Making money from gambling

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Charlie Wells was a career gambler who became legendary and was immortalised in song as “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”

Wells died broke, perhaps having believed too much in his own reputation. In fact he wasn’t the only person to have broken the bank at Monte Carlo. His claim to fame was to have done it three times.

Breaking the bank at Monte Carlo was not anyway as spectacular as it sounds. The casino was not bankrupted and nor did it run out of money. Rather, the casino set a limit on how much money it could lose on any one table. If you reached this limit the casino would announce the end of play and symbolically drape the table with a black cloth, declaring that the bank had been broken. The casino was well aware that this generated excellent publicity and would attract others to try their luck. The house very rarely loses.

I personally prefer two other gambling stories. One is told in the 1985 book The Zurich Axioms about Caroline Otero, a woman who in the late 1880s put everything on red on a roulette wheel and walked away. If the story is to be believed, red came up the next 28 spins in a row and the bank was broken.

And then there’s the legendary Kerry Packer story, long thought to be apocryphal but which the casino executive Bobby Baldwin confirmed that he’d witnessed. It happened in the early 1990s. A Texan millionaire in a Los Vegas casino was at the next table to Packer and was boasting about his net worth. Packer eventually said to him: “I’ll toss you for it.”

Moving on, there are at least five known cases of people successfully calculating the odds and beating the house through sheer statistical acumen. I say five because these are the ones I’ve heard about. I haven’t gone looking for other stories, don’t frequent casinos and I gamble extraordinarily rarely.

There was Don Johnson, who cleaned up in Atlantic City in April 2011 when local casino executives mistakenly agreed to terms that favoured Johnson rather than the house. He made a lot of money and one executive lost his job. The story was profiled in The Atlantic in April 2012.

There was the famous team of maths whizzes from MIT, who from 1979 till the mid-1990s used their skills to make money at blackjack. Part of the team’s success was allegedly due to the fact that many were Asian and would thus take longer to be noticed by casino staff – a detail omitted from the 2008 Hollywood movie about their exploits, 21. Yes, Hollywood cast people of European descent as the leads.

And then there are the cases where people have exploited mechanical irregularities in the machinery of roulette wheels. Imperfectly engineered parts meant that wheels had biases. These were not overtly obvious but statistical analysis would show that some numbers came up more often than others, over time.

In 1875 the English mill worker Joseph Jagger took advantage of this to make his fortune at Monte Carlo. In 1947 Albert Hibbs and Roy Walford did a similar thing at both Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada. And in the 1960s, the American Richard Jarecki did the same thing at various European casinos, most notably San Remo. He died last month.

Can you copy their feat? Probably not. Modern roulette wheels are better engineered and parts are replaced frequently in order to prevent patterns from developing. The same even goes for public lottery machines. The aim is to achieve something close to genuine randomness. And randomness will beat any gambler who is not simply lucky.

Still, while there’s no sure-fire way to make money from gambling there is a known technique that generally produces modest but consistent profitable returns: owning shares in a gambling company. Don’t try to beat the house. Become it, instead.

The Melancholy Roman

Senator Anning makes a point

Fraser Anning, in an image taken from

Currently events from a mere nine days ago in Australian politics feel like ancient history. Nonetheless…

On 14 August 2018, Fraser Anning, a senator for Queensland, made his maiden speech in federal parliament. Among the other things he said in his nearly 35 minute speech was this:

“We as a nation are entitled to insist that those who are allowed to come here predominantly respect the historic European, Christian composition of Australian society, and embrace our language, culture and values as a people.”

One could challenge the accuracy of these remarks on the basis that the first Australians were neither European nor Christian. But then, one could also finesse the meaning of “nation” and say that he was correct. Before white settlement the land really did consist of a patchwork of many different Aboriginal nations. Currently in Melbourne, I live on the land that originally belonged to the Wurundjeri people. I’m from Perth – the land of the Noongars.

Still, let’s not go there, because that would be wandering off the point.

It’s also worth noting that a century ago it wasn’t altogether clear how long Aborigines had been in Australia. I’ve found two British newspaper articles suggesting that it was commonly believed in the 1950s that Aborigines had arrived in Australia merely hundreds of years before white people. In fact archaeologists had already found evidence of Aboriginal presence for at least 5000 years but the discoveries that would push that back to at least 65000 years were yet to be made.

But back to senator Anning. He spoke at length about infrastructure development, with obvious knowledge and having clearly given the matter a lot of thought. That part of his speech received little coverage.

He received much more attention for what he said about immigration. As well as the above quote he was especially critical of Muslim immigration; criticised the current general immigration rate; and in what was at the very least a poor choice of words talked about a “final solution” to the immigration problem.

It was universally agreed that he shouldn’t have used that phrase, associated as it is with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

More generally, Anning outlined his political beliefs in his speech. He pulled no punches. Politically he is on the hard right and would like to see a return of the White Australia policy – the unofficial policy that lasted until the 1970s of only allowing white people as immigrants.

As is protocol, other senators shook Anning’s hand after the speech. They were right to do so. It was nonetheless clear from belated parliamentary reaction that many people found his remarks objectionable. There was a clear sense of bipartisanship about this that I find heartening. Yes, this was only nine days ago.

