KIRK KERKORIAN ALWAYS SEEMED COMFORTABLE WITH RISK. As an aviation pioneer he risked his life flying factory-fresh bombers over the treacherous polar route from Canada to Scotland for the Royal Air Force during World War Two. As a businessman he relished the big deal. His enormous successes mask the fact that he also lost billions of dollars.
Win or lose, Kirk maintained the same poker face. He once called life “a big craps game.” He loved all manner of gambles…and the bigger the wager the better. On Wall Street or in a casino, Kirk never felt more alive than when he was betting it all on a roll of the dice.
KIRK’S EARLY LIFE OFFERED NO HINT OF A FUTURE AMONG BILLIONAIRES. He was a child when he and his Armenian immigrant parents were evicted from the family’s debt-laden farm near a place called Weedpatch in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Running out on landlords would become a familiar pattern during lean years deep into the Great Depression. Kirk was often the new kid in school, fending off bullies bare fisted and learning English on the streets of Los Angeles. His formal education ended with the eighth grade in a school for problem kids.
KIRK’S FIRST BIG DREAM WAS TO COMPETE FOR A BOXING CROWN. He won a string of amateur fights in Southern California, a regional welterweight championship and a prized nickname: “Rifle Right” Kerkorian. He traded his gloves for wings when he discovered flying. He shoveled manure on the dairy farm of aviatrix Pancho Barnes in trade for flight lessons. But throughout his life, Kirk remained an avid boxing fan, promoter and a friend of fighters.