The Real Casino Royale. Underground Dealings at Aspinalls

Posted on February 24th, 2009

It is not often that we recommend a TV program, but did you happen to catch the “Real Casino Royale” on Channel 4 last night at 9pm? If you missed it, try and see it on a rerun or on More4.

It was the latest in a series of documentaries called “Toffs and Crims” and we thought it was a riveting investigation into the life of the late John Aspinall who set up and ran the famous casino of the same name in Mayfair.

According to “The Real Casino Royale”, John Aspinall, the famous Mayfair casino king was one of Britain’s most successful gambling cons. According to the programme, over 2 years in the sixties the multi-millionaire ran a scam in which he cheated his customers to the tune of millions of pounds in his own club.

This allegation is vehemently denied by his close family and friends-the documentary has first-hand accounts from the surviving members of Aspinall´s world with reconstruction that tells the story of the Clermont Club and the alledged con that was going on there.

‘It was like robbing Fort Knox and the Bank of England at the same time – just a lot easier,” says Bobby McKew, a former gangster who was part of the scam called “the Big Edge”. Managing this clever scheme was the club’s owner, John Aspinall.

McKew claims that Aspinall teamed up with gangland boss, Billy Hill to carry out the con. John Aspinall had the contacts, and Hill had the muscle. The documentary is based on a book called The Hustlers, written by Douglas Thompson. Aspinall was obsessed with money according to Thompson- he saw it as the only way to get ahead socially.

During the late 50s and swinging 60s, Aspinall’s club played host to a Who´s Who of London including Ian Fleming, Lucian Freud and Lord Lucan. London was where the action was in the world and there was plenty of money swilling about.

When casinos were still illegal, Aspinall organised baccarat parties in London, taking a slice of the action. Only the seriously well off were invited. Guests included the Earl of Derby and the Duke of Devonshire. There were games where the normal bet was £1,000, (£25,000 in today´s money).  Lord Derby lost £300,000 in one night – a sum that would equate to £7 million in today´s money.

When gambling was legalised in the early 60s, Aspinall opened the Clermont Club at 44 Berkeley Square in Mayfair. The upper levels of society banged on the door to get in and Aspinall obliged. However, Aspinall had to pay tax and could only carge for the table, which soon saw him running into the red. This is where Billy Hill stepped in.

Using a machine to subtly bend the Clermont’s cards, the group could mark the numbers off in the deck. The cards would be then be put back into their wrappers, sealed as new and delivered to Aspinalls for the night’s sessions.

An inside man would then sit in at the games and, with the knowledge of the other player´s hands, rig the odds to the house´s favour. Burke explains: “They couldn’t read the card exactly but they knew if it was a high , low or a zero card. That was enough to give the house and increased advantage”- the house edge balooned from a low percentage to around 40-60%. The millions of pounds that it generated was alledgedly split between Aspinall and Hill. Hence “The Big Edge” scam.

If true, this would be one of the biggest cons of all time, certainly within these shores.

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