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THE LEGAL AND ILLEGAL OPERATIONS OF JOHN ASPINALL

There are a lot of pictures (all to scale) and a long story below them which gives a great insight into the operations of John Aspinall over a 40 year period, and I have for sale a very limited number of hitherto unknown pieces from both the legal and illegal operations.

The two plaques and two jetons are all that is known from Aspinall's first legal casino in London.  All the other pieces shown were from the moving game and other operations described in the story.

Email me or use the shopping cart below the pictures if you are interested in buying any of these.  Prices include shipping.

(Front and back of Mother and Pearl pieces shown.  Design varies slightly on every piece, each being unique)

£100 plaque - $70          
£50 plaque - $50             
£10 jeton - $20                
£5 jeton - $20                   
Bakelite set of 10 - $75 
Square MOP - $15           SOLD OUT  
Round MOP - $15            SOLD OUT  
Oblong MOP - $15           SOLD OUT   
As Gene would say, it is a long one but a good one. Hard to believe an illegal game 50 years ago had stakes comparable with a private room at Caesars or Bellagio now. When Gene first saw some of this on-line I think he was a bit surprised also. Anyway, enough of that...

John Aspinall was a major player in the London gambling scene from the mid-1950’s until his death in 2000. It wasn’t until I had cause to research these operations in recent times that I discovered how much of his ‘underground’ activities had been public knowledge and are well documented.
He was an avid preserver of endangered wildlife, opening his own zoo in England (Howletts) where he lived on the adjoining farm until his death in 2000. The sole purpose of his legal and illegal gambling proceeds were to fund this passion. In his early days, he had been a bookmaker, although he was never a gambler himself. At this point, it is worth reading this brief resume on Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Aspinall_(zoo_owner)
Note the astonishing sums of money being played for in the underground ‘chemin de fer’ game, considering this was back in the mid 1950s. £50,000 changing hands per game is the equivalent of around $2.5m USD now. In case you didn’t catch it, that was PER GAME, with the Earl of Derby losing the equivalent of $14 million on one night! You will see that the game drifted in and out of ‘legality’ with the law being changed twice over the years as a result of Mr Aspinall’s operations Even after John took to opening licensed casinos, the underground game continued (because he didn’t have to pay income tax on that one!) until the 1980’s, despite what the article says. Those I interviewed over the past 5 weeks indicated that the stakes in the illegal game were always 10-fold what the punters would stake in the Clermont or Curzon!

My story begins with a chance telephone call from Lewis Deyong, who it turns out was a long time world backgammon champion, and international organiser of just about anything you could bet on, legally or not, for the past 50 years. He was a longtime associate of John Aspinall.
“David. I was recently at the Victoria, and asked Tony (cage manager) about some old chips I had picked up in my travels that I was looking to have valued. Perhaps you could give me a call next time you are coming to London and drop by for afternoon tea ”
At this point I knew nothing about Lewis, his pronunciation had me write it down as Louis De Jong, probably due to his part American, part French accent. Even after our first meeting I only uncovered his background by searching on the internet.
I had to go to London the week following Lewis’ call so I arranged to meet him. He told me that during his many trips around the world he picked up a chip from most casinos he visited. He took a small wooden box from the shelf behind his desk and tipped the contents out on the table in front of me. Aside from a couple of better Vegas chips, the majority were European jetons that you see regularly. I explained the Vegas chips could be worth a few hundred dollars “Is that all? In that case I’m keeping them”. One jeton from Aspinalls caught my eye, I put it to the side while the rest went back in the box. “Is that one worth a lot then?” I said I didn’t know, I was curious, because very few pieces from the original Aspinall’s casinos had ever been seen (in fact the ONLY other piece I was aware of was an Aspinalls Curzon plaque that used to be on display at the Palm Beach Cannes).
“That jeton is from the first casino we opened in our own right” said Lewis. Who is ‘we’, I ask. “John (Aspinall), myself, James Obsorne (John’s half-brother), [and several others I have been asked not to name due to their profile or continuing involvement in London casinos today]”.

