Kerry Packer: Tall tales & true stories

Kerry Packer: Tall tales & true stories - 1st March 2015


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Media magnate Kerry Packer in 2004. Source: News Corp Australia

HE was an Australian media tycoon who loved to take a punt.

And in a new book by Michael Stahl called Kerry Packer — Tall tales & true stories the larger-than-life fables of Mr Packer come to life.

Mr Stahl was a journalist who worked during the 1980s at the ACP headquarters in Sydney and, in this work, he documents the man who was influential in helping to shape the Australian media culture.

This book explores Mr Packer’s cheeky humour, competitive drive and high-stakes nature based on a collection of stories and quotes from the people who knew him. has obtained an extract from the book. Read on.

Kerry Packer at the Senate inquiry into media ownership in 1991. Source: News Corp Australia

‘Investing’a six — or seven — figure sum in a game of baccarat or on the spin of a roulette wheel would seem anathema to Kerry Packer’s personality.

Some may attempt to explain it as a big man who, accustomed to operating on a big scale, needed supersized thrills.

The Big Man himself once conceded: ‘Betting is like a disease, which is not understood by those who do not have it.’ Packer once took Garry Linnell of The Bulletin on a verbal tour of Sydney’s mean streets of the 1950s and 60s.

The young KP may have been the scion of a media dynasty, but in the early days he was paid miserably by his father — who, it was said, took much of it back again in board.
Packer well knew these inner-Sydney alleys of illegal casinos, sly grog shops and SP (starting-price) bookmakers.

‘He inhabited that town when Sydney wasn’t all sparkling like it is today,’ Linnell says. ‘Sydney was a tough town, it was run largely by gangsters, through all these backstreet meetings and dens of iniquity.

‘Kerry moved within it, and then he moved above it. Kerry’s greatest passion was gambling.
He lost and won big money.’ From those shifty wagers with backstreet bookies and illegal casinos, Packer’s gambling career would blossom well beyond Australia.

Packer’s tipping of casino staff became so well-known that, as one insider put it, ‘There was no-one sicker than a croupier genuinely taken sick when Packer was in town.’ In the Las Vegas Review Journal in 2005 Mirage Resorts president Bobby Baldwin confirmed a well-known story, about an extremely generous tip given to a lucky cocktail waitress at the MGM Grand.

‘He liked the service the girl was providing. He asked her if she had a mortgage. She said yes, and he said, “Bring it in tomorrow and I’ll pay it off for you”. It was for US$150,000.’ A similar story told in Whale Hunting in the Desert: Secrets of a Las Vegas Superhost has Packer accidentally bumping a cocktail waitress, causing her to spill her drinks tray. Packer asked for her name and address and saw to it that her US$130,000 mortgage was immediately mopped up. And it seems Kerry Packer was as determined in his generosity as he was in everything else. Garry Linnell reported yet another mortgage-magic act in Vegas, where Packer pushed US$80,000 worth of chips towards a deserving croupier.

Crown Casino croupier Neroli Burke at Blackjack table watches as boss Lloyd Williams give businessman and casino's major shareholder Kerry Packer a form to join Crown Senior Citizens Club in 1997. Source: News Corp Australia

The croupier blushed and explained that she couldn’t accept it; all tips had to be pooled and shared among the staff. Packer called the manager and insisted that he fire her on the spot, on the threat of taking his business elsewhere.

When the manager complied, Packer handed her the chips. He then turned to the manager: ‘Now rehire this woman immediately.’ The most celebrated story has Kerry Packer playing cards at a table in the Bellagio, which opened in 1998 as the flagship property of casino king Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts group. Mirage Resorts boss Bobby Baldwin confirmed the story to casino roundsman Norm Clarke in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the days after Packer’s death. Packer was playing at one table and a loudmouthed Texan, playing at the next table, wanted to join in. He didn’t take too kindly to the Australian’s rejection. According to Baldwin: ‘The [Texan] said, “I’m a big player too. I’m worth $100 million”. Kerry said, “If you really want to gamble, I’ll flip you for it” … The Texan quietly went back to his game.’ In Texas parlance, they call that “all hat and no cattle”. Gambling was play for Kerry Packer, so the normal rules of business evidently did not apply. The scale and rate at which he operated made him difficult to keep up with. Neither Packer nor his people maintained P & L statements on his multi-million dollar binges, and if the casinos did — those that could handle him, anyway — they weren’t saying. Most of the Big Fella’s best casino splurges occurred overseas. In Las Vegas, where the touchdown of KP’s converted DC-8 three or four times a year would instantly set the jungle drums a-humming, Packer was known as a ‘hit and run’ player.

