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A very bad night at Aspinalls - unlucky gambler tries to overturn £2m debt 03/10/2007
Maev Kennedy

By dawn on Saturday March 11 2000, even by his own extraordinary standards, the Fat Man had had a seriously bad night at the exclusive private gambling club Aspinalls. He had signed for four successive stacks of £500,000 worth of gambling chips, and lost the lot at blackjack. He had also lost more than £350,000 on another game. He was not a happy man.

What happened next provoked a dispute that has rumbled on for seven years - during which Fouad al-Zayat returned to the club on scores of occasions to lose another £10.6m - and yesterday ended up in court for another expensive punt on the legal system.

The cases have exposed the astounding lifestyle of the "whales", the international coterie of gamblers who swim in the opaque waters of private clubs and casinos, and win or lose the gross national product of a small country on the turn of a card or the throw of a die. Even in that company, Mr Zayat was a "blue whale", noted when he was winning for tipping staff thousands of pounds, often in gambling chips.

In the game which began late that Friday night, and ended some time around 4am on Saturday, Mr Zayat lost steadily and became increasingly discontented. He demanded that the croupier be replaced, but was told no one else was available. When it came to settling his huge debt, he signed a cheque but did not date it. His understanding, he says, is that the club would not present his cheque until his concerns about how the game was conducted were resolved.

In the event the club tried to lodge the cheque the following Tuesday, within the two banking days required under the Gambling Act - only to find that Mr Zayat had already been in touch with his bank and stopped the cheque.

Even after that he was too valuable a customer to offend: he was back at Aspinalls within three weeks, only from then on he had to pay upfront. His luck was not always as bad: on his many return visits he paid sometimes by debit card, sometimes with cheques representing his winnings at other London clubs.

Yesterday the Syrian-born businessman, forced reluctantly into the glare of publicity by a string of recent court cases, sent his lawyers back to the court of appeal to try to tear up his £2m debt on the grounds that Aspinalls had acted illegally in offering him credit in the first place.

In February, Mr Justice Steel ruled in the high court that Mr Zayat had to pay Aspinalls the debt and cover the club's £150,000 legal bill. The court heard then that, in more than 600 visits to Aspinalls in 12 years, he bought £91m worth of gaming chips and lost over £23m. He was well liked in the clubs he frequented.

After the February judgment, journalists tracked him to the home in Cyprus where he has lived quietly for more than 30 years with his Lebanese-born wife, and secured the only known published photograph.

He vowed never to set foot in a London casino again, and told a reporter: "If you go to a restaurant and you do not like the food, then you do not pay. If you go to the whorehouse and do not get the pleasure you were seeking, you do not pay."

His wins and losses in other clubs are unknown, but in 2002 he was also sued for bouncing a cheque at the Ritz club, which he was said to have visited 156 times in three years, losing a total of £10m. In May the Iranian government failed in an attempt to sue him, also in the high court in London, accusing him of taking payment for a jumbo jet that was never delivered. His lawyer called the case "preposterous".

Mr Justice Langley ruled that his aircraft-leasing firm, registered in Cyprus, did not do sufficient business in London to give British courts jurisdiction.

He has also been named in the US courts as giving tens of thousands of dollars, including gambling chips, to a Republican congressman, Robert Ney, who was jailed for corruption. Yesterday he did not appear in court, but his lawyers argued that the claimed agreement by the club not to lodge the cheque, and the fact that it waited almost six years to sue for payment, meant Aspinalls had extended him credit - which is illegal under the Gambling Act. They suggested that the club deliberately backed off on the £2m debt, rather than lose one of its most valuable customers.

"Mr Al Zayat says that if he had known they were going to proceed against him, he would never have darkened their doors again," David Lord, representing Mr Zayat, told the master of the rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke, and lords justice Sedley and Lloyd.

They will rule later on whether the case should have a full appeal court hearing.