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OH NO, NOT THE RITZ

Lesson 5

As they walked through the door of the backgammon room a new board was just being set up.  Someone shouted: ‘Are you in?’ and they said, ‘Of course we’re in.’  It was £ 40 a point which was quite a big game in those days.  They were playing chouette, which means one player is in the ‘box’ playing against a group of others: this sharply increases the action at backgammon, because the player taking his turn in the box wins, or loses, the stakes of all the other players.  The two Sweeny brothers, Charlie and Bobby Sweeny the great American amateur golfer and all-round sportsman were in the box, against half a dozen others, including Aspers.  Aspinall was a very big builder up of games, and of atmosphere.

            The game was doubled and redoubled fairly and then the six of them doubled the two Sweenys again to £ 320. There was just no way, on the board, they could take it.  Charlie said, ‘I’m dropping,’ and Bobby said, ‘No, no, no, no, let’s have a look.’  Charlie said, ‘ No Bob, leave it.’ Bobby stared at the board.  ‘I don’t know, I’d like to have a look at this one.’  So Aspers said, ‘ Go on Bobby, take it, and I’ll take half your action.’  So he was now playing half against himself, in fact more, because he was one of six.

            The game fluctuated to the most staggering degree and eventually got to a stage where the group of six were quietly winning but had left open one combination, which would enable Bobby to hit the last remaining man they had on the board to get in. The combination is written on Benson’s heart, because Bob Sweeny rolled it, 6-2.  At that point the game had got up to £ 1,280 each for the Six.  So Sweeny, with Aspinall still half in with him, immediately doubled again.  What he had failed to notice, so excited was he at hitting them with his 6-2, was that they were still mils ahead, if they could get their one man back.  He didn’t have a full board.  So despite being pretty upset at this setback every one of them took the double, £ 2,560 each.
            When it came to Bobby’s next throw, he rolled a double-two.  That effectively filled in the blank spaces he had on his board.  So suddenly Benson, who was still metaphorically in the South of France, breathing red wine and garlic, was up against it.  If Aspers hadn’t changed sides, played both sides, he would have won £ 160, game over.  But Sweeny’s final throw virtually settled the match, and it cost him £ 2,560 on that one game about half his annual salary in those days.
            For the rest of the evening, after taking that sort of knock, Benson felt completely disoriented.  The expression current in those days was ‘steaming’ when you are really gambling, you ‘steam’.  He was steaming from the word go you take bad doubles, play wide open, take everything, otherwise you’re never going to get your money back.  That evening he lost over five grand, and paid it then and there.  There have been times, Benson recalls, when he couldn’t pay a tenner.  He once put his last sixpence on a horse, and when it lost had to walk home from Victoria station. 

            Lucan was good fun to play with, Benson recalls.  He particularly liked to make the number one point, which is actually the worst point early on, and it became known as ‘Lucky’s point’.  He would make it with a great flourish  and say, ‘The dice can only see two men!’ a ridiculous expression meaning the dice did not know which points you’d got.  They used to have a lot of fun, like on night when half a dozen of them were playing blackjack in the back room, feeling in extremely good humor after dinner, and when the bank went bust Benson let out a little cheer.  On the very next hand the bank went bust again and they all gave a little cheer.  Then when it happened a third time in a row, they let out a fairly big cheer.  The dealer looked slightly embarrassed but was enjoying it too.  And then when the bank went over the top for the fourth time, a roar went up like Spurs scoring against Arsenal.

            This time Aspers came out to look.  There was a huge chemmy game going on next door, but he found it all highly amusing and stayed to watch.  Everyone crowded around and the chemmy game ground to a halt.  The blackjack dealer went bust six or seven times in a row, which is most unusual, so even the chemmy players were cheering.  That sort of behaviour could never happen in an ordinary casino, but Aspers thought it great fun.  One of the drawbacks of all the Arab and other foreign players who are now the lifeblood of British casinos is that they do not have any sense of fun; they just sit there and gamble.

            One or two Arab gamblers might have a swing of a million in a night’s play.  Aspinall would cover any bet.  But according to Taki, today the style of games has deteriorated, far below the point where someone like himself (if he had the money) would want to play.  In the old days, it was a very elegant table … before the English got wiped out.  What constitutes vulgarity in gambling?  It’s akin to bravery or cowardice in battle, in Taki’s estimation.  It’s a certain way of acting. You smile when you lose and congratulate the winner who beat you.  Not playing like McEnroe plays tennis.  The Arabs have money, he adds, but not courage they bet high to impress the hookers.

            Jimmy Goldsmith was the man for action, a very violent gambler.  He used to like striding into the Clermont (in the days when he was not so enmeshed in business affairs) and see six or eight of them playing backgammon and say, ‘Right, take you all on.’  And he would, too, he would absolutely terrify them, even when there were ‘real earners’ in the game, professionals, like Joe Dwek.  Jimmy didn’t mind who he was taking on.  He would give doubles that no one else would risk, what are called ‘pressure doubles’.  He loved pressure, inflicting pressure or having pressure put on him.  he would giggle and chortle away, and laugh his head off if he lost, but very impatient for service, for getting on with it.  By contrast, the financier Jim Slater (who later crashed and then recovered ) liked to psych out the opposition, and talk his way through a game.  He got immense satisfaction out of not losing, which is not quite the same as winning, more like chess.

