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OH NO, NOT THE RITZ

Lesson 7

Aspinall’s success as gamester extraordinary to the English aristocracy and the international set may be compared with the achievement of the celebrated ‘Greek Syndicate’ in the years between the two world wars.  The Greek Syndicate ran the baccarat games in Deauville, Cannes and Monte Carlo.  Its motto “Tout va’the sky’s the limit.  This famous challenge murmured politely by dealer Nico Zographos, at the start of the big week at Deauville in 1923, created a sensation in that golden arc of high society which frequented the continental spas.  ‘Tout va’  was an invitation, a ‘come-on’, as the organizing spirits behind the syndicate, notably Francois Andre who managed the Deauville and Ostend casinos, well knew, which no big player could resist to try to break the bank at baccarat.  The game itself is exactly like chemin-der-fer, except that instead of the player all gambling against each other, the two halves of the table, six players on each side, bet against the house as banker.

            A throng of rich old men, kings and captains and sportsmen of a Europe forever gone, fastened on the challenge.  Over the years they tilted at the Greek syndicate, and sometimes they won huge sums.  Zographos, described as small and dark, rather like Charlie Chaplin with deep pouches under his eyes, was an unemotional player.  His worst moment came at Cannes in 1928.  Running the bank on a float of 30 million francs, he was down to his last million.  Barccarat is a game in which a sudden swung of luck for the players, ten or a dozen coups in a row on each side of the table, can wipe out the banker, despite his theoretical 0.8 per cent advantage.

            The Greeks’ last million was riding on single coup, as Charles Graves describes the moment in None But The Rich (1963).  Zographos  dealt the cardgames both opponents said ‘Non’, meaning they held likely winning hands.  he turned over this own cards a king and queen ‘bouche, bouche’ nothing! Word had gone round that Zographos’ credit was exhausted.  This was it.  As the players and onlookers around the table craned forward, he drew the third card and quietly turned it over it was a nine, the perfect card.  to celebrate the coup, which broke the losing sequence against the syndicate, Zographos bought a nine of diamonds  tie pin with cuff links to match: the nine of diamonds became the pennant on his yacht.

            And what about the customers’ yachts?  Very, very few of those baccarat players rose from the table as rich as when they sat down.  Of course they won, but they came back, and came back again.  For four decades the syndicate held the gamblers of Europe in thrall.  When Zographos dies in 1953 he left over £ 5m, despite large sums disbursed to family and friends before his death.  No gambler before or after has left such a vast fortune amassed entirely from card playing, and that from only one form of it, claims Charles Graves.
            Zographos’ record, and his achievement in sustaining it so long, must be judged greater than Aspinall’s own success, because baccarat is a game in which the banker relies on his skill to win.  On every hand, he has the option of whether to stand or draw, depending on his assessment of the players’ hands against his own, compared with the money being wagered on either side of the table.  by contrast at chemin-de-fer, the game which launched Aspinall, the cagnotte or five per cent cut on winning banks will automatically destroy the players, and progressively enrich the house, the longer the game goes on.

            Baccarat is seldom played nowadays in the old way, except at Monte Carlo and one or two French casinos, having been superceded by the mechanical and uninteresting modern version of the game known as Punto Banco in England and Nevada Baccarat in America.  According to Zographos, there is as big a difference between a good baccarat player and a poor one as there is between a scratch golfer and a man with an eighteen handicap.
            ‘There is no such thing as luck,’ he once observed.  ‘It is all mathematics.  There are three kinds of cards good cards, bad cards and indifferent cards.  you must play them according to what they are.  That is not a contradiction.  You may have luck for an hour or two, even a day or two, even a week … what people call luck is merely an established fact seen through the spectacles of after events … the main difference is that the punters usually double up when they are losing and hedge when they are winning.  I will put it another way: the bank plays baccarat as though it were contract bridge: the punters play baccarat as though it were poker.’

            Despite the syndicate’s motto of tout va,  Zographos showed excellent judgment when things did occasionally get out of hand, like the night Sidney Beer the racehorse owner and orchestral conductor kept turning up 8s and 9s and simply obliterated the bank.  Beer had the kind of streak which happens to a few lucky people once in a lifetime: he won 12 coups consecutively in a series in which his side of the table won 26 our of 29 times.  He had bet this phenomenal run with great courage or great courage or great recklessness according, as he said, to how you like to look at it, and retired to the bar for a celebratory drink.

