LONDON — Where are you, Adnan Khashoggi, when your old haunts need you?
The Saudi businessman, probably best known to Americans as a key middleman in the Iran-Contra scandal, was more famous here as one of the highest of the high rollers, a man who reputedly lost $15 million in his heyday at London's posh casinos.
Khashoggi's financial fortunes have taken a turn for the worse lately, and as a result he hasn't been seen much around the illustrious Mayfair District gaming establishments he used to frequent.
Many other gambling superstars--the sheiks and tycoons seemingly unfazed by dropping several hundred thousand dollars during an evening of roulette--also have disappeared, gaming industry sources lament.
Partly, the sources say, it is the result of depressed oil prices; partly it is increased competition from other gambling centers such as Australia, and partly it is from changing mores in the increasingly fundamentalist Middle East.
But whatever the cause, the result is that London's casinos--which are much more dependent on high rollers than their American counterparts--are experiencing an unaccustomed business downturn.
Although final figures will not be published for several weeks, industry regulators and officials at the British Casino Assn. say the so-called "drop" in the city's 21 gaming establishments--the amount of money exchanged for chips--fell in 1988 for the third year in a row.
Owning a London casino once was considered a virtual license to print money. A government report a decade ago estimated that the typical club earned more than $4 annually for every $1 it had invested. That was nonsense, the industry countered: It made only 80 cents a year on every dollar it put up.
In recent months, however, casinos have been changing hands faster than you can say "blackjack." The latest example is Crockfords Club, London's oldest and one of its famous gaming parlors, which was sold recently for a reported $85 million.
In all, a dozen London gambling clubs have been sold in the last two years, and the rest are reportedly on the auction block. Two establishments, Crockfords and Aspinall's Curzon, have changed hands twice during that period.
A number of the United Kingdom's 92 other casinos also have changed hands, though not nearly at the rate of the big London clubs, which account for more than two-thirds of the country's total casino gambling.
"We've seen more (turnover) activity in the last couple of years than we saw in a long time before that," said Peter R. Burleigh, secretary of the Gaming Board for Great Britain, which regulates the industry.
"We don't know how long this will be before it all settles down," added an industry official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think the London people are worried about the downward trend" in volume, the official said.
"The playboys have gone to ground," London's Financial Times newspaper reported last month. "The younger Arab generation is said to have different cultural values to those of the green baize sheiks."
If this were Las Vegas or Atlantic City, the casino proprietors would simply pull out all the stops to lure new gamblers. But not here.
In the peculiar world of London casinos, advertising is prohibited. So is live entertainment. There are no free drinks, because drinking isn't allowed at the gaming tables. Credit is illegal, and there are no "impulse" gamblers, because you cannot even place a bet until 48 hours after you apply for club membership.
"The British attitude toward gambling is that it's an unfortunate lapse of Puritan behavior which must be accommodated, but which shouldn't be encouraged," explained David Spanier, author of "Easy Money: Inside the Gambler's Mind" and two other books on gambling. "It mustn't be enjoyable to gamble," Spanier added.
Under Britain's strict 1968 gaming laws, which are credited with keeping out organized crime, only enough casinos are permitted to operate to satisfy the "unstimulated demand" for them.
It's a strange rule for a country that loves to gamble on almost everything else, Burleigh conceded. "Casinos have been considered sort of alien and foreign and dirty," he said. By contrast, horse racing is known as the "sport of kings," and betting on soccer is part of the national heritage.
"There's something purer about going to the horses and the dogs than going to a casino," Burleigh said.
A British legislator once advocated that the country's "immoral" gaming clubs be shut entirely "so that casino characters would then be able to spend more money on honest activities such as racing."
Despite the restrictions, the British casino industry is reputedly the largest in Europe. The "drop" in 1987, the last year for which full figures are available, was about $3 billion, of which more than $2 billion was in London alone.