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Sheldon Adelson: the Battler

Adelson’s life was a wild ride.
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January 13, 2021
Signs at The Venetian Las Vegas display a tribute to Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson on January 12, 2021. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In an astonishing life that spanned almost nine decades, Sheldon Adelson rose from Depression-era poverty to become a business mogul who made his fortune, in part, by breaking into Communist China; a casino legend who didn’t particularly enjoy gambling; and an American conservative political donor who prioritized, above all, his commitment to Israel.

Fiercely determined in his pursuit of business success, political principles and wide-ranging (but consistently focused) philanthropy, Adelson was the ultimate battler. With many fans and many critics, he won far more than he lost.

Started From Zero

Sheldon Adelson was born into a struggling, immigrant Jewish family in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. He revealed that as a baby, he slept in a clothes drawer in his parents’ one-room tenement.

His maternal grandfather had been a Welsh coal miner. His father drove a taxi, and his mother ran a small knitting shop.

As a kid, Adelson borrowed enough money ($200) to buy the rights to sell newspapers on a small street corner and then moved on to selling candy vending machines.

He briefly attended City College of New York before dropping out to be a court reporter. Self-assured even as a late teen, Adelson vividly recalled taking down the testimony in a big case involving prominent scientists who all asked themselves why they were here on earth.

“And I said to myself, ‘These guys are… the greatest scientists in history, and they’re asking themselves, Why are they here on earth?… This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. There have been countless billions of people that have lived since the Neanderthal man, and not one person has ever found out why they’re here on earth, with any degree of certainty — don’t they know that?’”

Adelson next served in the U.S. Army during the Korean war and, upon discharge, began his business career by selling toiletry kits and windshield de-icing chemicals; he then moved on to running a tour business. He started dozens of enterprises as a serial entrepreneur, with his big hit being COMDEX, the computer trade expo he began hosting in 1979 that dominated the tech industry in the 1980s and 1990s. He sold COMDEX for a $500 million fortune in 1995.

Not done yet, in his late sixties, Adelson bought the famous Sands Hotel and Casino property from the legendary Las Vegas investor Kirk Krekorian for $128 million, officially entering the gaming resort business. Adelson revolutionized the industry by adding convention space to create additional revenue streams. His lasting impact on the Las Vegas skyline is also significant. He tore down the Sands resort and built the world’s largest hotel, the 7,000 room combined Venetian/Palazzo, which was inspired by his wife Miriam’s dream of a resort property based on the art and beauty of Venice, Italy. He also led the rise of casino resorts in Macao and Singapore.

One might ask: Is not the most clever man in the gambling hall the one who owns “the house?” Once he took the Las Vegas Sands Corp. public, Adelson reached almost unique wealth, only to see huge swings in his net worth long after most business people have retired.

In fact, Adelson likely gained, lost and re-gained more money than anyone else in history, but he was consistent in his stated view that the ups and downs of his financial statement might cause him concern, but never fear. It was all part of being an entrepreneur who took big risks for big rewards.

Adelson did see his net worth drop $25 billion during the great recession of 2008. His response? “I started with zero.” He got it all back and more, continuing his extraordinary philanthropy.

Generous Philanthropy

With his largesse, Adelson committed himself to extraordinary financial support for causes such as education, substance abuse and rehabilitation, medical research and, of course, many Jewish causes, from Holocaust remembrance to Birthright Israel’s successful effort to bring hundreds of thousands of young American Jews to visit and connect with Israel.

I asked Adelson which cause meant the most to him, and he said, “being a Friend of the Israel Defense Forces is very important.” He also hosted numerous U.S. military service members as his vacation guests in Las Vegas.

He enjoyed the growth of the impressive Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus, the only PK-12 Jewish community school in Nevada, which he funded and which his younger sons attended.

With homes in Malibu, California, and the Summerlin community of Las Vegas, Adelson traveled the globe, attending to business interests in Asia and to his charitable commitments in Israel, where he owned the country’s most widely-read and free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom. In fact, Adelson once set a distance record, flying in his corporate jet directly from Tel Aviv to Honolulu, Hawaii.

Political Heavyweight

Adelson’s life was a wild ride, and even more so in his public affairs activity. In fact, the young court reporter frequently returned to the legal arena, where he faced off against regulators and defended multiple business claims from former employees.

His media battles were famous, too, including winning a libel suit in a London court (the proceeds went to charity). And like his ownership of the Israeli newspaper, his purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal stirred controversy (it was among only a half dozen major city daily newspapers in the country to endorse President Donald Trump for re-election).

Adelson famously fought off an effort to unionize his employees, a rare feat along the Vegas Strip. But he was admired for being unusually generous to his 50,000 employees, paying salaries and benefits during the long COVID-19 pandemic, which sharply cut his resort revenue.

He also took on the internet poker community (believing gambling at home on the computer was a risk to young people) and the cannabis industry’s effort to legalize marijuana.

Favoring free enterprise but always advocating for his company’s best interest, Adelson sought to leverage his political donations and relationships on Capitol Hill. He supported dozens of GOP candidates, particularly former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.

He maintained cordial relations with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) but feuded for years with former Congresswoman Shelly Berkley (D-NV) and casino competitor Steve Wynn. Adelson later appreciated Wynn’s growing leadership in the Republican party, where Sheldon himself was the most significant donor for many years. He didn’t actually like the idea of wealthy donor influence in politics, but he believed someone had to take on the financiers on the other side.

He was a major supporter of the Israeli-American Council and encouraged its growing influence and efforts to bring “Israeliness” into the American Jewish community. He was a huge advocate for Israel and lobbied for policies such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

The Adelson I Knew

I knew Adelson during the last couple decades of his life and greatly admired his humanitarianism. I also saw him bravely battle his own health issues, which, for many years, limited his ability to stand and walk well. He would smile, however, as he tooled around in his electric wheelchair.

He was passionate about the rise of Jewish Republicanism and got a kick out of the surprised looks on the faces of Jewish Democrats who had owned the political playing field for so long. He felt sympatico with those who said. “I didn’t leave the Democrat party; it left me.”

A true rags-to-riches American success story and patriot, Adelson was a key funder of the conservative movement, and proud of its positive impact in the pro-Israel community, its promotion of Jewish-Christian friendship and alliance and its education and empowerment of many leaders and activists.

A true rags-to-riches American success story and patriot, Adelson was a key funder of the conservative movement.

A man with a twinkle in his eye, he could be gruff on the outside and a tough competitor but unusually kind to the many people he met. He was deeply devoted to his beloved partner and soulmate, his wife Miri.

He was humored by those who thought they could truly discern life’s ultimate meaning, yet he became deeply meaningful to the lives of very many others.

Mr. Adelson’s departure came during the week we read the Torah portion Va’era in the book Sh’mot. In English, we say “Exodus,” which means “departure,” but the word “Sh’mot” actually means “names.” The tradition teaches that our individual names describe our natures and give us the identity to stand out in the world.

I once asked Sheldon (as he welcomed everyone to call him) if he was annoyed when so many frequently mispronounced his last name. He said, “you’re right, it’s funny, it’s Adelson, like the word ‘add’ or ‘Nevada.’ I like that.”

Mr. Sheldon Adelson.

May his Name be a Blessing.


Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.

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