Hospitalization triggers speculation about possible power struggle over control of his massive gaming holdings

The hospitalization of 87-year-old gambling tycoon Stanley Ho last week has prompted speculation over the future of his Macau casino empire.

Any significant decline in Ho’s health, analysts say, could provoke an epic power struggle as children, wives and big stakeholders jostle for control of his 30 percent share of the Chinese peninsula’s US$14 billion gambling industry.

Although it has been announced officially that Ho has no plans to retire from SJM Holdings, his Hong Kong-listed hotel and casino company, any serious decline in his ability to control his far-flung affairs could see a struggle for control among four women, each legitimately described as Ho’s “wife”. Also, of his 17 children, Lawrence and Pansy, who separately have become partners of foreign casino operators, are thought to be strong contenders to take over SJM. Other prime contenders are Angela Leong, Ho’s fourth wife, and Ambrose So, chief executive of SJM.

Another complication is the ownership of Sociedade de Turismo et Diversoes de Macau, SJM’s parent company. STDM’s ownership is divided between the estate of Ho’s late business partner, Henry Fok, and billionaire property developer Cheng Yu-tung.

Ho’s absence from the scene could also prompt a shift in the peninsula’s relations with Beijing and contribute to destabilizing the industry, observers say. Any instability, one casino executive said, would come at a difficult time. Macau, the world’s biggest casino market, is battling the global recession, tougher regulation by China and potential competition from casinos elsewhere in Asia.