The king of clubs

He played everywhere, from Mayfair to Monte Carlo, and with everyone, from Soho sharps to Lord Lucan. In this exclusive extract from his memoirs, The Independent's late, legendary poker columnist recalls how a passion for gambling came to hold him in its grasp.
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The En Passant was a working-class café serving coffee and egg-and-chips, and it attracted chess players of all sorts and standards. They crammed in to the far end of the long, narrow room of the En Passant, oblivious to everything except the game in hand - chess players are even more addicted than poker players.

The En Passant was a working-class café serving coffee and egg-and-chips, and it attracted chess players of all sorts and standards. They crammed in to the far end of the long, narrow room of the En Passant, oblivious to everything except the game in hand - chess players are even more addicted than poker players.

Upstairs at the En Passant was a little attic, hidden from view, where a floating poker game ran all day and all night and never seemed to stop. It attracted a cross-section of low life players, hustlers and hangers-on, who dropped in and out, for as long as they pleased or could afford it.

Tom Wolfe caught the style of the En Passant at the threshold of the swinging Sixties exactly: "The top floor is the poker room, and it is like a big garret. It is gloriously seedy. There is some kind of wall-to-wall carpet on the floor, only it doesn't look like a carpet but like the felt padding you put under a carpet, and it is all chewed up and mouse-grey with bits of cigarettes and lint and paper and God knows what all else all caught in the chewed-up surface. There is more haze from the smoke, and at the end of the room there are six men seated around a table, playing poker, under a big lamp with a fringe on it. They are all in their 30s and 40s, it looks like: a couple in very sharp sort of East End flash suits, like Sharkskins, a couple in plain off-the-rack-suits, one in kind of truck-driver clothes, and one guy looking rather Bohemian, in some kind of trick zip-up shirt of corduroy."

Wolfe's droll piece described how when the fire brigade was called to the building neither the chess players downstairs nor the poker players upstairs paid the slightest attention:

"With a tremendous crash one of the firemen, with axe in hand, breaks through the kitchen window. He stares at the six players, concentrating on their cards, and all of a sudden feels a bit sheepish.

'I think I broke some of your teacups when I came through the window,' he says.

'Wooooooeerrrrr,' says Sharkskin, 'why don't you get in the game, and we'll take some readies off you.'

The fireman walks over to the table and looks at the punters with their pile of 'readies'.

'Wooooeerrrrr,' he says, axe in hand, 'I think I'll just watch.' "

It was in the attic at the En Passant that I learned, as all players have to do, the hard grind of poker, the ins and outs of the game that make it so much more subtle than the mere rules of play, which look so simple. Did I win? Well, sometimes. My accent gave me away as a bit of a toff and, therefore, an easy mark. On the plus side, I was not desperate for money, unlike most of the players up there, playing off their beam-ends. That upstairs room was a warm, intense, scruffy, very enclosing and comforting space to be in, an easy retreat from the cares of day-to-day living.

 

 

The games were not always straight. Five card stud is a game that lends itself to cheating because the identity of one card is so crucial. But even the cheats were not very expert. It was a game where people stayed for nights and days on end, or until they "did" their money. One of the traditions of the En Passant, instituted by Ted Isles, who ran the game, was GHM or Going Home Money. When a man went broke, as most players were bound to do, he was given a hand-out of a couple of quid to take a taxi or a bus back home. There were some tragic cases of people going broke.

One I remember in particular was a young man who came in two or three days before Christmas, and despite many pleas and protestations to the contrary, managed to do all of the money painstakingly saved up by his girl back home, intended for Christmas dinner and his baby daughter's presents. When he finally lost his last few bob, he was really done for. Not even a decent wad of GHM could have saved him, because he would simply have gambled it away elsewhere. Probably unconsciously, he wanted to break with his domestic life, but what a shameful way to do it.

Amid all the betting and bluffing and "strokes" there were fights and rows, friendships made and broken, small fortunes won and lost - all human life, as the famous newspaper phrase put it, was there. Ted's partner, the man who ran the café, was a large, lugubrious, heavy-eyed type called Boris Watson, a softly spoken and educated man, possibly of Russian origin. He played chess well and poker badly. Once I was rash enough to invite him along to my other game, the one we played after dinner at Le Reve, an enticing, candle-lit, restaurant on the King's Road, Chelsea. Boris could see that we were all mugs, but the game was so complicated - seven card high low with a twist, plus wild cards - he could not get hold of it, and lost £500. Of course, the predictable happened. His cheque bounced.

I went along to the En Passant and remonstrated with him. Boris shrugged and shilly-shallied. He could not pay even if he wanted to. It was my own fault. You should never invite players to poker games without being absolutely sure they can afford to pay if they lose. But you always do invite them anyway, because the school, on a particular night, needs another player to make up the game.

The En Passant of blessed memory could not last for ever, unfortunately. The place was pulled down for rebuilding, and Boris, who had fallen on hard times, tried his luck as a numismatist, selling coins under the name of John Copperman. He died, I fear, a disappointed man.

Ted Isles was tougher. He was not exactly without mercy, but he was a hard man. The GHM was handed out to the deadbeat losers in dribs and drabs, reluctantly, if not grudgingly. (Rather like the old vintique at Monte Carlo, when destitute players would be paraded around the principality, so that everyone could mark them down as uncreditworthy, before being sent back home on a train.) Ted was an ex-policeman who had spectacularly fallen off the beat. Instead of taking a 16-year-old girl in his charge into custody, he had chosen to seduce her. Bravo! Ted's heavy style is shown by a little trap I set for him one night, of no real consequence. Making change of a £1 note for him, I deliberately paid him 21s. He counted the money down and did not bat an eyelid, sliding the coins into his stack.