            An outsider’s view of a night out at the Clermont, and a charming description it is, has been given by French novelist Francoise Sagan, who is, as she a life-long gambler.  She found herself seated at the chemin-de-fer table, in a large, comfortable, wood-panelled room, surrounded by a few ‘inimitable specimens’ of English society: racehorse owners who, between each banco, talked only of the turf; two outrageous old ladies with flowery hats and enormous jewels; a degenerate young heir who bore the name of one of the best English families.
            The stakes were all in guineas, as Mlle Sagan recalls the scene (With Fondest Regards, 1986), and she had no idea of their value.  Someone brought her a little pile of chips in exchange for a little piece of paper which she happily signed.  To her left there was talk of horses, to her right of regattas.  Meanwhile her little pile of chips disappeared, one after the other.  Hardly had one pile vanished than a splendid valet would place another on a silver tray in front of her and she would sign another little piece of paper.

            At length, feeling slightly alarmed, she discreetly asked the valet to write down for her the sum she now owed.  ‘He went over to speak to a tall, well-built man, who was very nice, and had been circling the table since play began.  He was none other than the owner of the Clermont club.  He did a quick calculation, wrote a figure on a piece of paper and the trusty messenger brought it over … I glanced at it.  I had to draw on all my moral precepts, all my strength of mind, all the good upbringing my parents had tried to give me and all the bad that I had succeeded in acquiring by myself, not to fall over backwards.  My debt totaled £ 80,000.’

            To pay off his debt, she realized, she would have to give up her flat, ask her mother to take care of her son, and spend two years working exclusively for the taxman and the Clermont.  If she was going to lose two years of her life (and here Mlle Sagan showed her true, pure gamblers spirit) she might as well lose four.  She called for more chips, took the bank and won it.  After that she held the bank whenever she could and by a miracle it was all coming back.  After an hour had passed she inquired of the messenger how she stood with the house.  A little note came back from the proprietor, which she unfolded without betraying any haste.  She now owed only £ 50.
            She stood up and cordially took her leave of everyone at the table.  She had by this time discussed the Epsom Derby with the person on her left and the attractions of Florida with the person on her right.  She paid her £ 50 to the cashier, and the proprietor saw her out.  ‘It was a great pleasure to have you at my tables,’ said this very friendly man, ‘especially since the French are generally so lacking in sang-froid when gambling.’  ‘Oh,’ Mlle Sagan said in a thin little voice, ‘Oh, the very idea.  One plays for the fun of it, don’t you agree?’

            It was Bobby Sweeny who introduced the wonderful word ‘buff’ to the group.  It was just after Chappaquiddick, and Bobby said.  ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about.  All the poor guy did was stop off for a buff.’ Benson and Dominick Elwes took the word up immediately, it was such a pleasing euphemism ‘Had a great boff last night’ or ‘It was just a boff de politesse’ (making love to a girl simply because it was expected of one) and so on.  You could use it in any society.  Elewes was the Clermont club wit, a brilliant mimic, a great friend of Aspinall and just about everybody there, but not really a gambler.  The Lucan affaire was to cost him his life, too.

            Elwes was blamed, after a detailed reconstruction of Lucan’s life and times had appeared in the Sunday Times, of committing the cardinal sin of blabbing to the press.  In punishment, he was barred from Annabel’s, night club of the jeunesse doree and the most stylish place in town, founded by Mark Birley underneath the Clermont, and from his ultra-exclusive luncheon club Mark’s. (Aspinall himself had always been very supportive of Elwes.) It turned out later that it was a horrible mistake: according to the author of the article, Elwes was not the source of the piece, as had been supposed: the photos had come from Lady Lucan.  But Elewes was judged guilty by Goldsmith and Birley of an unforgivable breach of confidence.

  (He did contribute a witty sketch in the style of Max Beerbohm showing some of the chaps at lunch, with one of the members, broad back bent forward, apparently relieving himself in a corner; it was nicely done and no one with any sense of humour about themselves could have taken offence.)
            Deprived of the circle of friends around whom his whole life revolved, banishment was too much for such a highly-strung young man to bear.  He killed himself.  At his funeral, Aspers delivered a fulsome oration, ‘Oh, why did you leave us, Dominick?  Why did you die?’  Immediately the service was over, an outraged cousin of Elwes stepped up to Aspinall and gave him a good sock on the jaw poker games.
            Veronica Lucan was completely ostracized by the group from the very moment of the tragedy of which she was the victim. How could she be to blame?  How was she responsible for her husband’s drinking, his debts, his fit of rage?  The answer, it seems, was that she was regarded as an outsider, a usurper somehow, of Lucky’s freedom.  After many travails with legal and family problems, she continues to undergo treatment for severe depression.

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