No mention of the illegal operation was made during the discussion, but Lewis explained how Aspinall had founded the Clermont Club in 1962, sold it off 10 years later, and the first Aspinalls casino was then opened in what had previously been the Hanstown Social Club, in Hans Street, off Sloane Square. They always referred to this as “The Knightsbridge operation”. It was shortlived at that address, and the jeton we were discussing was from this one year occupancy before they moved to Mayfair and became Aspinalls Curzon. This is turn shortly became the Curzon House, which Aspinall operated until selling in 1983 for $30m to Peter De Savaray. When his money ran out in 1992, he set up a new Aspinalls (later renamed Aspers) which was then run by his son Damien, and James Osborne, who more recently has opened several more casinos in the UK under the Aspers brand.

That explains why I had never before seen an original Aspinalls piece, and that only one piece from Aspinalls Curzon had ever been recorded.
“If you are that interested, I might be able to find someone who has another of those jetons”. Yes, I am interested. He immediately picks up the phone and calls Damien Aspinall. “Damien, Lewis here. I’ve got someone with me who is interested in the original Aspinalls gaming chips. Does anything still exist?” “Maybe, let me talk to the guy”. Lewis hands over the phone and I introduce myself and explain who I am. I mention our childminder from 10 years ago, Brenda, whose sister was John’s PA. That seems to do the trick. “Years ago, they were in a crate in James Osborne’s barn. He lives next door to me down at the zoo, give me an email address and I will have him contact you”

When I got home, I found that James Osborne had emailed me already asking me to call him. I started doing some googling to see who all these people were and learned a lot. James, John Aspinall’s half-brother, is uncle of the present UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George. These people were all from upper class nobility etc., i.e. related to those mentioned in the Wikipedia article as being the participants in the original illegal games. Seems like they ran their own games and fleeced each other

I called James. “As far as I know, the crate is still somewhere in the barn. I wouldn’t like to say what condition anything is in though, having sat there for 40 years. I could have a look when I have time and send you one or two if I find them, or you can come down here and hunt for them yourself.” At this point I’m not sure whether a 200 mile trip will be a wasted journey or not. Then he says “I tell you what else might be in there – the chips we used to use in the travelling game” Uh??? No mention of this before. What travelling game? Ok, when can I come? “Tuesday afternoon would be good, I will email you some directions”.

Tuesday comes. I arrive at the farm. Damien is there as well. Wishes me luck finding what I am looking for and heads off for a meeting in London. James says it is time for a cup of tea and a chat. He likes to talk. He has good stories. Some that can be repeated and some that can’t. Photo’s to back it up. I can look at them but I can’t copy them. Some of those involved in the games own the biggest London casinos today. He is more interested in showing me who was participating. Looks like a who’s who of the world’s biggest gamblers – to name a few of the regulars – Kerry Packer, Frank Sinatra, Aristotle Onassis, The Aga Khan, Lord Lucan (if you don’t know who he was, he is well worth a google in his own right ) and Frances Shand Kydd, mother of Diana, Princess of Wales). “By the time the travelling game ended, these people were playing for millions each night . Many knew they were being screwed, but they were all friends of John and knew the profits all went to a good cause” “I’m much younger than most of those involved. When this all started, I was the one that had to run round telling everyone where next weeks game would be, and delivering the invites. Then on game night, I had to be a lookout” I told him this related to ‘fall guy’ in similar US establishments. “I had to move this dirty great chemin de fer table around for them in the dead of night. Even though it broke down into 3 pieces, it was a killer when it was stairs up to the top floor . They looked after me though as I was ‘family’” He recalled the many times they were raided but each time got away with it on a technicality. “Im quite happy for you to quote me on all this, and use my name if it helps you. I retired from being managing director of Aspers a few years ago, and Damien was way too young to have been involved”. One great story was when playing in an upper floor room, they were aware of footsteps on the roof above. There was a tiny crack at the top of one of the pairs of curtains through which a pair of peeking eyes could be seen. One of the players headed over to close the gap and saw it was a police constable hanging upside down, his feet being held from above by colleagues. There he hung looking though the window at the London Police Commissioner, a regular in the game.

