For the high rollers, the game never ends

Kerry Packer won $20m in 40 minutes at blackjack. And the casino door is still open. Why? asks David Spanier
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When you are very, very rich, rich be- yond National Lottery dreams, and there is really nothing more you need in life or can think of buying, there is still one challenge left. To break the casino.

In essence, that is what Kerry Packer, the Australian media multimillionaire, sets out to do when he hits the casinos in Las Vegas or Sydney or London. Earlier this month, he took the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for $20m, playing blackjack. Betting up to $250,000 on a box, as the betting square is called, he racked up his win in 40 minutes' play. In the past few days, he has been through London and will have been playing in the casinos of Park Lane, where he may easily have walked away with a million: five years ago, he took pounds 5m from the Clermont.

Mr Packer, as is the custom with high rollers, tipped the 40-strong blackjack crew in Las Vegas generously. He handed out $2,500 to each dealer, which cost him the best part of 100,000 bucks. At these levels, who's counting?

The answer is that the casino is counting. A potent mixture of fear and greed, laced with adrenaline, courses through the casino management's veins when Packer or one of the other big high rollers walks through the swing doors. Greed, because the action of a player such as Packer can send the casino's bottom line soaring upward, to turn a whole month golden; fear, because if the punter gets lucky, the casino's profits take a blow in the breadbasket that no amount of play by ordinary gamblers playing red or black can match.

The MGM in Vegas, the biggest hotel casino on earth, knows it will beat the daylights out of high rollers like Packer - in the long run. Casinos trust in the percentages like the saints believe in heaven: it will all come right in the end. But in the short run, of a night or a weekend's play, the fluctuations in the law of probability can break the bank. Indeed, a player like Packer probably has more money behind him than most casinos. Such players relish the challenge of playing eyeball-to-eyeball with a Vegas monolith or a smart club such as Aspinalls in Mayfair.

In the glory days of Monte Carlo, when a player broke the bank, it meant cleaning out the table. A black cloth was laid over the roulette lay-out and the management sent for another tranche of Fr10,000 plaques. In the modern game, the equivalent coup of breaking the bank risks ruining a casino's balance sheet, upsetting its share price, and sending the management into heart seizure - if not early retirement.

Blackjack is like the family game 21. The dealer and the player are dealt two cards with the option of drawing further cards, and the winner is whoever gets closer to 21 (aces count 1 or 11). There is a high degree of skill in this game based on memorising the sequence of cards.

Baccarat, the high roller's favoured game, is played at stakes of up to $250,000 a hand. There may be 60 hands an hour. There is no skill in baccarat. Two players each draw two cards to see who can get closest to a total of nine (court cards count for zero); sometimes a third card is drawn. That is all there is to it. The whole point is the money and the excitement it generates. The Mirage in Las Vegas has more than 20 million-dollar players on its private list.

Packer has made it known he would like to play even higher at baccarat, to raise the stakes to $1m a hand. Why? More thrill, more tension. This is too high, even for Vegas. At such stakes, it would not take a very long streak of luck to turn the casino over. And Packer is renowned as a good gambler: he cuts short his losing runs, which in the nature of the play are bound to be big, and pushes his good fortune. In the end, the casinos can't resist his action.

The MGM Grand, inspired and largely owned by the movie mogul Kirk Kerkorian, is not just enormous, covering an area that would stretch from Downing Street to Trafalgar Square. It is also the last word in kitsch. Its theme is the Wizard of Oz. The MGM lion, looking a bit like a lugubrious golden calf, bestrides the entrance. Inside there are acres of gaming, rainbow strobes of colour, a cornucopia of fun and noise. The public has flocked to it without stopping since its opening a year ago.

For Packer's night out, the management cleared a space of eight blackjack tables and roped it off. The big player is given this kind of semi-privacy, half in the public eye and half concealed, so that he can cut about from table to table and make his huge plays undisturbed. A high roller attracts other players, gives the place excitement, just like the MGM's other recent guest, heavyweight contender Mike Tyson, letting off steam after getting out of jail.

