My own experiences were primarily in the smaller, grass roots casinos, which in the States would have been referred to as “sawdust joints.” The exalted environs of John Aspinal’s, Clermont Club, Quent’s, and Crockford’s etc. were beyond the aspirations’ of a young eighteen-year-old break-in, trying to make his way in this new and glamorous world. That being the case, I leave that part of London casino history to others whom I sincerely hope will contribute their own experiences’ and recollections to this tale-o’-the-times.
My own globe-trotting, gaming career began as a trainee Croupier, attending Tony Black’s Croupier’s school, located a floor above the Mazurka Club on Soho’s Denman Street. We all looked up to Tony as he was an experienced croupier with all of three months experience working in the business! An old timer as far as we were concerned. I had moved to London from Florida the year previously to work for my father’s electronic s’ business in the Holland Park Mews. The father & son thing was not quite working out and I soon found myself waiting tables in South Kensington which barely paid for food and a four-quid-a-week bed-sitter. About this time I also started working as a board-boy, posting the odds coming over the wire service from the race tracks. This was for the bookmaker/turf accountants “City Tote Ltd.” located in Sheppard’s Market, just off Curzon Street in Mayfair (for ten quid a week, before taxes!). It was challenging to say-the-least to learn to deal the games in Pounds & Shillings, but even more of a head-spinner to revert to the decimal system and dollars & cents upon my return to the States in 1968 and employment in downtown, Las Vegas. I had to convert all bets back to Pounds and Shillings in my head, and then back to dollars & cents to make each payout! My first job as a break-in Croupier in London was at the popular sixties, show business hangout, the “Cromwellian Club” in South Kensington which was owned by Tony Mitchell, and the wrestling promoter; Paul Lincoln AKA Doctor Death . This was in December of 1965. I felt I finally had the world in my youthful grasp after responding to the portentous classified advert in the Evening Standard which read “Trainee Dice Croupiers Urgently needed.” I figured here-I-go, tuxedos and martinis, shaken-not-stirred please. Actually, I got very lucky as Tony Mitchell had walked into the school one evening and picked me out of the class along with two others. I think Tony figured Craps was the American national game and my Petrol accent would be good for business. At the time I’d only been attending dealer’s school for two weeks and didn’t know much more than a bit of chip-handling and that seven-eleven was a natural and two, three, and twelve were craps. The rest came from prowling the West End gambling joints such as Charley Chester’s in Soho, and the Mint on Kilburn Road most nights after work; picking up as much as possible on the better moves from many of the extremely skilled dice dealers that were around town in those days. The “45” later to be known by its official name as the Cromwell Mint was the Croupiers hangout of choice in those heady days of swinging-London. The name “45” still sticks as an icon among veterans of the sixties casino scene. Eventually in late 1968 the”45″was to be my final London casino job prior to returning to the United States and employment in downtown, Las Vegas, first the Fremont Hotel & Casino and later the famous Binion’s Horseshoe Club.
The original Cromwell Mint casino was located in the basement, in subsequent years expanding upstairs into the noted venue it was to become under the entrepreneurial stewardship of Stevie Rutland, an ex-hairdresser who had famously squirreled away every dollar he made while working as a dealer for Eddie Cellini in the Bahamas. Eddie, along with his older brother Dino was Meyer Lansky’s casino management of choice. The Cellini’s operated a Croupiers school in London at Fred Selby’s Restaurant in Hanover Square. This establishment was under the able tutelage of Bobby and Freddy Ayub, two American brothers’ of Lebanese decent. Bobby and Freddie were probably the two best and most respected dice dealers to come out of the Steubenville, Ohio casinos of the forties and fifties. They were to go on to operate dealers’ schools in Las Vegas and New York as well as casinos in Amsterdam and Yugoslavia till the Balkan wars broke out 1991. The extremely well trained break-in dealers they turned out either went to work in Dino’s, posh Colony Club on Berkley Square, where the American actor George Raft was the Casino Host, or to the Bahamas to work either at the Paradise Island Casino in Nassau or the Lucayan Beach Casino in Freeport, Grand Bahamas. What sticks in mind was the huge Double-End layout, New