While researching Monte Carlo for my novel, Shadow of the Tiger, the second of the Kyame Piddington series, which is set in 1896, I encountered a number of fascinating references and stories all of which contributed to the evocation of Monte Carlo and Monaco of that time. Using those references, I wrote the following article which appeared in History Magazine, December/January, 2010. It is placed here as the interest in challenging the wheel is always present, and the system, used by Kyame Piddington in 1896, is just as valid today and requires the same solid discipline for success.
Monte Carlo Systems:
Myths and Promises
The roulette wheel has no conscience and no memory.
Over dinner at the Baldwin Club in a gloomy and depressing London, in November, 1897, the banker, the Hon. Albert Victor Bethell, and his barrister friend, Frank Corzon, resolved to visit the legendary Monte Carlo Casino in the tiny (eight square miles), but captivating, Mediterranean principality of Monaco. Their plan: to utilize a roulette system to pay all their expenses for at least ten days — to demonstrate that with the right discipline and minimum capital they, or anyone else, could, for a time, live completely off the Bank. And, if successful, write a book about their experience and make money off that, too.
Certainly a noble objective — but which system to use of the many regularly flogged to visiting gamblers, Imperial, royal and commoner? Systems that the well-dressed gentlemen and the occasional lady pitched as being infallible; as being the one system that François Blanc, the Monte Carlo Casino general managing director, did not want you to learn; and all for sale as you stepped off the train from Nice, confidentially, of course, for a mere five to fifty francs.
One notorious example was:
“The Discovery of the Age!”
“How to beat the Bank at flat stakes.”
Price 20 francs
Though a seemingly simple and straightforward system, there was a subtle fatal flaw in the system that assured the trusting player progressively larger losses over time.
But François Blanc was delighted with systems players. He provided score cards to facilitate clocking the wheels; even allowing space for adding machines at the tables; and on one occasion, when the punter needed room for a large ledger on which to calculate his system, Casino management placed a small table near the wheel to accommodate the gambler and to avoid his blocking two or three other gamblers from sitting at the table.
As a result, a certain Monégasque axiom became well known: “Rouge gagne quelquefois, Noir souvent, mais Blanc toujours.” [Red wins sometimes, black often, but Blanc always.]
The Monte Carlo Casino
From 1872, for almost four decades, Monte Carlo was the only legal casino in Europe. Only two games were played: roulette and the card game Trente-et-Quarante. Over the years, remarkable sums had been won by various individuals at both games, but it was roulette systems that had the greatest apparent promise. And nothing brought the plungers, splashers and punters like the publicity from a fabulous win of hundreds of thousands of francs in a week, or even in a single day.
Or, the ultimate win: breaking the Bank itself.
Breaking the Bank at Monte Carlo
Thirty-five year old Charles Deville Wells arrived at the Casino on July 19, 1891. He was an unprepossessing man, medium height, a black beard and bald. He sat down at a roulette table and played as though the Devil himself was his backer. Eleven hours of steady play later, Wells walked away with 250,000 francs profit. He repeated the feat the following day. The third day, Wells encountered early losses of fifty thousand francs at roulette, switched to Trente-et-Quarante, and, staking the maximum at each play, soon recovered his losses, returned to roulette and broke the table a dozen times in the course of the afternoon. Then he quit. His stamina had finally given out after almost twenty-six steady hours of play, but Wells walked away with over half-a-million francs, which he immediately transferred to his London bank.
Later, returning to Monte Carlo in the winter season, incredibly, Wells did it again.
Wells refused to divulge his system of playing, but observers thought it resembled coup des trios, a system in which accumulated stakes from three winning coups are set aside and the gambler starts over with new capital. But there was actually no system. Charles Wells simply had an astonishing run of luck, which was written up in all major European newspapers. His exploits became the basis for the music hall song written in 1892 by Fred Gilbert, “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”.
But the Monte Carlo Bank was never broken –- that was impossible for a single individual — though breaking a table several times in a single day was a singular event. François Blanc, who had died fifteen years before Wells’s first arrival, once observed, “He who breaks the bank to-day will most assuredly return tomorrow and let the bank break him.”
Returning to Monaco in December, 1892, as Blanc would have expected, Charles Wells arrived on a glamorous yacht, the Palais Royal. His luck held briefly, but then he sustained heavy losses and, wiped out, withdrew.
The source of Wells’s vast capital was finally revealed when French police boarded the Palais Royal, in January, 1892, to arrest Charles Wells for swindling investors in England.
Wells’s extensive Monte Carlo newspaper publicity had raised the suspicions of his titled investors, and swallowing their pride, they had alerted police. Wells served eight years in prison. Once released, he engaged in additional cons. In 1906, he was arrested and imprisoned for three more years. Later in France, Wells was caught again, which led to yet another sentence of five years in a French prison.
However, Wells had, prior to his first arrest, invested some of his winnings in annuities and so, once out of the French prison; he lived comfortably until his death in 1929 at eighty-five.
One other source of Wells’s later income was dividends from the Casino itself. In addition to the annuities, after his first visit, Wells had purchased fifty thousand francs worth of shares in the Casino which had steadily increased in value, ironically due partly to the Wells publicity.
Which System to Play?
But which of the fifteen or so most popular systems would be appropriate for the Bethell and Curzon Monte Carlo excursion?
