Kerry Packer, Australia's richest man, dies at 68

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Kerry Packer, Australia's richest man and a legendary gambler, has died at the age of 68, his family announced this morning.

Packer, whose fortune was recently estimated at US$5bn, died overnight in his sleep. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

A media mogul whose business empire also included petrochemicals, engineering, ski resorts, diamonds, coal mines and casinos, Packer's twin passions were polo and gambling. He was once rumoured to have won 20 consecutive hands of baccarat in 20 minutes, at £105,000 per hand, in a Las Vegas casino.

In 1977 he turned the cricket world upside-down when he signed the game's top players under the banner of the World Series competition. Two years later the move secured him what he had been seeking: the right to televise top matches on his Nine Network.

Packer was a larger than life figure who achieved his monumental successes despite dyslexia and a bout of childhood polio myelitis that saw him spend nine months immobilised in an iron lung. He returned to school at the age of nine, having missed three years, and was never able to catch up academically.

Despite a poor health record in recent years, he had acquired a reputation of being almost immortal. In 1990 he suffered a major heart attack on the polo field and was clinically dead for eight minutes, until emergency medical officers revived him with electric shock treatment.

Afterwards he said: 'The good news is there's no devil. The bad news is there's no heaven. There's nothing.'

In 2000 he underwent a kidney transplant, receiving a kidney donated by his friend, Nicolas Ross, the pilot of his personal plane.

A tall, physically imposing man with a fiery temperament, Packer entered the family business, Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), which his father, Sir Frank, started, in 1956. He started at the bottom, but he took over the running of the conglomerate in 1974, when his father died. He gained full control in 1982, a move that eventually enabled him to amass his enormous fortune.

His death was announced by his own Nine Network, one of Australia's main television networks. It quoted a statement from his family saying that he had died peacefully at home, with his family at his bedside. He is survived by his wife, Ros, son, James, and daughter, Gretel.

Packer, who handed over full control of ACP to James in 1998, waged millions of dollars at a time at racetracks and casinos. The country's biggest punter, he owned his own casino: the Crown in Melbourne, and his conglomerate is developing casinos in Macau together with an Asian businessman, Stanley Ho.

Packer had a hard childhood, and once said his main contact with his father was when he was being disciplined. Returning to school after the polio, he concentrated on sport, which became his way of survival.

He sold the Nine Network to Alan Bond, the subsequently disgraced businessman, in 1987 and used the cash to invest widely in Australia. He regained control of it in 1990, having followed his own motto of selling high and buying low and making himself £295m in the process. In 1994 he combined his business interests into Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL).

In 1984 a royal commission heard allegations that he was involved in drugs and pornography, but he was later cleared of the charges.

Packer was said to be extremely generous; according to one anecdote, he gave a waitress a cheque to pay off her mortgage after asking why she was not at home with her family.

His family's statement did not give a cause of death, but it was known that he had been battling cancer as well as having the weak heart and kidney problems. One of his former employees, Michael Pascoe, said today: 'It was almost a testimony to medical science that he did live as long as he did.'

The family said: 'He will be lovingly remembered and missed enormously.'

Forbes magazine earlier this year listed Packer as the 94th richest man in the world.

The Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, was among those who paid tribute to him today. He said: 'Kerry Packer was a giant of the TV and publishing business in Australia.' Packer was also a generous philanthropist with an instinctive feeling for public opinion, Mr Costello said.