Movie Planned of Biggest Las Vegas Loser Terry Watanabe

In 2007, Terry Watanabe, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, Neb., lost over $200 million gambling, mainly at Caesars Palace and the Rio. It’s a dubious feat that immortalized him as one of Las Vegas’ biggest losers. Now there are plans to make a film about Watanabe and his wretched losing streak.

Terry Watanabe, pictured during a 2008 court appearance. A year earlier he had been responsible for around 5.6% of Caesars Entertainment’s annual gambling revenue. (Image: Las Vegas Sun)

Foundation Media Partners has secured exclusive rights to Watanabe’s riches-to-rags life story, Deadline reports. The company wants to make a feature film about the legendary whale, as well as a documentary and/or book. Watanabe has not spoken publicly about his experiences in Las Vegas since he settled a lawsuit with Caesars Entertainment, then known as Harrah’s, in 2010.

The casino operator was chasing a $14.7 million line of credit that Watanabe had gambled with and lost. Watanabe’s defense was that the casino had exploited him and allowed him to gamble while drunk.

“I’ve heard a lot about Terry over the years and became kind of obsessed with learning more about him,” Foundation Media Partners’ founder and CEO, Patrick Hughes, told Deadline.

I’ve always imagined telling his story with a filmmaker that could really capture the kind of claustrophobic, surreal world he was trapped in,” Hughes added. “All the money in the world and a heart of gold, and then he got caught on a crazy hamster wheel of opulence and self-destruction that’s as tragic as it is fascinating.”

Who Was Terry Watanabe?

Watanabe made his fortune building up his father’s modest trade business, Oriental Trading Co., into a company with revenues of $300 million a year. He exited in 2000, selling his entire stake in the business to private equity firm Brentwood Associates. Now very wealthy indeed, he decided to devote the rest of his life to philanthropy. Notably, he donated millions to AIDs research.

But without the business that had consumed his life up until that point, Watanabe soon became bored. He started gambling at Harrah’s Council Bluffs in Iowa, finally making his way to Las Vegas as a profound addiction set in.

Watanabe moved into the Wynn Las Vegas, but his prodigious gambling caught the eye of then-CEO Steve Wynn, who banned him for being a “gambling addict and alcoholic.” That’s according to a letter written by Wynn’s attorney to the Nevada Gaming Control Board. 

The two Caesars casinos were more accommodating. In fact, they bent over backwards to have Watanabe at their gaming tables, showering him with Rolling Stones tickets and $500,000 credit at the gift stores.

Caesars even created a special rank on its loyalty program only for him, “Chairman.” Previously, the highest VIP rank had been “Seven Star.”

$5M Sessions

In 2007, the year of his jaw-dropping losing streak, Watanabe was bingeing at the tables for up to 24 hours, sometimes losing as much as $5 million in a single session. Sometimes he played three hands of blackjack simultaneously, with a $50,000 limit for each hand, according to court documents.

Watanabe claimed in court that Caesars plied him with booze and prescription pills to keep him gambling, something the operator denied. The company generated around 5.6% of its gambling revenue from Watanabe that year.

In 2017, Watanabe, now broke, started a GoFundMe campaign to help him raise $100,000 for a life-saving prostate cancer operation.

“I’ve accepted my situation and I do not pity myself,” he wrote. “But my hope is that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for my past and help me live long enough to help others in the future.”

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