Zeljko Ranogajec - a small peek at the Australian billionaire and card expert

Last Modified: 9th Sep

Australia has given us its fair share of larger-than-life characters who enjoy the occasional wager. Kerry Packer, Shane Warne, and the list goes on. But one man sails head and shoulders above the rest. To misquote the Steve Miller Band, some people call him The Joker, and some call him John Wilson.

He is Zeljko Ranogajec, one of the wealthiest men in Australia and arguably the most successful gambler in history. With addresses in Sydney and London as well as his native Tasmania, plus several pseudonyms to go with them, Ranogajec is the archetypal international man of mystery. Let’s see what we can find out. 

From humble beginnings to a promising future

Ranogajec’s parents were among hundreds of Croatian immigrants to arrive in Australia in the early 1950s, in search of a better life. Zeljko was born in 1962, and as a child, he demonstrated a precocious talent for mathematics. 

His exceptional grades earned him a scholarship at the prestigious University of Tasmania in Hobart, and a successful career in finance seemed assured. However, Ranogajec had some ideas of his own about how to put his mathematical talents to profitable use.

A passion for casino games and card counting

Ranogajec might have an Eastern European name, but he is out and out Australian. Like many of his countrymen, he developed a passion for casino games as a young man. His mathematical acumen made him a natural talent at blackjack. 

This has always been the game of choice for gamblers who want to use skill to gain an advantage, and today, sites offering online blackjack in Australia have made the game more popular among casual casino players in Australia than ever. But Zeljko Ranogaje was no casual player. 

First, he set about learning basic blackjack strategy. Anyone can do this, and it reduces the casino’s advantage from about three percent to just over one percent. Then, he started to learn card counting. For most players, doing so successfully reduces the house edge still further, to less than one percent. But Ranogaje was so good at it that he was able to turn the tables, and started beating casinos consistently.

The gambling globe trotter gets a reputation

Casinos are not fans of card counters, least of all successful ones, and Ranogaje soon found himself blacklisted at every casino in Australia. Undaunted, he set off for Las Vegas and became a regular at the high roller tables on The Strip.

News travels fast in Sin City, and within weeks, he could not get beyond the penny slots. By the end of 1984, he was banned from every casino he knew, and several that he didn’t. When a new casino opened in Australia’s Gold Coast, it had him on the banned list before it had even opened. 

Other enterprises, other identities

His experiences with the casinos taught Ranogaje that in his business, he needs to stay incognito. Over the past 30 years, he is rumored to have been behind a number of keno and horse racing schemes, although that might just be his friend John Wilson.

These days, Ranogajec is most commonly glimpsed at One Hyde Park, London, the most expensive apartment block in the world. Apartments there change hands for more than $100 million and one belongs to that same John Wilson, a man who happens to share Ranogajec’s date of birth.

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