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Lesson 3

He sees a cleft between the English, which can be traced back for 500 years, between the Puritans and the Cavaliers.  Part of the poker nation has always been puritanical, he believes: the Lollards, the Levellers, the Wesleyites, the Non-conformists, the Socialists, the Puritans.  And then on the other side there are the Cavaliers.  Probably they’ve never understood each other, but they have often acted well together, inter-locked, because Cavaliers are conquerors and adventurers, and Puritans tend to be better managers and administrators.  In this sense they need each other.  When they have cooperated.  Aspinall avers, the nation has prospered; when they fail to understand each other, the nation droops.  To take a recent example, when Labour moved too far to the left and wanted to institute a puritanical ‘Come-on’ type of society, without, as Aspinall saw it, pleasure or liberty.

            Aspinall admires, sympathizes and identifies with the new breed of gamblers for a particular reason.  It ’s like musicians: instrumentalists from all over the world, even if they cannot speak each other’s language, if they can play the cello well, or the xylophone, or whatever instrument you like, have something in common.  Likewise there is a freemasonry among big gamblers, or gamblers of any size  for that matter.  It crosses the boundaries of race or language or culture.  He feels happy in that company.
            Because Aspinall is a gambler born and bred.  It began at Oxford, where he spent his time playing the horses.  Mostly the jumps.  That ’s what kept him going in the years after Oxford, punting on the horses, poker, the occasional game of chemmy.  He had no money in those days and went to private chemmy games as a small punter to try his luck.  He realized at Oxford that he was not cut out for the academic world, or for a steady rise through the hierarchies in business, or a career in the Foreign Office.  He probably would not even pass the exams for these sort of things, though he enjoyed the subject he was reading, English, as far as it went, which was only up to Dryden.  What he did realize was that he had the temperament for gambling.  He felt at ease, at home among gamblers, a rapport with them.  And he realized, too, that he had an advantage through being able to accept high risks without loss of nerve.  He was not a heavy drinker, either which is another plus point in gambling.
            It was at this time, soon after Oxford, that the decisive, shaping experience of Aspinall’s life occurred.  It ’s a very funny story, that begins with his step-father, Sir George Osborne, trying to find a job for him, like any other young man starting out in life.  Aspinall insisted he was unemployable, because instead of taking his degree at Oxford he’d gone off to the races at Ascot.  But his step-father persisted.  Sir George had formed the firm view that John was a very personable young man, with his shock of fair hair and dazzling blue eyes and outgoing personality.  Trustworthy and all that.
            So he got him an opening with a friend of his, a tin magnate from Nigeria, who has shares in a West African trading company, headquarters in Liverpool.  Aspinall, with a heavy heart, had to go up to Liverpool for an interview with the board.  Still, he was consoled by the thought that he was bound to fail.  There was a white-haired old gentleman, chairman of the board, and everything that Aspinall said to disparage his prospects they all thought terribly funny.  ‘Been to Oxford, young man?’  ‘Yes, Sir.’  ‘did you get a degree?’ ‘No, sir.’  ‘Why no?’  ‘Because I went to Ascot for the races.’  ‘you went to Ascot, by Gad? That shows enterprise, what!’  Everything he said was greeted with hoots of approval and of course he got the job at once.  He was to start off as a store assistant in Lagos, learning the business, then, after a year, move up country.

