The Englishman Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

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englishman who broke the bank at monte carlo roulette

The Englishman Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

In his book The Newtonian Casino, author Thomas A. Bass tells the story of a group of students from the University of California in the 1970s and how they invented a device which predicted the eventual resting place of a ball on a roulette wheel.

Built into a shoe and controlled by the player’s feet, the device could, if the conditions of the table, croupier and ball combined in their favour, give the player an advantage of up to 44% over the casino. By using the device, the students claimed that roulette was actually a ‘predictive’ game – and the story of its creation and eventual uncovering is legendary in gambling circles.

It is certain that another iconic figure in the world of casinos and gambling had no such device, but somehow British born Charles De Ville Wells would still become known as ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’.

englishman who broke the bank at monte carlo exterior

“Made a fortune”

Wells was no saint, as his record as a major league conman (including one outrageously successful ‘Ponzi’ scheme long before the phrase even existed) and jailbird attests, but he was certainly an intriguing character.

How he actually broke the casino’s bank in Monte Carlo remains a mystery, with speculation ranging from a huge publicity stunt, to a hidden formula, to the most extraordinary sequence of luck.

What is known is Wells had already made a fortune as the legitimate inventor of a device to regulate the speed of a ship’s propeller – and then not so legitimately by persuading members of the public to invest in a fraudulent scheme to build a railway in northern France. So there’s no doubt that Wells had the necessary funds to go head-to-head with the casino tables in Monte Carlo.

At the time, the high rolling tables would have a cash reserve of 100,000 francs. If a lucky punter ever managed a hot streak and ‘bankrupted’ such a table, a black cloth would be laid dramatically across it to signify the event (although, in truth, this was done only until the table was restocked).

englishman who broke the bank at monte carlo postcard

The casino at Monte Carlo, 1900
By Unknown – Old Postcard, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

“Unprecedented”

Wells was 50 when he arrived in Monte Carlo on July 28, 1891 with about £4,000 (worth about £400,000 today). Barely anyone noticed when the small and unassuming man took his lunchtime seat at the roulette table. But playing non-stop and without pausing until the casino closed at 11pm – often without food and drink – over the course of a week he had somehow amassed a fortune worth £4 million in today’s money.

During one session he won 23 times out of 30 spins of the wheel. Before long, there was a jostling crowd six people deep all trying to replicate his bets. At one time, he’d won so much money an onlooker commented Wells was hidden behind a mountain of gambling chips.

While it is true that ‘breaking the bank’ in a casino is not exactly uncommon, throughout the week, Wells managed to break the bank an unprecedented ten times.

So the question remains: How did he do it? Certainly his shady background (both before and after this event) suggests some sort of Machiavellian subterfuge, although reporters who were made aware of his hot streak during the week discovered no underhand methods to his playing.

englishman who broke the bank at monte carlo chips

“Winning formula”

His background in engineering would have given him an understanding of the mechanics of roulette wheels, so some early replication of The Newtonian Casino cannot be ruled out – but there is no evidence to suggest he indulged in the sort of meticulous research of croupiers and ball speeds that was the outstanding feature of the Californian students’ predictive success many years later.

Wells himself simply stated that he had discovered a winning formula, but if this was true it’s a formula he took with him to his grave – and a formula he seemingly failed to replicate anywhere else.

What seems the most likely conclusion is that there was some collusion between Wells and the casino’s fairly new director, one Camille Blanc.

englishman who broke the bank at monte carlo today

A Monte Carlo casino today

“Lucky streak”

Blanc knew that breaking the bank, if properly controlled, was actually a great money spinner. The publicity generated alone was enough to paper over the financial cracks – and whenever the infamous black cloth ceremony was lifted there would be a gaggle of eager punters waiting to try their luck on the ‘defeated’ table.

Whatever the truth about Charles de Ville Wells and his extraordinary lucky streak under the chandeliers in Monte Carlo, nobody can deny his story has gone into modern folklore. A popular music hall song of the day tells his story, cinema has attempted to recreate some of the drama with fictionalised accounts, there are plenty of books about and around the whole story – there’s even a long-forgotten musical somewhere in the vaults – and the phrase ‘breaking the bank at Monte Carlo’ has entered the modern lexicon to describe any sort of long, lucky winning streak.

Of course these days, winning streaks can be at your fingertips. Online casinos have made it easy with multiple gaming choices. For example, if you fancy trying your hand at blackjack, you can find some of the best online blackjack sites at bestonlineblackjack.com.

Even in death, Charles de Ville Wells is a mystery, with the location and cause of it unclear. But what is clear is that his story will remain fascinating, unfathomable and strangely enticing to anyone who has ever felt lucky at the side of a roulette table.

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