Sheldon Adelson, 1933-2021: World’s Wealthiest Casino Tycoon Dead at 87

Posted on: January 12, 2021, 06:36h. 

Last updated on: July 19, 2021, 01:23h.

The chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp and the world’s wealthiest casino operator has died at aged 87. Sheldon Adelson was known to have been suffering from non-Hodkinson’s lymphoma.

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson became the world richest casino owner — and one of the world’s richest people — despite only entering the industry in his sixties. (Image: The Morning Call)

Adelson was one of those rare things: a truly self-made billionaire.

Born in Dorchester, Mass. in 1933 to an immigrant, blue-collar family — his Lithuanian father was a taxi driver and his English mother worked in a knitting shop — he grew up sleeping on the floor of the family’s Boston tenement.

Adelson started his first business aged 12, purchasing a license to sell newspapers in Boston with money borrowed from an uncle. This year, he was listed by Forbes as the 28th richest person in the world, with an estimated fortune of $33.5 billion.

“I’ll tell you the secret, but nobody ever follows it,” he once said of his success. “Just do things differently. Just do things in life the way other people don’t do that. Change the status quo. And then you’ll succeed.”

Benevolence and Belligerence

Adelson was a visionary businessman who revolutionized the casino industry with his sprawling, opulent destination integrated resorts. He also had the imagination to see the enormous opportunity Macau presented when the enclave opened itself up to foreign operators.

But he was also a divisive figure: a Republican megadonor who paid for political capital, and he was aggressively litigious. He once sued a journalist for describing him as “a scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester, Mass.” The casino mogul filed the libel case in Hong Kong, specifically because the region does not enjoy the same press freedoms as the US.

Over the years, he was accused of using litigation to silence or intimidate his critics, whether they were journalists, unions, or former employees.

But Adelson was also a philanthropist who gave generously to good causes across the world. A committed Zionist, he was the primary funder of Birthright Israel, the program that flies young Jews to Israel for free, and a major donor to Holocaust remembrance and the Israeli American Council, among others.

He also gave generously to medical research and drug rehabilitation programs in the US — an issue tragically close to his heart. In 2005, his son from his first marriage, Mitchell, died of a drug overdose. His other son, Gary, is believed to be an addict or a recovering addict, and is estranged from the family.

Adelson was no fan of the unions, but he treated workers well and was considered a generous employer. LVS was the only operator in Las Vegas to maintain worker pay and benefits throughout last year’s coronavirus casino shutdown.

Political Influence

“I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it,” Adelson once said of his other major financial indulgence, the Republican Party.

Sheldon Adelson
Adelson and his wife, Miriam, a former associate physician at Rockefeller University. Together, they donated hundreds of millions to the Republican Party. (Image: Patrick Semansky/AP)

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have been the GOP’s largest donors in each of the past two federal election cycles, giving upwards of $205 million since 2016.

Many believe Adelson cashed out some of those chips by persuading the Department of Justice to revise its opinion on the Wire Act in 2019. The new opinion jeopardizes regulated online gambling in the US, which Adelson had campaigned against for years. He once threatened to spend “whatever it takes” to eradicate it. The DOJ opinion has been successfully challenged in the courts by the New Hampshire Lottery, a judgment the Trump administration has appealed.

He was also accused of buying newspapers to further his conservative political agenda. Controversially, in 2015, he anonymously purchased The Las Vegas Review-Journal, prompting reporters to unmask their own boss with some old-fashioned journalistic sleuthing.

He owned papers in Israel, too. One of them, Israel Hayom, is so pro-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it has been accused of compromising the foundations of the nation’s democracy.

Never Too Old

Adelson entered the casino industry relatively late in life, having initially made his fortune in computer trade shows. In 1995, aged 62, he received $500 million from the sale of his trade show company, COMDEX.

Venetian Las Vegas The Venetian Las Vegas, seen here, was the first casino Adelson built from the ground up and became the blueprint for his signature opulent destination resorts that made him a fortune in Macau and Singapore. (Image: LVS Corp)

But early retirement was never in the cards. He plowed his money into buying the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which had become a shadow of its Rat Pack heyday.

Inspired by a trip to Venice with Miriam, Adelson pulled down the Sands and built the Venetian, the biggest hotel on the Strip, complete with canals, gondolas, and it’s very own Piazza San Marco and Rialto Bridge.

It was his investments in Macau and Singapore, however, that transformed LVS into the best-performing casino company on earth and made Adelson one of the world’s truly super-rich.

And yet, despite his billions and the power and influence it bought him, Adelson said money was never the motivation.

“I never thought about becoming wealthy,” he once claimed. “It never crossed my mind. What really motivated me was to try to accomplish something.”