The man who ispopularly supposed to have inspired this old music hall favorite never actuallybroke the casino at Monte Carlo, but he certainly bent it—not once but severaltimes. And he wasn't the only one to "break the bank," though he wasthe most famous. A notorious swindler with many aliases, some French, someEnglish, his real name probably was Charles Deville Wells.
In 1887 Wellsarrived one day with ¬£400 and left three days later with 40,000. It was notsuch a spectacular feat as it sounds. Contrary to the popular supposition,breaking the bank did not mean breaking the casino, but merely exhausting thefunds of a single table. In those days this amounted only to ¬£3,500. The tablewas then closed down, temporarily, and draped with black crepe. Nowadays thecasino does not bother to close down a table. When the supply of chipsapproaches depletion, a fresh batch is hustled up from the vaults, and playcontinues until the player is satiated—or broke.
Wells won most ofhis money at roulette, using a doubling system. But on the third day, on hisway out, he paused at a trente et quarante table, won ¬£6,000 in half an hourand hung the crepe on that one, too.
Casino officialsshrugged when Wells departed. The motto of all gambling houseseverywhere—"They always come back"—is very dependable. Wells returnedin a few months, picked up another ¬£10,000 in another three days and hurriedaway. He was back two months later, this time with a yacht and a mistress. Andthis time he was a heavy loser. He had little luck for the rest of his life,some of which was spent in prison. He died penniless in France.
November 14, 1960
The moderngeneration of casino officials scarcely remembers this tale. It is only one ofthousands that have accumulated about the Casino de Monte-Carlo, which not onlyis the world's most romantic business enterprise but at the same time one ofthe most conservative and reliable. In almost a century of operation it neverhas had a losing year.
The business isless profitable now than it was, say, 50 years ago, partly because the worldhas changed, partly because competition for gamblers' money has sprung up allalong the rest of the Riviera, where newer casinos now flourish at Cannes,Antibes, Nice and lesser resorts. The idle rich are scarce in these times. Theincome tax has cut deep into the ability of sporting gentlemen to buck thebaccarat table. And there has been a shrinkage in the world supply of royalty,once a steady customer.
No longer doRussian grand dukes arrive at Monaco with trunks full of golden louis to beused as chips. The louis itself has disappeared, and long gone with it and thedukes are games like whist, piquet, boston and écarté. Now there are craps andslot machines. The royal punter is seen less. The movie producer is seenmore.
But the casino'sold glamour still wafts an enticement to the world. Las Vegas is bigger, moreexciting, noisier, more crowded. Even so, the fading but well-kept appointmentsof Monte Carlo, the polite murmur of the bettors, the modulated chant of thecroupiers, the magnificent setting of amethyst sea shining at the edges of theMaritime Alps, the memory of old ways that cannot return—these create a gentlemood in which it is a pleasure to lose a little.
Part of the charmof the old place lies in its legends, most of which are apocryphal. It is nottrue that the Monaco suicide rate is excessive. It is not true that thecasino's profits are so huge that Monegasque residents need pay no income tax.They do not pay income tax, but these days the casino represents only 10%, ifthat, of the little principality's economy. It is true that a wise governmentdoes not let Monegasque citizens, except employees, even enter the casino, letalone gamble there. (They gamble at Nice, only 20 miles away, or at Menton,even nearer.)
It is not true thatthe casino will sympathetically stake a bankrupt to his fare home, that thenumber of the first hymn sung at the English Chapel will be a sure winner atSunday roulette or that a little band of modest system players regularly takesaway small sums from the casino after daily sessions against the wheel.
