Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist

Cheat Preying On Toffs


FOR A couple of years in the mid-Sixties, a major con was practised on the aristocratic and well-heeled members of the Clermont Club - the London gambling club created by John Aspinall in the wake of liberalisation of the gaming laws.

According to Aspinall's official biographer, "one of the reasons the aristocracy trusted him was that they knew they could trust him." But unbeknown to the club's members, Aspinall was in cahoots with Billy Hill, king of the London underworld, to cheat them on a regular basis.
Aspinall started gambling at Oxford, where he met friends who were to continue gambling with him for the rest of their lives. After Oxford, he started organising private chemmy games and parties -chemin de fer was a game in which the mathematical odds anyway favoured the bank and the bank levied a 5 per cent commission.

The key to the success of these informal games, from Aspinall's point of view, was that his clientele were rich and would always pay up -eventually. But Aspinall also used bent croupiers and rigged games to fleece "pigeons" like the Dukes of Devonshire and Stanley.
Later, he turned an agreeable and lucrative pastime into a business. To sustain the Clermont Club as well as to fund his increasingly extravagant lifestyle, he turned from mere larceny to full-blown criminal enterprise.

Certainly, Aspinall emerges from this book with his character impugned. "The worst man I ever met was John Aspinall," says Nancy Gillespie, a gossip columnist who moved among his set. "He was a rotten man. And his mother -Lady Osborne... Lady Macbeth was an angel next to her." But the most damning evidence comes from Aspinall's former lieutenant John Burke, who describes him as "pathologically dishonest".

The systematic cheating of Clermont Club members was known as "The Big Edge". Sealed packs of cards were unsealed and tampered with. Instead of marking the cards - which could have been detected - a special machine was used to bend them subtly in one direction or the other. They were then resealed and put to work.

Specially selected readers were provided by Billy Hill, introduced to the legitimate gamblers with plausible cover stories by Aspinall. Hill was applying the same scam in other clubs and casinos but the Clermont was where the big money was.

"From the Aspinall deal and all that Clermont Club affair, Billy must have taken his share of what today would be at least flOmillion," says Bobby McKew, Hill's former associate. "It was like robbing Fort Knox or the Bank of England. Just a lot easier."

Douglas Thompson has uncovered an intriguing con> but more than this, his book offers a fascinating glimpse into a bygone world, a fleeting moment in the history of post-war Britain when chemmy parties took London by storm and toffs were often to be found rubbing shoulders with gangsters.

He is fortunate to have interviewed both John Burke and Bobby McKew, henchmen to the two principal conspirators, as they have a treasure trove of anecdotes. Without them, this book could not have been written.

John Aspinall withdrew from the "Big Edge" after a couple of years and contented himself with more modest pickings. His criminal proceeds helped establish a gambling business that he was able to sell for £90 million in 1987 and finance two private zoos. Throughout his life, he lived by the old adage: "Never give a sucker an even break."

As Aspinall was wont to wrestle with the tigers in his zoos, John Burke's comment on his cheating is chillingly apt: "I know that he would justify his conduct in his own mind, saying it was like a tiger's entitlement to kill deer."

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