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Tales from the Clermont Club following its Mayfair closure


5 Jul 2018

44 Berkeley Square in Mayfair. Built for Lord Clermont in 1742, with a design that showcased elegance and elitism.

It was 1962 that the venue opened as The Clermont Club, an exclusive, members-only, gambling hub for both old aristocrats and young tycoons.

John Aspinall was the man behind the club, having made somewhat of a name for himself in the years previous by hosting illegal gambling sessions within homes in London.

He had taken advantage of a relaxation in British gambling laws and set out to provide a gambling environment equivalent to that experienced by the elite some centuries earlier.

Yet, the club has now closed. It had changed ownership numerous times over the years, with Aspinall selling to Playboy Enterprises in 1972.

The leisure group Rank bought the club in 1990 before selling for £31m to a company owned by Malaysian magnate Quek Leng Chan in 2006.

Countless tales have been told over the years highlighting some of the goings on inside The Clermont Club. Here are some of them:

The Earls and Lords

Players of the highest wealth and standing were commonplace within The Clermont Club.

Chemin de Fer was the most popular game on the premises, where one relatively short losing streak could cause losses to escalate quickly.

Among the celebrity clientele were Roger Moore, Frank Sinatra and boxer Joe Frazier. Princess Margaret was another regular visitor, while there were five dukes, eight viscounts and 17 earls on the books.

Moore’s attendance was particularly ironic as Chemin de Fer was written as the favourite casino game of James Bond. More information on how to play Chemin de Fer can be read here.

Lord Lucan was said to be one of the ‘Clermont Set’ of regulars and is stated to have visited the club to pay up debts on the night before disappearing for good, following the bludgeoning to death of his children’s nanny Sandra Rivett.

The Earl of Derby is considered to have lost half of Yorkshire in a single evening’s play, while another story referred to a £200,000 payout to the head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli.

Ernest Blow

In one high-roller game of Chemin de Fer, Aspinall was seated at the table with big fish including James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, Lord Derby, Lord Lucan and Chicago billionaire Blow.

The game had been rolling on for a while and the stakes had gradually began to increase. Unfortunately for Aspinall, so had his losses. The casino was said to be down by more than £1.5 million.

With the prospect of the casino recouping a fair chunk of these losses looking unlikely, Blow suddenly took matters into his own hands.

In his book Heroes And Contemporaries, Jonathan Aitken wrote: “Suddenly Blow vomited at the table and had to be helped to the cloakroom.

After some mopping up, the next round of the game was meant to begin when Aspinall announced in a sombre voice ‘I am sorry to have to tell you that Ernest Blow has just died. We will have to stop’.”

As players made their way to Annabel’s nightclub, they were surprised on arrival to see Blow looking full of life on the dancefloor.

Aspinall was challenged to explain what had happened, with Aitken revealing that his reply was that “when you’re down £1.5 million, you have to take desperate measures”.

The Big Edge

According to business partner John Burke, in a story that has never been corroborated, Aspinall had made acquaintances with London gangster Billy Hill, who had become well known for carving a V sign on the face of his victims.

Although The Clermont Club was successful, Aspinall also ran Howletts, which was a sanctuary for dangerous animals including gorillas, black rhinos, tigers and cloudy leopards. He needed more money.

Hill suggested an idea for a con that became known as ‘The Big Edge’.

There was no fancy technology behind it. Instead it involved doctored sets of playing cards.

The cards were opened, certain ones were bent slightly in either direction by a machine, returned into their cellophane wrappers and then delivered to the Clermont tables as if they were new.

Trained individuals were paid to work for Hill and Aspinall, understand the bends to know which cards in the deck were of a high or low value and then play the table games.

These individuals could then use their knowledge to make a calculated guess as to the hands of all players in a given game and then place bets accordingly. This was said to swing the odds to 60-40 in favour of the club.

The scam continued successfully for two years, until Burke decided to leave The Clermont Club.

Around this time Aspinall brought to an end the scam, giving Hill the reason that it was becoming too tricky to conceal.

The Clermont club thrived throughout the swinging sixties, but never really recaptured its spark afterwards.