The casino alwayswins
What is dependablyand fundamentally and always true is that the casino itself has an infalliblesystem for winning at games of chance. It is owned by the Société Anonyme desBains de Mer et du Cercle des Etrangers √† Monaco, a mouthful of a name that waschosen because it seemed more decorous a century ago to proclaim Monte Carlo asa place where one might take a bath in the sea rather than at chemin de fer.The company does not disclose its gambling profits. Too discouraging, perhaps.It lumps them discreetly with profits and losses on its other properties—the deluxe H√¥tel de Paris and associated fine hostelries and restaurants, the golf,tennis and beach clubs, the new bowling alley and the Sporting Club. The latteris a casino with a reputation for swank because, unlike the original casino,only men in dinner jackets and women in evening gowns are admitted on galanights. The old casino's big public room, known as "the kitchen" todistinguish it from the private rooms, bars only shirtsleeved men wearingsuspenders. Shirtsleeves and belts are permissible. Women may wear shorts, andsome few do. In the private rooms more suitable dress is required.
Sometimes,depending on world trends and other unpredictable factors, the Société as awhole will have a losing year (the last was in 1948), but the casino alwayspays its way. In fiscal 1960, which ended March 31, the Société reported thatit had made 2 million new francs (a little over $400,000), and by recentstandards that was not too bad a year. The Société is not a sensationallyprofitable enterprise. Just steady. If it did not have to support some losingattractions, like golf and concerts, it would do much better.
There is adeliberate avoidance of the sensational at Monte Carlo. Even the 110 slotmachines, installed blushingly to satisfy busloads of non-punting tourists whotroop and gawk through the gaming rooms several times a day, are painted a dullaluminum, by no means reminiscent of the gaudy cerise and magenta of Las Vegas.The slots take a one-franc piece (20¢), the smallest bet you can make at thecasino, and they take it with voracious monotony.
Just as the slotmachines are drab, the casino pace is slow. The roulette croupier spins hiswheel about 50 times an hour, little more than half the speed of a Las Vegaswheelman. Action at the lone craps table proceeds with such deliberate speedthat Americans, accustomed to a far faster game, become impatient. Except at aseason's height, the table operates for only a few hours a night, generallybetween 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Perhaps because of the slow and unexciting pace,wagers on the dice are moderate. An innovation of 1949, intended to attractAmericans, craps is mostly a curiosity for Europeans.
The casino daybegins at 9 a.m., one hour before the public is admitted. Down in the casinobasement the vaults are unlocked and money and chips brought up to thecashiers' windows and the gaming tables. One of the chip vaults, a tall (6 feet6 inches) strong box, holds a million dollars' worth of chips in wooden trays.There are 11 kinds of chips, ranging in value from 5 francs (about $1) to20,000 (about $4,000). The big chip, green and iridescent, is not used inordinary play because the maximum bet, with one exception, is 10,000 francs.Chips worth 500 francs and above are oblong and referred to as plaques. Theround chips are called jetons. The 20,000-franc chip comes in handy for passingchange to big winners.
More chips and thecasino's money reserve are kept in other vaults. The casino deals in currenciesof all nations except those behind the Iron Curtain. No one will tell you howmuch money is stored at the casino, but every day or so, depending on howbusiness has been, guards transport some 90,000 francs to the nearby bank. Thesum is by no means net profit. There are payrolls, upkeep and otheradministrative expenses.
On the payroll are230 croupiers employed at roulette, craps and trente el quarante. Another 50work baccarat tables. There are 20 cashiers. A staff of charwomen and portersnumbers close to 200. Forty interior guards and 15 secret service men,including professional physiognomists with nearly infallible memories for thefaces of crooks, are kept busy.
From time to timecrooks do attempt to beat the casino. The last serious try was made in 1956 bythree Americans. They brought to Monte Carlo 84 pairs of crooked dice,counterfeits of the casino cubes, and quickly won $6,750, a profit that wasmerely apparent. Actually, at this point they were $28,250 in the hole becauseone year previous they had dropped $35,000 in an eventually successful effortto steal one of the casino dice to be counterfeited.
In an ordinary gamedice-switching is a simple sleight, but under the eyes of an experiencedcroupier it is not so simple. The casino dice, furthermore, are changed everyhalf hour, or whenever the croupier feels intuitively like changing them, orwhen a secret service man signals that a change would be advisable. On thisoccasion, one of the secret service men thought that the three crooks, thoughwinning, were oddly nervous. He ordered a change of dice, and one of the crookstremulously passed the croupier a pair of loaded dice instead of the casino'sown cubes. The three then left hurriedly. They were caught that evening atNice, trying to book passage to America, and were sentenced to terms in theMonaco jail.
