Meet Packer's High Rollers

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In 2005, upper management at Bendigo Bank questioned how one of their branch employees, a 30-something mother of two, could lose
$4.7 million to Crown Casino.

Kate Jamieson had been loans manager of a branch in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. She’d led what the judge called "a credible life", but suffered depression after giving birth to her second child. Her position at the bank enabled her to funnel funds toward her pokie addiction. Crown soon offered her an exclusive VIP membership — allowing her to lose $2644 an hour at the peak of her gambling.

She said the casino seduced her with free meals and accommodation, as well as trips to the tennis, football, Grand Prix and Melbourne Cup — often chauffeured by limousine.

Jamieson was the bank’s third employee to steal large sums to fund gambling. In 2001 a woman was found to have stolen $1.1 million, and in 2003 another woman was charged with stealing $617,000. Both had gambled away most of the money.

The sums may have been large, but their motivations were not unusual. Forensic accounting expert Brett Warfield says gambling is the most common motivation for fraud in Australia.

His firm scoured media and legal records for cases of gambling-motivated fraud occurring between 2008 and 2010. Perpetrators included customs officers, childcare workers, pensioners, real estate agents, solicitors, soldiers, TAFE teachers and several other occupations. Of 190 convictions, 147 resulted in jail time. Many also involved job losses, divorce, business closures and attempted suicides.

Casinos were a factor in 17 occasions, and the average fraud to support a table gaming addiction was nearly $600,000.

At Sydney’s casino complex, nearly one fraud has been reported per month since mid-2000, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics.

In the Productivity Commission’s 2010 inquiry report on gambling, UnitingCare Australia pointed out a lack of effective regulation of how Australian residents can be classified as "high rollers". The same report quoted BetSafe, stating that many "high rollers" are in fact problem gamblers betting beyond their means.

"If they don’t have a personal assistant to arrange for the funds to be deposited into their casino account, or if they don’t have a chequebook, then their status as genuine ‘high rollers’ should be questioned," stated Betsafe.

A casino catering exclusively to high rollers has been a cornerstone of James Packer’s public relations pitch to New South Wales.

New Matilda asked Crown Ltd who they would allow to gamble at their proposed casino and what the minimum "buy-in" would be, but they failed to answer.

Statistics on addiction among high rollers didn’t feature in the either of the Productivity Commission’s extensive inquiry reports on gambling in Australia. But among people who gambled regularly (not including lottery players), problem gambling was estimated at 15 per cent.

A casino employee told New Matilda he has observed indicators of addiction among about a fifth of high rollers.

David (not his real name) has worked in high roller rooms in Australia for several years. He spoke with New Matilda on condition of anonymity.

"I’ve dealt people… betting hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then seen them two or three years later on the main gaming floor betting $20 on Baccarat," he said.

He would identify a problem gambler by their displays of emotional stress after losses, and by what they would tell him about their lives.

"…their first and last names, where they work, their financial situation, stuff like that," he said.

He described two owners of a small business who gambled six days a week.

"They used to come in and play blackjack. What it looked like was they’d just take everything but the wages and the money to buy stock with, and just gamble all of it, and they’d live off nothing."

David doesn’t like to gamble. A lifestyle of punting and partying in his early years of casino employment put him into severe debt, which he is still paying off.

Early in his career David spent a weekend at the Crown casino VIP rooms with his then girlfriend. She was a regular high roller, betting up to $2000 a hand. The casino supplied complimentary alcohol and cigarettes all weekend, and the couple’s turnover earned them points for hotels, flights, meals and other expenses.

David’s situation is not unusual. A 2006 Southern Cross University study found nearly 9 per cent of staff at Queensland gaming venues were problem gamblers — 16 times the rate in the general state population. And nearly 20 per cent were at moderate risk — 10 times the general rate.

Two casinos refused to take part in the study. Casino owners Tabcorp later commissioned the university to investigate problem gambling among staff at Jupiters Casino. New Matilda asked to see the results, but was advised that the findings were confidential.

But some instances involving casino employees have been less than private. In 2009 a Melbourne Crown Casino manager was found to have stolen more than $280,000 from the staff social club accounts and spent it on gambling and holidays. In 2006 a 24-year-old Adelaide Casino worker and mother of two overdosed on paracetamol and died after her gambling debts exceeded $100,000. In her suicide note she wrote that she couldn’t stop gambling. Both employees were diagnosed as problem gamblers.

Perhaps the most extreme case of VIP problem gambling involved Harry Kakavas and Crown Casino.

In 1994 Gold Coast property developer Kakavas defrauded Esanda Finance Corporation of $286,000, and lost it all at Crown. He was sentenced to four months in prison.

Crown executive Bill Horman advised Kakavas to sign on to voluntary self-exclusion from the casino and seek counselling. Kakavas did both, and was diagnosed a problem gambler. Over the course of the ensuing decade he was banned from Sydney’s Star City by the NSW Police, and he self-excluded from every other casino in Australia.

Kerry Packer later saw him gambling in Las Vegas, and Bill Horman soon invited him back to Crown. Kakavas went on to lose more than $30 million over 14 months in 2005-06.

Finding himself more than $50 million in debt to casinos, family, friends, and other creditors, he sued Crown for $35 million. He alleged the casino had knowingly exploited his gambling addiction. The justice found against Kakavas, declaring he had no less advantage than any other member, despite his diagnosis.

Unsuccessful, he appealed for $20 million and lost again. Judge David Harper described him as "the highest of this country’s high rollers".

And Casinos have high-roller problems of their own. In mid-2001 Sydney’s casino, named Star City at the time, closed it’s high roller operations. Management blamed a winning streak by international "whales" (the highest of high rollers), and one lucky Asian gambler in particular. They were visiting during the 2000 Olympic Games and betting as much as $200,000 a hand. Over the Olympic semester, the casino lost $13 million from their bottom line.

In 2005 the program was reopened, and players now bet up to half-a-million per hand.

VIP business generated nearly a quarter of The Star’s $1 billion gaming revenue last financial year. For Crown Melbourne, it was closer to a third of their $1.5 billion.

Eighteen per cent of total casino gambling revenue in Australia comes from international VIPs specifically, particularly those from Asia, according to a 2009 casino-commissioned report by the Allen Consulting Group.

As most forms of gambling are illegal in mainland China, Vietnam, Indonesia and various other Asian nations, taking an international flight to play at a casino is the norm for many wealthy punters.

Crown Melbourne and The Star run corporate jets exclusively for these clients, as well as providing designated bilingual "hosts" with large expense accounts catering to almost any request.

Compared to other types of gamblers, international high rollers tend to be least interested in non-gambling pursuits like shopping and tourism, according to gaming psychology academic Dr Desmond Lam in a 2009 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Casino employee David said such activities are more likely to be used by occasional accompanying family members of high rollers. The gamblers themselves typically spend their time in the casino complex.

"Sometimes they’ll stay for a month. They’ll pretty much punt and eat. That’s all that they’re doing. They’ll have the occasional sleep, or shop somewhere, and then they’ll just come back and punt and eat, and punt and eat."

He said it’s typical for VIPs to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars wearing nightgowns and slippers.

"I’ve sat with this guy, he was betting $500,000 a hand all day… It’s just him in the room with two tables, a view, a butler, a manager, a couple of TVs, a massage chair," he said.

"They sit there drinking tea and hot water with honey for days. Gambling is like their drug. Like their crack."

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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