All roulette systems are based on even chance wagers, i.e., red-black, high-low, odd-even. Most are progressive, in that they attempt to recover lost capital by increasing subsequent stakes following a loss. The longer the sequence of losses continue, then progressively higher stakes are required to continue to play the system –- until, under the most negative conditions, the gambler’s capital is exhausted. All systems are focused on defending the player’s capital and moderating his losses.
Most writers on roulette systems, including Victor Bethell, emphasize that gambling at roulette without a system ensures disaster, much sooner than later. With a system and with the discipline and capital to persevere, the gambler is always aware of his financial status and is not tempted to recklessly attempt to quickly recover losses.
However, different systems require different levels of starting capital, and some, to be avoided, ensure more rapid losses than others. And the one somewhat banal element that undermines many systems is that they are tedious, given their repeated detailed calculations, even though they may be safer.
Many systems were also based on a myth. In 1903, in his book, Facts and Fallacies of Monte Carlo, Sir Hiram Maxim pointed out that the concept of “evening up”, (assuming that the frequency of one color appearing must eventually equal the frequency of the other, the basic assumption of many systems), was a fallacy. Regardless of the number of consecutive coups of, say red, the odds of black coming up on the next spin always remains the same. The wheel has no memory of what came before; with the exception of biased wheels, which have a mechanical tendency for the ball to fall more frequently than statistically predictable in a certain sector of the wheel.
Jagger and the Biased Wheel
The first gambler to detect biased wheels at Monte Carlo was Joseph Jagger, a mechanic from Yorkshire, England, who in 1873 at the end of his first day at roulette, won 350,000 francs. Unlike all other systems, Jagger played specific numbers, en plein, apparently at random, and won consistently — but at only one table. Over the next three days his winnings grew to one-and-a-half million francs.
Based on his own experience of manufacturing spindles for the textile industry, Jagger theorized that regardless of the care in manufacture, some roulette wheels would not spin true, tending to a bias for certain numbers that could be detected with patient clocking of the wheel; a bias that should continue even with Casino personnel checking the wheel balance with a spirit level to one millimeter tolerance, three times a day.
But, if true, then which wheel? Jagger brought six clerks from his firm to record the numbers surreptitiously over several days at each of Monte Carlo’s six roulette wheels. The data collected confirmed Jagger’s theory and identified the key flawed wheel.
Once the Casino management recognized what was happening, they shuffled the wheels, changing them around the tables, but Jagger had seen a small scratch on the biased wheel and, once finding it, his winnings continued. The management again altered the wheels, giving them adjustable frets on each pocket. At that point, experiencing consistent losses, Joseph Jagger quit, returned home and retired on his winnings.
The Noble Lord’s System
Some systems are also temporary as was the legendary Noble Lord’s System. An English lord entered the Casino one Sunday morning with the last hymn sung before the sermon at the English Church still running through his mind. He heard 32 red called from the first table; then heard 32 red called from the next. Something was familiar. Then he recognized that 32 was the number of the hymn that morning. He swiftly bet 32 red at each of the four remaining tables and made a quick £400 profit.
After mentioning his good fortune to two friends, the following Sunday, fifty men squeezed into the church with the startled congregation. Once the hymn number was announced there was a loud, mad sprint for the church doors as the pews rapidly emptied of men as in a fire drill.
The hymn number came up again at the tables.
The minister, learning that his church had become a popular gambling system, announced from the pulpit the following Sunday that henceforth no hymn with a number less than 37 would be sung before the sermon. The Noble Lord’s lesson being: if you have a system that works, keep it to yourself.
The Avant Dernier System
The system which Bethell and Curzon developed was called the Avant Dernier. In this system, the gambler backs the color that came up the play previous to the last. For example, assume R, B, R had come up. The gambler would play B with his first stake, and then no matter what turned up next; he would play R. Always the second color prior, which ensured success if there was a long run of a single color, or shorter runs of two or three. The combinations of R/B that could undermine the system are few, but would occur and needed to be quickly recognized.
With the procedure set, the daily goal the two men set was to win four units a day, with a unit, for them, being one louis or twenty francs; but always quit when four had been won. They decided to use “flat stakes”, which meant they played the same number of units each coup, thus eliminating tedious progressive calculations.
If however, the Bank won ten spins from the players before they had won one coup, they agreed the flat stakes would be increased to two units at each spin until all losses were recovered, then revert to one unit and continue. But they would always quit when four units were won, whether in an hour or in a day.
Using the Avant Dernier system, Bethell and Curzon achieved their goal: ten days in which all their expenses in Monaco were covered by their winnings. Not all the days were strong winners, though on three days they achieved their goal of winning four units in only a couple of hours. Keeping rigidly to their agreed system, after ten days they left Monte Carlo with their starting capital of £600 still in their pockets, all bills paid, and some marvelous friendships and memories of a beautiful country.
The Right System
Fundamentally, whether a century ago or now, the system that achieves the gambler’s goal with the smallest number of stakes (thus diminishing the effect of the zero) is the best the player can execute.
However, regardless of the system used, Lord Harry Rosslyn, a renowned Monte Carlo gambler, observed in 1896 that, “Perseverance, strong nerve and the constitution of a dray-horse are absolutely necessary to success.”
Bethell, Victor, Ten Days at Monte Carlo: At the Bank’s Expense,
William Heinemann, London, 1898.
—— Monte Carlo Anecdotes and Systems of Play, William Heinemann, London, 1910.
Fielding, Xan, The Money Spinner: Monte Carlo and Its Fabled Casino,
Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1977.
Maxim, Sir Hiram S., Monte Carlo Facts and Fallacies,
Alexander Moring Ltd., London, 1903.