Telling the tale,M. Paul-C. Roux of the casino's Direction des Jeux staff, pointed out thefutility of the attempt.
"All the tricksare well known," he said, "and we observe for them."
The casino alsoprotects itself against attempts to counterfeit its chips. The chips areprettily made of translucent plastic. When they are held to the light anintricately distinctive design is seen. In addition, they are checked from timeto time in a machine that rejects a counterfeit.
A defectiveroulette wheel could cost the casino money, too, since any system player wouldbe quick to note the pattern of an out-of-true wheel, with its tendency to stopfrequently in a certain quarter. So in the casino basement there is an atelierwhere eight craftsmen make and repair roulette wheels so finely constructedthat they are expected to last at least 10 years and may go as long as 50, withonly their moving parts replaced from time to time. "They are the world'sfinest wheels," said M. Roux.
The casino alsomakes its own rakes for the croupiers, each with a handle as sensitive as agood fishing rod. The ivory balls, shaped to a tolerance of 1/100 of amillimeter, are obtained in Paris. The green table covers, made in the north ofFrance, are of extremely durable material but, even so, a given cover will lastonly about six months. They are hand-printed in the atelier, in designs suitedfor the various games, by a process which is the secret of the casino.
The casino's cards,specially made, are burned after every game. The dice, bought in Las Vegas, areburned every three to six months.
Every four years orso, when need becomes apparent, the casino conducts a school for croupiers. Aneffort is made to draw croupiers from other casino employees who have beenemployed there at least two years, but the requirements are so strict that thecompany is forced to hire French, Belgian and Italian croupiers, too.Candidates are given physical and psychological examinations testing suchqualities as dexterity, memory, poise under pressure and ability in mentalarithmetic. A special security check is made for integrity and extends to theapplicant's family.
Once accepted,students are taught the professional jargon (a roulette wheel is a"cylinder") and to utter the standard phrases—"Messieurs, faitesvos jeux!" and "Les jeux sont fails, Hen ne va plus!" with acertain elegance. They must address the players as "Messieurs" even ifonly ladies are at the table. It is a tradition, dating from a day when onlymen and co-cottes were seen at gaming tables.
After six or eightmonths of schooling, during which the students learn to pick up all losing betswith a single movement of the rake and, indeed, to do everything with deftness,they are given a second medical examination. Those who pass are assigned to aquiet table where they work under the eyes of experts trained to watch forsigns of the young croupier's worst enemy: stage fright. The strain of a gameis great; concentration is intense. Once in a while a rookie croupier may evenfaint.
The croupier ispaid a salary of $100 to $140 a month, depending on his seniority and position,but expects to take in at least three times as much in tips from lucky players.The tip is dropped into a table slot known to the roulette fancy as No. 37.Seventy percent of this take goes to the croupiers (until a few years ago itwas 50%) and 30% to other personnel.
The croupier worksa six-hour day. At the end of his first three-hour shift he takes a 25-minuterest, but if the head croupier catches him in a mistake he may be ordered fromthe table for additional rest. At age 60 or 65 he retires on a pension.
During quietperiods the croupiers chat with each other in the Monegasque patois, a blend ofFrench, Genovese and Spanish. They have their little private jokes. Thedevotees who open the casino each morning at 10 o'clock are known as "theresistance movement." Members of the resistance are mostly women, mostlyEnglish and mostly very conservative bettors. Almost all play a system, waitinginterminably for the right moment to place a bet. The casino does not profitgreatly from them, and there is even a legend, founded on the fact that somemembers of the resistance have been playing daily for years, that they actuallymake small sums of money at the wheel.
"It isimpossible for them to win," M. Roux insisted. "The wheel always winsin the long run."