York style crap table that dominated the school’s floor. These huge tables with their five-percent vig on the buy-bets (no come line) with the two base dealers positioned at opposite ends of the table with a string stretched across the middle of the layout which the dice had to cross to be called a roll, had their final hurrah in mid-eighties Nassau when Tommy Robinson; the American Casino Manager at the Playboy Club convinced the Bahamian Gaming Commission that there was a more competitive way to do things and introduced Vegas layouts. The Paradise Island casino at that time was under the able management of Dennis O’Brian who soon followed suit (Tommy and Dennis were actually close friends and colleagues’, having worked together at the old North Shore Club in Lake Tahoe in the early seventies). Anyway, Previous to Steve Rutland acquiring the Cromwell Mint property it was controlled by a motley crew of London gangsters and minor professional wrestlers; mostly strong-arm men of Polish extraction who worked for the notorious London slum landlord, Peter Rachman. They had successfully intimidated an intelligent and pleasant young man by the name of John Billings out of the operation. First someone slashed the convertible top on John’s Aston Martin convertible, then sadly one night an altercation was started at the crap table while John was sitting box and the muscle that had been playing next to me barged around behind the table and beat John quiet badly…it was not pretty. Oddly enough I’d had words with this fellow a couple minutes previously but nothing came of it. We didn’t see much more of John around the club after that. I learned in later years he went on to make a success of him self in the blue jeans business. I doubt he could have been more than twenty-two or twenty three years old at the time. The casino floundered through 1967 and 1968 till Steve Rutland made his deal. A humorous (in retrospect) side note to Steve’s foray into casino ownership was when his first casino, located in Brighton literally collapsed one day into a pile of dust and rubble. I guess the timbers propping up the building’s walls from the outside could have borne a bit more scrutiny. I believe Mike Conti was the manager at the time. I was later to work with Mike in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in the early eighties; first at Mike McLaney’s, Royal Haitian Hotel, and later the historical, Habitation Lerclerc.
For me at such a formative age The Cromwellian Club proved to be an exciting and excellent first job. We only had five tables, but the club had a faded hip elegance which attracted the show business – rock & roll elite of the time. On any given night you’d be dealing to the likes’ of Brian Epstein, the Beatles first manager, and numerous other luminaries of the sixties rock scene. Stars such as Tom Jones, Lulu, and Eric Burden of the Animals, were regulars and could be found hanging out most nights, downstairs in the bar-restaurant-disco where the Long John Baldry band , featuring Dwight Reginald on keyboards held court. One memorable night the American film actor, Lee Marvin staggered into the club (Marvin being so tall and gangly they had to unfold him out of the back of a mini-van) completely pissed out of his gourd and started playing Pontoon (a distinctly Brit version of Black Jack where the house took the pushes, égaletes’, stand-offs and two aces beat a black jack which only paid even-money). Mr. Marvin kept writing checks on his Beverly Hills Bank till he finally wised-up and staggered over to the poker game (this was the old London five-card-stud game played with a 32 card deck that was de rigueur in those days.) This particular game attracted many of London’s better behaved villains who were quite happy to have this inebriated American actor sit down at their table. As fate would have it Marvin nailed a full house on this first-and-only-hand to out-draw the rest of the table. He gave it a brief moments thought and gathered his winning chips into his arms (yes his arms, these were French style jettons’ which were rather slippery and unwieldy) and calmly, but unsteadily made his way to the cashier’s cage. There was dead silence in the room as the faces’ at the poker table stared in amazed disbelief at their easy-money walking away…no one said a word, just stunned silence.
After a year and half at the Cromwellian Club my next job was at the New Apron Strings Club on the Fulham Road, also in South Kensington. I remember blowing off a few hundred quid from the float while undergoing my audition on the lovely old French “Caro” wheel they had. It should be noted as a matter of historical record that the first Roulette tables to operate in early-sixties-London were the traditional French games, complete with four man crew.
