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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK
Packer: A born gambler
Kerry Packer
Packer was prepared to take on cricket's establishment
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Thrasy Petropoulos
By Thrasy Petropoulos
BBC Sport Online cricket writer

A fiction writer would find it hard to invent a character like Kerry Packer.

He is the richest man in Australia, valued at more than AUS$3 billion.

An impulsive gambler, he is rumoured to have once lost 13.6 million in a three-day baccarat binge in Las Vegas.

And at Crockford's, in London, where the maximum bet on any hand of blackjack is 250,000, he has been known to bet the full amount on all seven hands dealt to the table.

But then there is the story of him tipping a pub waiter who had served him food AUS$10,000 after a neighbouring hostelry had refused because it was too late.

And what of the tip that an Australian waitress is supposed to have received when Packer, who was taken by her kindness, asked her why she wasn't at home with her husband and kids.

"Because I've got a mortgage to pay," she replied.

Packer with Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Packer with Australian Prime Minister John Howard

After Packer had gone, she was given an envelope within which was a cheque in her name for the sum of the mortgage.

Then there are the strokes that the 62-year-old has suffered - eight in all, and one of which left him "clinically dead" for (so legend has it) seven minutes in October 1990.

And there is the kidney donated by his helicopter pilot, British-born Nicholas Ross - "Biggles" to his long-time employer and friend.

As a child, Packer was out of school between the age of four and nine with polio, an often fatal or crippling illness in the 1940s.

Birth of an empire

Even the story of the origins of the Packer empire beggars belief.

His grandfather is said to have found a 10 shilling note in a Tasmanian street at the turn of the century and decided to put it all on a horse.

It won and he bought himself the boat fare to the mainland where he got a job as a journalist and started to build the family's media empire.

Now the group, Publishing and Broadcasting, owns Australia's largest casino, Melbourne's Crown Casino, Nine Network television and 60 per cent of Australia's magazines.

Packer owns a Melbourne casino
Gambling is a passion for Packer

His father, Frank, a hard taskmaster who often patronised Kerry in public, built up the television and publishing business.

As a visionary, however, Kerry proved to be in a class of his own.

In one inspired moment in 1987 he sold two Channel Nine TV stations to businessman Alan Bond for AUS$1 billion.

Three years later, Bond was in financial trouble and Kerry bought the stations back for a quarter of the price.

There have been frustrations and set-backs, of course.

In 1991 his attempt to increase his media empire by buying the Fairfax newspaper group foundered when members of parliament ruled that his control of the media was verging on a monopoly.

Cricket controversy

And it was another failed business bid that led to the greatest controversy cricket has known.

In 1977, frustrated at the Australian Cricket Board's refusal to accept a AUS$1.5 million bid for the television rights to screen Australian Test matches and Sheffield Shield Cricket, he signed more than 50 cricketers to play in his own tournament.

For a while, the game was split between the establishment - the International Cricket Conference- and Packer's World Series Cricket, with Packer cast in the role of divisive rabble-rouser.

"I've read a lot about Genghis Khan: he wasn't very loveable, but he was bloody efficient," Packer is supposed to have said at the time.

Australia v South Africa (2002)
World Series Cricket pioneered the use of coloured kit

Those same administrators who viewed him as a disruptive, brash Australian now argue that he did cricket a huge service.

Coloured clothing, floodlights, white balls and uncommonly high salaries were all pejoratively referred to as Packer's Cricketing Circus.

Twenty-five years on, they are the driving force of the game.

Money - a cool 750,000 a season to be precise - has bought him success in polo, his biggest sporting passion, with a world-class team, Ellerston.

But it is as a personality - a very rich one - that Packer will be remembered.

Uncomfortable with the attention a stranger was receiving from a waitress at a casino, Packer turned to the gentleman and asked why his presence was causing such a stir.

"I'm worth US$100 million," bragged the oilman.

" Really. $100 million?" said Packer, pretending to be impressed.

"Yes I am sir," grinned the oilman.

"I'll toss you for it," Packer replied.

The oilman walked away.

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