Lively biography of genius Vegas investor Kirk Kerkorian shows the journey from “rags” to “riches” doesn’t have to include a stop called “wanker”

As you’ll know if you are a casino owner, when someone you can bear to be in the same room with opens a new casino, the polite thing to do is to go along to opening night and lose as much money as you are humanly able.

Billionaire financier and corporate deal magus Kirk Kerkorian owned a few casinos in his time – at one point he had almost half of the Las Vegas strip at his behest – and so when his friends the Tisch brothers threw open the doors to their new pleasure dome, it was only right that Kirk should go along and drop some coin to bolster the spreadsheet.

Rather than spend hours frittering away a plastic bucket of silver dollars on the Moola Rouge slots, Kirk decided he was going to just place one bet, for $1 million. The brothers handed him a special orange chip and agreed it would be worth £1m. (They hadn’t anticipated needing such a denomination.)

Kirk monitored the craps tables for a while, and convinced he’d found a hot one, bet his million against the run of the roller continuing. One is supposed to perhaps assume that he was looking for a streak so molten that that it would continue and sweep the single bet straight into his friends’ profit column. Only it didn’t. The roller crapped out, and Kirk doubled his money. A million dollar profit in an instant. And a million dollars he wasn’t even particularly bothered about.

That’s the story of Kirk Kerkorian in a nutshell – if there’s ever been such a thing as a human money magnet, he was it.

Modern billionaires tend to have a) made their fortune in digital technology and b) display a level of delight in their own brilliance that not even a Klitschko cock-punch could diminish. Kirk was a different breed entirely.

Born to fruit farming Armenian parents in 1917 in Fresno, California, he grew up on the mean streets of LA when the fruit trade turned rotten.

Contemplating a career as a boxer (he had a few bouts as “Rifle Right” Kerkorian), his moment of great good fortune came when a friend gave him a ride on a small cargo plane. He knew straight away flying was his thing. When the war came round, he piloted new bombers and fighters straight off the production line in Canada to Scotland, taking huge risks that the jet stream would keep roaring and enable him to take short cuts. Fuel gauge drama ensued.

After the war he started a little LA to Vegas air shuttle business, with a bit of imaginative plane dealing on the side, and had the bright idea to buy up a few acres of desert, thinking there might be something in this gambling town thing. Within a few years he was king of the “leisure” industry, three times breaking the record for constructing the world’s roomiest resorts – ie hotels with more rooms than any other.

And casino floors bigger than Yankee Stadium.

All those profits were leveraged into the movie business (he bought MGM several times) and the car industry, turning him into one of the richest men in America. But there were no “My genius in five slides” TED talks for Kirk though. Modest and humble, his friend Cary Grant was often at a loss where to tell the spotlight operator to point the beam at gala openings of his casinos, as Kirk would have tried to blend into the crowd. He never accepted freebies, even from his own hotels, paying for rooms from his own roll of hundreds, and even once instructing his LaGuardia-bound driver to turn round and head back to the Hotel Pierre. Kirk had forgotten to tip the maids.

Every overachiever eventually encounters a nemesis, however, and Kirk found his in the form of former tennis pro Lisa Bonder, 48 years his junior, who when not enjoying the romantic attentions of the elderly mogul, liked to share the opinion with friends that she was going to “get it all” and shoot up the rich list herself. She got quite a bit.

Also dropping in by way of contrast is Donald Trump, who enters the Forbes Rich List the same year as Kirk. Kerkorian is not particularly interested in having cracked the chart and wants no fuss/press releases. Trump, on the other hand, goes into overboast, only to be kicked off the list six months later when Forbes discovers some fresh fortune-dissolving financials.

So there’s no egomania, tedious tech wizardry, industry-wrecking “disruption”, appalling dress sense or any of the other characteristics of the 21st century super-rich and self-made man. Which shows it is possible to be wealthy without being a colossal tool about it.

Kirk died in 2015 at the age of 97, still very rich, and still Mr Nice Guy.

The Gambler, by William C. Rempel. Dey Street Books, £20