            Summoned to the table when it was his turn to play the hand again, he won another five coups in a row, doubling up.  Zographos showed no emotion, but suddenly rose from the table, bowed to the assembled company and said politely: ‘C’est assez pour ce soir.’  Within two years Sidney Beer had lost all of it back and was a heavy loser to boot.
            Zographos gave up the game at the onset of war in Europe, retiring to Switzerland, where he concentrated to resume dealing for the syndicate in the years after the war.  He was waiting, he said, for the good days to come back.  He meant when people had money again the English in those days were limited to an annual travel allowance of £ 25.  On Zographos’ death in 1953, the syndicate required new partners.  They were forthcoming, but the risks were underlined when the new syndicate, which had started out with 300m. francs (worth then about £ 320,000) got wiped out in ten days at Cannes in August 1957, despite being over 120m. francs ahead one night.

           The bank hit a run of 14 losing coups which, so dealer Sammy Denounce told Charles Graves, should not happen more than once in a decade.  On the final coup, tableau one asked for a card and the bank dealt out a 2, tableau two asked for a card and the bank dealt 3.  Denoune himself had a 5.  With the odds so heavily in his favour, he stood pat- the chances were that both tableaux were less than 5 and quite possibly baccarat, 1,2 or 3, so it was about two to one his winning on both sides of the table and about three to one his winning one side and being egalite with the other.  In the event tableau one was drawing on a 4 and tableau 2 and a 5, so he lost to both.
            That night Jack Warner won £ 50,000 and Darryl Zanuck £ 15,000.  It was no consolation that the pair of them, having busted that game, went over to Monte Carlo and lost it all back at the baccarat table there.  In any case, the syndicate was coming to an end, in the new social milieu of the swinging sixties.  Aspinall’s private parties had already set the new style.

            The final survivor of the old gang was Francois Andre, who had run the Deauville casino where Zographos first announced ‘tout va’, and had been the eminence grise of the syndicate ever since.  Reflecting on his long career as his life neared its end, in his private suite at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes, he confided that he was dying with a clear conscience.  He believed it was a grievous mistake to make too much money.  (Among other good works, he had built a hospital in his native Ardeche.)

            The gamblers who had impressed him most, in the 40 years of the syndicate, was Zographos.  ‘He always had the absolute conviction when dealing the cards that he could not possibly lose.  He gambled for fantastic sums.  By contrast, he would never have risked five francs if he had been punting against the bank.’
            Andre’s last English visitor was golfer Henry Cotton.  Lying back weakly on his bed, Andre waved his gnarled hands round the bedroom: ‘Et voila! Mon Empire.’

When the stakes are so high that it really hurts, gambling may be called ‘deep’.  The concept of ‘deep play’ was well expressed by in 1790.  By it he meant play in which the stakes are so high that it was (from his utilitarian standpoint) irrational to engage in it at all.  As he put it:

            Though the chances, so far as relates to money, are equal, in regard to pleasure, they are always unfavorable.  I have a thousand pounds. The stake is five hundred.  If I lose, my fortune is diminished one-half; if I gain it is increased only by a third.  Suppose the stake to be a thousand pounds.  If I gain, my happiness is not doubled with my fortune; if I lose, my happiness is destroyed; I am reduced to indigence.
            There were many aristocratic young sprigs frittering away their fortunes in Aspinall’s games, who would have done well to heed this early statement by Bentham of what is now known as the theory of marginal utility.

  Young men who played (as we all have done in our time) over their heads but, in this rakish ambiance, lost more than just money heirlooms, inheritances, even houses slipped away across the baize.  Deep play is sustainable, perhaps, if you are the Duke of A or the Earl of B, owning houses stuffed with family treasures: such a man always sell off a Goya or a piece of Georgian silver and hardly notice its absence: for the lesser men among the gamesters, it went harder.
            What induces people to engage in deep play?  The Clermont might seem to have been in its heyday a peculiarly English sort of club, harking back in its style and exclusiveness to the gamesters of some candle-lit salon of the eighteenth century; but I am inclined to think, human nature being what it is, that deep play, in its own social context, exists in many other cultures around the world.  As an illuminating sidelight on the derring-do at the Clermont, one may cite an experience of gambling quite strange to our own society, the Balinese cockfight.

            Cockfighting to Bali is like horse-racing in our own society, not just a sport, but part of the fabric of social life, in which the top owners, by their wealth and standing, set the standards for the sport as a whole.  Actually, cockfighting in Bali is more akin to illegal gambling here, because it is forbidden fruit, banned by the authorities, and forbidden fruit is always far spicier than the ordinary variety.
            Gambling, intense and continuous and extraordinary, according to anthropologist Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1975), is what characterizes cockfighting in Bali.  In the period under review, fights were held three times a week, and fortunes wagered on them.  Stakes were many times in excess of a man’s monthly earnings, whole villages and kindships were swept up in the fever to back their own cock, such was the enthusiasm for gambling on the contest.  The betting was usually close to even money, because the cocks were closely matched, a further inducement to high stakes.


