Casino Royals

James Bond. 'Gambler Extraordinaire?'

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Casino Royals

"The scent and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three o'clock in the morning...." So begins one of the most celebrated sentences in English popular literature, the opening lines in Casino Royale.

Gambling and particularly baccarat, roulette and bridge are Bond's favourite pastimes, a major source of income, ones in which he always triumphs. There is no foe that cannot be trounced, and even though he's wagering on a fifty-fifty proposition, his mathematical genius always surmounts any difficulty: "Bond had spent the last afternoons and most of the nights at the casino, playing complicated progression systems on the even chances at roulette."

Of course any habitue of the tables knows this is rubbish. A brief affair, a quick coup might sometimes succeed, but too much acquaintance will guarantee the short walk down Carey Street, and subsequent oblivion. No system has been devised for beating the casino at regular games of chance until Edward Thorp, began card counting at blackjack.

It is somewhat surprising that Fleming made so much of gambling in the novels. He had as much glamour and romance on his doorstep, another form of gambling he knew only too intimately, the stock market, and also London's great commodity markets, where the agriculturals and metals were widely traded. In fact both these might have made fertile settings for Bond's exploits, could have provided interesting backgrounds for the later plots.

The fly in the ointment is Fleming himself. Desperate in his need for money, he abandoned a promising journalistic career with Reuters, and went to work for Cull & Co, a merchant bank. Then in 1935 he moved to Rowe & Pitman, one of the great blue chip brokers. Hugh Smith, a relation of the senior partner offered him the chance of writing the monthly investment briefing. Perversely (in true Fleming style), instead of recommending War Loan, and a basket of blue chips, he set out to prove that foreign railways and obscure overseas bonds offered better returns. Then he was asked to write a history of Rowe and Pitman, which fared no better. It was considered too parochial, concentrating on the history of the Pitman family. He wasn't a team player. He was considered to have "too many outside interests". These were various, women foremost, golf, literature including rare books, and being in the best society, where he was affectionately known as ‘glamour boy’.

In this era he had a chance to make a fortune quickly, and this was his stated aim. There were no insider dealing regs, no rules about front running, (in fact if your broker didn’t have a few on board, why should he captain the team?). You could 'cash and new' for many two week accounts, going long or short. Furthermore if you were as professionally and socially as well connected as Fleming, you had the opportunity to receive any amount of 'quality information' from the most recondite sources. To many today it might seem a nirvana, a club you'd bite your arm off to join. Your career was unburdened by excessive hours. You could enjoy superb lunches with the best claret from your private cellar, no capital gains tax, and to cap it off, when you'd made the grade, trouser a large partner's bonus at the end of the year.

But he blew it big time. He was bored. In a sense he was the prep school boy who'd out grown his surroundings, as well as the old Etonian who'd never grown up. He was looking for action, real action which he and Bond found on the green baize: "Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables.... He liked being an actor or spectator, and from his chair to take part in other men’s dramas or decisions until it came to his own turn to say that vital 'yes' or 'no' generally a fifty-fifty chance..." Saved or doomed, it was a binary bet.

However Fleming's loss is our gain, for if had he made the millions he had intended and got sucked into the City, he might never have got round to creating James Bond. Secondly, he might have got side tracked and given up building one of the great rare book collections. This was the investment he really enjoyed, and was inordinately proud. For his inspiration has led to a fashion in collecting, which is still much in vogue. With Percy Muir he decided to create a collection of first editions of the great books from every century which reflect the triumphs of Western cultural thought in every form of human endeavour, science, literature, art, philosophy, etc. It includes first editions of Copernicus, Freud, Galileo, Descartes, Cervantes, Marx, Adam Smith, Winston Churchill etc. Fleming loaned forty four titles from his own collection, a remarkable achievement, for an exhibition entitled, Printing And The Mind Of Man, which was held in Earl's Court in July 1963. It was a landmark; most collectors and dealers today still use the book that came out of it as the standard reference work.

A final word. Copies of a first edition Casino Royale with the first issue dust wrapper in very good condition have fetched as much as £24,000 in auction. He would have been shocked and amazed, for it has outpaced many of the more serious works he and Muir avidly collected. None could have predicted Bond’s staying power in the popular imagination, his constant appeal, or for that matter Casino Royale's extraordinary price tag, least of all, Ian Fleming.

Christopher Dennistoun collects and deals in rare books on the stock market, and if you're interested, can be reached at [email protected].