 

 

I suppose the game that had the most influence on me was at Crockford's, the celebrated and long established card club, then located in a stately mansion in Carlton House Terrace. My introduction to it came in a roundabout way, through a casual friendship with the later-to-become-world-famous Lord Lucan. In those days, when his father held the title, his name was simply John Bingham. John's parents lived in the flat above my family in St John's Wood but I was always too shy of approaching him.

Then unexpectedly, one balmy June night at the casino at La Croisette in Cannes, I saw him playing chemin de fer. In his early 30s, wearing a white dinner jacket, his hair swept back over his noble brow, his gaze calm, languid and assured, he looked the epitome of an aristocratic sprig wiling away a night at the gaming tables. John affected the same expression of mild amusement whether he won or lost each coup, as the shoe went round. I introduced myself, we had a drink and we became friends. Back in London, I got to hear of the poker at Crockford's. This must have been just a year or two before the Gaming Act of 1968, regulating casinos. I invited John to come and inspect it with me.

We were greeted by a splendid scene. The whole room - high-ceilinged, sparkling under chandeliers - seemed to be filled by old ladies, Jewish grandmothers predominantly, furiously engaged in playing five card draw. They played intensely, very fast - shuffle, cut, deal; bet, raise, call! - because the table charge was, as I recall, £1 or £2 an hour, and they did not want to lose a moment of their precious time. The hands were played out with machine-gun rapidity. The ladies were not so old, I realise now, as they appeared then. But we were certainly young. We shone out, the pair of us, like milk teeth.

John introduced me to the Hamilton Club, which was a town house at the end of Park Lane (now rebuilt) where in gentlemanly, but slightly decaying grandeur, they played five card draw and deuces wild and other simple variations. The Hamilton was a classier, less frenetic version of Crockford's, with plenty of action. John became the centre of a fast-living set of men-about-town, including a couple of high-rolling stockbroker types. All that was way beyond me, but I do remember one surreal evening when a very old, very gay gentleman called Captain Solomons or some such incongruous name - I am not altogether sure if he didn't even wear a monocle - invited John and I to dine with him and his equally decrepit companion.

They must have known we were not of their sexual bent. But to be seen dining out with a real lord, of such fresh and aristocratic mien as John set them purring like a pair of old cats. I remember only one line from that evening when the Captain told me, in a confidential aside,that once a week he had a young man visit him in his flat. "Just once a week, you know." I wasn't sure if this was an invitation for one of us to follow suit or just a confession of faith. We returned rapidly to the card game.

Although I was never close to John, in due course I attended his wedding and he attended mine. I liked him for his drawling, generous, easy-going manner and, above all, his love of cards. One night we were cheated in a game somewhere and he took it without complaint. In fact I never met a player who won, or lost, with such good grace. All that was long before his crack-up: his drinking and his debts, the break-up of his marriage, and finally the terrible night when his children's nanny was brutally battered to death, and when Lucan was subsequently charged with her murder.

 

 

I discovered that by playing tight and waiting for good starting hands I was pretty well sure to win. And win big, at the stakes we played. This led to the worst experience of my poker life. Not losing, but being barred from the game - blackballed, as they would say in the gentlemen's clubs of Pall Mall.

Our Tuesday night game had been running for 10 years or perhaps longer. As poker games do, it had survived week after week, through thick and thin, with the same hardcore of players augmented by occasional players from out of town. The game was famous thanks to the writing of people such as Al Alvarez, Tony Holden and myself.

We played a feisty high-stakes game (too high for our own good) of dealer's choice. The money went around. You could easily win or lose £3,000 which was for us a lot of moolah. I was never the big winner. But I was, at the end of each year, never a losing player either.

All of us, as happens in poker games, were quite close friends away from the table. We had wined and dined in each others' houses, and had celebrated and commiserated together over love affairs or other personal matters. But they resented my style, playing so tight.

So it happened, and I remember the night precisely, during the Falklands War, when a British warship had been hit by an Argentine missile and took serious casualties. I had been working late at London Broadcasting, where I was diplomatic correspondent, commenting on the war every day. I arrived at the game an hour or two after it had started. I then took a call at the game, as I recall playing a hand as I responded to a question on air, explaining some new development. I certainly did not feel like playing poker and got tighter and tighter. Late on, a hand of seven card stud came down and I folded high-showing cards, for a paltry bet of a couple of pounds, which really anyone would have normally played. Someone expostulated:

"What is this, David? This is supposed to be a friendly game! Aren't you playing anything except aces! Jesus Christ!" There was a murmur of assent all round.

"Sorry, I had nothing," I said, turning over my hand. There was an ominous silence. "I don't feel like playing tonight, with all this Falklands stuff. I'm going home. Send me a cheque for my winnings tomorrow," and I left.

Then I got "the letter". Written in impeccably polite terms, with a strong undercurrent of regret, it informed me that I had been formally banned from the game. O-U-T.

I felt awful. To be turned down by your peers; is there anything worse, from a social point of view?

This state of affairs continued until an old friend, Victor Lownes, former director of the Playboy Club, suddenly rang me up. "Come on over," Victor said, "there's a seat open." That is how I joined the Wednesday game.

I can truthfully say I don't pine one jot for the old Tuesday game whose original spirit more or less evaporated. Looking back, this episode of my poker life, which went on and off for years, seems like a bad beat that came good.

 

David Spanier died earlier this year. His memoir, 'The Hand I Played', is published next week by Oldcastle Books at £16.99

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