On 8 March 1927 the Daily Express ran a sensational exposé on its front page:
“London’s All Night Card Clubs – Women who play from tea-time to breakfast”
The story ran nearly the full length of the front page. It noted that an advertisement had been appearing in respectable broadsheet The Times, which read:
56 Beauchamp Place, S.W. 3 (Sloane 3340)
Mrs Hands has regular games of straight poker daily, at 3 and 9pm. Bridge lessons given
Poker clubs such as this one functioned as private member clubs, where members paid an annual fee to attend. The legislation of private member clubs had been drawn up with the classic Pall Mall club for upper-class men in mind. In the interwar period, however, club legislation and licensing were increasingly exploited by entrepreneurs to facilitate transgressive behaviour. Nightclubs of the period operated under the same legislation; they were nominally private member clubs, which allowed them to evade a level of external scrutiny. However, where the old clubs in ‘Clubland’ often had (and still have) extensive vetting procedures for new members, nightclubs and poker clubs usually allowed anyone to join as long as they paid their annual fee. The poker clubs were perfectly legal, but clearly they were stretching the intentions of club legislation beyond its originally intended purpose.
The Daily Express held the Beauchamp Club up as an example of a supposed sudden influx of private member clubs that catered to poker players. The members of these clubs were alleged to be mainly women, playing into persistent fears of the potential corrupting effect of modern society on women. The article states confidently that: “Women gamblers are patronising these clubs in increasing numbers. They begin in the afternoon, break off for dinner, and then sit down to another long session, which often lasts till dawn.” The question that this may raise in the reader’s mind is – what happens to these women’s families whilst they are spending time at the poker table? At a time when a married woman’s primary role was to support and look after her family, a woman who spends hours at the poker table was presumably neglecting her responsibilities towards her husband and children.
Mrs Hand, the owner of the Beauchamp Club, is quoted as saying “Women will always gamble”; this is presented as a simple fact of life, that all the readers of the article can agree on. Players are described as attending the club after the theatre shows finish, then playing until breakfast, and returning at 3pm for the next round. It is implied that women are particularly susceptible to this addictive behaviour. What is more, Mrs Hand’s earning model banks on it; on top of the club’s annual fee, she charges players for each hour they spend at the table.
The location of the club and the fact that the advert had been placed in The Times – the stalwart of the upper classes – implied that the club members were of a high social standing. The Daily Express was aimed at a lower-middle class audience; this story allowed the Express reader to feel indignation at the wealthy Londoners who were supposedly spending all day gambling their money away. Mrs Hand is quoted as explaining that club members “play for four-shilling rises (…) That means you would have to be most unlucky to lose as much as £10 in a sitting.” Ten pounds was a substantial amount of money for most people; Mrs Hand’s comments only highlight how removed she is from the average person in her understanding of the value of money.
The Express article traces the reason for the sudden increase in poker clubs specifically to a few key court cases of previous years. In 1921 the owner of the Cleveland Club was charged with allowing illegal gambling activity in his club because it contained a poker room. The Express notes that in that instance, “The stakes were low, and play was never continued for more than half an hour after midnight”. Nevertheless, the club owner pleaded guilty and paid a fine.
However, a similar case that was brought to trial not long after was put to a jury, which delivered a verdict of ‘not guilty’ on the basis that poker required a level of skill and was therefore not a form of gambling. According to the Express, the police have since stopped taking action against poker clubs as the jury’s verdict set a precedent. The debate on whether poker is a sport or a form of gambling continues to this day, with both sports and betting companies arguing for their respective positions. A variation of poker called ‘Match Poker’, which removes the random element of which cards a player is dealt. This version of poker is now recognised as a sport, but more commonly played versions such as Texas Hold’em are a mainstay in casinos, and players are required to be at least 18 years old (in the UK) to play.
It is clear where the Express stands on the matter of prosecution, even if the clubs are currently primarily frequented by those who can afford to lose some of their wealth. It argues that complaints keep arising of “women and young men losing much more money than they could afford in poker clubs, and of other evils arising out of this form of gambling.” The article’s final sentence notes that publicly advertising these clubs, as The Times is allowing to do, gives opportunity to professional gamblers to swindle others out of their money.
It is unlikely that many Express readers themselves had been affected by poker clubs, but it was a pretty safe topic to gain their audience’s approval, as it put people of a different social class in the firing line. The article did not spark a bigger inquiry into poker clubs and the Express did not pursue the story. For the paper, private poker clubs were a way to generate indignation towards women, the upper classes, The Times, and the government and police who were not taking any action against these clubs.