Kerry Packer was last of a breed

Jan 3, 2006 2:28 AM

As the gambling epicenter of the world, Las Vegas has seen its share of unique gamblers. But none stood out like Kerry Packer, who passed away peacefully last week in his native Australia.

As a man of formidable physical dimensions and equally formidable intelligence, Packer amassed a private fortune worth nearly $7 billion, making him among the 50 richest people in the world.

Packer’s empire included magazines, TV stations, ski resorts, casinos, petrochemicals, coalmines, rural properties and supermarket coupons.

Those who knew him well will probably remember him as a man of contradictions, whose ruthlessness and self-interest were equaled only by his compassion and generosity.

"Kerry was known for his forthright manner in everything he did," recalls Mike Mecca, president of the Aladdin/Planet Hollywood and former executive who worked for Packer in Australia for several years. "He’ll be remembered for all he did with his media interests in Australia, as well as his sports and casino businesses."

Mecca said that, on a personal level, Packer was an enigma to many people, but also someone who could be at once charming and intimidating.

"I enjoyed very much my interaction with him," Mecca said. "He was such a bright and knowledgeable man, and I know he meant a great deal to his family who will miss him dearly."

In Las Vegas, the name Kerry Packer is also synonymous with "whale" — the highest of high rollers whose wins and losses at the tables have become legendary.

Casino insiders say Packer favored high-stakes blackjack and baccarat (up to $250,000 per hand), as well as some memorable plunges in the race books.

There were occasions when Packer won big — he once pocketed $7 million at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he toked the dealers $66,000.

His run reportedly included cashing 20 straight baccarat hands — at $250,000 a hand.

On another occasion, after winning more than $5 million, Packer reportedly tipped a cocktail waitress $125,000 so she could pay off her home mortgage.

Of course, his losses were also memorable. One Las Vegas spree cost him $60 million while another for $34 million sparked criticism from public officials.

Undeterred, Packer responded that losing was simply among "the risks you take" when you enter a casino.

Taking risks was part of Packer’s psyche. Once while playing at the Las Vegas Hilton, a Texas oilman, apparently angry at the noise Packer’s entourage was making in the baccarat pit, boasted he was worth $100 million.

"Toss you for it," was Packer’s simple yet sincere reply.

Oddly, although Packer’s name is synonymous with gambling, it was his son, James, who successfully steered Packer into casino ownership, first with the $1.6 billion takeover of Melbourne’s Crown Casino in 1999, then the 2004 takeover of Perth’s Burswood casino.

"Gaming was accomplished actually against Kerry’s wishes," said a high-level insider familiar with Packer.

If so, that would be one of the rare occurrences that happened against Packer’s wishes.

2004 takeover of Perth’s Burswood casino.

"Gaming was accomplished actually against Kerry’s wishes," said a high-level insider familiar with Packer.

If so, that would be one of the rare occurrences that happened against Packer’s wishes.