The doors of London's most exclusive casinos are normally left firmly closed to the outside world. Only those who can afford to lose vast sums at the turn of a card or the jump of a roulette ball are allowed to enter.
But a rare glimpse inside has been afforded by the Ritz Casino after it issued a writ against one of its biggest customers, known as Fat Man, for allegedly bouncing £2m of cheques.
Syrian-born Fouad al-Zayat, a legend in the private clubs of Mayfair, has had his assets – which include a Boeing 727 jet and a £158,000 Rolls-Royce – frozen by the High Court. The action is a sign of the degree of the Ritz's annoyance. In normal circumstances, it is unheard of for gaming establishments to risk their business by revealing even the name of their clients, let alone details of their wealth and spending.
Court papers served on Mr Zayat at his apartment in the Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane reveal he has gambled £21m at the Ritz alone since he became a member in 1998. He visited the establishment 156 times between 1999 and 2001, losing nearly £10m.
According to the writ, he gave the casino seven cheques in exchange for £2m of chips. The Ritz claims the cheques subsequently bounced.
The casino has obtained orders freezing Mr Zayat's bank accounts in London, the Isle of Man, Geneva and Cyprus. The businessman, who has a wide range of interests, is being sued for the £2m plus £90,302 in interest.
Mr Zayat appears to be sanguine about the prospect of a high-profile court case. He said from his office in Cyprus "This is the only sin I have. I have lost a lot of money. I know it's wrong to lose money like this but if you have ever been to a casino you will understand what the atmosphere is like." The atmosphere, that only a select few enjoy at London clubs such as the Ritz Casino, Crockford's and the Colony Club, stems from their luxury and elegance.
The finest wines, such as Chateau d'Yquem and Petrus flow freely; at Crockford's in Mayfair, the dining room is stocked with free Krug champagne and lobster.
The owners of the Ritz Casino, the Barclay brothers, are not short of money themselves. The pair, Sir David and Sir Frederick, are said to be the 48th richest men in Britain.
Many in the gaming industry are apprehensive about the details of the extravagance that will be revealed if the case does come to court. One casino director reportedly said of Mr Zayat: "He has been known to spend £1m comfortably in an evening. He is also a huge tipper and it's not unusual for him to tip £ 1,000 to a waitress who brings him tea."
Much of the Mayfair gambling scene has been in the doldrums in the past few months. While the 11 September attacks have discouraged many regular punters from travelling to London, depressed oil prices have persuaded Arab gamblers, who dominate the tables, to tighten their purse strings.
But the sort of high-rollers who frequent the private rooms of the Ritz and other leading venues such as Crockford's and the Colony Club are so wealthy that not even the global recession has prevented them from indulging.
The public court case of Mr Zayat might also highlight the gambling lifestyles of the big-hitters, or so-called whales, such as Kerry Packer, the Sultan of Brunei and Adnan Khashoggi. Mr Khashoggi's numerous homes around the world and a private jet meant he could easily get to the casinos of Las Vegas and London, including the Ritz, on a regular basis. His luck at the tables began to desert him in the 1990s, when a divorce from his wife Soraya, whom he described as his "lucky rabbit" reputedly cost him millions.
Mr Packer is thought to be the biggest of the 180 or so gamblers among the top rank. In 1999, he lost £7m in three weeks at Crockford's. After being stranded in Las Vegas for an extra week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was reported to have blown millions in casinos betting £100,000 a hand at baccarat.
In one incident at a Las Vegas casino, Mr Packer is said to have confronted a Texas oil magnate who complained about the noise the Australian and his friends had been making. Mr Packer asked the oilman how much he was worth. When he said " $50m", Mr Packer responded "I'll toss you for it". The oilman declined and left.
Perhaps Mr Zayat should have followed his example.Reuse content