He would turn up at any hour of the day or night and bet big, often with several hands of blackjack going at once.

If the winning was good, after a couple of hours he might disappear into the night. Casinos consider that poor etiquette. Still, they lured Packer and his fellow whales by reimbursing their travel expenses (said to be up to $100,000 for Packer and his entourage) and offering ‘rebates’ on their losses. Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, on whom Robert DeNiro’s character in Casino was based, confirmed to The Australian newspaper in August, 2000 that Packer received a 10 per cent rebate. The Vegas trips were usually short and sharp: three or four days of hitting the big-dollar blackjack and baccarat tables along the Strip. According to casino host Steve Cyr, subject of the book Whale Hunt in the Desert, Packer was ‘a pretty good blackjack player’ who had had some tutoring. Less courageous casinos became wary of booking his blackjack bets. Cyr said this was in part because Packer was known to be more placid when playing baccarat. ‘He didn’t go off on temper tantrums as much at baccarat … Because decision-making comes into play at the blackjack table, he was a lot more volatile when playing 21.’ In London, Packer seemed to be in less of a hurry, sometimes idly spreading a splurge over a few days.

But the size of the wins and losses were no less impressive. Indeed, Packer supposedly claimed a variety of dubious honours — the first eight-figure loss in one sitting, the biggest loss in British casino history, and being barred from or even bankrupting casinos by winning too much — pretty well equally across both continents.

Apparently celebrating his sale of Nine to Alan Bond, Packer had a flutter at the private blackjack tables at London’s Ritz. Reportedly played two tables at £10,000 per hand, he could have bought a lot of cake and candles with the £8 million dump he took. London was the scene of another landmark a little over a year later.

The London casino Aspinall’s went broke in May 1990, and London’s Today newspaper blamed Packer. November 1991 had Packer in Las Vegas, scooping $7 million on blackjack. Gossip columnist Nigel Dempster reported him handing out $50,000 tips to the croupiers on that occasion. But in the same year — possibly the same visit — Vegas casino host Steve Cyr reported Packer copping a $10 million hit at the Las Vegas Hilton.

It was the biggest single-session loss in the hotel’s history. It’s not a feat you’d be keen to repeat, but Packer supposedly lost a further $10 million to the same hotel in 1992. By which time, thanks to his previous loss, they’d been prompted to upgrade their cage computer to accept eight-figure hauls.

These must have been extraordinary stand-offs: Packer and the casinos both knew that he could, single-handedly, either bankrupt or buy them. As it was, Packer’s plays were significant enough that a casino company’s earnings could be clobbered, and its market capitalisation nudged by whole percentage points. And it could swing either way in the course of one sitting. Deke Castleman, in Whale Hunt in the Desert, reports Packer walking into Caesars Palace on the night of 31 March, 1992 and being $9 million ahead of the house by midnight.

At that hour Caesars closed the book on its financial quarter, and what was petty cash to Packer was a 50 per cent hit to the casino’s first-quarter profits. By dawn, however, ‘Packer lost back the $9 million and then some’.

Back in London, in 1994, the new owners of Crockford’s received a windfall on their second day when KP dropped the equivalent of US$7 million. But far bigger adventures awaited back in Vegas the following year, when Packer had the dual satisfactions of belting the MGM Grand for six and being banned for life. Reports of the wee-hours winning blitz, and the sums involved, have Packer simultaneously playing six hands at $75,000 per hand, or eight hands at $250,000. Whale Hunt in the Desert author Castleman has Packer eventually being allowed to play $500,000 a hand — and walking off in just a couple of hours with a $26 million haul.

Packer liked the feel of it, and returned for several more visits. But MGM International Resorts supremo Kirk Kerkorian, who’d got to know Packer over several dinners, put his foot down: Packer was banned from MGM’s casinos.