Tea is finished and its time to have a look in the barn. He finds the old crate. Yes, it is an old crate, musty, damp, a tinge of leaking formaldehyde etc. etc. Plenty of jetons in two denoms and a few plaques. I take a look and figure I can salvage a few dozen pieces if I am lucky. He says “When we are done, bring your car round here and take the crate. Sort it out at home, I don’t have any use for them. If you get anything for them, split it 40/40 and 20 for Lewis.” Sounds fair to me. We go hunting for the Chemin de Fer pieces. No luck until he recalls a bunch of old shoes boxes on a shelf. “Wait a minute, I think they might be in there”. He gets a ladder and retrieves a box. Inside, there must be a 1,000 pieces. Many have little or no print left but a few show a ‘1’ and are marked “Pour Le Service” on one side, and “Not valid as a stake on the other”. These look like drink tokens, I say, although strange there would be 5 boxes of 1,000 drink tokens “Half the reason we got away with it. Able to convince the judge these were nothing to do with gambling. We were never actually caught red-handed at the table. Always managed to move everything quickly enough. People settled by check or IOU at the end of the night so no-one had cash, although I remember one night when Kerry Packer lost his car on a bet, and had to hand over his keys and get a taxi home. Cost him £150” The denoms seemed low and strange – 1, 5, 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 & 250 (also two unmarked ones). “You need to talk to Lewis. He actually played in the game. He will remember exactly how they were used. He can put you in contact with other people involved also who may have more stories to tell. Sorry the pieces are mostly in a bad state, I guess we had no idea someone would actually be interested in them after all this time. I hope it wasn’t a wasted journey” I just told him to drop them in the crate while I moved my car round
When I got back he had also found a handful of mother of pearl pieces with John’s “A” (Aspinalls family monogram which is still the present day ‘Aspers ‘logo’. “These were some sort of markers, something to do with the commission, made the game move faster” I could relate to that having learnt they dealt a hand every 30 seconds from Wikipedia. “Take these and show them to Louis as well. Im heading off to Australia for 2 months next week. I go every year. I built a casino there years ago and still have a big house. When I sold it, I made enough to guarantee the zoo would continue for a couple of generations.” I thank him for all his help and leave. He promise to contact a few other associates who might still have chips from other old casinos or operations.

I get home and have a look at what I have got. Lori says “Im not having that stinky crate and boxes in here, they can go to the garage right now!” So I spend the evening in the garage discarding leaking pieces and any they have been in contact in, before pulling out what I can find in relatively good condition. A few pieces I only find 8 of, others I have plenty. I bag up what I salvage and bring it in. They will be for sale in a separate post (tomorrow).

Time to call Lewis again “Hi Lewis”. “Ah, James tells me you visited this afternoon and found some things. I may have something else for you as well. When are you coming back to London” I don’t actually have a reason to go back but make one “Tomorrow or the day after” We arrange another meet. “Lewis, you didn’t mention the travelling game to me?” “I didn’t think it was my place to do so, but now James has told you I have no problem. I have a couple of other friends who are going to come over and join us as long as their names don’t get mentioned”.

I go back to London the following week (we are now between xmas and new year). “Lewis, I cant figure out why the majority of pieces from the travelling game are 1, 5 & 10. I did some searching on the internet and it indicated these games had £1,000 minimum bet.” “Sure they did, the ‘1’ you are holding was a £1,000 chip. The ‘250’ was a quarter million.” One of his friends recalls Kerry Packer having almost the entire rack of 250’s in front of him on night when the game had to end early. They bagged up to continue elsewhere a few days later and on that following continuation he lost the lot. They figured he had been ahead about £85m!!! at one point.
Now I ask about the mother of pearl pieces. “These were placed in front of players as IOU’s to indicate commission due. When they reached a round number the coupier would take them back, with the appropriate chip(s). Only way we could deal so fast. Making change was slower than the game itself”
By now I figure I have enough info and proof in the use of these pieces, and sufficient for this article.

Lastly I ask why the real casino pieces from the original Aspinalls are so low denom. “The real players wanted the private game. They didn’t want to play big money rubbing shoulders with the public, and that first casino was tiny. We only had 3 tables. £5 & £10 black jack so that was all we needed there. That’s why John moved premises so quickly. The Curzon could accommodate big players in private rooms. There were a handful of bigger plaques but they were never used. As far as I know, those and other similar mementoes were buried with John.
I headed home. Ive been putting this together over the past couple of months as I have had to re-verify a few things I had forgotten (I wish I had secretly recorded it all ).
 

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This website written by David Spragg.   Also trading on Ebay as marlowpokerchips and marlowcasinochips.