Stuart Wheeler : the granddaddy of spread-betting

A lifelong obsession with gambling helped make Stuart Wheeler his fortune. By using that to back the Brexit campaign, he changed the face of British politics.

Stuart Wheeler, who has died aged 85, was “a bon viveur and gambler who used his fortune to become a leading disrupter in British politics and backer of the eurosceptic cause”, says the Financial Times. By helping to bankroll the Brexit campaign, he changed the face of British politics. But it was the 1974 foundation of IG Index that secured his place in financial history. He was, as subsequent rivals conceded, “the granddaddy of spread-betting”. 

“I gamble because I am fascinated by probability and odds,” Wheeler outlined in his autobiography. It was a “lifelong obsession” that began when he won seven shillings at a country point-to-point at the age of seven, says The Times, and it ran through his life. “Every morning before I weigh myself, I will try to work out the odds of me being lighter or heavier than the day before.”

Affable, with a fierce intelligence 

Wheeler played backgammon, bridge and poker, and, in the early 1970s, was a member of the high-society group that clustered around John Aspinall’s Clermont Club in Mayfair – where he famously brushed with Lord Lucan over the backgammon table two days before the peer’s disappearance. (“Lucky” Lucan “thought he was a pretty good professional gambler”, he later observed. “He wasn’t.”) Wheeler himself was a frequent competitor at the annual poker world championship in Las Vegas and particularly enjoyed playing blackjack because it gave him the best odds of beating the house. As The Daily Telegraph notes, he “modestly” claimed to have been thrown out of Caesars Palace for winning too much by counting cards.

Tall and affable – with an air of vagueness that disguised a fierce intelligence – Wheeler had a close-knit group of friends many of whom were, like him, educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford, spending their National Service in the Welsh Guards before heading for the City’s merchant banks. The cardinal sin, their children learned (Wheeler went on to have three daughters), was to be boring. Yet his early life “was less gilded”, says the FT. Born out of wedlock with a club foot in 1934, he never knew his natural parents and was adopted at the age of two. Although renowned for his political donations, Wheeler also gave millions to groups such as Amnesty International and Liberty. 

His biggest mistake

When Wheeler lost his job at the First National Finance Corporation in the 1973 banking crisis, a friend suggested he set up a betting business to cash in on “the fevered speculation in gold”, says The Times. At the time, it was legally difficult to trade the yellow metal, but you could bet on the price – with the added advantage that any gains were tax-free. Having started IG Index with £30,000 invested by six friends, the firm soon took in other commodities – followed by shares, sporting events and election results. IG Index grew faster than he could have guessed. On its flotation in 2000, shares originally worth £100 a piece romped home at £12m. 

When Wheeler sold out completely in 2003, he netted £90m. But he later said the biggest mistake of his life was selling too early: within a few years, IG Index’s value had risen 15 times. Thanks to his political donations, the costs of running the castle he bought and an active social life, his fortune had much depleted by the time he died. But his quest to establish his early roots came good. He was thrilled to discover that his birth mother, Chrissy Cleland, was a keen competition bridge player. 

Recommended

Why the cost of living crisis could be a boon for this cheap retailer
Retail stocks

Why the cost of living crisis could be a boon for this cheap retailer

Like many retailers, B&M is facing the dual headwinds of lower sales and higher costs as inflation bites. But its business model has proved hugely suc…
29 Jun 2022
The ten highest dividend yields on Aim
Income investing

The ten highest dividend yields on Aim

Rupert Hargreaves picks the highest-paying dividend stocks on Aim, London’s junior market for small and medium-sized growth companies.
29 Jun 2022
The best cash Isas on the market now
Cash ISAs

The best cash Isas on the market now

With high inflation, low interest rates, and declining tax benefits, cash Isas are less popular than they were. But don’t dismiss them just yet, says …
29 Jun 2022
The best cash Isas on the market now
Cash ISAs

The best cash Isas on the market now

With high inflation, low interest rates, and declining tax benefits, cash Isas are less popular than they were. But don’t dismiss them just yet, says …
29 Jun 2022

Most Popular

Market crash: have we hit bottom or is there worse to come?
Stockmarkets

Market crash: have we hit bottom or is there worse to come?

For a little while, markets looked like they were about to embark on a full-on crash. And that could still happen, says Dominic Frisby. Today, he look…
27 Jun 2022
Prepare your portfolio for recession
Investment strategy

Prepare your portfolio for recession

A recession is looking increasingly likely. Add in a bear market and soaring inflation, and things are going to get very complicated for investors, sa…
27 Jun 2022
Interest rates are rising, here are the best savings accounts on the market
Savings

Interest rates are rising, here are the best savings accounts on the market

With inflation at more than 9%, your savings are not going to keep pace with the rising cost of living. But you can at least slow the rate at which yo…
24 Jun 2022