The stories of Kerry Packer’s gambling are legend in Australia.
Kerry was born in 1937 and was the son of Sir Frank Packer. Sir Frank’s father had got his start in newspapers, and by the time Kerry was old enough to be involved in the business the family ran Australian Consolidated Press. The company boasted names like the Australian Women’s Weekly, the Daily Telegraph and the Channel Nine Television Network.
The Boofhead Son
Kerry had a difficult relationship with his father and a tough childhood. Frank wasn’t a nurturing father and was incredibly hard on Kerry. His brother Clyde was the one earmarked by his father to take over the business and his father never thought much of Kerry, whom he dubbed the ‘boofhead’. Ultimately however, Clyde would leave the family business as he couldn’t handle dealing with his father. Kerry was left to try and forge a path under the heavy shadow of Frank.
Cleo magazine was one of the first projects Kerry got started on, working alongside Ita Buttrose in 1972 . The magazine went on to become wildly successful. What made it even more special to Kerry was that his father never thought much of the project. This was the turning point for him in a business sense and he set an ambitious goal for himself: to become richer than his father.
The next big landmark for Kerry was World Series Cricket. His breakaway cricket competition might have only lasted for two years in the late 70s, but it changed the course of cricket history. He poached the world’s biggest names and turned a quiet pastime into a professional sport with a new style of broadcast to match. It also marked his coming of age as a businessman. By 2005, Kerry had built up his fortune to more than $6.5 billion and was one of Australia’s richest people.
Kerry Packer’s gambling
Kerry’s tough childhood haunted him throughout his life. Those close to him say he struggled with self-esteem and always felt he was living in his father’s shadow. Over the years he developed a tough personality and had a number of different outlets to blow off steam.
While he loved polo and was a heavy chain smoker, his biggest outlet was the punt. Packer was known worldwide for two things: his betting and his enormous tips.
Tales of the punt
Kerry Packer’s gambling quickly became the stuff of legend. There was a time when many considered him the biggest bettor in the world – a time when Asian high rollers, Middle Eastern oil sheikhs and the Sultan of Brunei were terrorising casinos. Packer had both huge wins and huge losses, but he was feared by the world’s biggest gambling houses as they knew he had the bankroll to simply keep betting. And keep betting Packer would – he hated to lose.
It was reported in 1987 that Packer had a private room at The Ritz in London, where he’d spent hours – or perhaps days – playing two tables of blackjack at once at £10,000 per hand. He got on a losing streak early but kept on calling for more chips. Eventually he was writing £1 million cheques to keep the game going, and by the end of the session was down £19 million.
But Packer’s losing streak didn’t last forever. A tale emerged of him taking on another, much smaller London club weeks later. After a relatively short session, Packer walked away with nearly $1 million AUD. A week later the club shut their doors.
Other London gambling houses simply admitted defeat and barred him. After taking close to £10 million out of exclusive casino Crockfords over the course of a few weeks, management politely asked him to go elsewhere to place his bets. Packer followed this request with good grace – he saw it as a win.
Regular Vegas visitor
Packer also regularly took on those on the other side of Atlantic. One of his most successful sessions took place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which he stripped of approximately $20 million. Apparently he was playing seven tables of blackjack at once and in one 40-minute stretch won $25 million. He’s rumoured to have left a $1 million tip to be split among the dealers.
Stories of Packer’s generous tipping are legendary. One story goes that upon chatting with a croupier and learning she was deeply in debt and about to lose her home, Packer promptly wrote her a cheque for $150,000. On another occasion, after a particularly successful casino visit, Packer is said to have given the keys to his new Mercedes to a valet – and told him to keep the car.
Tangle with a Texan
The best Kerry Packer gambling story, however, might be his clash with a Texan oil magnate.
Packer was gambling in Las Vegas when a Texan approached his table and started to become a nuisance. When asked to cool it, the Texan said to Packer, “Do you know who I am? I’m in here because I’m worth $100 million.”
Packer looked at him calmly and said “I’ll toss you for it”.
The dreaded phone calls
Outside of casinos, Packer loved horse racing and especially enjoyed pinning his ears back during the big Australian carnivals. And he enjoyed the Melbourne Cup most of all. In the mid-to-late 90s, every bookie’s worst nightmare was the phone call that started with two dreaded words: “Packer here…”
Packer had $1 million on Might and Power to win the 1997 Cup, who duly saluted at 7-2. He backed it up the next year with Jezabeel, who won at 6-1. Packer’s bet’s slashed the odds of both runners, leading to large plunges.
Not that he always walked away ahead. Bookeis knew this and went to lengths to ensure they could lay his bets. At one point in the late 1980s, Packer was betting so big that a consortium of Sydney bookies pooled their funds to establish the $5 – $10 million per day required to keep up with ‘The Big Fella’ at major carnivals.
Packer is said to have lost $7 million on Golden Slipper day in 1987, including a $2 million bet on his own horse. By the end of that carnival, he was allegedly down around $28 million with Sydney bookmaker Bruce McHugh. In typical fashion, he asked if he could raise his limit from $5 million to $10 million, and promptly won it all back in three races.
Handing over the reins
As Kerry began to age, he slowly handed over the reins of the Packer empire to his son James. His health started to decline and with it, so did his famous punting exploits.
Packer passed away in 2005 and goes down in Australian history not only a successful businessman, but also one of the biggest punters the country has seen.