Stuff of legends

Jan 3, 2006 2:39 AM

"Did you hear the one about Kerry Packer and the two Las Vegas Hilton baccarat dealers?"

I was generally familiar with Packer’s exploits when the question was posed, so there was not a moment wasted framing my response.

"Tell me"

I had first heard the story of Packer’s experience with the two dealers several years ago, but when Packer, Australia’s richest man and a regular Strip visitor for years, died last week, the time was right for a number of casino veterans to revisit one of their favorite Packer stories — the two Hilton dealers being stars of one of those sagas.

So I set out to reacquaint myself with the facts of this particular story.

Packer had been seeking the attention of the two women and Hilton management was very much aware of it. One of those managers ultimately concluded that if they spent some time with Packer it might cement his preference for staying and playing at the Hilton.

But it didn’t work out that way when Packer escorted the two women to baccarat tables at The Mirage and Caesars Palace, where dealers immediately recognized the two women.

Packer put down bets for both of them and won. By the time the evening was over each of the women was more than $150,000 wealthier, according to the accounts of three different executives who recall the incident as though it occurred yesterday.

Naturally, senior Hilton management was steamed and debated firing the women, but recognized the futility of such an action, since at least one of them had implied it might be good for the company if the dealers did what they could to leave Packer with fond thoughts of the Hilton.

Packer eventually sealed their thinking when he made it clear the Hilton would never see him again if it took action against the women.

Hilton bosses gritted their teeth and decided to pretend the incident had never occurred.

MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni says he doesn’t remember another player who demonstrated such a willingness to take it to the limit at the handful of casinos willing to accept his demands for limits that ran well into six figures.

"Most high-rollers eventually burn themselves out, go broke or enter the witness protection program," as another executive joked, but Packer returned again and again to win or lose millions during countless Las Vegas visits over the years.

Dealers loved him.

"He was the biggest ”˜George’ this town has ever seen," says Dean Harrold, who ran both the Hilton and Caesars Palace at different times.

Lanni remembers Packer as a "brilliant" businessman.

"I’ve never known another customer like him in the 29 years I’ve been in this business," said Lanni, who was president of Caesars World before joining MGM in 1995.

A former senior executive in another Las Vegas casino where Packer spent some quality time spoke with the promise of anonymity. "He was generally great for the dealers, but from a manager’s perspective the guy could be a real (expletive deleted)," he said.

Packer’s whims, needs, etc., were in the hands of Dolores Owens for many of the years that Packer played at Caesars Palace. The late Owens was the legendary super host who earned her top position on the basis of an uncanny ability to broker a level of satisfaction that was acceptable to her company and players such as Packer with their reputations for pushing the envelope.

On one occasion, Owens hurried up to a casino executive to inform him Packer was refusing to pay the $500,000 he had lost on a hand of blackjack.

He had been cheated, so he grumbled.

The executive frowned at this news, saying he was going to check the surveillance tapes. He returned to Owens in short order with the news that the hand was good.

"Even Stevie Wonder could see it was good," he declared.

Owens gave the news a look that said this was all she needed to know and beckoned the executive to come with her as she tracked down Packer who was stretched out on a table in the spa enjoying a massage.

Owens charged into the room and was greeted by a stream of expletives that questioned everything from her heritage to . . . well, you get the idea.

But Owens ignored the outburst and wagged a stern finger in his face, declaring, "All that’s beside the point. You owe me some money."

He paid.

Former Las Vegas Hilton lounge star Kristine W, as she was known, was one of Packer’s favorites and he treated her accordingly.

When the then-Desert Inn passed into new management, an effort was made to hire Kristine in the hopes that Packer would spend some quality time there. It was promised that she would have the keys to a new Lexus the first time Packer set foot in the Desert Inn.

Kristine reportedly passed on the offer, but the point illustrates the efforts that casinos went to in order to pique this "whale’s" interest.