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The Highest High Roller

February 18, 1996|Michael J. Goodman

The most formidable of the world-class gamblers, according to executives of four Las Vegas casinos where he has played, is billionaire media tycoon Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer of Australia. Packer, 58, purportedly the wealthiest person in Australia, is known for his bullying style, nasty temper and exceptional business acumen. He suffered a massive heart attack in 1990 and was clinically dead for 10 minutes. Since then, he has devoted more time to his favored sports: polo, and snookering casinos into letting him gamble by his rules, at his stakes.

"If you let him dictate the terms," explains a Las Vegas casino boss who has refused Packer's demands, "you're gambling like any other sucker, but for millions invested by stockholders against a billionaire's pocket money."

Packer likes to bet dizzying amounts--$300,000 a hand--at baccarat and blackjack for short periods, perhaps a total of three to four hours over several days, unlike the marathon sessions typical of high rollers. His hit-and-run strategy minimizes the casino's long-haul advantage and maximizes its exposure to huge losses.

Packer's credit line is $20 million, the largest in Las Vegas, if not anywhere. His wealth justifies even higher credit, but casinos dare not extend it.

"If Packer gets stuck five or 10 mil," explains a Desert Inn baccarat boss, "the 20-mil line gives him staying power to catch another hand. If he gets even, or a little ahead--bam, out the door."

High rollers are notorious for taking up to a year to pay their gambling markers. Not Packer. The carrot he dangles is immediate payment--often on the spot.

Now and again a casino takes the bait. Last May, the MGM let Packer bet more than $200,000 a hand at blackjack, six or more hands at a time. He won a reported $26 million and, bam, out the door.

The MGM's overall casino winnings more than covered the loss, but its stockholders were unnerved by the volatility that taking on players like Packer creates in their quarterly reports to Wall Street. Today, when it comes to bankrolling world-class action, the MGM lion roars no more. Executives at other high-roller casinos now view the MGM as the meekest of all.

Packer was among a group of top high rollers who former MGM executive Larry Woolf says he recruited to the casino. "In '94-'95, we set the world on fire in this market," he says. But MGM's new president, Terrence Lanni, says his philosophy is to pay more attention to the low- and middle-level gamblers and play very selectively to the high end. "We don't have to be on the cutting edge," he says.

Woolf resigned after the Packer episode, but not before he was sent to tell Packer to gamble elsewhere. Woolf wouldn't comment specifically on the meeting but confirms this account heard on the Strip: Packer was playing polo at his estate near London when Woolf's helicopter landed on the field. Dismounting, Packer listened in disbelief. "What?" he is reported to have said. "I finally get a good 'siz' going, and those sons of bitches pull this." (Packer, who very rarely speaks to the press, did not respond to an interview request for this story.)

As for the flinty billionaire's status with other casinos, the Las Vegas Hilton's Michael Stirling says: "We'd love to deal to him--on our terms."

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