The Gambler Who Blew $127 Million


Harry Watanabe founded a gift shop, the Oriental Trading Company, in 1932 and made it grow until it became one of the largest players in its market, until 1977 when his son, Terry Watanabe, became its CEO. Later, in 2000, Terry sold his entire stake in the company to a private equity firm. From this sale, Terry amassed a huge fortune that would later propel a drinking and gambling problem into astronomical losses at various Harrah's owned casinos. It started in 2007, when Mr. Watanabe took a trip to Las Vegas, but then never left. Enjoying the various comps and perks of being a high roller, the casinos slowly drained his fortune for an entire year. It was a gambling binge that ended up costing him over $200 million. During that year, 6% of Harrah's total Las Vegas gambling revenue came from Terry Watanabe. He gambled so much that Harrah's invented a new tier in their Total Rewards program just for him called “Chairman.” It came with various perks such as $12,500 a month for airfare, free concert tickets, and $500,000 in credit at the gift stores. That's a nice little bonus for losing $200 million! Mr. Watanabe finally ended his gambling binge after opening up to his sister about his problems during a Thanksgiving visit. She brought him back to Omaha and he entered a treatment facility for addiction. He hasn't entered another casino since then, but unfortunately that's not where his problems ended. Harrah's eventually had to file criminal charges against Terry after he refused to repay all his losses. He agreed to pay $112 million of it, but says that Harrah's irresponsibly fueled his addiction by supplying him with alcohol and encouraging his gambling habits. Employees at Harrah's say that Mr. Watanabe would sometimes lose $5 million a day, gamble for 24 hours straight, and was allowed to play three hands of blackjack at once. Reports also indicate that managers routinely dismissed his obvious signs of intoxication while playing and did whatever they could to keep him gambling in the casino. Mr. Watanabe plead not guilty to the charges, filed his own civil suit against Harrah's, and was scheduled to appear in court in 2010. However, a confidential agreement was met two weeks before the trial and all claims from both parties were dropped. Terry Watanabe's year long gambling run is believed to be the single biggest losing streak by an individual in Las Vegas history.


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