The Gambler – William C. Rempel


First of all, let me clarify that this is not a biography of Kenny Rogers.  You won’t learn the importance of knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em if you read it.  It’s actually a biography of Kirk Kerkorian, and the title refers to his willingness to gamble huge stakes on his business ventures.

The first time I ever heard of Kerkorian was when he tried to buy Chrysler back in the early nineties.  I remember thinking at the time that it was odd that he was a billionaire owner of some very high-profile businesses and I’d never heard of him.  Reading this book explains why.  He was very publicity-shy and made tons of money while making sure that his name was not in the papers.  Essentially, he was the anti-Trump.  Made huge money but didn’t want his name on anything.

Kerkorian was the son of Armenian immigrants and grew up poor in California.  His father was also entrepreneurial, but wasn’t successful and the family moved frequently as his business ventures soured and the money ran out.  Growing up in that environment, however, taught Kerkorian the value of hard work and the importance of controlling your destiny.  It also gave him a risk-taking spirit (the hungriest entrepreneurs tend to be the most successful; they approach their ventures with the thought that they have little to lose – kids brought up comfortably middle class, on the other hand, typically make rotten entrepreneurs because they’re risk-averse; they don’t want to lose what they already have – those who have nothing are much more willing to risk it – at least this is my theory as to why I’m not a billionaire).

During World War II he was a pilot and after the war he started a small charter service with one plane in California.  The business grew to the point that he was able to purchase additional planes and then eventually buy out a larger airline.  From there he took off (little airplane pun for you): He often flew charters to Las Vegas so he decided to invest in a hotel there.  He then decided to invest in another one and eventually decided to risk everything he had and build the largest hotel in the world there.  It was hugely successful and convinced him to continue building and selling hotels in Vegas and on three different occasions to build the largest hotel in the world (at the time of construction).  From hotels he branched into motion pictures and owned two different studios at different times.  He also had his own investment arm that owned pieces of many other businesses.  The bottom line to all of this is that he came out of WWII with virtually nothing and by the end of his life (he died at 98 in 2015) was worth north of four billion dollars.  All based on his own work and ability to see value where others didn’t.  [Example: After a rough landing, an insurance company declared an airplane belonging to a rival airline a total loss.  Kerkorian offered to buy it for $150,000 provided the insurance company throw in four rebuilt engines, which it gladly did just to unload the plane.  Kerkorian promptly leased the engines to a different airline for $150,000, used the proceeds to rebuild the plane, then sold it to a third airline for $750,000.]

He had failures along the way too (tried to buy Chrysler on two different occasions and failed both times), but nothing that tempered his willingness to make another deal.  He was always willing to take a risk.  His background taught him not to be too tied to things or money, so he was willing to risk both if he thought it would pay off.

His personal life wasn’t so successful.  He was married three times and had other relationships that either didn’t last or were self-destructive.  The acumen he had in business didn’t translate to family and marriage.

The book itself?  It’s worth the time.  The one criticism I’d make of it is that it’s a very positive take on Kerkorian.  If you’re looking for a critical analysis of his life, you won’t find it here.  Even his failures and foibles are somehow spun as positive.  The author clearly likes the subject of the book.  That’s not enough to warn you off reading it, however.  If you like biographies and like stories about business and capitalism, you’ll enjoy the book.

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