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2
OH NO, NOT THE RITZ

ONE DARK NIGHT in January, 1958, Inspector Samuel Herbert of Scotland Yard found himself hanging ‘almost by the eyebrows’  from the grille of a window outside a flat in Mayfair, trying to see what was going on inside.  The flat was rented by Lady Osborne, wife of the 16th baronet, mother of John Aspinall, then aged 31.  What Inspector Herbert managed to see, from his precarious position on the fire escape, was ‘a table covered with green baize cloth, people sitting round the poker one table and someone dealing from a dealing shoe’.  Earlier in the day the police had observed a trailer drawn by a Rolls-Royce transporting chairs, boxes and other paraphernalia from Spinal’s home over to the flat. 

The same kind of move had been observed two weeks before.  At about 10 or 11 in the evening things became quite active; people were seen to arrive at the flat in cars and on foot later others came out.
            Shortly before 1 a.m. the police, who had been waiting and watching outside, went in.  ‘Anyone would think we were a crowd of criminals!’ lady Osborne protested.  ‘Why don’t you catch some real criminals?  There are plenty.’
            The police brought summonses against Lady Osborne and Mr Aspinall and a friend.  John Burke, under the Gaming Act, charging them with conducting unlawful gaming: chemin-de-fer.

            The game itself was not illegal: conducting chemin-de-fer on a regular or habitual basis, as in a gaming house, which was what the prosecution alleged, was illegal.  The case, because of its aristocratic connexions, was an immediate cause celebre.  All three defendants pleaded not guilty.
            Inspector Herbert told the court he went into the dining room and saw a large table, covered by a green cloth, sub-divided into numbers from 1 to 10.  At position number 10 was John Aspinall.  Just in front of him was a wooden box containing counters marked in different denominations, a dealing shoe and packs of playing cards.  Most of the people around the table had counters in front of them.  There were also two wooden ‘card scoops’.

            After the order authorizing entry had been read, Inspector Herberet said he asked Aspinall what they had been playing and he replied, ‘You Know what it is.’  He asked him the value of the counters, and again he made no reply.  After Aspinall had been shown the warrant authorizing entry, he shouted: ‘The bank is worth £500.’
            Someone cried: ‘What about the police joining in?’ But no one called banco.  The police posse numbered 15, including two women.
            The defense was based on the fact that there was no evidence of unlawful gaming unless it was first established that the premises used were a common gaming  house.  One instance did not constitute ‘use’.  Accordingly, Mr Gilbert Beyfus, QC, submitted there was no case to answer.
            Referring to the gaming laws, he said that between 1738 and 1744 six games and one class of game were made illegal: ace of hearts, faro, basset, hazard, passage and all games played with dice except backgammon.  In 1744 roulette was made illegal.  Lawful games could be subdivided into games which were games of mere skill and those which were not.  ‘The only game of mere skill that exists is Snap and as that is only played in the nursery we can disregard it for all practical purposes.’

            He accepted that chemin-de-fer was 95 per cent chance and five per cent skill.  It fell into precisely the same class as bridge, poker or bezique (a preposterous claim, but that was not his real point), or any of the other numerous games of cards the winning of which depended largely on chance and partly on skill.  They were unlawful games only if played in a common gaming house.
            ‘The whole secret of this case and the muddle into which the police have plunged is that it was started on a complete mis-conception.’
            After hearing the arguments for and against, Mr Justice Cassels, the presiding chairman of the London  Sessions, called in the jury and told them he had come to the conclusion that there was no case to answer.  The three defendants were formally declared not guilty and discharged.  They were refused costs on the ground that ‘it was a case which had properly to be investigated.’

