The Casino That Cheated, The Story of John Aspinall and The Clermont Club
The Clermont Club in the late 1960s was one of the most extravagant and elegant gambling houses in the world, a magnet for the super-rich who liked to gamble. It was luxuriously and tastefully decorated and furnished and was more like a Georgian upper class gentleman's townhouse than a gaming club. The members came from all over the world, with many from the USA and the Middle East joining British politicians and landed gentry at the tables. It was a bizarre mixture of power, glamour, addiction and fabulous wealth, as well as self destruction.
Fortunes were won and (more usually) lost on the Chemin de Fer tables. On one notable occasion the young Earl of Derby a vast landowner who had only recently come into his inheritance, lost half of Yorkshire in one evening.
Watching benignly each night was a tall, charismatic, distinguished looking middle aged man called John Aspinall, the owner of the club and no small gambler himself.
What none of the members realised as vast sums changed hands on the tables, was that the games were rigged. The cards had been professionally doctored and on each table at least one player was a skilful card professional in the pay of John Aspinall and was reading his own and other players' cards as they were dealt. The other players did not stand a chance.
The other thing tht they did not realise was that John Aspinall's partner in the scam was a gentleman called Billy Hill, a murderer, pimp, mobster, torturer and controller of London's vast gangster underworld.
This is the story of Aspinall, Hill and the Clermont Club scam.
John Aspinall was born into a British army family in India 1926. After his parents' divorce his mother married Sir George Osborne, who paid for the young man to go to private boarding school at Rugby. He was expelled for having an 'idle and rebellious'' attitude, and after serving in the Royal Marines for three years he went to Oxford University but his interests were not academic. A self-styled rake and buccaneer, he was interested in money and social climbing and wanted to join the elite of British society. He displayed an extraordinary skill at poker which enabled him to infiltrate a crowd of smart gambling degenerates, including one James Goldsmith who became a lifelong friend.
At the time in post war Britain the class divide was immense and rigidly demarcated. Gambling in casinos and betting shops was illegal and no-one had used gambling before as a way of jumping classes. Aspinall was about to exploit a weakness in the system to achieve his ends.
Aspinall realised he could circumvent the existing gaming laws which banned gambling from fixed addresses, by running gambling games, invariably chemin de fer and baccarat, 'floating' each night between private' high quality Mayfair and Knightsbridge addresses, which the law did not cover. As organiser, he and his partner, John Burke, took a cut of every 'pot'.
He struck a nerve in austere postwar Britain and wealthy customers flocked to his gatherings as his reputation for high quality gambling house parties spread. Aspinall made sure that only those with large amounts of money were allowed entrance. They included friends of Royalty and many of Britain's landed gentry including the Earl of Derby, Lord 'Lucky' Lucan and the Duke of Devonshire. He attracted so many well-placed players that when the games were finally shut down by the police in 1958, the action led to the passing of the 1960 Gaming Act, a new law permitting gambling, passed as a direct result of an abortive raid on one of Aspinall's gambling parties.
The Clermont Club
So Aspinall had created the social and legal framework to take the next logical step to further his ambitions for upward mobility and in 1962 he opened the Clermont Club in Berkeley Square. It quickly became famous for the Mayfair set that frequented it and for Annabel's in the basement, the dance and dinner club that became London's most fashionable and exclusive evening spot. To make the gaming as discreet and exclusive as possible, membership in the gaming rooms was deliberately limited to 600 and included 5 dukes, 5 marquesses and 20 earls.
Aspinall's managerial style at his successive gaming establishments showed him at his worst, for he showed no compunction in charming, shaming and bullying rich young men into gambling beyond their means. He also went into partnership with one of the most ruthless and powerful mobsters of the London underworld, Billy Hill.
Billy Hill was born into a London criminal family and had committed his first stabbing when he was 14. He began as a house burglar in the late 1920s, then specialized in "smash-and-grab" raids targeting furriers and jewellers in the 1930s. He was an expert with the knife (chiv) and during the years since had stabbed, battered and bullied his way to the top of London's gangland. His trademark was carving a "V for victory" sign on his victims' faces but he was merciful: "I was always careful to draw my knife down on the face, never across or upwards. Always down. So that if the knife slips you don't cut an artery. After all, chivving is chivving, but cutting an artery is usually murder. Only mugs do murder." This was a big relief to his victims.
During the 1940s and early 50's Hill operated successfully in the black market, specializing in foods and petrol and forged documents for deserting servicemen. He became involved involved in East End protection rackets with fellow gangster Jack Spot. He became very wealthy and opened several legitimate nightclubs whilst continuing his criminal activities.
By the 1950s Hill ran a vast and profitable underworld operation and he was always looking for ways to increase his income by financing other gangsters. He had carefully noted Aspinall's successful gaming parties and contacts and alliances had been discreetly made in the pubs and clubs of Mayfair and the West End. Hill, the gangster and Aspinall, the Club owner, were about to go into partnership.
The Big Edge
Despite Aspinall's amazing success in setting up and running the Clermont Club, he was always in financial difficulties due to the vast sums of money he was spending on his animal sanctuary, Howletts. This was a breeding zoo for dangerous animals such as tigers, wolves and gorillas. It was financed almost wholly by Aspinall's gaming income. With the advent of legal gambling Aspinall's income, ironically, went down. Overheads were far more than they had been at the private games and, with his new, legal status, Aspinall had to pay tax and could only make a "table charge", which produced much smaller revenue for the house.
Word reached Billy Hill that Aspinall was desperate for money. He met Aspinall and outlined his proposal for what was to become known as 'the Big Edge'. Aspinall found the idea irresistible and the stage was set for one of the most outrageous cons of the century.
The scam was simple in its execution and depended on doctored packs of cards. Marking the cards would have been detected easily, so a mangle-like machine was constructed that would bend the Clermont's cards a fraction, one way or the other, to denote their value. The cards were then put back into their cellophane wrappers, sealed as new and delivered to the club for the night's gaming.
A trained "reader" would then sit in at the game for the house. Since he alone could distinguish the approximate value of his own and other players' cards, he could deduce which hand was more likely to win and make his bets accordingly.
The readers were often out of work actors and were well paid for their work. As well as playing and reading the cards , they had to maintain a false identity 'front'. Because the bends in the cards were so tiny they practised for hours and hours with the cards coming out of the shoe. The con gave them the ability to know if a card was a picture, high or low. That was enough to tip the odds and it gave them, and the House roughly a 60-40 per cent edge. As the months went by, that turned into millions of pounds net profit which was divided between Aspinall and Hill.
Not a Morality Tale
The moral of the story could be 'Crime Does Pay'. The Big Edge continued undetected for over 2 years and was only stopped by Aspinall when his partner, John Burke, decided to retire. He then cut his links with Hill giving the reason that the scam was getting too difficult to conceal. Amazingly, Hill agreed and bowed out gracefully.
In the early 1970s, Aspinall sold the Clermont for £500,000 - just before a market crash drove the gamblers away. Then, in the late 1970s, he started another Club, the Aspinall Curzon, backed by Goldsmith, and, in 1987, sold it for £90m. With about £20m of the proceeds, he established a trust to fund his two zoos.
Billy Hill died of natural causes in his flat in London on New Year's Eve 1983. Aspinall contracted jaw cancer in the late 1990s. On finding out that it was probably terminal his reaction was typical:
''You can have 5 to 2 against me making it, or, better yet, I'll give you 3 to 1,'' he said. ''It's a good bet. I only have a 30 percent chance of surviving this.''
He didn't survive it. He died in June 2000. The odds finally beat him.
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