            ‘As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring.  For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there,’ Geertz says.  ‘Actually it is men.’ Why do they, village people, people living off the ricefields, close to their temples, with a rich and elaborate culture, why do they gamble so wildly, go so far over their heads in their betting?
            For people who think like Bentham (nowadays mainly lawyers, economists and a few psychiatrists, says Geertz) the explanation is that such men are irrational addicts, fetishists, children, fools, savages, who need only to be protected against themselves.  For the Balinese, the explanation lies in the fact that in deep play where men bet so high above their normal standards of economic value money is less a measure of utility, to be won or lost, than it is a symbol of moral import.

            In deep games, more is at stake than material gain: namely, esteem, honour, dignity, respect in a word, status.  Yet it is at stake symbolically.  No one’s status (leaving aside a few ruined gamblers ) is actually altered, it turns out, by the outcome of a Balinese cockfight; it is only momentarily affirmed or diminished.  This is not to say that the money does not matter: it is because it does matter that the more of other things, such as their pride, their poise, their dispassion, their masculinity, are also risked.  It is because the ‘marginal disutility’ of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that in this kind of deep play a man lays his public self, through the medium of his fighting cock, on the line, say Geertz.

            To a Benthamite, this might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further; but to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all.  By contrast, the smaller ‘shallow’ cockfights, where the money is important to the players, are regarded as of no social significance.  This graduation of status gambling with deeper fights and, inversely, money gambling with shallower fights, is exactly like the graduation of horse-racing in our own society: to win the Derby is a public triumph, whereas the outcome of a selling plate on some provincial track is of no account likewise with the betting involved.

            What makes Balinese cockfighting deep is thus not money in itself, but what money causes to happen… a psychological release of emotion, in a representation of the interactions of everyday life … ‘a migration of the Balinese status hierarchy into the body of the cockfight’.
            Or, to translate the jargon of social psychology into everyday terms, the cockfight is a kind of replica of real life, in which the tensions of living, social and psychological and violent, are displayed in a deliberate way in a ‘game’.  In this process, the Balinese are put in touch with themselves, or an essential part of their being, as we are in our society, so Geertz concludes, by seeing a performance of King Lear or Machbeth or reading Crime and Punishment.  The cockfight is like a text which takes up the themes of death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, the pleasure of triumph… but not merely these things, which in themselves are obvious, but these emotions as a paradigm of the way society itself is constructed.  The cockfight focuses in a small space governed by strict rules a people’s experience of their life: but without the intensity given by the betting, the effect could not be achieved.

            Well, I am not seeking to imply that the scions of English nobility who frequented Aspinall’s chemmy games were duplicating the experience of going to the theatre at Stratford-on-Avon, still less that they were somehow re-living in the play of the cards the tensions of the British body politic.  But there is a parallel with the cockpits of Bali.  It is certainly true that ‘deep play has a social dimension, of conferring and reducing status, without necessarily altering the player’s material position.  In these games the players are rivals but act as gentlemen; to lose gracefully is the highest attribute, to win well hardly less so.  Those who do both have popularity and standing among their peers; those who fail are regarded as ‘bad sports’, uncompanionably.  To bet for such high stakes, losing as one young man was reputed to have done ‘the most beautiful house in England’, is madness.  Yet without  the high stakes none of the ritual or the manners of the game carry6 any weight or feeling: that is really what it’s all about: a way of feeling things more intensely.

            If one asks such players why they engage in gambling for absurdly high stakes they do not offer very articulate answers.  It is ‘exciting ’ yes; but it comes down, very often, to the reverse side of that, to being ‘bored’ by not playing, a feeling that to stand aside from the group would be to lose out, to miss the whole point of being a member of such fast company.  Deep play is not utilitarian, unless like Aspinall you are running the game as well as gambling in it;  whether viewed as a pastime or a social rite, or if you like, a ‘text’, those who engage in it feel, probably not at the conscious level, involved in something which goes beyond mere gambling guide.  Does the Balinese instance seem too remote from our own experience?  If so, there are examples closer to home.  The aficionados at a bullfight are not just watching a man kill a bull, are they?  Style is everything.  Aspinall always had it.

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