Lose a little
These people dolose, but not very much. They are mostly retired persons reliving days ofprosperity when they could gamble heavily. For this pleasure, they are contentto lose a trifle.
Most modern bettorsare Italian and French, for reasons of geography. The big wagering seems to bedone by Latin Americans. North Americans are beginning to turn up morefrequently, a trend that began with Grace Kelly's marriage to Prince RainierIII.
The system playersseem to be more numerous at Monte Carlo than at Las Vegas or in pre-CastroHavana. The slower rhythm of the Monte Carlo games gives time forrecord-keeping and computation. The systems are countless; some are evenplausible.
The conviction thatgames of chance can be beaten by systems is old and ineradicable. Scores ofbooks have been written to recommend countless systems, but none of them works,a fact on which we have the testimony of such disparate personalities as SirHiram Maxim and Dostoevski. Maxim fired a burst of mathematics at the systemplayers, and Dostoevski summed it up with the observation that the roulettewheel has no memory and so will be unimpressed by the fact that a color, oranything else, has turned up a disproportionate number of times.
Favorites among thesystems are the various martingales, which are basically guides to the amountto bet. In horsemanship a martingale is a device to hold down a horse's headand prevent him from rearing. In gambling it is supposed to keep you from beingthrown flat on your equity. A favorite martingale is "doubling up,"which means simply that when you lose you double your next bet. There are manyvariations.
For instance, thefather of Jerry Cooke, who did the photographs for this article, was a studentof roulette who played with dedication. He wrote a book, translated intoseveral languages, to reveal the many ingenious ways by which roulette can bebeaten. The book made money, but Mr. Cooke did not.
His favorite systemwas simple: wait until red or black comes up seven times in a row, then bet theopposite color, doubling if you lose. If you double long enough you win onechip.
The system is bothtedious and unprofitable. It requires that you start play with a meager bet andcontinue with unlimited resources. Sooner or later, in all doubling systems, astreak comes along that wipes you out, and this is made even more certain bythe fact that the table has a limit on how much you can bet. There comes a timewhen the casino won't let you double any more.
Forsentimentality's sake, Jerry and I tried his father's system one night andeventually doubled our investment, though it took an interminable while for theseven reds to come up. Bored, we abandoned the system and lost our smallstakes.
On another evening,just casually studying the play of a wheel, I saw black come up 12 times in arow, and that is no record. (At Monte Carlo, the croupiers say, the record is17.) This meant that if I had been playing the Cooke Sr. system I would havehad to put up 32 chips on the 13th play in order to win a single chip. On the14th play I would have had to put up 64 chips, and so on, until the casino'slimit for the table was reached.
Monte Carlo givesthe roulette player some breaks he does not enjoy at Las Vegas. At Las Vegaseverybody loses on a zero or double zero. At Monte Carlo there is no doublezero, and not everyone loses on zero; those who bet on an even chance, such asred or black, odd or even, have the choice of taking half their bet back andlosing half, or of leaving it all on for the next spin. Then, if they win, theyget all their bet back. If they lose, they lose.
In terms of moneywagered on a single hazard, the big game at Monte Carlo is banque √† tout va(the bank where anything goes). It is a baccarat game not banked by the casinobut by private individuals who pay for the privilege, and so the casino'smaximums do not apply. At the season's peak it is not altogether unusual to see$100,000 riding on a single play. And at tout va one does have a chance, asnowhere else at Monte Carlo today, to break the bank.
The most rousingbust of a Riviera tout va bank occurred three years ago, not at Monte Carlo butat the Palm Beach Casino in Cannes. In the end Monte Carlo won.
Jack Warner andDarryl Zanuck were the original victors. Warner hit the tout va bank for$80,000, and Zanuck for half that much. Other players, following along with theHollywood luck, forced the bank out of action when its total losses came to$700,000.
Next day Zanuck litout for Japan, his winnings safely with him. Two days later Warner drove toMonte Carlo and tried the same game at the casino. The casino took the $80,000in a single night's play.