            Celebrating over champagne after their acquittal, Aspinall conceded the costs of the case might be quite heavy, but said it was worth it.  He was fond of giving parties.  ‘As for having my friends around for a friendly, casual game of poker, pontoon or chemin-de-fer, it is quite possible that in the near future I shall do the same again.’
            Asked if he had started playing cards with snap, he replied, no doubt with unconscious irony, that ‘beggar my neighbor was my favorite game.’
            The case was brought due to the anomalous and muddled state of British gaming law.  What the police did not, apparently, notice or understand not being too familiar with chemin-de-fer was that although chemmy is usually a game for 9 people, Aspinall was sitting in seat number 10.  He was running the game: the real point of it all was that the’ house’ took five per cent of winning banks.  In a game like chemmy, which is essentially a doubling-up game where the bank tries to run a succession of coups, the cut or cagnote is huge.  Online Poker layers don’t worry about the cut too much, in the excitement of winning:  if a player holding the bank wins three times in a row, running up a £500 bank to £4,000, then the cut (each coup is ‘taxed’ in succession as it is played ) seems relatively insignificant.  In the end, though, if everyone went on playing long enough, the house would wind up with all of the money.  Beggar my neighbour indeed.

            The case elevated John Aspinall to fame as ‘Mayfair’s number one gambler’.  Never a man to seek publicity, ‘Aspers’, as he was known among his set, cut a favorite figure for gossip columnists, combining aristocratic disdain with reckless extravagance.  Jane, his first wife, was dubbed by the press ‘The spirit of Park Lane’.  For 30 years Aspinall has personified something a touch out of date in our times: gambling as style.
            The aristocratic ethic… not  a ‘snobbish’ conception so much as an expression, though gambling, of confidence, of style, of social ease, by a group of people distinguished by good manners and good taste rather than breeding, though money came into it too.  For one thing, people who went to the private chemmy parties had to be able to afford to play, and that more or less excluded Aspinall’s friends at that time.  Most of the people he liked did not have any money, and nor did he.

  The mid-50’s was the heyday of the private game.  Aspinall had discovered, and taken legal advice to confirm, that private games were within the law its letter if not its spirit if they were not habitual.  He had hit upon an ingenious idea, actually a fabulously profitable idea, though he would never describe three operation in such crude terms. 
            He was not seeking to run a ‘floating’ chemmy game in the vulgar American sense, like Nathan Detroit’s crap game in a backstreet garage.  He was giving a private party.  A party at a friend’s house what could anyone object to in that?  Even two parties at the same address, if they took place over a period of a month or two, could hardly cause a raised eyebrow.  Only if a succession of gaming parties were held in the same house would it lay the host open to the charge of habitual gaming. 

The private chemmy game exactly hit the mood of the times.  The English loved to gamble.  The gaming law was absurd and out of date.  There was a sense of money and good times in London, as a new generation of men about town came of age, and the populace was exhorted by the Prime Minister of the day, ‘You’ve never had it so good’.  Up to then the gambling set among the upper class used to pop over to Deauville or fly down to Cannes to get its thrills at the tables.  Aspinall offered a headier cocktail, shaken in Mayfair.

            A lot of other people tried the same thing.  I remember hoarse, mysterious voices ringing up at all hours, and inviting one over to some insalubrious dive in Earl’s court.  ‘C’mon, Dave, we got a little game going’ on.’  There would be an assortment of young bloods and their girls, bookies, con men from the gangster fringe, rough drink and low laughs.  And very little assurance that any cheque passed would in fact be honoured the next morning.  Aspinall’s invitations were personal, to people who knew they would be mixing with people of their own sort, friends who could rely on absolute discretion in such company.  Aspinall understood the social nuances of re-creating the spirit of gentlemen at cards in an eighteenth century salon.

            Have you played chemmy?  Great fun.  The game has no skill in it whatever, or none that I could detect.  Each coup is decided by whether the banker or the player gets nearer to a total of nine, drawing two cards from the ‘shoe’, a long wooden box containing six decks, with an option of drawing a third card.  The excitement of the game lies entirely in the high stakes, as the size of the bank builds up, and the bets around the table get higher and higher.  The decision whether to stand pat on the first two cards or draw a third card is precisely prescribed for each case, and must be followed automatically: the only choice for the player is on a total of five, when he may elect to draw or not.  The bank moves round and round the table, so that all the players are gambling against one another, not the house.  The house makes its profit, as already mentioned, by cutting five per cent from winning banks.  It is an elegant and stylish game, played in French Banco! Suivi! Neuf a la banque! in which the British quality of showing a stiff upper lip in losing, and not over-much elation in winning, is taken for granted.

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