Packer: Tall tales & true stories - 1st March
magnate Kerry Packer in 2004. Source: News Corp Australia
was an Australian media tycoon who loved to take a
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.
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.
book explores Mr Packers cheeky humour, competitive
drive and high-stakes nature based on a collection
of stories and quotes from the people who knew him.
obtained an extract from the book. Read on.
Packer at the Senate inquiry into media ownership
in 1991. Source: News Corp Australia
Investinga six or seven
figure sum in a game of baccarat or on the spin of
a roulette wheel would seem anathema to Kerry Packers
may attempt to explain it as a big man who, accustomed
to operating on a big scale, needed supersized thrills.
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 Sydneys
mean streets of the 1950s and 60s.
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.
inhabited that town when Sydney wasnt 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
moved within it, and then he moved above it. Kerrys
greatest passion was gambling.
He lost and won big money. From those shifty
wagers with backstreet bookies and illegal casinos,
Packers gambling career would blossom well beyond
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.
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 Ill 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.
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 couldnt
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.
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 Wynns 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 Packers death. Packer was
playing at one table and a loudmouthed Texan, playing
at the next table, wanted to join in. He didnt
take too kindly to the Australians rejection.
According to Baldwin: The [Texan] said, Im
a big player too. Im worth $100 million.
Kerry said, If you really want to gamble, Ill
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 werent saying. Most of the Big Fellas
best casino splurges occurred overseas. In Las Vegas,
where the touchdown of KPs converted DC-8 three
or four times a year would instantly set the jungle
drums a-humming, Packer was known as a hit and
would turn up at any hour of the day or night and
bet big, often with several hands of blackjack going
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
DeNiros 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 didnt 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.
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
celebrating his sale of Nine to Alan Bond, Packer
had a flutter at the private blackjack tables at Londons
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
London casino Aspinalls went broke in May 1990,
and Londons 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
was the biggest single-session loss in the hotels
history. Its not a feat youd 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, theyd been prompted to upgrade
their cage computer to accept eight-figure hauls.
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, Packers
plays were significant enough that a casino companys
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.
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 casinos first-quarter profits.
By dawn, however, Packer lost back the $9 million
and then some.
in London, in 1994, the new owners of Crockfords
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.
liked the feel of it, and returned for several more
visits. But MGM International Resorts supremo Kirk
Kerkorian, whod got to know Packer over several
dinners, put his foot down: Packer was banned from
book reports that one of Kerkorians 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 Packers part.
of Packers punting exploits in Australia and
South- East Asia are few, but Nigel Dempster reported
Packer swooping on Jupiters on the Queensland
Gold Coast in 1998, distributing $300,000 in tips
to four hostesses after an unspecified lucky
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 Crockfords 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 Melbournes
Crown Casino complex from his punting mate, Lloyd
later added Perths 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.
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.
newspapers LA correspondent Robert Lusetich
wrote of Packers US$20 million hit, equating
to A$34 million, and linked it with the London loss
10 months earlier.
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 Australias 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.
$34 million at a casino is not a very responsible
thing to do. Packer fired back in the following
days 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 childrens hospital.
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.
made the very legitimate point that he doesnt
gamble with his companys money, and if you look
at his corporate record that is right. Lost
on Latham, of course, was the obvious fact that Packers
$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
states tax income.
Kerry kerfuffle of September 2000 inevitably calmed
down, but Packer wasnt 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.
wasnt 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
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 booktopia.com.au
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