Poker: Walsall hold ’em

by Neil Chapman

I’ve just read Victoria Coren’s piece in the Huffington Post. It’s about the growing social acceptability of poker and gaming as a night out. She talks of launch parties, new card rooms, laughing people, spangly bars and smart restaurants. She goes on; it gets better. You can almost hear the polite chitchat, the tinkle of laughter, the clink of champagne glasses.  She’s titled the article ‘A New Age For Poker’. It’s a good article, I like it, I’m pleased.

... good start?

…that’s a good start. Let’s try to stay calm…

So Victoria, I’m calling your London Hippodrome Casino Club 2013 and raising you my Walsall Casino Club circa mid sixties.

Why? Because I have an interest, that’s why. In casinos, in poker.  Nostalgia. All those years ago, I was a croupier dealing five card stripped deck stud poker.

Reading it took me back to ‘The Old Age Of Poker’.  Not quite the days of the Wild West, cowboys sitting around card tables in saloons, scattering when the guy in the black hat had lost all of his money who then accused our hero of cheating. No, the days I remember were almost 50 years ago, in the Wild West Midlands. Walsall in fact. The Casino Club to be precise. And the clientele were far worse, far more dangerous than the occasional cowboy’baddie’.  The club attracted its fair share of local punters looking for a drink and a night

Gambling and the M6... the road to nowhere?

Gambling and the M6… the road to nowhere?

out, but this was at a time when they were building the M6 around the outskirts of Walsall, so most nights we might get an additional 40, 50 sometimes 60 or so Irishmen looking to spend their wages on Guinness,  gambling, girls and good times.

It wasn’t just a casino. No, there was a dance hall attached. Yes, a dance hall, the word discotheque hadn’t been invented yet; a dance hall that had already hosted amongst others, The Spencer Davies Group and Denny Laine, later of Wings and Moody Blues fame.Eat your heart out London! In the gaming room itself there was a small stage set at the end of the room. That was for the strippers you see. Just big enough for the four girls, (changed weekly), to do their 3 shows a night. Class.

So all the ingredients were there for an explosive cocktail. Local men, our Irish ‘guests’, local girls, strippers to whet appetites, tables to lose their money at… and booze. And of course, kick off it did. Often. But this was never a problem to the owners Sid and Bill. Let’s just say they were equipped, Bill in particular. Bill was a little fat guy (I can say that now) who, to the untrained observer looked quite innocuous. The trained observer would have noticed an ever so slight bulge in the contours of his mohair suit jacket, where he had secreted a rounders bat in a specially sewn in pocket.  So anyone causing trouble, within seconds would be lying on the floor, bleeding profusely, having felt this rounders bat pinging on their skull.  On a busy night you may not have seen this happening, but somehow you were always able to hear this strange hollow ‘plonk’ of a noise above the hubbub. It was strangely comforting, unless of course it was your head.

You may be drawing the conclusion by now that this was not a family night out? I guess you could say that the London Hippodrome has Soho adjacent to their club. We had our Soho  inside ours.

Anyway, the gaming consisted of a roulette table, La boule, a couple of blackjack tables and our card table, all rented from the owners of the Club. There were three of us and we rented our table

... in the  red

… in the red?

for £25 a week. A lot of money then, more than your average man’s weekly wage, but peanuts to us. Had the owners known we were clearing  £400-£500 a week , we would have been, err, offered a rent increase. And a bit of a ‘slap’ because they would have felt ripped off. It was that that sort of club and they were those sort of owners.

You need to know that gambling wasn’t regulated in those days. Well, it was, but the 1960 act was so loose, it had created a boom in the gaming business attracting all the wrong types. Crooks, villains, organized crime. In London the Krays had forced their way into numerous clubs, and the mafia were doing their best to muscle their way onto the gravy train, such were the opportunities to make serious money. But this was Walsall. This was a  ‘small time’. This was ‘straight’. And anyway, we had Sid and Bill.

So a game might start at 11.00pm at night, it might start at 2am, in the early morning or it might not start at all. It might finish after an hour or so or it might finish at 6am. It might go on until the following afternoon. It all depended who was playing and how much money they had. If there were just a couple of punters in looking for a game, it was not unknown for us to drive off into the night and knock people up, our regular gamblers having a night off, and whisking them back to the club, to make up a game. Their wives were not amused funnily enough, but business was business. And a good poker game was show business, attracting crowds of watchers, people all caught up in the macho environment.

All that mattered to us was that we had a game on, that we were playing. We earned our money by taking 10% of every ‘pot’. Illegal now but perfectly legal then. The longer they played, the more pots, the more money we earned. Occasionally though, about once or twice a month,we couldn’t get a game started so we would go looking for one to play in ourselves. For the craic. You have to remember that we couldn’t go home, not now, not at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. Our body clocks wouldn’t allow us. This was our daytime. So off we would go, to Birmingham usually and often the Rainbow Club on the Hagley Road.

...the Rainbow. Birmingham's legendary casino.

…the Rainbow. Birmingham’s legendary casino.

Open 24/7, this was a pukka club, several rooms, several tables and always busy, and still going to this day. Alternatively it would be ‘Dannys’ in Aston, a cafe during the day and during the night, a gambling den. A bit ‘dodgy’ was ‘Dannys’.  Dodgy he says! It was that dodgy that several times I tried to drive there during daylight hours and could never find it! It disappeared, only to reappear at night.You really felt you were taking your life into your hands trying to get into this place in the early hours; lots of whispering through half open doors, quoting all sorts of dubious references hoping someone might know someone who might know someone who knew someone who knew you. It wasn’t quite as salubrious as the Rainbow; the milk bottles, salt and pepper, and bowls of sugar still on the tables spoiled the atmosphere a little but there were always one or two serious gamblers there. Money follows the money I suppose. If you were new to poker, this is not the sort of place where you would go to learn.

What an education this was. People, attitudes, characters, motivations etc.etc. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

But it all came to an end in 1968 when they amended the laws and gambling licences were awarded to towns. Walsall lost out to nearby Wolverhampton and Birmingham.  Shame, but almost every night for three years was enough. I was 22, looked 42, newly married, a few quid in the bank, knew all the words to ‘Danny Boy’, and had learned a lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Never EVER play cards in a casino.

Read into that whatever you like. All I know is that it works for me.

So Victoria, your call. I’m ‘all in’ now.

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