There’s a very famous song about the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo that goes a little something like this…
As I walk along the Bois Boolong
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
“He must be a Millionaire.”
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
When Fred Gilbert composed those jaunty lines back in 1892 everyone wanted to be the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
But what most audiences didn’t realise, as they sang along with Charles Coburn in music-halls up and down the land, was that the ‘man’ who broke the bank was actually ‘men’. Two men to be exact, and what very different men they were.
Monte Carlo, a tiny municipality in Monaco on the French Riviera. A world of yachts, millionaire playboys, and a gambler’s paradise.
But back in the 1850s, Monaco’s reigning family were almost broke after carelessly losing a couple of towns and the lemon, orange and olive crops that went with them.
Things were not looking good for Charles III of Monaco – but then he had an idea; he’d build a casino.
Joseph Hobson Jagger
The casino wasn’t a success at first. But after several relocations, the Casino de Monte-Carlo was established and by the mid-1800s, thanks to the building of Europe’s railway system, the casino was thriving.
Enter Joseph Hobson Jagger, a distant cousin of modern-day Mick Jagger and the first man to break the bank at Monte Carlo.
The year was 1875 and Jagger, a 45-year-old mechanic from Yorkshire had come to the Beaux-Arts Casino in Monte Carlo to test a theory he’d been working on for years.
For most of his life Joseph (Josh to close friends and family) had worked in the cotton mills as an engineer. From a boy he’d been interested in the way things worked, believing that machines were like people; they built habits, had patterns, and if you watched them closely for long enough you could predict how they would behave.
A couple of years previously Josh had paid six clerks to secretly watch the roulette tables in the Beaux-Arts Casino and record the outcomes of the six roulette wheels.
What they found didn’t really surprise Josh at all, but it did make him want to put their findings to the test.
Josh analysed their notebooks for months and discovered that one of the six wheels showed a habit – a clear bias for nine of its numbers (7, 8, 9, 17, 18, 19, 22, 28 and 29) which came up more frequently than the others.
He was taking a big risk, gambling his life’s savings, but he was sure he was right and sure that he could beat the table.
Breaking The Bank At Monte Carlo
Heart in his mouth, he placed his bets and quickly won a lot of money – over £14,000 (equivalent to £343,000 today).
Over the next three days, Josh went on to win a further £60,000 and other gamblers began to follow his bets.
In response to Josh’s ‘luck’ the casino changed over the wheels, moving them around and throwing Josh into confusion – what had changed?
A disastrous losing streak followed and it wasn’t until Josh remembered a tiny scratch on the biased wheel that his ‘luck’ returned.
Looking for the telltale mark, Josh found his wheel at another table and began winning hugely once more. Not to be beaten, the casino management moved the metal dividers between the numbers around daily and over the next two days Josh began losing again – so gave up.
He’d proved his theory and beaten the tables. He returned to Yorkshire two million francs, £65,000 (£1,146,000 on today’s money) richer and a happy man.
Josh never went back to the mill or to the roulette tables. Instead, he invested his money in property and lived comfortably until his death in 1892.
Charles Deville Wells
The second man to break the bank was an entirely different character. Charles Deville Wells was, as his middle name implied, a bit of a devil. Reckless, fraudulent, boastful, a liar, a cheat and a jailbird – Charlie was the exact opposite of honest Josh.
In July 1891, Wells turned up in Monte Carlo with £4,000 that he’d defrauded from investors by the invention of a bogus “musical skipping rope.”
In the next eleven hours Wells ‘broke the bank’ no less than twelve times, winning over a million francs in the process.
At one point, in an unbelievably lucky streak, he won 23 times from 30 successive spins of the wheel.
Wells went back to Monte Carlo later that same year and won again, making another million francs in just three days.
There was no science involved, Charlie Wells was playing a high-risk game, praying that his luck would hold, and it did. Even when he bet on the number five for five consecutive spins he still won.
The Casino hired private detectives to discover Wells’ system, but there wasn’t one; he really did have the devil’s own luck.
When The Luck Runs Out
With the writing of the song ‘The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’ Wells became a celebrity almost overnight.
Claiming to be a brilliant engineer and with another fraudulent invention – this time a revolutionary fuel-saving device for steam-ships – he persuaded many of the rich and famous of the time to invest.
He used the money to make another trip to Monte Carlo with his mistress in 1892, hiring a large yacht and claiming that the yacht was to test his device.
Incredibly, Wells’ luck held and he broke the bank an unbelievable six more times. Eventually, though, his luck ran out and he lost his winnings and his investor’s money, some of whom had sent additional money to Wells for ‘repairs’ to the bogus fuel-saving device.
Wells absconded, but was soon arrested at Le Havre and brought back to England. He was found guilty of fraud at the Old Bailey, sent down for eight years, and later served a further three-year sentence – again for fraud.
Quitting England he emigrated to France, where yet another financial scam led to another five-year sentence. He died in Paris in 1922 – not a millionaire, but a pauper.
Gilbert and Wells, the men who broke the bank at Monte Carlo; both millionaire winners despite their very different approaches. One used science and observation; the other relied on blind luck.
One pulled out while he was ahead; the other destroyed himself and ruined others in the process. One died in poverty; the other happy and content. Maybe – despite them both breaking the bank – there was really just one winner after all.