Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist



 

 



The Real Casino Royale

The Two Irishmen, The Multimillion Pound Sting & The Hollywood Movie

Sunday Mirror 1st March 2009

Jim Clarke

AFTER four decades of silence, two Irishmen have admitted their involvement in one of the greatest gambling scams of all time.

And they also implicated a well-known British socialite as the brains behind the outrageous stunt, which reaped millions from a generation of British aristocrats.

Now their exploits are set to be made into a movie by Ralph Fiennes' sister Martha, starring Sienna Miller and Clive Owen.

It was in the card clubs of glamorous Belgravia, a London district populated in the 50s by landed gentry and low-life criminals in equal measure, that the scam known as The Big Edge was hatched.

But John Burke and Bobby McKew first met in Dublin years earlier, as restless young men among a privileged rugby set who used to gather in Davy Byrne's bar off Grafton Street.

McKew, later known among his London pals as the Chelsea Scally­wag, began as the Blackrock-born son of Rank's Irish film distributor.

While still a bored Trinity College student he fell in with legendary safe cracker Eddie Chapman whose exploits during the war saw him receive an Iron Cross from Hitler even as he spied on him for MI5.

Chapman was a notorious criminal who had 40 safecracking charges dropped because of his heroism during the war and he soon taught young McKew everything he knew from doping dogs to rigging card games. ' And through Chapman, McKew eventually moved to London and fell in with the infamous gangland criminal Billy Hill.

Burke, on the other hand, was a card playing genius from childhood, having first handled a deck at the tender age of six.

The youngest son of the Master of Tipperary Fox Hounds, he was soon representing Ireland at bridge after moving to live in Dublin.

It was after one trip to Helsinki with the Irish team that he passed through London and his self-described "50-year holiday" began.

But it took the society figure of John Aspinall to bring the two Irishmen together in the secret gambling scam that took the rich and privileged of London for millions.

Aspinall who died in 2000 was famed for his interest in wildlife and his Kent zoos treated gorillas and tigers as well as humans, who he referred to contemptuously as "biomass".

In his later life, he was considered an eccentric due to his membership of the Zulu nation and his far-right anti-EU views.

But in the late 50s, Aspinall was a young arriviste, a hustler born into a middle-class family in India whose private gambling games attracted the cream of English society.

Ian Fleming, who based many of James Bond's gambling exploits on events at Aspinall's games, would rub shoulders with Lucian Freud and landed gentry at the tables.

But Aspinall was not averse to cheating and would often recruit card sharps to assist in fleecing gamblers who had inherited fortunes.

"John Aspinall was the great rogue of upper-class London society," claims Douglas Thompson, who wrote The Hustlers, the book which first revealed the audacious con.

"He was totally ruthless and wanted money, because he saw money as the way to advance himself socially."
Initially angered when he caught Aspinall cheating, Burke soon became his sidekick and become the financial director of Aspinall's Clermont Club, one of the first gambling dens to come into existence when gambling was made legal in 1960.

Invitations to the games of baccarat that Aspinall and Burke ran in private houses were like gold dust. The gentry clamoured to be invited, and the duo ensured that only the very wealthy were welcomed to the tables.

After the legalisation of gambling, Aspinall opened the now legendary Clermont Club in Mayfair.

The great and good queued up for membership and quickly there were five dukes, five marquesses, nearly 20 earls and two British cabinet ministers on the membership list.

"The whole atmosphere was luxury and amusement," Burke recalls. "There was laughter, joking, drinking...it was big money.

"We had games where the standard bet was £1,000, which would be £25,000 today. Every 30 seconds, £50 grand changed hands."

But new laws meant the Clermont had to pay tax and could only charge a small amount as a "table charge". Aspinall’s income dropped overnight.

Within a few years, he was in financial difficulties, and word of his problems reached gangster Billy Hill who had progressed from slashing people with blades to financing robberies.

McKew, who was working for Hill at the time, recalls how Hill made a proposal to Aspinall which "he grabbed with both hands".

The plan was ingeniously simple. Using a device like a mangle, cards of high value would be slightly bent in one direction, while cards of low value were slightly bent in the opposite direction.

The cards were then repackaged by Hill's outfit and delivered to the Clermont, where gamblers felt assured the cards were not marked when they saw apparently fresh decks opened in front of them.

"It was like robbing Fort Knox and the Bank of England at the same time - just a lot easier," McKew adds. "Some people profited, while others were ruined. But not one of the victims knew what was going on."

The scam relied upon the professional card sharps Aspina! and Burke had played at the tables.' They had been trained to identify the tiny bends in the cards by sight and played on behalf of the club.

"These readers practised for hours and hours with the cards coming out of the shoe," Burke recalls.

"They couldn't read the exact card but they knew if it was a high card, low card or a zero card. That was enough to tip the odds."

While the system wasn't perfect, it did offer the casino a 60/40 advantage over the unknowing players - the so-called Big Edge.

Within months, the scam had made millions of pounds for the duo, but Burke began to feel guilty and left the Clermont a year after the Big Edge began.

Aspinall used Burke's departure to sever his relationship with Billy Hill, claiming that it was too risky to continue the scam with Burke no longer involved. But according to the man who first revealed the Big Edge,  Aspinall then replaced it with another con involving a dodgy croupier.

In Burke's absence, the Clermont continued to attract the rich and famous. Peter Sellers and Lord "Lucky" Lucan were regular visitors, as were business moguls such as Tiny Rowlands and James Goldsmith.

After a famous two-day winning spree Lord Lucan netted himself £26,000 - worth around £380,000 today - as well as the nickname "Lucky". Lucan promptly quit his job, convinced that he could make a living as a professional gambler.

Over endless vodkas and lamb cutlets, many major business deals were struck. But Aspinall sold the Clermont in 1972 in order to dedicate the rest of his life to his other great passion - wildlife.

Meanwhile, Bobby McKew continued to lurch from one dodgy venture to the next, even spending some time in a jail in the South of France for a crime involving a robbery at Hollywood film tycoon Jack Warner's Riviera mansion.

Years after the Big Edge, McKew once again ran into Aspinall, whose family to this day deny that there even was a scam or that the gentle zookeeper had anything to do with one.

The Irishman recalls how the patrician Aspinall sought to put him down as a common criminal.

"I was at a party and he came up to me and said, 'Are you still a crook?' and I said, 'Yes, I suppose I am, but never as big as you, John, when you did all the cards in the Clermont'. And he shut up because he'd forgotten I knew."

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