The Apron String’s was a favored haunt of young British nobility and their ladies. There was just barely room enough on the ground flood for an American Roulette and Crap table. Downstairs we had two, maybe three Black Jacks, and a French Roulette table. Two complimentary Backgammon tables were also there for the enjoyment of the members and their guests. You could have fit this entire club into a four-car garage. I do remember one smaller venue on Mayfair’s Curzon Street that was so small they had to shoe-horn in a two-man-tub crap table or have no game at all. In later years I would take my London experience with these one & two-man-tub crap tables at the Earls Court Card Club and the Villa on Bayswater Road and design a similar but updated layout for use on Norwegian Cruise Line’s smaller ships. This layout, first manufactured by Paulson Dice & Card Company of Las Vegas is now the standard one or two man dice layout offered by the major casino supply companies. I must remember to copyright my creative efforts in the future.
From my first night working at the Apron Strings’ I felt a definitely chill reception from my fellow American dealers working there at the time. Apparently one of their mates had just been fired and I was the new unknown kid brought in to fill his spot. I was paid five pounds a night (tax free!) and 5% of the net-win each week. This was very significant money to me in those early days. It soon became painfully apparent why there was never any 5% waiting in an envelope for me at the end of the week. These American dealers had done everything but back a truck up to the tables in their effort to part the club from it’s bankroll. They succeeded. I was so young and green that it surprised me a bit to realize that this sort of thing went on. I thought everyone must be as thrilled and excited as I was to be in this incredible business. That illusion soon fell. In later I was to receive a couple apologies (more like explanations) as I encountered these same persons in other gaming jurisdictions.
The unregulated, wide-open sixties era of English casino gaming had begun with the determined and beleaguered British casino pioneer, John Aspinal, thumbing his nose at the government’s stance in 1960-61 that casino gambling was unquestionably illegal. The government had tried to prosecute Mr. Aspinal for operating private Chemin-de-fer games in private residences scattered about the posher neighborhoods of London. The government’s case was based on antiquated laws and statutes dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century’s which would not have made much sense, and were flouted, even in Beau Brummell’s day (fittingly, John Aspinal’s renowned Clermont Club was established in Beau Brummell’s historic Berkley Square mansion). Needless to say Mr. Aspinal’s Barrister’s made a mockery of the government’s bungled case. After the humiliating failure of the government to successfully prosecute, the decision was made to unequivocally outlaw British casino gaming once and fore all, except: the key word here being “EXCEPT” in private members clubs where only registered members and their guests could play (remember, these were the days of the Conservative Government when proper Englishmen of the classes who made the decisions in the halls and backrooms of government would meet at their stately private Gentleman’s clubs over brandy, cigars and a comradely game of gin rummy or backgammon to ruminate over the country’s fate) and of course there would be no distasteful house advantage. That should take-care-of-that right? Well no actually, almost overnight small gambling clubs doing their best to pose as private members-only clubs began springing in old cinemas (the beginning of Rank’s casino empire), restaurants, back rooms of local discos etc., wherever a likely venue could be cheaply renovated fast. An eager punter would sign the book at the door and immediately become a valued member-in-good-standing. A small sign was prominently displayed on each table stating that any member could hold the bank if they so wish. In practice this was almost never the case as any member who wished to book the action would be required to pay an exorbitant table fee for wear & tear as well as croupier wages etc. The situation remained in legal-Limbo for most of the 1960s as various test cases slowly wound their tedious way through the ponderous British legal system. With the establishment of the 1969 Gaming Act the writing was-on-the-wall for-all-to-see that the golden era of unregulated casino gaming as we knew it was rapidly approaching its bitter end. Most nights we would be visited by Scotland Yard’s plain clothes officers’. These gentlemen were well known, especially as many of them had been regular punters, so we would change the rules accordingly upon their arrival – and revert back to standard operating procedure as soon as they exited the establishment. The zero on the Roulette wheels was often replaced with a labouredly hand-painted “R” to denote re-spin (all wagers would be left in place till the result of the next spin.) Dino Cellini’s Colony Club even went so far as to leave the busted hands uncollected on their Black Jack games till it was determined if the dealer subsequently busted or not, in which case the punter was rewarded with a push/standoff/égaletes. Of course these counter-measures were only a stopgap to the inevitable. All casinos in the U.K. supposedly ceased operation in 1969 while the regulatory licensing process of the 1968 Gaming Act went into effect. Sadly only a select few of these pre-regulatory casinos, such as the Cromwell Mint, Victoria Sporting Club, and John Aspinal’s, esteemed Clermont Club were to survive the government’s transition to over regulated, exorbitantly taxed, casino gaming in 1971.
