Remembering the Worlds Greatest Gambler
Billionaire Kerry Packer was a Las Vegas fixture, gambling millions on every visit
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006
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Partly for that reason, casino managers worked hard to rein in Packer, and, to varying degrees, they succeeded, executing a delicate balancing act that reduced their downside but didn't give him an excuse to take his business elsewhere. Impossible to control was the nonwagering largesse of this whale's whale. On a rush, he'd give members of his entourage $100,000 bankrolls before turning his free-spending sights on casino employees, who made it their business not to call in sick when the big-betting media magnate was in town. Probably the most extravagant toker Vegas has ever known, Packer routinely doled out six-figure gratuities that would be pooled among the dealers. "When Packer was in town, you could count on splitting $1 million 20 ways," says the former casino executive.
On one memorable occasion, Packer paid off a waitress's mortgage. Another time, after noticing that a blackjack dealer had been moved from the high-limit area to the regular pit, he placed $20,000 bets on each spot and told the dealer that he could keep all winnings from that round. Casino executives silently cringed at these shows of generosity because they knew the money he tipped would never make it back to the house's coffers. No doubt, Packer took some pleasure in stressing them out.
However, all the worry and hand-wringing was not without warrant. One New Year's Eve in the mid-1990s, Packer was betting $150,000 per hand at the Las Vegas Hilton. "I was in line to get a $40,000 bonus because we had cleared the $50 million mark in winnings," remembers veteran casino host Steve Cyr. "Going into that night we were at $58 million. But then Packer won $9 million and we got no bonus. He tipped $1.3 million to the dealers and gave $100,000 to the lounge singer."
Packer was less lucky on September 11, 2001. That day, after Al Qaeda terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Packer was ahead millions of dollars and poised to leave Las Vegas with a tidy profit. Just one problem: air traffic was temporarily grounded and so was Packer. He stayed in town and his luck went south, transforming his winnings into a $6 million-plus loss.
More recently, following a particularly brutal cash-grabbing rage through Vegas-which, according to Cyr, "ended with [Packer] winning $20 million at four joints and $13 million at another one"-several casino bosses tried to minimize the danger of going up against an inveterate gambler who seemed to have bottomless resources, no qualms about dropping millions of dollars, and an understanding of variance swings. "Everyone finally said, 'To hell with this guy,'" recalls Cyr. "And they decided to keep him at 25 grand per bet."
Whether the casinos were successful in leashing Kerry to that relatively paltry limit remains highly doubtful. Undeniable is that he did not let anybody get between him and his God-given right to wager mind-boggling sums of money. When a member of Australia's Parliament, onetime Labor Party leader Mark Latham, described one of Packer's big casino losses (thought to be around $25 million) as "morally offensive," the billionaire became incensed. First, he pointed out, the losses were actually only about $7.5 million, an amount that was less than his annual contribution to just one children's hospital. Then Packer tersely added, "This is not someone else's money. This is my money. I am entitled to spend it in any way."
He did. And he did it with the kind of exuberant gumption and panache that will surely be missed from one end of the Las Vegas Strip to the other.
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.
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