Still, a couple of the examples that Anning used in his speech, and one I thought of myself, do make me wonder. Do we ignore the fact that some admirable people had attitudes that aren’t now considered admirable?

Take Jan Smuts as an example. I do not know if Anning has ever heard of Smuts, who was twice prime minister of South Africa and who lived from 1870 to 1950.

Smuts was instrumental in helping to set up both the League of Nations and the United Nations, was a member of Churchill’s war cabinet, and was held in almost ridiculously high regard by Churchill himself. The first and second world wars each ended with a peace treaty. Smuts was the only person to sign both of them.

In 1948, Smuts lost an election to South Africa’s National party. It was the National party in South Africa that introduced Apartheid and Smuts had been opposed to them. All in all, a pretty impressive resume.

So why isn’t Jan Smuts better remembered outside of South Africa? Perhaps, because he believed in segregation and opposed giving blacks the vote. It does not pay to be on the wrong side of history.

Let’s shift our attention back to Australia. The proper dismantling of the White Australia policy began under Harold Holt in 1967 and it was finally consigned to history by Gough Whitlam’s government in 1973. Similarly, the referendum altering the status of Aborigines in Australia’s constitution was carried out under the Holt government in 1967. Menzies had talked about it but did nothing.

One consequence of these and other decisions is that Menzies’ second period as prime minister, from 1949 to 1966, is now seen as a very conservative and old-fashioned era. Changes now seen as necessary did not come about until after he’d left politics.

But wait a second. What about his predecessors? A simple count will show that fifteen other men were prime minster of Australia before Menzies began his second term. Some of the names are now obscure but others are remembered as great leaders, such as Ben Chifley and John Curtin. But the fact is, the White Australia policy survived intact under all of them.

Which is one of the points that Fraser Anning made and I hate to admit it, but it’s a good one. Anning’s ideas on immigration are repugnant to me but he reminds us that even heroes sometimes have feet of clay. It’s a useful thing to remember.

The Melancholy Roman

Tony Bullimore

Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois, in an image from The Australian’s website.

Tony Bullimore has died.

If that name means nothing to you then you probably weren’t living in Perth in January 1997. Bullimore had been competing in the Vendée Globe round-the-world yacht race when his boat capsized. It couldn’t have happened in a much worse place – more than 2000km south west of Perth.

That it was known he’d capsized at all was due to his emergency beacon. Australia was the nearest country and so HMAS Adelaide was scrambled to find out what had happened and also to rescue a competitor who’d capsized nearby, Thierry Dubois.

If I remember rightly, attempts to radio Bullimore failed. Nobody knew if he was dead or alive but there was speculation that he might be trapped inside the upturned hull of his boat, and indeed might have changed the frequency on his beacon to indicate he was still alive.

It took four days for HMAS Adelaide to reach the scene and this delay led to my other abiding memory of the story. I don’t know if journalists are instructed to find the negative in any story but I remember news reports of criticisms about how much the rescue would cost. I think the figure quoted was something like $6 million.

This was reported in the Australian media and from what I heard, the British media picked up the story and ran with it, saying there was much criticism of the cost.

The reality? Nobody I knew in Perth at the time thought it was a waste of money. Yes, that was $6 million of taxpayers’ money, but it was being spent towards a good cause and besides, it was going to test the navy’s capabilities.

I repeat, on the ground there wasn’t a hint of criticism of the money spent on the rescue effort.

Dubois was reached; he was rescued. Then the Adelaide arrived at Bullimore’s boat. A zodiac was dispatched to investigate and apparently one of the sailors banged on the hull of Bullimore’s boat with a hammer… and seconds later Bullimore appeared, having swum out of the boat.

It wasn’t obvious from the news reports at the time, but he’d been stuck in freezing conditions in pitch darkness for four days. The later estimates were that he would’ve run out of oxygen in another seven hours.

What I remember from the news footage is that Bullimore kissed one of the rescuing sailors. Why? He was so pleased to be rescued that he said to one of them that he could kiss him. And the other guy told him to go ahead.

All in all it’s a great story and Bullimore was very clear afterwards that he owed his life to the navy’s intervention. But being from Perth, I remember another angle that became controversial.

When the Adelaide arrived back in Fremantle, Bullimore had planned to wear an HMAS Adelaide baseball cap. Somehow, someone onboard persuaded him to wear a Channel Seven cap instead. This annoyed Channel Seven’s arch-rival in Perth, Channel Nine.

Channel Nine got revenge of sorts two years later. An Alaskan man named Robert Bogucki went missing in the north of Western Australia in mid-1999. Forty three days later, after police had given up the search, a Channel Nine helicopter found him by a fluke. Their subsequent treatment of Bogucki in their desire to get an exclusive left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Remembering the Bullimore rescue there was a general feeling that the news rivalry had gone too far and that both stations had stepped outside the bounds of decency.

And posterity? Posterity remembers that Bullimore was rescued and that that was a good thing. Dubois, and indeed Bogucki, are remembered less. And if that seems unfair, remember that posterity has no morality.

As for the rivalry between Seven and Nine, the media landscape has changed so much that the whole thing now just seems quaint.

The Melancholy Roman