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.

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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.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.