            Aspinall was sunk, because he felt very fond of his step-father.  His mother, torn between feeling he ought to get a job in a respectable firm and losing her son, reluctantly came down on the side of his taking the job.  Aspinall could see no way out.
            But the company made one mistake.  They sent Aspinall (it ’s a disgraceful story, he freely admits) a tropical kit allowance of £ 125, to be cashed only at Austin Reed’s in Regent Street.  A lot of money in those days.  He took the chit along to the shop and sought out the most dishonest-looking sales assistant he could find, and flashed the chit at him.  ‘Look, I don’t really want to spend all this here.  Can you do anything?  I know I can’t get the face value for it; work out how I can get two-thirds in cash.’   So the man took the chit away, came back and told Aspinall he could get half the amount in cash, if he signed a receipt for all those clothes.
            So he got £ 65, which was a fortune to him then.  ‘Obviously I realized I was cheating the wretched people who had given me the job.  I was putting my foot in it, my step-father, my life.  And I’d done something very bad.  But nevertheless, I didn’t hesitate to do it.’  He took the money and backed a reverse forecast, cock of the North and Valdes co, running at Doncaster.  They came in first and second at about 18-1 and 8-1.  He picked up a huge dividend of around £ 150. And with that he backed Fuslh Royal at 33-1 for the Caesarewitch, which won.  So he found himself with about £ 1,000.  At which point he was due to leave on a Union Castle liner from Southampton bound for Lagos.
            The first thing he did was pay back the money.  Sir George hit the roof.  He probably favoured taking a horse-whip to his rascal of a step-son.  Aspinall got out of the family house in Sussex in double-quick time and dashed up to London.  Having nowhere to live, he decided to stay at the Ritz.  But he wanted a friend to say with him, so he sought out a chum from Oxford called Ian Maxwell-Scott (Who still works for him today).  Maxwell-Scott was also in difficulties, it transpired, judging from the address to which Aspinall tracked him down.  He was living miles away, somewhere West, far beyond anywhere Aspinall had ever been even at his poorest: even the taxi driver baulked at driving out there because it was so slummy, doubting if Aspinall would pay the fare.  Out they went, though, to find a scene like something out of Dickens, rotting cabbage stalks in the gutter, empty bottles, and finally a slum dwelling ripe for demolition.          

The front door was hanging open so Aspinall picked his way through the rubbish and went in.  peering through a crack in a door he saw a figure lying on the floor underneath sheets of old newspapers.  He was not even sure it was Ian; but he recognized him from their days at Balliol.  He was lying on the floor because he’d hocked everything else in the room, and reading one of the papers-a five-day-old Greyhound Express.  That ’s how bad it was.  Aspinall relished the surprise he was about to spring.
            ‘I an, ’ he called, ‘things are looking up.’
            His friend let him in, then scrambled back under the newspapers, evidently feeling the cold.
            ‘I’ve just booked a room, ’ Aspinall told him, ‘number 505, a double room at the Ritz.  We’ve got £ 800.  We’re going off to the Ritz to change our luck.’
            Maxwell-Scott looked up at him from the floorboards.  ‘Oh no,   not the Ritz.’
            Aspinall never forgot that remark, from gambler to gambler.  Maxwell-Scott didn’t like the Ritz – ‘The food’s so bad.  And they don’t know what they’re doing with the wine.’  Instead of being grateful for being hauled out the dump he was living in, he was critical of where they were going.  Aspinall loved it – ‘Oh no, not the Ritz’ – loves that mentality. When one person is lucky and the other is busted out on his knees, you don’t want gratitude.  You don’t want it to be ‘Oh, thank you ’.  You just love the moment.  Anyway, they did move into the Ritz and they lived there for seven months.  They nearly got thrown out for not paying their bills, but in the end they just managed to pay.
            How do impecunious young men manage to keep gambling in extravagant style?  Aspinall and his friends had a system of ‘kiting’ cheques (flying ‘em up like a kite) whereby you wrote out a cheque to your bookmaker, and then desperately cast around for means to cover it before it cleared cash another cheque and go to the races in the hope of winning enough to meet the first cheque; and if that failed, borrow more money.  There was always a three or four day interval after signing a cheque before it hit the bank.  They didn’t invent ‘kiting’ (it probably dates from the first cheque ever written) and it didn’t always work, but they had hope.  The banks were incredibly generous in those days, in the belief that they would get paid in the end.  And they were paid, eventually.
            Aspinall in his turn has been very accommodating about collecting debts from big losers.  That is one of the reasons that his clients and friends like him even though so many of them have lost a fortune in his games.  Take, magazine columnist and jet-setter, who claims to have lost ‘two or three times a six figure  sum ’ goes even further: ‘We love Aspinall because he’s the man who’s taken our money.’ There have been bad debts.  But never any real pressure, no strong arm tactics.  The assumption is that players in this closed circle will pay, though it may take a little time.

