12 March 2016
by Jemima Whyte
ANZ trader a professional gambler
Jason Pritchard was being bluffed. One of ANZ Banking Group's top bond traders was under pressure from Simon Deadman, ranked 52 in the world in professional poker, to fold his cards at the Aussie Millions Poker Championship at Melbourne's Crown Casino.
Unshaven and in a hoodie and tinted sunglasses to disguise any give-away "tells", Pritchard flipped his cards over: a king of diamonds and a ten of hearts.
"It's hard to bluff me!" Pritchard said. His pair of tens beat Deadman's pair of eights and leapfrogged him over the UK champion to become the player with the most chips in that round.
Pritchard has achieved minor fame on the Australian professional poker circuit, where he is ranked 105. But it is the casino of the financial markets where he has achieved notoriety, thanks to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, which last week portrayed him as a profane and devious trader who manipulated one of Australia's most important interest rate benchmarks for the profit of his bank.
ANZ denies its staff manipulated the market.
Less than three months earlier, Pritchard was one of seven traders suspended by ANZ as the regulator's rate rigging probe heated up.
Within ANZ, the 47-year-old was a polarising figure. As head of balance sheet trading, a role in which he helped oversee a portfolio worth more than $120 billion, former employees all agree he exerted a lot of influence.
"He was an eccentric guy. On trading floors you get some characters – some introverts that stick to screens, others that are boisterous, with bravado and love talking," a market source says.
An 'alpha male' guy
"He was one of the alpha male guys, he had some strong views on political issues. He was very highly regarded there."
The bravado isn't a surprise. Those that have read ASIC's 79-page court documents have seen a glimpse of it: "If people are going to play our games, right, we're going to f------ go with you," Pritchard is alleged to have said in a phone conversation in April 21, 2011.
Despite the parallels between poker and trading financial markets, Pritchard wasn't widely known within ANZ as a poker player – though he's played on the tournament circuit in Melbourne, Sydney, Las Vegas and Monte Carlo since at least 2009.
Over the past 18 months, he's won more than $150,000 in prize money, in tournaments that require buy-ins of up to $10,000 a time, according to The Hendon Mob, which doesn't record tournaments that players enter but don't rank.
But it is horses where many former ANZ staff recall him winning big.
He was a seasoned punter, sources say, but his big moment came when he bought a stake in a horse called Zoustar, alongside another sacked ANZ trader, Sam Ellis. Pritchard and Ellis each bought a stake of about 5 per cent for roughly $10,000 each.
Within 12 months, the horse that had been worth about $200,000 sold for $18 million, a record for a non-Golden Slipper winner.
"It's very rare," says Sheriff Iskander, whose firm put together the 20-person syndicate after buying Zoustar for about $160,000 as a yearling. "It would be one of a handful of horses."
The golden run with the horse continued after the sale – the syndicate received a $4 million bonus on the $14 million sale price after Zoustar won the Coolmore Stud Stakes in 2013.
"They had a good go punting on the horse. They are astute punters," Iskander says, adding that this was the first time either Pritchard or Ellis had owned a horse, and they had been "pushed into the horse" through a racing journalist contact after the syndicate fell short.
If Pritchard is known in horse racing circles as an intelligent bettor, he's less well-known on the poker circuit.
"He's a good guy," says one poker player who has met him on multiple occasions. "When you've been around for a while, you get to know."
According to former tournament players, a quick glance at his competition record and plays shows he knows his stuff.
Pritchard, who hasn't responded to requests for interviews through his accountant and poker contacts, established – with another poker tournament regular Robert Spano – a company, which was renamed JR's Sportsbook in November 2015, according to ASIC company filings.
"You can see the parallels," a market source says. "Trading those markets, it's very much like [poker].
"You need to do things without the market knowing, you only want to show part of it to the market … I imagine those sort of skills would come in useful."
Financial markets types relatively unusual
Unlike the United States circuit, financial markets types are relatively unusual on the Australian poker tournament beat, says one market source who occasionally plays.
Another poker player says there's no stigma attached to the game in the US, where it is very popular.
Hiring a graduate who plays competitive poker is a coup, on the basis that the game requires an understanding of probability, quick thinking, risk assessment and psychology.
Quietly, investment banks and other local financial institutions are said to fly in poker champions to train their employees on risk assessment, probability and other skills.
Back at Crown Casino, in the Aussie Millions tournament in 2015, Pritchard may have been feeling cocky.
In the round after beating the 52nd-ranked player, Pritchard was playing again, this time as one of the players with the most chips in the tournament. He raised the stakes quickly against Bjorn Li, who had reached the final table of the event three years earlier.
Eventually, Pritchard went all in – perhaps confident his rival would fold as he would be left short-stacked if he lost. Five minutes ticked by. And then Li pushed his chips into the table. And revealed his winning straight.
Pritchard stood up and then said: "big call bro", adding a second later, "nice hand".