Herbert O. Yardley: Gambling with his Life

Herbert O. Yardley seemed Fleming’s kind of man – gambler, code-breaker, rascal and whistle-blower. On the anniversary of his death, Graham M. Thomas delves into his incredible story.


Herbert-YardleyIn early 1959, Ian Fleming contributed a three page preface to a book on how to win at poker: ‘The Education of a Poker Player‘ was a best seller written by Herbert O. Yardley. It turned out to be a book that had some influence on Fleming’s subsequent writings.

Born in Indiana in 1889 according to Yardley but 1881 according to the CIA, Major Yardley was one of America’s most brilliant cryptographers, working for the US government in pre-CIA days during the First World War and through the 1920s. He established the first code-breaking agency in the US but due to funding cuts and a change of government policy, the bureau he launched closed, leaving him angry, frustrated and without a job. In 1930 a disaffected Yardley wrote ‘The American Black Chamber‘ a book that exposed many of the secrets of what he and his colleagues had done. Result? A best seller, fame, and some fortune – but he was ostracised by his former employers, the spying Establishment generally, and most of his colleagues.

One of his startling revelations was that the US had been cracking Japanese coded intelligence since the early 1920s – albeit just one of 21 countries that they were spying on – and this had left Japan in a significantly disadvantaged position when it came to agreeing an international treaty regarding their naval strength at the Limitation of Armaments Conference of 1921-22.

The Japanese were livid, and one consequence – one that had long-term global repercussions – was that this led to a shift in the responsibilities for foreign policy from Japan’s Foreign Office to the military.

Not surprisingly Yardley’s book became a sensation in Japan when it was translated and published. The Burakku Chiyemba, as it was called, sold by the thousands, and two major newspapers, the Osaka Mainichi and the Tokyo Nichi-Nichi, serialised the book, along with interviews with Yardley.

Black ChamberThe Japanese press were outraged by the US’s treachery and they stoked anti-West sentiment with headlines such as ‘Betrayal of International Trust,’ ‘Treachery at the Washington Conference,’ ‘Disgrace to the Convener of the Conference.’ Of course it also led to the Japanese significantly upgrading their security and codes: before the revelation, they had created codes manually but now they built a cypher-machine that became their principle source of codes across the 1930s and into the 1940s, the first version called Red before it was upgraded to Purple.

In the meantime Yardley spent all the money he had made from The American Black Chamber on a rather lavish and exciting lifestyle; he went into a number of ventures that failed; he wrote some reasonably successful spy novels including Red Sun of Nippon, which featured a young American State Department officer who falls in love with a beautiful Chinese-American girl who then helps him uncover Japan’s preparation for the invasion of Manchuria.

He spent a largely unhappy and unsuccessful time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood although one of his roles was advising on the film Rendevous which was a film version of his novel The Blonde Countess.

Then at the end of the 1930s, he spent a short time working in China where he was able to crack the Japanese Army’s field codes and cyphers. His presence did not go unnoticed by the Japanese government who despatched a message to its embassies warning that ‘the Chungking Government has…made the American, Yardley, an adviser….’

According to the message Yardley had employed 700 to 800 people to crack the codes and it was thought they were doing this successfully so the embassies were asked to be vigilant and to ensure they locked their safes at night. However, all evidence points to Yardley and his team cracking some significant intelligence despite whatever precautions the Japanese took.

At the end of his contract with the Chinese, he was taken on by the Canadian intelligence service but following pressure from both the US and UK governments his contract was curtailed and by the middle of the 1940s he was largely pursuing his preferred life of leisure aka wine, women and song funded by his success at poker playing.

poker-playerHe had first sat around a card table in the saloons and bars of Worthington, Indiana when he was sixteen, and because of his flair for maths and his photographic memory, he soon found that he could win consistently. Over the years, he refined his technique and understanding not only of the game but most importantly of the players, and eventually he realised that he could also make good money by penning a book on how to win at the game.

The Education of a Poker Player was published in the US during 1957 and quickly sold over 100,000 copies not least because it was not only about the techniques of poker playing but also had ripping yarns of games, espionage, and other stories about the author’s life and travels.

Fleming bought a copy when a friend alerted him to its publication in the US, read it and was so impressed that he urged his publisher, Jonathan Cape, to issue the book in Britain. Cape only agreed on condition that Fleming write a preface, realising that the attachment of Fleming’s name would guarantee sales.

Fleming opened his preface with his disdain for what he considered to be the hypocritical laws on gambling in the UK.

‘If it were possible to have worse laws than our sex laws they would be the laws that regulate gambling… To deal only with what is relevant to this brief note, while twenty million adults gamble on the football pools each week, ten million on horse-racing and five million on premium bonds, playing poker for money, a legal game over half the world including most of the British Commonwealth, is illegal. And really illegal.’

In fact almost one third of the preface is taken up with this criticism before he moves on to explaining why he admires the book, a combination of the brilliant instruction about playing poker and ‘some of the finest gambling stories I have ever read,’ before he finishes by describing how poor he himself was as a poker player.

Yardley did not have the chance to see his book’s success in the UK. By the time the book was published in 1959, Yardley was dead, and he and Fleming had never met. (His grave can be found close to that of J F Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery.)

