"He had the gun at my friend's head," says Harry, one-time thief, pick-pocket and compulsive gambler. "And me on the other end of the phone. He told me to deliver pounds 1,800 in the next 20 minutes or Tony gets his head blown off."
Tony had gambled money he didn't have. At 2am, his gambling partner Harry arrived at the unassuming address in the East End of London. Luckily for Tony, he was able to hand over a bundle of notes.
"Those places," says Harry "are p--- holes. I'd feel so scared in some of them that I wouldn't leave the table in case my legs were shot off." Far away from the glitz and legitimate opulence of the West End casinos, illegal gambling dens, known as spiels, are dotted around London's back streets. "If you can't pay your bets you may end up paying another way," says Supt Michael Hoskins of the Metropolitan Police's Clubs and Vice unit. "But they do vary in character according to who runs them."
Often situated behind mini-cab offices and cafes, spiels are set up in places where people coming and going won't attraction suspicion. The word "Spiel" derives from the Yiddish spieler, meaning "gambler". They date from the 1920s and were started in Soho by Jewish immigrants and a swelling Oriental community in Chinatown. Even today, older members of Jewish society, according to police, run them in the north west of the capital. Yet it is as a Runyon-esque cliche of the criminal underworld that they have gained notoriety with the authorities. In a cheap flat in Deptford, south east London, you may see gangsters in Saville Row pinstripe, flush and flash. But it's more likely to be thieves, fences and any other hustler who fancies his chances at kalooki or poker. To get in to this, one of the bigger spiels, you have to be introduced. Loud gold jewellery, accentuated by garish shirts, is the dress code.
"There's shady deals going on all the time and people are involved in drugs and robbery," says Mary, a single mother in her early thirties who works as a spiel waitress. Alcohol is banned and spiel owners adhere to the rule, citing the fact that drinking impairs judgement and can lead to violence by sore losers. But cannabis is considered a soothing influence and Mary's duties including rolling spliffs, making sandwiches and cups of tea for players. She says she can make up to pounds 100 in tips a night.
A bedroom contains couches for gamblers who may need to nap during games, which can last all night. Spiels don't have the stringent entry requirements of casinos, and they are open around the clock.
The money involved can run to thousands of pounds. Spiel owners can take 5 to 10 per cent from the "pot", which makes a spiel an "illegal gaming establishment" and not just a game of cards between friends. Which is where problems arise. Hold-ups are common and as one spiel owner says, "What are you gonna do? Dial 999?"
Supt Hoskins admits spiels aren't an overriding police priority. "Only if they become a nuisance or a disturbance to neighbours," he explains. This year police carried out 20 raids and claim meagre resources as a large factor in not being more pro-active. "The courts punish with such small fines anyway that you have to ask, is this what the public are paying us to protect them from?"
There were only nine prosecutions this year for running illegal gaming premises, most in London's Chinatown. Fines ranged from pounds 100 to pounds 1,000. Bill Galston, Chief Inspector of the Gaming Board, says: "The courts can't disqualify premises because these places just set up at another address and are back up and running again."
Which, depending on your perspective as a spiel punter, can have an equivocal outcome. Harry is now with Gamblers Anonymous. But as he says: "I know I can go to a spiel any time - day or night. That for me is the real danger."
8 Names and locations have been changed in this article.
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