Footnotes, trivia, and further recollections:
As noted the first Roulette games to open in London in the early sixties were the traditional French tables with two croupiers seated either side of the wheel, alternating spins, with another Croupier (usually the apprentice-trainee) seated at the bottom of the table with a short rake to facilitate the payouts and to help the punters place their bets. Given the four man crew and an Inspector, these large tables were certainly not cost effective to operate in small clubs. The hardened American casino professionals who had recently come to town were quick to reinvent-the-wheel by placing the obligatory, single-zero French wheels on American tables. This hybrid innovation has obviously become the standard in most of the world where single-zero Roulette (British Roulette) predominates. It’s perversely amusing to witness a self-assured American casino supervisor employed abroad for the first time (Istanbul comes to mind) deal with the barrage of call bets such the Voisins du zero, Orphelins en plein, and Finales a cheval etc. as-well-as the skyscraper bets that a 2.78% (2.63 with En-Prison) game engenders, rather than the understandably, underplayed 5.56% American game. Fitting revenge for those break-in dealers sent on the long quest down Fremont Street by these same smug fellows to fetch the infamous Wheel-Crank.
Plastic Black Jack shoes had not yet come into use at this time so beautifully crafted, wooden Chemmy (Chemin-de-fer) or Baccarat Shoes were usually utilized on Black Jack games. Plastic cut cards had also not come into use as yet so a Joker was usually reversed in the four-deck shoe to signify the end of the shoe was approaching.
When I first arrived in Las Vegas in the autumn of 1968 the only Nevada casino using Black Jack shoes was the Stardust. The dealers were obviously not pleased with this recent turn-of-events. One heavyset, comical dealer would tuck the shoe under in his armpit and deal it like a hand-held, single-deck, good for a few laughs at the time. In 1978, while working my first Nevada Pit-Boss job at Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge. (Then under ownership of Kirk Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corporation and managed by Donnie Rowan) I half-heartedly suggested at a management meeting that we try utilizing shoes on our higher limit Black Jack tables. The casino had been holding an unusually low percentage on these games for several weeks. Donnie picked up on my rather flippant suggestion and made the call to use shoes on all the B.J. tables which pleased Mr. Kerkorian’s accountants’ no-end. It must-be-said that this was an extremely unpopular move with the dealers. I kept my head down on that one for the next few weeks, though in retrospect I’m sure it must have been common knowledge. According to a conversation I had in later years with Eddie Cellini, he stated they had first introduced Puento Banco or Baccarat shoes on the Blackjack tables of Havana in the late forties to bring the Cuban dealers under a bit of restraint. Eddie would know.
My next job was back at Pepe’s Mazurka club in Soho. I worked for a young Italian gentleman named Nino. A facet of the Mazurka Club common to most small London clubs in those days was that many venues had different persons or small syndicates booking the action on different games. In essence you could be working in a small club with one party booking the Craps action, someone else the Roulette, Black Jack and so on. Always interesting. The other facet I liked the most was that a dealer was paid directly proportionate to his or her’s value to the casino operator. As these were very small venues, usually opening at eight or nine in the evening and closing when the last punter went home (or the point-of-diminishing returns had obviously been reached) in the early morning hours, it was imperative to get as many rolls, spins, or cards dealt as possible. Needless to say game protection was paramount with this creative and colorful player base. You learned fast or you didn’t last.
One night as I walked in through the Mazurka’s armored-plated door to begin another night’s work there was a palpable silence pervading the room. I glanced over at the poker table where Pepe was sitting quietly with two young gentlemen dressed like Americans, complete with dark suits, white shirts, thin ties, and short hair. Seemed a bit odd that a couple Yanks would come into the Mazurka. When I enquired of my fellow crap dealers (probably to loudly) as to why it was so quite in the joint they all went shisssssh at once! “It’s the twins! ” So this was the infamous Kray Twins, Ronnie & Reggie of East London gangland lore come to pay a social visit. Or least it appeared to be social as they left without incident, so I can only surmise they had dropped by to pay their respects to Pepe.