If he wasn’t a traitor, Yardley was certainly a whistle-blower so it is interesting that Fleming as part of the British spying establishment was prepared to be seen to support Yardley’s book. Of course it may have been no more than hard commerce: Fleming could see that Yardley’s book would add further credence to the Bond but more importantly Fleming myth – even though neither were great poker players themselves. Perhaps he rather admired the rakish life that Yardley had lived; we certainly know that Fleming was becoming increasingly distanced from the UK’s spying professionals who he thought had not kept alive the traditions of the service. And he had no love of the Americans so here was a way that he could be a minor irritation by cocking-a-snoop at the intelligence establishment.

Herbert O. Yardley (Photo: Washington Spy Museum)

Herbert O. Yardley (Photo: Washington Spy Museum)

Having written his preface for Yardley’s book, Fleming then wrote an article for The Spectator that was published in October 1959. Titled ‘If I were Prime Minister‘ it laid out Fleming’s manifesto for a radical reform of the United Kingdom which included reforming the laws relating to sex and gambling. Clearly he was on a crusade:

‘Next I should proceed to a complete reform of our sex and gambling laws and endeavour to cleanse the country of the hypocrisy with which we so unattractively clothe our vices…’

He wrote that he would turn…

’the Isle of Wight into one vast pleasure dome (cf. Fr. Baisodrome) which would be a mixture of Monte Carlo, Las Vegas, pre-war Paris and Macao. Here there would be casinos…and the most luxurious maisons de tolérance in the world…This would be a world where the frustrated citizen of every class could give full rein to those basic instincts for sex and gambling which have been crushed through the ages. At last our cliff-girt libido would have an outlet and the sleazy strip-tease joints, rump-sprung street-walkers and backroom card games would be out of business forever…’

So did Yardley’s book influence Fleming in any other ways?

It seems possible that with its stories of a licentious life of gambling and prostitution in Hong Kong and China it acted as impetus for the places that Fleming would visit when, a short time later, he wrote his series of articles for the Sunday Times about the world’s thrilling cities. These articles included two about Hong Kong, and neighbouring and very seedy Macau.

wongYardley had come to Hong Kong when he was employed by the Chinese. He arrived to be met by his interpreter Ling Fab who had been instructed to provide everything for Yardley’s comfort. This meant cocktails and women.

The descriptions of the spies, journalists, crooks, dubious and slimy expats, and not least the prostitutes in the Chinese city of Chungking perhaps had indeed acted as some stimulus for Fleming to visit the Far East – though Yardley was by no means the first to write of such intrigue, and it is also clear that Fleming was familiar with The World of Suzie Wong, a book that definitely provides a backdrop for his visit to Hong Kong.

However it seems possible that the book influenced at least one minor similarity: at the same time as he was reading Yardley’s book, Fleming was writing For Your Eyes Only.

Yardley writes, ‘It is said sooner or later everyone of any note comes to the Cafe de la Paix in Paris to sip a drink and watch the crowd.

In For Your Eyes Only Fleming writes that Bond regularly took lunch at the Cafe de la Paix, where ‘the food was good enough…and it amused him to watch the people.’

In You Only Live Twice there is certainly some cross-over between Yardley’s world and Fleming’s.

The initial mission that Bond is sent on at the start of the novel is to negotiate with the Japanese secret service for access to their intelligence on the Russians. Fleming writes that the Japanese since the War have been building state-of-the-art decoding machines that have been cracking the most secret of Russian messages. However, for various political reasons, while they had been passing on this intelligence to the CIA, they had not been passing it to the British; nor was the CIA then passing it on to the British other than in a redacted summary.

Bond is sent to Japan to negotiate a swop: Japan’s intelligence for British high-grade intelligence on China that was coming from a network within the country codenamed the Macau Blue Route.

Fleming called the Japanese cryptography machine MAGIC 44, and when Bond was meeting ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, Head of Japan’s secret service, he was shown an example of the Russian intelligence that they had cracked with it. In real life MAGIC was the name given to the US cryptography team during World War 2 that was responsible for cracking Japanese codes. Fleming refers to the British Blue Route: in real life the Japanese had their Red, Blue and Purple coding machines.

Japanese 'Purple' Cipher Machine (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

Japanese ‘Purple’ Cipher Machine (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

M when explaining the mission to Bond says that a couple of top CIA cryptographers had defected to the Soviet Union and Fleming may have been carefully hinting at Yardley being a defector.

Was Yardley a defector?

In 1967 a dramatic claim was made: Herbert Yardley was a traitor who had sold secrets to the Japanese back in the late 1920s. In other words he was a man who could work for anyone, at any time, perhaps even at the same time. More than a double-agent perhaps even a triple agent.

Broken-SealIn The Broken Seal, the espionage writer Ladislas Farago claimed that during the summer of 1928 Yardley sold the secrets of his cryptology work to the Japanese for the sum of $7,000. Farago’s account laid out that Yardley had met with Setsuzo Sawada, an official in the Japanese embassy and Yardley offered to hand over decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages, show how these had been decrypted, and how the US were creating their own cypher systems.

Farago’s claim was met with much incredulity and many former spies came out and said that while the rogue Yardley had done wrong in publishing his books, he was no traitor and that any evidence to the contrary was probably fabricated by the Japanese government to save face in the light of Yardley’s original story about how he had decoded their intelligence.

However since then more evidence has emerged that points to Yardley having colluded with the Japanese and that off and on he might have been doing this up until the time of Pearl Harbour, and that very likely the US government were more than aware of this.

Fascinating stuff, and perhaps Fleming did possess some inside knowledge about Yardley that he wove into You Only Live Twice.

Incidental Intelligence

Bondo-San in Japan: Interview with Graham M. Thomas

Ian Fleming Introduces ‘The Education of a Poker Player’

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