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.