Landing a whale is no mean feat for a casino operator. And James Packer is expected to use his best bait to lure the world's biggest gamblers to his planned new Sydney casino, which today received approval from Barry O'Farrell's cabinet.
His father Kerry was once counted among the rare breed of gambling "whales", casino lingo for a high-roller extraordinaire, capable of wagering millions in a single session. Kerry had a well-deserved reputation for big wins, enormous losses and lavish gifts to croupiers from Las Vegas to London.
Whales mean big business for a casino's bottom line. The current gam of whales are predominantly ethnic Chinese, enjoying the bounty of economic growth in Asia. Occasionally they bet as much as $1 million on a hand of cards. In a single year at Melbourne's Crown Casino, which has an estimated 80 per cent of the high-roller market in Australia, they reportedly turn over $30 billion – about $600 million a week - in a back and forth exchange with the whales.
The high rollers are flown into the country from Asia on private jets and put up in lavish villas with personal chefs and doting butlers. They win big and lose big. In July, the NSW Supreme Court ordered 10 high rollers whose cheques bounced at The Star casino to pay $8.85 million.
The biggest bounced cheque was $4.98 million drawn on a Hong Kong account of Thai businessman Nattachai Srirungsukpinji, who was ordered to pay $5.33 million, with interest accruing at $1126 a day.
At Crown Casino, Chinese construction tycoon Li Pei Ye, or "Eddie Ye", turned over more than $120 million a year until the relationship soured. In 2003, he unsuccessfully sued Crown alleging it wrongly diverted $2.2 million of his to the account of other Chinese punters.
The court heard one visit alone to Crown in July 2000 cost Mr Ye $5 million. Overall, though, he was in front: while the casino had won a total of $630,700 from him, it had paid him back some $785,800 in "premium player" commissions; such as accommodation, flights in private jets and rebates on gambling losses.
In a separate court case in 2009, a court heard Crown offered its high-rollers tickets to events such as the Australian Open, as well as a 20 per cent rebate on their losses. High roller Harry Kakavas gambled almost $1.5 billion in 15 months playing cards at Crown and alleged he was lured there by casino executives – including flights from his Gold Coast home to Melbourne in its Gulfstream jet so he could gamble.
Ordinarily, wagering such large sums buys discretion and exclusivity. Last December, Packer flew a private planeload of Asian whales to Perth for the weekend as guests of his revamped Burswood casino. The gamblers dominated the exclusive list of 40 who teed up with Tiger Woods for the James Packer Gold Invitational.
The golfer's appearance fee was estimated at up to $1.5 million. But increased competition from casinos in Singapore and Macau means Packer needs something special to stay in the big game.
The $US5.7 billion Marina Bay Sands boasts an infinity swimming pool overlooking the Singapore skyline and the world's largest atrium casino, with tropical gardens, restaurants and bays. The Straits Suite for VIPs includes a private gym, karaoke rooms, a baby grand piano and cocktail bar.
Rival Singapore casino Resorts World Sentosa has an invitation-only high-roller hotel with butler service in all its 126 suites and four private villas – each with a private pool and garden.
Crown similarly offers big punters access to a fleet of Gulfstream jets, limousines, luxury villas and exclusive entry to the Capital Golf Course, in south-east Melbourne. Whales are treated to private gaming "salons", which enjoy a special exemption from bans on smoking indoors.
The high-roller room at Sydney's Star casino is similarly excused from anti-smoking laws. The Star's new hotel, the Darling, is a good example of the lengths Packer will likely go to in trying to catch a whale.
As Colin Kruger wrote in the Herald last year, bespoke furniture and million-dollar harbour views were not deemed sufficiently lavish, so plans for three floors of suites were merged into two – sacrificing valuable real estate for soaring ceilings that Asian casinos couldn't match.
Private gambling salons adjoining such suites are a given, as are top restaurants, boutiques and entertainment. Burswood's $750 million refit will boast an Italian-built super yacht for special customers.
Melbourne's Crown Towers offer a six-star service, fashion names such as Versace and Prada, and restaurants such as the Robert De Niro-backed Nobu.
The NSW Government believes the public will swallow a second casino that is purportedly aimed at gambling whales from abroad, rather than poor pokie machine players at home.
But that claim was a furphy, anti-gambling campaigner Tim Costello said this week. "That's exactly how Adelaide got its casino licence and within two years it had pokies," he said.