The aim of high rollers is not just to win money. The idea behind the play is to show who's boss, who is impervious to fortune, who can snap his fingers at lady luck and bring her running. Money for the high roller is simply a way of keeping score. He is not going to go hungry next day. On the contrary, the casino will do everything to gratify the high roller's slightest whim, to keep him playing.

This is the essence of the curiously ambivalent relationship casinos have with big players. It is a small group, of probably not more than a few score players throughout the world, who really play high. All are men, most of them come from the Orient, now that the petro-dollar boom is over - Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians and other plungers from the Pacific Rim.

The top casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere go to extraordinary lengths to attract such players. They will, as a matter of course, fly them into town by private jet, accommodate them in splendid suites, gratify their slightest wish - for example, maintaining a favourite chef on duty night and day. They will offer expensive gifts to wives and mistresses on their birthdays (hopefully not at the same time - there have been mix- ups); and lay on every kind of sport or entertainment. Special "hosts" are appointed whose sole duty is to keep the players happy.

"If a guy is playing off a million dollars," one hard-boiled Vegas manager once confided, "and he wants six ladies in red garters suspended from the chandelier, he can have 'em. Anything he wants, to keep him here." The only time a casino feels badly let down is when the player leaves for somewhere else.

In their sober moments (which is most of the time), Las Vegas managers insist that they would never risk their gaming licences by breaking the strict prohibition against prostitution. For those who want them, there are licensed brothels, a couple of hours' drive outside the city limits. Besides, the casinos do not want their prize players, known as "whales", beached by some expensive ladies relieving them of their wallets.

A whale is a very big player at baccarat. If the casino can land him, it has hit the jackpot. The prize whale was the celebrated player Akio Kashiwagi, who was even bigger in his day than Packer. Donald Trump once staged a special session for him in Atlantic City on the top floor of Trump Plaza. Trump got so nervous that when the house was a few million ahead, he called the joust off. A furious Kashiwagi was driven off in a white Rolls-Royce, sent to collect him by Caesar's Palace.

Unfortunately, Kashiwagi, who went by the nickname of "the Warrior" and modelled himself on the Samurai tradition, came to a sticky end. He was found murdered back home in Tokyo, amid rumours of heavy debts to unsavoury elements in the Japanese underworld.

Of course, the high rollers understand that all the flattery and free hospitality is, in a sense, false, based on the casino's desire to beat them out of their bankroll. At the same time, the relationship is often based on genuine respect. Both sides are trying to win; so each appreciates the other.

In London, the casinos are not allowed to offer any inducement to play. This was why, some 15 years ago, Ladbroke's - now back on the green baize - ran into trouble. It is a sore point at the elegant casinos around Park Lane that despite the foreign currency they earn and the high taxes they pay, they cannot do more than offer players dinner or a visit to the races.

Players such as the business tycoon Adnan Khashoggi, Saudi middle-man Hassan Anani, who reportedly dropped pounds 7m in the Ritz casino in Cannes, or the scions of Oriental potentates play over here because they enjoy being in London. Until now, the Gaming Board, which once suggested pens and diaries as suitable gifts for gamblers, has refused to soften its animus against casinos proffering air fares or hotel rooms. Some restrictions on casinos are being eased - the number of permitted slot machines in a casino is about to be raised from two to six - but clubs still cannot advertise, serve drink after 11pm, or allow gamblers to drink at gaming tables.

Now that the summer season is coming, the high rollers are back in town. The Derby, Ascot, Henley, Wimbledon all beckon. London's most successful group, London Clubs International, which runs the Ritz and Les Ambassadeurs clubs, reported record profits of pounds 30m last week. And Packer, the victor in Vegas, will be back. The casinos will be ready for him, they will welcome him. But they will tremble.

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