The man who is
popularly supposed to have inspired this old music hall favorite never actually
broke the casino at Monte Carlo, but he certainly bent it—not once but several
times. And he wasn't the only one to "break the bank," though he was
the most famous. A notorious swindler with many aliases, some French, some
English, his real name probably was Charles Deville Wells.
In 1887 Wells
arrived one day with �400 and left three days later with 40,000. It was not
such a spectacular feat as it sounds. Contrary to the popular supposition,
breaking the bank did not mean breaking the casino, but merely exhausting the
funds of a single table. In those days this amounted only to �3,500. The table
was then closed down, temporarily, and draped with black crepe. Nowadays the
casino does not bother to close down a table. When the supply of chips
approaches depletion, a fresh batch is hustled up from the vaults, and play
continues until the player is satiated—or broke.
Wells won most of
his money at roulette, using a doubling system. But on the third day, on his
way out, he paused at a trente et quarante table, won �6,000 in half an hour
and hung the crepe on that one, too.
shrugged when Wells departed. The motto of all gambling houses
everywhere—"They always come back"—is very dependable. Wells returned
in a few months, picked up another �10,000 in another three days and hurried
away. He was back two months later, this time with a yacht and a mistress. And
this 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.
generation of casino officials scarcely remembers this tale. It is only one of
thousands that have accumulated about the Casino de Monte-Carlo, which not only
is the world's most romantic business enterprise but at the same time one of
the most conservative and reliable. In almost a century of operation it never
has had a losing year.
The business is
less profitable now than it was, say, 50 years ago, partly because the world
has changed, partly because competition for gamblers' money has sprung up all
along 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. The
income tax has cut deep into the ability of sporting gentlemen to buck the
baccarat table. And there has been a shrinkage in the world supply of royalty,
once a steady customer.
No longer do
Russian grand dukes arrive at Monaco with trunks full of golden louis to be
used as chips. The louis itself has disappeared, and long gone with it and the
dukes are games like whist, piquet, boston and �cart�. Now there are craps and
slot machines. The royal punter is seen less. The movie producer is seen
But the casino's
old glamour still wafts an enticement to the world. Las Vegas is bigger, more
exciting, noisier, more crowded. Even so, the fading but well-kept appointments
of Monte Carlo, the polite murmur of the bettors, the modulated chant of the
croupiers, the magnificent setting of amethyst sea shining at the edges of the
Maritime Alps, the memory of old ways that cannot return—these create a gentle
mood in which it is a pleasure to lose a little.
Part of the charm
of the old place lies in its legends, most of which are apocryphal. It is not
true that the Monaco suicide rate is excessive. It is not true that the
casino'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%, if
that, of the little principality's economy. It is true that a wise government
does not let Monegasque citizens, except employees, even enter the casino, let
alone gamble there. (They gamble at Nice, only 20 miles away, or at Menton,
It is not true that
the casino will sympathetically stake a bankrupt to his fare home, that the
number of the first hymn sung at the English Chapel will be a sure winner at
Sunday roulette or that a little band of modest system players regularly takes
away small sums from the casino after daily sessions against the wheel.