It could't have looked more respectable. A smart address in an 18th-century mansion in London's Berkeley Square, well-spoken young toffs in dinner jackets, champagne and pheasant pie, beautiful women straight out of Debrett's, and a clientele of the rich and aristocratic.
This was John Aspinall's Clermont Club in 1964. But all wasn't as it appeared.
Because behind the scenes a gigantic con was being played on hundreds of unsuspecting gamblers, a scam devised by the Marseilles Mafia, but which led to millions being shared by the unlikely and secret partnership of the ultra-snobbish Aspinall and London's biggest underworld boss Billy Hill.
Everyone knows that gambling is a dodgy business and that the bookie always wins, yet for years London's smart society would gather trustingly at John Aspinall's discreet gaming tables. After all, he was a gentleman, wasn't he?
Well, apparently not, if author Douglas Thompson's sources for this book are to be believed. According to John Burke, once the Clermont's financial director, despite Aspinall's genteel airs, charm and smart accent he was a successful thief and clever conman.
The Clermont con, known here as the Big Edge, was brilliant. Marked cards in chemin de fer, the fashionable game of the time, would have been too easy to spot. So a small, mangle-like machine was constructed which would bend the Clermont's customised cards a fraction, one way or the other, to denote their value. Then the cards would be put back into their cellophane wrapper, sealed as new and delivered to the Clermpnt Club for the night's gaming.
All it took then was for a trained 'reader' to sit in at the game secretly for the house. Since he alone could distinguish the approximate value of what cards the other players received, he could deduce which hand was more likely to win and make his calls accordingly.
Because the bends in the cards were so tiny, it wasn't foolproof, taut it gave the house a continuous 60-40per cent edge, and that as the months went by turned into millions to be divided between Aspinall and Billy Hill.
On the first night of the operation alone the tax-free winnings for the house were about £14,000 — that's £280,000 in today's money.
Even by Aspinall's standards that was big money, but he'd been coining it since the mid-Fifties when, having spotted an opportunity at a time when running a gaming house was against the law, he'd begun holding illegal private gambling parties at rich friends' homes in Belgravia.
That those who attended the parties were not only rich but respectable was a masterstroke of psychology. Since gambling outside a racetrack was forbidden, there was no reason why losers should honour their cheques, as Aspinall could hardly sue them if they failed to pay. But cleverly he worked on the principle that even if he personally had little honour, his friends did. He knew they had the money to squander, and that they could be trusted to keep their wprd and pay up if they lost. Mainly they did.
Thus, one night in 1958 landowner Lord Derby, who Aspinall seems to have considered his private piggy bank for the raiding, lost over £20,000 at an illegal chemin defer party.
Obviously other players won, while Aspinall and his team made £19,401 from the cover charge for organising the event. As John Burke, who has kept the records, calculates: 'In 2007 money this might be presented as a tax-free half a million pounds' earnings for a night's work.'
Aspinall, remembered now as much for his private zoo as his clubs, does not come well out of this fascinating book, but then nor do most people in it, as Thompson brings back to life that network of the rich, suave and well-bred who peopled the gossip columns for a generation.
They're all here, the 'thick as two planks' drone Lord Lucan, who would later murder his children's nanny mistaking her for his wife (having, of course, first paid off a gambling debt he was a gentleman, after all), James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Claus von Bulow and Aspinall's friend Jimmy Goldsmith, who would go on to become a billionaire.
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