            Charles Benson, former racing correspondent of the Daily Express, recalls an incident when Aspinall himself was put under pressure.  A call came late one night from one of Benson’s friends, by the name of William, saying, ‘Disaster’s struck, I’ve lost twenty-eight grand, and I’m not very happy about it.’  William was a young man who in those days gambled in a very disrespectful, flippant way, which some people found distasteful, but a regular punter who won quite a lot.  Benson said, ‘Well, go to bed, and we’ £ talk about it in the morning.’  William had not paid up after the game and in the morning asked Aspinall to come round fond of William, a somewhat older woman, had marshaled a team of heavies to go round there, rough trade from the race track.  When Aspinall arrived, one of the bruisers told him, ‘We don’t think this young man should be made to pay this debt.’  Aspinall wasn’t going to be remotely intimidated by these people, as Benson recalls the incident.  He said: ‘Don’t fool about with me, I’ll talk to him.’  So eventually, very shamefacedly, William came down the stairs.  Aspinall said: ‘Look, you won a lot of money in my club.  What ’s your problem?  You know you can pay.  I suggest you do.’  I suggest you do.’  And William agreed.
            In those days credit was liberal.  Benson might be having a drink with Aspers and somebody would come over and whisper that Lord so-and-so or the Duke of such-and-such or some other amazing personage wanted another £ 20,000 and Aspinall would say ‘Fince’, or ‘Just make it clear to him what he’s losing so he knows what the figure is’, or ‘Tell him it ’s all right with me, but s it all right with him?’ The house had to pay out winners immediately, but was responsible at the same time for all the losses because in chemin-de-fer the poker player are playing against each other, in a zero-sum game.  The house is the banker.
            Nowadays the law prohibits credit.  But in the old days Aspinall went out to various middle Eastern spots to collect his debts, or sent his brother or trusted aides.  It ’s just something which had to be done.  Sometimes they suspected that the Arabian gamblers were leading them round the desert mulberry busy, that they thought knocking their debts was rather a dare, like shoplifting on a grand scale.  These were arms delers, oil operators.  By contrast, the Arab royalty, the prince lings who used to play, were men of impressive dignity, generous without being flashy.  The final indignity, in Aspers’ code of honour, is not paying your gaming debts.  But the final sanction, as all gamblers know, is being excluded from the game.

Gaming bestrides the classes, in the sense that no one cares what background a gambler is from if he’s good gambler.  Aspinall with his strong sense of class has been accused of having a racialist streak in his make-up.  He can on occasions hold forth, embarrassingly so for his hostess or other guests, on ‘the purity of the race’.  This may be a consequence of getting carried away by Nietzsche at Oxford, more likely an instinctive bias towards what he would see as the superiority of English breeding.  As one dinner guest explained after enduring one of his paeans to racial purity, he can’t really be taken seriously, because many of his friends, like Jimmy Goldsmith, are Jewish.
            At the same time he enjoys being outrageous, like the time Benson took Mick Jagger to lunch at the club.  It ’s like a family dining room because everybody knows everybody.  Aspers called out at the top of his voice: ‘Hello, Mick, good to see you, glad to see you ’ve joined  the middle classes.  Because we all know you ’re middle class.
  Why do you put on that ridiculous voice when we all know you ’re a perfectly good middle class man like the rest of us?  And he added, ‘Everybody in this room is middle class with the exception of Benson.  Benson’s the only upper class person and you ’re sitting with him.  look at those two’ and he pointed at novelist Jeffrey Archer and financier Jim Slater, who both looked a bit uncomfortable ‘they’re the epitome of middle class.’ Jagger just laughed, and remarked to Benson after lunch.  ‘I wish Aspers would come up with some new material.’
            Aspinall regards himself as a very idle man, exemplifying what Tacitus called the torpor of the Saxon race.  He enjoys what he does at the club.  It doesn’t really count as work, going up to the gaming rooms after dinner, to see what ’s happening; it ’s all exciting, especially if people are online poker playing for high stakes.  Or he’ £ go and play with his animals at the zoo, for hours at a time.  He can’t pretend it ’s work, in the sense that you have to do it, nine-to-five.  What he hates is being at lawyers’ offices all day long or waiting around at airports.  It ’s those very boring things he regards as work.

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