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27 December 2017

Banco Suivi and Strictly Come Copper Trading



This article was written by John Wolff. All views and opinions are strictly his own.

Sometimes one is surprised to find out interesting things about clients many years later.

Two examples from the sixties were John Burke and Bert Firmin.

John Burke, who came from a well known Tipperary family, was introduced to us as a professional gambler. He lived up to the role because he never said much or revealed things about himself. He had been an Irish Bridge International.

His ability at bridge and poker had brought him to London in the nineteen fifties, where he rubbed shoulders with some sophisticated high rollers.

This eventually led him in to becoming a partner  in John Aspinall’s Clermont Club.

He was introduced to Rudolf Wolff by an old Trinity Dublin friend around 1964 and started to trade copper on the LME.

Trevor Tarring pointed out in his recent article for Lord Copper how the copper producers at that time pegged the copper price for many months at £234/£236.

There was however a small play available.Their support meant that there was a small backwardation as they owned much of the stock.

If you believed they would continue to support you could buy 3 months at a discount and when your position became cash sell it at £234 earning the back.

As Trevor pointed out, when the producers started to peg the price the fundamentals were bearish. However when they eventually withdrew the situation had changed more than most realised so the  copper price rose quite dramatically.

John Burke was nicely long and made a profit of around £200,000. (A few million today).He was generous with it and insisted on going round the back office, saying “I expect you might be a bit jealous of me making so much money” and giving £100 to various clerks who handled his account.

He luck did not last and not long after he lost the whole lot, and around this time we heard that he had left the Clermont Club.

Over the next few years he traded with us from to time, although never on the same scale, but  the pattern was always the same: beginning well,  but then giving it back.

He would sit in our trading room from time to time, slipping down to Mandy’s bar below our office after the kerb, where he would quietly sip a vodka and tonic.

When we joined him he had very little to say until he was asked if he would like another drink.”Well “ he would say in his light Tipperary lilt,”a bird can’t fly on one wing. I’ll have another vodka and tonic."

Although he sometimes took time, in the end he always paid his debts, so I always thought of him as a man of honour. He ceased trading around 1970 and I forgot about him. (Although I frequently used the one wing quote as an excuse for a second drink).

Fast forward to 2007 when a  friend told me I must read a book called the Hustlers by Douglas Thompson.

According to the  book there was a major fiddle at the Clermont Club called the Big Edge. The informant was John Burke.

The background was as follows. In the fifties, gambling was illegal except on horse race courses. At this time John Aspinall, although not an aristocrat himself, had noticed how they liked to gamble, and importantly how they always paid gambling debts as a matter of honour. So he and John Burke began running illegal gaming evenings. They rented very smart apartments in Belgravia and provided free food and drink. Chemin de Fer, or Chemmy, was the game. Provided they kept moving the location they felt they could not be accused of running a gaming house.

It was very profitable because the House charge was 5 % of all winnings; the higher the stakes, the more they made without any risk.

However one evening they were raided and Aspinall and Burke were convicted of running an illegal gaming house.

The expectation was that they would be found guilty, have to pay a hefty fine, and then have to lie low for a while. However Aspinall decided to fight the case. (Maybe because he had a bent copper on his side who provided him in advance with details of the arguments for the prosecution.)

To most people’s surprise they got off. The case became famous because it opened up gambling in the UK. Betting shops and casinos became legal, and Aspinall and Burke could now come out in to the open and they founded the Clermont Cub in Berkeley Square, above what soon after became Annabel’s night club.

The format followed the same pattern, with very expensive furniture and decor and the best wine and food. This continued to attract rich upper class people who would play for high stakes and pay their debts.

Although I was never a member I went there a few times and remember the very suave atmosphere, and the sound of chips clicking and players in the background  calling Banco or Suivi.

Unfortunately for Aspinall and Burke, their legal victory came back to bite them because gambling now became regulated, which meant they were only allowed to make a nominal charge instead of 5 %, so consequently their profits plummeted.

Billy Hill, a well known underworld character, was already involved with more down market casinos, but wanted in on the Clermont. The Star pub in a Belgravia mews was popular with an eclectic mix of people, including local toffs, film stars, Scotland Yard detectives, and well known criminals including Hill; it was run by a famous landlord called Paddy Kennedy.

Hill was aware of  the Clermont’s  problems and a deal was struck between him and Aspinall and Burke. The scam was that the playing cards would be expertly unwrapped, very cleverly put through a roller which very slightly bent the cards in different directions according to their value, and then rewrapped. House players with a trained eye looking at a card face down could then detect whether it was a court card, or a low number. The scam was clever because the cheater did not always win, but it gave him a good percentage edge.

John Burke got nervous and decided to leave although he never blew the whistle. Aspinall and Hill stopped the scam a year or so later.

Why did John decide to come clean in 2007? He was, after all, exposing his own wrong doing. According to the author, John was fed up with so many inaccurate stories flying around and wanted to set things straight. By then all the characters  had died so he was unlikely to be sued; he may also have had his eye on making money out of the story being filmed. That has not happened so far, although a TV documentary about the book was made. John died in 2011. 

Bert Firmin was another copper client from that era. He worked with Leonard Cohen (not the singer), a successful businessman who lived in Switzerland and whose empire included metals.

Bert  would come on the exchange every couple of months and then go off to the Savoy for lunch with one of the partners. He wore a carnation and was always smartly dressed, although in a slightly flash way. His suits were perhaps more West End than City. He eventually retired and faded from my mind until in 1971 I was surprised to see his picture in the obituary column of the Times.The carnation was there but this time he was in a dinner jacket, and he wasn’t Bert Firmin, but Bert Ambrose.

It transpired that he was born Firmin in Warsaw, had spent his childhood in London and New York, was a good musician, and eventually became a famous band leader. He changed his name to Ambrose as it had a more of cachet than Firmin. In the thirties he played regularly at the Embassy Club, Cafe de Paris, and the Mayfair Hotel. Apparently he discovered Vera Lynn.

After the war music changed, rock and roll came in and the Ambrose Fox-Trot era became out of date. I wonder now quite how he switched to copper trading and why he reverted to his old name. I never recall his past being mentioned when he was trading with us.

Interestingly, in a recent TV documentary on ballroom dancing before the war, Len Goodman, one of the Strictly Come Dancing judges, made mention of Bert Ambrose many times and how his parents had danced to his records.

I wonder if the band leader on Strictly trades copper. 

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