Against all odds

‘When the whole nation is taking a huge punt on whether (or how) to leave the EU, a gambler’s memoirs are timely’

Books

When the whole nation is taking a huge punt on whether (or how) to leave the EU, a gambler’s memoirs are timely. Particularly when the author has spent large chunks of a fortune made from gambling to influence Tory politics and then, after defecting to and from UKIP, to bankroll the Leave campaign.

Stuart Wheeler sees the world through a prism of odds. “Some feel their way through life, I prefer to count.” Fate dealt him a good hand: few adopted children enter their twenties via Eton, the Welsh Guards and Christchurch. But his life really began at 40 when, after failing to make much headway at the Bar and in banking, he became a bookmaker, proof that to succeed in life you should try and align your work with your passion. He is most animated when writing about gambling. This is a man whose idea of a holiday in his eighties is taking part in the gruelling marathon of the annual World Poker Championships in Las Vegas.

Interesting anecdotes from the 1970s depict the louche world of John Aspinall’s Clermont Club set,  where Wheeler pays for the deposit on his first house by winning money off Lord Lucan at poker. He is a detached witness of the seedier aspects of this milieu: “A rich punter, drunk and losing thousands at chemin de fer, vomited copiously onto the table. An earl, whom I shall not name, gestured to one of the attendants, and said, ‘Take him away, clean him up and bring him back.’”

The chapters on IG Index, the spread-betting company that made him rich, form an endearing case study in entrepreneurship. The reader follows him as he runs the fledgling company from attics and basements, earning money from playing bridge at the Portland Club to support his young family. The Black Monday stock market crash of 1987 nearly wipes him out; the margin between riches and ruin can be perilously thin.

Some may deplore the idea of rich men using their wealth to dabble in politics, but Wheeler seems sincere and altruistic in his interventions, clearly relishing his times as kingmaker. Though he suspects Boris Johnson of “cynical calculation” in his support for the Leave campaign, Wheeler’s gambling instinct says that the prime minister will get us out of the EU by October 31. If he has money on it, and it would be uncharacteristic if he doesn’t, he doesn’t let on.

The reader yearns to know what the biggest political donor in British history actually thinks about the big issues. Yet Wheeler reveals little—never really telling us even why he wants to leave the EU.

 

Winning Against the Odds: My Life in Gambling and Politics
By Stuart Wheeler
Quiller, 277pp, £20.00