Castleman’s book reports that one of Kerkorian’s executives — a dedicated MGM ‘Packer handler’ — was flown to England to break the news to Packer, who was playing polo. Packer sent his helicopter to bring the guy from Heathrow to his Fyning Hill estate. The executive came back to report that Packer had threatened to make him walk back to London; but that he had sensed in Packer a strange sort of satisfaction on Packer’s part.

Tales of Packer’s punting exploits in Australia and South- East Asia are few, but Nigel Dempster reported Packer swooping on Jupiter’s on the Queensland Gold Coast in 1998, distributing $300,000 in tips to four hostesses after an unspecified ‘lucky run’.

There again, he was known to distribute similar-sized tips after a loss. Packer may or may not have been in a generous mood when, in September 1999, a £11 million hit at Crockford’s blackjack tables over a three-week period supposedly set a new record for the biggest loss in UK casino history. (One suspects he was beating his own record, set at the Ritz a dozen years earlier.) It may be significant that 1999 was also the year in which Packer effectively took out some gambling insurance, taking over Melbourne’s Crown Casino complex from his punting mate, Lloyd Williams.

Packer later added Perth’s Burswood Casino (2004) and introduced to Australia the online betting exchange, Betfair (2005). Meanwhile, in July 2000 Packer was again in Las Vegas, but luck — and his desire to fly under the radar — firmly deserted him. No longer welcome at the MGM Grand, he turned his attention to the lavish new Bellagio, which casino king Steve Wynn had opened 18 months earlier. In three days at the baccarat tables, Packer managed to scorch through US$20 million, a sum that may have extended his record-holding status across the Atlantic.

But the story would go farther than that. Such was the mystique surrounding Kerry Packer that, when a small news item in a Las Vegas paper was picked up by The Australian newspaper on 30 August, more than a month later, all hell broke loose.

The newspaper’s LA correspondent Robert Lusetich wrote of Packer’s US$20 million hit, equating to A$34 million, and linked it with the London loss 10 months earlier.

On 31 August, erratic Labor politician Mark Latham stood up in the House of Representatives and opened a speech with the words: ‘I wish to reflect on the news that Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, lost $34 million last month on a gambling spree in Las Vegas. I am sure that most Australians will feel uneasy about this sort of extravagance. Notions of public morality and justice are under threat when it is possible for one person to accumulate such extraordinary wealth and then use it in such an extraordinary way.’ Latham went on to add: ‘Surely those who have been fortunate enough to accumulate considerable wealth should use it in a socially responsible fashion.

Blowing $34 million at a casino is not a very responsible thing to do.’ Packer fired back in the following day’s edition of The Australian, asserting that it was his money and, rare for him, revealing that he had only recently given a larger sum than that to a Sydney children’s hospital.

rime Minister John Howard, who was certainly on friendlier terms with Packer than he was with Latham, surprisingly also stepped forward in his defence: ‘I thought the Latham attack was ludicrous … It is his money.

He made the very legitimate point that he doesn’t gamble with his company’s money, and if you look at his corporate record that is right.’ Lost on Latham, of course, was the obvious fact that Packer’s $34 million was not actually ‘blown’ at all. Like water, or energy, it had merely changed form, in this case being redistributed to the casino, its employees, and to the people of Nevada via the state’s tax income.

The Kerry kerfuffle of September 2000 inevitably calmed down, but Packer wasn’t happy. A year later, in early September 2001, Packer returned to the Bellagio and demanded that his hotel minders sign confidentiality agreements. And the dealers got some inkling of his anger when he refused to tip them. He then proceeded to lose even more. According to Norm Clarke of the Las Vegas Review Journal Packer was playing baccarat at up to $150,000 a hand, and occasionally took breaks to play blackjack and munch hot dogs at the sports book. Packer ended up losing a staggering US$29 million, or close to $50 million in Oz currency.

He wasn’t even meant to still be in Vegas. But the events of 11 September 2001, which grounded his plane for at least a week beyond his planned departure date, put the frivolous fortunes of a card game sharply into perspective.

* This is an extract from ‘Kerry Packer: Tall tales and true stories’ by Michael Stahl published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $26.95 available from

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