan village of 29 villas, ranging from 2,300 square feet to an astounding 20,000 square feet. The artwork includes original Picassos and 800-year-old tapestries.

Small, his-and-her's plasma-screen TVs jut out from the bathroom walls next to marble his-and-her's sinks. Guests can relax in their private indoor swimming pools, attended by a staff of butlers. If available, the hotel's celebrity chefs will come into an individual's villa kitchen to prepare a private meal.

"These are designed to please people who have never heard 'no' for an answer," said David Van Kalsbeek, senior vice president for sales and marketing at the MGM Grand.

The thinning of the whale pods is not without its upside for one sector of the industry and, for once, travel agents are the potential winners. The villas, once held exclusively for high rollers, are being made available to the public. And with nightly rates of $5,000 to $20,000, the commission is enough to make an agent feel she beat the house.

• • •

On my flight to Las Vegas, I sat next to a man who said he markets a "third-tier -- you know, three-star" downtown hotel. He let me in on a secret: "In low season, we give the rooms to the online guys for free. We let 'em sell 'em for anything they want. You know, $29.95.

"Say it costs us $12 to clean the room each night," he continued. "Odds are the guest'll drop more than that at the casino, in the restaurant, at the bar."

Apparently guppies are sought in Las Vegas for much the same reason as whales. It's just a matter of scale. Whales are pursued individually. Guppies are hunted anonymously, scooped up with a 'net by the dozens.

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