Kerry Packer was a larger-than-life gambler, a mogul who signed $1 million markers as if they were checks to Con Ed. He gambled for the kinds of stakes that kick-started the adrenal glands of even the most jaded casino executives. They all knew better than to keep him waiting when he wanted to lay down a bet. But one night, in the fall of 1989, after Packer blew into Las Vegas and found his way to the newly opened Mirage, the baccarat crew was not quite ready for him. A graveyard-shift pit boss couldn't find the key to unlock the game at a table that had been reserved for Australia's most notorious billionaire. There was only one sensible option: grab a crystal ashtray, smash open the baccarat setup and begin dealing. Famously sporty Packer appreciated the effort. After getting ahead a couple million dollars, he made a $100,000 bet on behalf of the dealers.
Sixteen years and many outrageous nights later, Packer found himself in a far more precarious situation. He was at home in Australia, lying in bed suffering from a weak heart and kidney ailments. "I'm running out of petrol and I'm ready to die," he told his doctor before drawing his last breath. No doubt, as the 68-year-old mogul expired on December 26, 2005, the casino industry mourned the death of a man, but also the passing of Las Vegas's splashiest player. He loved nothing more than being in action for sums of money that few people could conceptualize. As one former Vegas casino executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, conservatively estimates, during the last 15 or so years, the wildly swinging Packer had blithely endured a net loss of more than $20 million on the Strip.
Additionally, it is believed that he dropped many more millions to the casino operators in London, largely because he spent extended periods there, taking several suites at the Savoy Hotel. To quote the Vegas casino executive, who considered the business baron a friend, "Packer needed something to do with his days and nights. You can only have so many great meals."
Gambling was Kerry Packer's passion in the way that other men of great means develop big-budget obsessions with yacht racing or art collecting. Fitting for one with enough cash to roll as high as the moon, Packer wagered at the largest stakes the casinos would allow. But because he gambled for so much money-and had a tendency to quit while he was ahead, garnering the reputation on the Strip for being a "hit and run player"-the timing of Packer's passing brought some relief: he did not die on the heels of a big Vegas score, which would have suddenly been unrecoupable by the casinos. After all, following one of the Aussie billionaire's eight-figure wins, a gaming corporation's quarterly numbers sometimes ended up in the toilet.
That Kerry Packer, a brilliant entrepreneur, an astute stock market investor (he managed to liquidate his Wall Street holdings just prior to the big crash of 1987) and one of the world's great tokers (after experiencing a close brush with death in 1990, he tipped his lifesaving ambulance drivers and EMS workers a million dollars each), would eventually find his way to Vegas almost seemed inevitable. Having beaten polio as a boy, the pugnacious Packer grew up with an ingrained hunger for wagering. After young Kerry found himself with $10,000 of gambling debts, his father, Frank, a multimillionaire many times over, tried teaching his son a lesson by making him sell his car to pay off the tab. It may have been the right thing to do, but it failed to douse the burgeoning player's enthusiasm for high-wire propositions and his respect for gamblers with the guts to risk it all. Years later, Packer enjoyed telling people that his grandfather, Robert Clyde Packer, went to the races in the Tasmanian city of Hobart, found $10 on the ground, bet it on a 10-to-1 long-shot, and the horse won in glorious fashion. "He bought a ticket to Sydney and went into the newspaper industry and did quite well," Packer would grossly understate. "That's where my family started from: 10-bob on a race course."
By 1974, when Packer officially took control of his family's print- and broadcast-media empire, Consolidated Press Holdings, he was already regarded as one of the richest men in Australia. With extreme wealth and a craving for chest-thumping action, Packer quickly found himself frustrated by the modest betting limits offered in Aussie casinos. But that never stopped him from toying with the managers and owners of local gambling halls. "He liked to fly over Darwin and call down to the casino there, asking how much money they had in their cage," remembers the casino executive. "If they told him that they had $300,000, Packer kept flying. But if there was $800,000 or more, he'd touch down and gamble. He's a man who liked to make people sweat. And it quickly became clear to casino managers that the sooner you showed him you were sweating, the better off you'd be."
By all accounts, Packer was a ruthless and aggressive negotiator who commanded extraordinary respect and loyalty from his employees and the many hangers-on with whom he traveled around the world, terrorizing casinos and betting heavily but astutely on thoroughbreds: in 1997, Packer and a partner shared $6 million after successfully wagering on Might and Power to win the Melbourne Cup. Three years later, however, he reportedly dumped $28.2 million in blackjack losses to a London casino. Later that year, the Bellagio raked in $33.3 million in Packer cash. Even more stunning, back in 1994, just one day after a new owner took control of elegant Crockford's Casino in London, Packer lost $7 million there.
How did Packer handle those financial beatings? "Pretty well," remembers the casino executive. "He would get quiet and not be too happy about it; he'd start moaning and groaning about the lights being too bright, but he didn't act like a maniac or anything. The good thing was that a couple days after he left, you'd get a call from his secretary so she could make arrangements to settle up the markers. With a lot of big players, you need to go to them in order to get your money. Not so with Packer. He was a very desirable gambler."
Unlike high rollers who make casino bosses jump through hoops with outrageous demands, Packer's requests were minimal: he wanted nice rooms for himself and his entourage (which often included renowned golf coach Butch Harmon, actor Anthony Perkins and a clutch of polo players and cricketers), an on-call masseuse and, most critical of all, monstrously high limits and a guarantee that a vacant table would be waiting for him to gamble at. "Usually, Kerry would start out betting in the $500 range; he wasn't always pushing in money with both fists," remembers the casino executive. "But, if he began winning, it could quickly ramp up to $300,000 per hand at baccarat. When he played blackjack, I tried limiting him to $50,000 per spot, per hand. He played decent basic strategy, and there was a fear that he was getting better and better."
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.