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Lindley Estes is a business writer for The Free Lance-Star and This blog is on Fredericksburg-area business. Send an e-mail to Lindley Estes.

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Book examines three who were instrumental in making over Las Vegas

GIVEN the phenome- nal success that Las Vegas has had attracting tourists of late, it’s likely that many readers of this column have visited Sin City.

But far fewer readers probably know the story behind the glitz and glitter that has turned the Las Vegas Strip into one of the world’s most recognizable stretches.

A new book by Wall Street Journal columnist Christina Binkley, "Winner Takes All," reveals the forces that have transformed Vegas from a grubby gambling mecca to a land of world-class (albeit tacky) architecture, food, hotels and entertainment.

Binkley covered Las Vegas for the Journal for 10 years, gaining firsthand insight into the city’s booming growth and the people responsible for it.

"Winner Takes All" focuses on three of the most powerful businessmen in Vegas–Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian and Gary Loveman.

Anybody who has traveled to Las Vegas will likely enjoy this book, as it explains the human factors and stories behind the city’s fantasy-like resort casinos.

But the book should also be of general interest to businessmen and women, as it paints a vivid portrait of the tactics that have shaped the success of Wynn, Kerkorian and Loveman.

What’s most interesting about the trio is their vast differences in personality and business methods.

Wynn is the book’s leading character. He’s also given the most credit for Vegas’ transformation into a place of castles, pyramids, palaces and shimmering glass.

Wynn’s creative vision led to the Mirage and Bellagio resorts, which both were more luxurious at opening than any hotel Vegas had seen. Though going blind, Wynn is described as having a hand in nearly every detail in his majestic hotels.

Yet he overstretched, spending too much money on fancy jets and priceless art. That led to MGM taking over Wynn’s Mirage company, whose stock had fallen to bargain-basement prices.

Wynn didn’t stay down for long. Soon after the takeover, he began designing the hotel that now bears his name–Wynn Las Vegas. It’s become Vegas’ most expensive and luxurious resort hotel.

Wynn’s business genius seems to stem from his vast creativity and refusal to cut costs when developing properties. He says he doesn’t need to be the biggest operator of hotels, only the best.

Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corp. is the majority stakeholder of MGM Mirage, which controls the southern part of the Strip after taking over Treasure Island, Mirage and Bellagio from Wynn and later buying the Mandalay Resort Group.

While Wynn comes across in the book as a creative-oriented details guy, Kerkorian is depicted as more of a hands-off investor who has relied on acquiring other companies at good prices to build his casino empire.

Kerkorian seems to lack Wynn’s showmanship, but he has a keen eye for business opportunity. MGM Mirage saw early the opportunity to build condominiums on the Strip, and it’s now developing the massive CityCenter complex.

Binkley’s third Vegas power broker, Gary Loveman, is perhaps the most unconventional of the trio. Loveman is chairman and CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment, which owns most of the properties in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip.

Loveman’s background is as an academic. He was a business professor at Harvard University before being recruited to Harrah’s.

Loveman used his academic background to study the casino business differently than had been done before. Rather than focus on attracting "whales"–high-rolling gamblers–into its casinos, Harrah’s began going after the larger population of small fish.

With its "Total Rewards" program, Harrah’s gave customers plastic cards that were inserted into slot machines. The company then tracked the data to study gambling habits. It also allowed the company to get to know each customer, and then target its marketing. That led to a loyal group of gamblers who visited the multitude of smaller casinos that Harrah’s developed throughout the country.

The statistical methods that Loveman brought to Harrah’s are reminiscent of the way Billy Beane and other baseball general managers have transformed that game, as described by Michael Lewis in "Moneyball." Just as Beane’s methods have helped the low-budget Oakland A’s make the playoffs, Harrah’s used the tactic to become one of the leading casino companies in the world.

By describing these three men, Binkley shows there are many paths to business success. And she illuminates the story behind Vegas’s bright neon lights.