Under its previous owner, the celebrated London gambler John Aspinall, the Clermont Club on Berkeley Square was an 18th-century Palladian mansion where one could gamble for very high stakes and might also be invited to parties that included entertainment by lions, tigers and midgets. Now the Clermont is a Playboy property renting out its basement to an outstandingly snotty private disco called Annabel's. Upstairs from Annabel's the gambling continues with roulette and craps and chemin de fer, and there is a good restaurant, but the preoccupation of most of the Clermont clientele appears to be backgammon.
In fact, only a few hours after the QE 2 docked at Southampton a full day late, the Dunhill tournament was no longer the richest backgammon tournament ever held. The Clermont tournament, with Charles Benson acting as auctioneer, quickly surpassed the Dunhill. With the players' pool and auction pool, the prize money rose to more than $50,000.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Tim Holland. "It's like golf a few years ago. Soon we'll have regular $150,000 tournaments. Sponsors are signing up all the time. You can become a good player without spending a lifetime at it. That is an important point."
Holland was rated at 12 to 1 in the Clermont, in which there were 80 players, a number of them women. Benson was 22 to 1 and had spent part of his QE 2 winnings buying a piece of a player named M. Baquiche (20 to 1).
A private backgammon game was already under way in which one of the Dunhill players would lose close to $200,000 before the following night. "The biggest gambling games in the world are in London," said Lewis DeYoung, who came downstairs shaking his head over the beating he had just been watching. " London makes Las Vegas look like very small change. I've seen $312,000 wagered on one spin at roulette in a club here, the man going from $400,000 loser to $150,000 winner in a few hours."
A little later a visitor walked out in front of the Clermont, where Rolls-Royces and Bentleys were double-parked and gleaming under the lamps. The visitor saw several banknotes fall onto the sidewalk and thought he saw who had dropped them. The visitor picked them up, but before he could call to the person he thought had lost the money, one of the best-known backgammon players in the world snatched the bills out of his hands and said, "Thank you, I'd hate to lose those."
"But you didn't lose them," the visitor said.
"Of course I did," said the backgammon player and entered a chauffeured Bentley with a bar in the back.
"Now you see what it takes to become an international shark," another well-known player told the bemused visitor.
At cocktails at the S.W. 1 area home of the Baron, people were betting on how many times a certain letter appeared on the back of a particular cigarette package. The Baron wasn't playing. The letter he was interested in was the one he had just received from an aunt, who had read in a London newspaper about the Baron's naked romp on the QE 2. The story had been radioed from the ship to a London columnist by an unidentified snitch who was among the Baron's crowd. "You are a spoiled rich kid with more money than brains," the letter from the aunt said. "You have given your family a right royal black eye. Your uncle has gone into a silence."