'Winner Takes All' delivers inside look at Vegas history

Wall Street Journal scribe Christina Binkley was on the scene for a crucial decade of Las Vegas history, chronicling a span during which the popular adult playground transformed itself from a crass theme park of resorts into a world-class destination run by conglomerates.

In Winner Takes All, Binkley writes what could be a doctoral dissertation on Vegas and the gambling beat. Binkley worked her sources up and down the Las Vegas Strip to craft a compact, informative and entertaining story.

Unfortunately, the book may be mistitled inasmuch as there was no ultimate "winner" in Las Vegas.

Binkley has the ability to simplify the machinations behind high-profile corporate buyouts. Readers get a backstage pass to view three important buyouts: Kirk Kerkorian's 2000 purchase of Steve Wynn's Mirage Resorts; MGM Mirage's 2004 buyout of Mandalay Resort Group; and Harrah's 2004 takeover of Caesars.

Binkley shines new light on an old story, revealing that Wynn forced Kerkorian's MGM Grand, which acquired Mirage Resorts, to pay $17 million for his residence, including a pair of decorative frogs for $766.09 and a 10-year-old garbage disposal for $287.04.

Competitive tussles

Binkley calls Winner a Wynn biography masquerading as a book about the competitive tussle reflected in the subtitle: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and the Race to Own Las Vegas.

Wynn, developer of the Mirage, Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, is seen as filled with contradictory traits. In anecdote after anecdote, Binkley illustrates his magnanimity, egotism, eloquence, weirdness, humor, insecurity, pettiness. The fact she had terrific access to him did not tilt her evenhanded portrayal.

At times, she is deliciously dishy in a way that is unlikely to get another interview, as when she implies Wynn had cosmetic surgery.

If there is a bias here, though, it's toward those who gave Binkley access. Wynn did, so he occupies most of the book. Loveman granted her less, so he is depicted as the dull, underestimated yet brilliant operator of Harrah's whose staff worries about his girth.

MGM Mirage CEO Terry Lanni gave no face-to-face access. Consequently, his role in mergers on his watch is treated dismissively.

Kerkorian is an exception; she treats him fairly even though he gave her no access, perhaps because the 90-year-old mogul hasn't given an interview in many years.

But Binkley's most alarming failure is that she ignores the crucial role in the past decade of Wynn's chief rival, cantankerous Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson, with whom Binkley had a notoriously poor relationship.

Adelson is even wealthier than Kerkorian and runs the Strip company with the highest market value, a result of his vision to turn Vegas into the top convention town and his aggressive approach to Macau and Singapore. Yet he is mentioned only about half a dozen times. Wynn's story is hardly complete without fleshing out his rival. Books could be written about the juicy, extremely public Wynn-Adelson feud.

Historical trivia

The book is marred by some mistakes. Binkley misspells the name of impressionist Danny Gans (she wrote Ganz), who grins from the largest marquee on the Strip. She misstates the marketing slogan as "What Happens in Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas" even though the official catchphrase doesn't mention the city name.

And she is wrong about the chronology of Wynn's optioning the musical Spamalot, saying he did so after the failure of Avenue Q, when, in fact, he did it before Q opened in Vegas.

That said, Binkley provides plenty of insider detail and historical trivia to satisfy Vegas enthusiasts. And she can turn a phrase. Explaining why Vegas moguls don't actually regard it as home, she writes: "It's hard to love a place that tries so hard, yet can't respect itself — like the class slut."

Happily, Binkley does respect the city she watched prosper. Thus, she taps years of serious coverage to write a pleasing, if flawed, book.

Steve Friess is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas and co-host of the weekly Vegas celebrity-interview podcast The Strip.