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Faire sauter la banque

11 August 2006

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark,
I once heard that "breaking the bank" had something to do with a misbehaving roulette wheel that paid off vast sums of money to the person who figured out that it was malfunctioning. Is that where the term "breaking the bank" came from in relation to casino gambling? Mel G.

While bedside reading this past week, Mel, I happened to uncover the answer to your question in the just-released, revised version of Kevin Blackwood's Casino Gambling for Dummies. On page 160, he writes that in Monte Carlo in 1873, an Englishman named Joseph Jagger identified a biased roulette wheel where nine numbers were appearing more often than randomness would allow. "Jagger pounced, and before the casino bosses figured out what was going on, he walked away winning with $350,000, an enormous sum in his day," Blackwood wrote, regarding the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

I'm with the Casino Gambling for Dummies author in that Joseph Jagger was the first famous gambler to get some publicity in 1873 for breaking the bank, but, Mel, it was a con artist, a public relations-thirsty casino owner, a song, and a music hall star that made the term "Break the Bank" most memorable.

In French, if a gambler wins more than the chips that exist on the table, he was said to have "faire sauter la banque," which actually means "blown up the bank", but is usually translated to our milder "broke the bank." If that were ever to happen, a black shroud would be placed over the table until reserve chips were brought to the game. The only time I ever saw a roulette table come to a complete halt was when a Super Big Gulp Slurpee tipped over on Red and Odd.

Although no gambler had come close to winning the whole reserves of the casino, the PR-savvy owner of the Monte Carlo casino, François Blanc, was always looking for ways to get greed-awakening publicity from stories of winning gamblers.

He found his poster-boy gambler in one Charles Wells, who in July of 1891 'broke the bank' twelve times in less than 11 hours, winning over one million francs. During one run, his number had come up in 23 of 30 successive spins of the wheel. In November of the same year, Wells returned and made another million francs in three days, including successful bets on the number five for five successive turns.

Despite hiring a slew of private detectives, Blanc could never figure out the Wells system. Wells always maintained that it was just pure luck, and the system he used was the Martingale, where you double your next bet after a loss, to make up for it. (Stupid system; don't trust it.)

What eventually was uncovered was how Wells got his bankroll in the first place. He conned wealthy investors into bankrolling bogus inventions like a musical jump rope and a fuel-saving invention for steamships. Although Wells broke the bank six more times, his luck went south, and he lost not only his own money, but also that of his investors.

Charged with bilking money from investors by fraud, he was extradited to England, found guilty at the Old Bailey and spent eight years in the slammer. Wells served another three-year stay for yet another fraud before eventually immigrating to France, where still another financial scam earned him five more years. Are you counting?

In 1892, Fred Gilbert wrote the popular song, The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, that was popularized by the music hall star, Charles Coborn, but the gambler was not Blackwood's Jagger, but flimflammer Charles Wells, who was the inspiration for the song.

By the way, Mel, as most gambling stories go, Wells died penniless in Paris in 1926.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Lady Luck is like a politician. She has such few favors to give, and too many friends to give them to." -- John Gollehon, A Gambler's Little Instruction Book

Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.