His paper found, for example, that many in China view the stock market as being much the same as a casino - a potential source of "instant or quick rewards." Chinese banks, by contrast, are seen as a sure way to lose money: inflation far outpaces recently hiked but still-low interest rates on deposits.
Gamblers "are not rational, but they are not stupid: they know mathematics," Fong said. He noted that the vast bulk of Macau's casino revenue comes from a single game, baccarat, which offers slightly better odds than the alternatives.
Of Macau's total revenue from casinos last year, nearly three-quarters came from high rollers, mostly Chinese, playing baccarat. Unlike Yuan, the luckless tire trader, these gamblers place their bets in VIP rooms. Their travel, five-star hotel accommodations and even gambling money is arranged - often on credit - by a network of agents known as "junket collaborators." This system allows high-stakes Chinese gamblers to skirt restrictions that limit the total amount a person can take from the mainland each year to $50,000.
"Of course, this is illegal," Fong said. But it does mean that gamblers who lose on credit return to China safely: The agents who lend them money want to make sure they recover their cash.
The junket system highlights another problem at the core of the economic boom in Macau as well as China: rampant corruption.
A 2009 study based on reports in official Chinese media found that 57 percent of Chinese high-stakes gamblers in Macau are either government officials or senior managers in state-run companies, the main beneficiaries of easy credit from state-owned banks. On average, these officials and managers each lost $3.3 million - nearly all of it public money.
In one such case, for example, Li Weimin, the Communist Party chief in a town in southern China's Guangdong province, gambled away $11.5 million before his arrest in 2006. Though paid an official salary of only a few thousand dollars, Li lived in a 30-room house and owned other property worth millions. All the money he "invested" in gambling and real estate, according to police, was embezzled from government-owned businesses.
China has since imposed tighter restrictions on state employees traveling to Macau, limiting the number of trips they can make each year. Zeng Zhonglu of Macau Polytechnic Institute, a co-author of the 2009 study, believes this has had some effect and estimates that private businessmen have replaced officials and state-run enterprise managers as Macau's biggest source of revenue. But he also noted that since his study China has sharply curbed media reporting of officials who run amok in Macau.
The occasional account of a party official losing his shirt in Macau still trickles out. Shortly before the recent New Year holiday, a newspaper in the western Chinese city of Chongqing reported on a wayward local official dubbed the "gambling king," apparently as a warning to colleagues who might be planning a trip to Macau for the holiday. The official, Liu Xinyong, was said to have extorted $4 million in bribes and lost $250,000 of it during a two-day gambling spree in Macau.
"Liu Xinyong had two loves: His first love was power, his second gambling," reported the Chongqing Evening News. A court last year found Liu guilty of bribe-taking and consorting with criminal gangs. He is now on death row in Chongqing.
Neves, the director of the gaming bureau, thinks Macau's casinos have been given a bum rap. Chinese officials who get arrested for embezzling state money "use Macau as an excuse" to protect their stolen assets. "If they say they lost all their money in Macau, how can the government ever get it back?"