Vegas Billionaire, Pummeled by Recession, Claws His Way Back

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Las Vegas is a place where many bet high but few come out on top ... and then there's Sheldon Adelson, who proves that old Vegas saying, "The house always wins."

The billionaire behind the Las Vegas Sands Corporation likes things big, including his checkbook.

"A friend of mine says, 'You're the tallest guy in the world,'" he said in an interview with "Nightline's" Cynthia McFadden. "I says, 'How do you figure that?' He said: 'When you stand on your wallet.'"

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

Before the economy fell apart two years ago, Adelson's company was making an estimated $20 million per day from his hotels and casinos in Las Vegas and Macau.

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His properties are huge. In Vegas, the Venetian and Palazzo complex, at 18.5 million square feet, is three times the size of the Pentagon and boasts the title of the largest hotel in the world. In Macau, he spent $2.4 billion on a 3,000-room resort.

The Venetian Las Vegas

Adelson has a reputation for being very tough, and he has a very tough background to match.

"In my mind, here's a kid who comes from the slums, me," Adelson said. "I came from a very poor family, there were six people, four children, and my parents, one bed in the room ... and my parents were poor.

"When they died in 1985, 11 days apart," he said, "they didn't have as much as $100 in the bank. Their whole life. They gave everything to their children. So I'm talking not from a white shoe background or from a privileged background. I'm talking [as] somebody who wore his skin down on his fingers trying to climb the ladder of success."

By 2007, he seemed to be minting money. With an estimated net worth of $40 billion, he was one of the richest men in the world and No. 3 on the Forbes magazine list of richest Americans, just behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

His extravagance, he said, is airplanes. Together, he and his company own 14 aircraft.

It's "probably the largest private fleet in the world," Adelson said. "But we use the planes very wisely because we use the planes to bring players in. It gives us an advantage over others."

But the planes and the perks looked as if they might have been in jeopardy when the market crashed in 2008. His company's market value plummeted more than 90 percent, at one point losing as much as $1,000 per second.

Adelson: There's 'No Such Thing as Fear' to an Entrepreneur

Adelson didn't blink.

"So I lost $25 billion," he said. "I started out with zero."

"It certainly wasn't the most joyous moment of my life, but there was nothing that anybody could do," Adelson said. "You could look at the Dow Jones industrial average and see it swing 500 points or 1,000 points in a day and you say, 'This is incredible! What can anybody do to stop this?'"

Adelson said he takes "a very small portion" of the blame for what happened to his company.

"I was the guy that had to put the money in," he said.

To prevent the company from going under, Adelson and his family invested $1 billion into the Las Vegas Sands Corporation.

"$1 billion doesn't buy you what it used to," Adelson joked.

That $1 billion bailed out the cash-strapped company, but much of the senior management was fired. Adelson claims he never really broke a sweat during it at all.

There's "no such thing as fear -- not to an entrepreneur," he said. "Concern, yes. Fear, no."

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