Another eventful night at the Mazurka came after having been just recently been promoted to the position of “Boxman”. This time I getting paid the princely sum of seven Pounds a night and the usual 5% percent of the week’s win. I had tried stopping an angry, disgruntled punter from leaning over the table to grab the base-dealers working stack of five-pound chips. As I grasped his outstretched, his other hand came around and swiped neatly across the bridge of my nose, just barely slicing it with his fingernails. He then agilely leaped up upon the table and stood there violently trying to kick me in the face. As I was tangled up in the box man’s chair between the table and the wall all I could do was try to beat him off with the proverbial stick. He then he tumbled back off the table, grabbed a poker chair and started to come after me as I was still tying to extricate myself from chair, table, and wall. Fortunately (and I’m forever grateful) one of the Italians had the nerve to grab the chair from behind this villain as he raised it to smash my head in. As this fellow was being man-handled out the door, which he then proceeded to keep pounding on with his head…, remember this was an armor plated door, I was hidden away for the rest of the evening in the kitchen where the staff solemnly informed me I had crossed swords (sticks) with Mad Tony! Apparently Mad Tony was certifiably and sadistically mad. They regaled me with gruesome tales of his breaking knee caps with tire-irons and disgorging eyes with his thumbs. I got home Ok that night but upon my return to work the next day I walked down the hall (outside the armored-plated front door) to use the tiny men’s room and lo-and-behold who should be standing at the urinal but good ol’ Mad Tony! Before I could beat a hasty retreat Tony turned, faced me, smiled and held out his hand to shake! “Sorry mate for last night!” Apparently Pepe had, had a word with Mad Tony’s minders and he’d been ordered to come in and apologize. Always a relief not to meet an inglorious end in a toilette somewhere.
As the popularity of the crap game at the Mazurka gained momentum we had the need to purchase more dice as ours were getting a bit beat up in the daily grind. Oddly enough we could never put a nick in dice we later got hold of from the Wagon Wheel casino in South Lake Tahoe. They lasted for weeks without noticeable wear-or-tear. Anyway, we had a young lady dealing Black Jack for us who’s American boyfriend, (I’ll conveniently forget his name) had operated a dice game on the Finchley Road at the El Toro as well as being a partner at the Mint on the Kilburn Road who we figured should have an inventory of extra dice. We asked her to ask him if we could purchase three sets to tide us over. This young lady promptly came into work the next night and handed me three sets of nice new dice. The only problem was when I did the time-honored boxmans’ spin between thumb and forefinger they wobbled in a decidedly portentous manner. Upon examination these dice were not only shapes (convex or concave, I can’t remember) but loaded as well. They would almost do a back flip rolling down the table . I was still very inexperienced and not quite sure of the diplomatic and professional way to handle this situation. If I showed Nino and Pepe the dice there would most certainly be a confrontation with the American casino operator. To make matters worse Nino had been playing in this fellows club a couple nights previously and had lost heavily. This was not getting any easier. Giving the girlfriend the benefit of the doubt as I thought there might be a chance she had nicked the three sets from his dresser drawer to make few extra quid. The next night I confronted her with the situation at which point she promptly broke into tears and said she had absolutely no idea they were dodgy dice and she had just taken what was given to her to deliver. I decided (poorly in retrospect) to keep my mouth shut and stash the dice in my car thing till things blew over, but several days later I returned to my usual parking spot in the back streets of Soho to find that my car had been broken into and only the dice were missing. Even my passport was left untouched. There was a very blond hair stuck in the frame of the rear view mirror, The American casino operator in question was very blond. I never did mention this incident to Pepe or Nino as there would have been severe consequences for all concerned…maters such as this were not settled in court in those days.
After the Mazurka I briefly worked at the Lion’s Corner House Casino in Piccadilly Circus, owned and operated by Fritz Demetrious the wealthy Greek owner of Famous Olympic Casino in Bayswater. Fritz Demetrious had started his rise to wealth and fame as a green-grocer. He was later to die in a mysterious car crash on the coastal mountain road that led to his, the first, legal casino to open on the coast outside of Athens. This was a rather unremarkable job made memorable only for the fact we had to toss some small change around the layout as we paid the place and [proposition bets to satisfy the prying of the Scotland Yard offices who we supposedly watching the game.