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He Really Did Break the Bank at Monte Carlo
J. A. Maxtone Graham
November 11, 1974
Paunchy and middle-aged, Charles Deville Wells was not quite as debonair as the old song about him suggests, but for a while anyway he did succeed in outwitting the odds
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November 11, 1974

He Really Did Break The Bank At Monte Carlo

Paunchy and middle-aged, Charles Deville Wells was not quite as debonair as the old song about him suggests, but for a while anyway he did succeed in outwitting the odds

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As his fame grew after that, wherever Wells walked crowds surged around him to touch his clothes for luck. Those who could copied Wells' betting and stakes; hundreds of thousands of francs were showered down to bewildered croupiers with hasty instructions to "do the same as Wells."

Wells, seemingly, was quite unperturbed by all the hullabaloo. He arrived calmly each morning at the unfashionable hour of 12, the moment the Casino opened. He did not leave until it closed, an hour before midnight, and did not stop to eat or drink. He later confessed that it was the hardest work he had ever done. If he had a system, he never revealed it—although he did comment once that the average bettor was usually lacking in courage.

One of his plans—the coup des trois—was to bet on an even chance: if he won, he let his winnings stand; a third win would increase his original stake eightfold. He then reverted to a small stake again.

After increasing his original stake a hundredfold, Wells had transmitted a good portion of his winnings home to London and was ready to leave. But Monte Carlo didn't mind. "It is borrowed money—it will come back," forecast Camille Blanc, the illegitimate son of Francois, who was then in charge of the Casino. Actually the worldwide publicity of Wells' amazing wins had brought immediate dividends in the form of an inrush of new gamblers. Business had been falling off badly, and it reached a new low when actress Sarah Bernhardt gambled away her entire wealth—100,000 francs of it in one night—and then tried to commit suicide. A big and flamboyant winner was just what the Casino needed—and Wells gave it one. Within the year, the annual report showed the most profitable season ever, increasing the 500-franc Casino shares to a new peak of 2,250 francs. Wells benefited from that too—for he'd cunningly invested �2,000 of his winnings in the shares.

Back in London, Wells took out a few more provisional patents and succeeded in extracting a good deal of fresh money from the gullible public. One evening, to celebrate his fame and success at Monte Carlo, he gave a dinner at the Savoy for exactly 35 guests; Wells himself sat at his lucky No. 5 and, for the occasion, the walls and ceiling were painted red; a red carpet was laid; the waiters were dressed in suits, ties and gloves of red; red flowers filled the vases; only red foods were served: prawns, lobster tails, ham mousse, red cabbage and strawberries.

But nothing lasts forever, and soon the inquiries of importunate investors were beginning to make Wells think it might be time to leave the country again. By then he had acquired a huge yacht that enabled him to live in a style befitting his station. It was a 24-year-old derelict—291 feet in length, 1,861 gross tonnage—and he got it as scrap for �1,000, then spent a further �20,000 on its reconstruction. Originally named for the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the yacht—one of the biggest in the world—was renamed by Wells the Palais Royal.

It seemed impossible to the Casino authorities that he would be successful once more—but in a few days of the first week of November 1891 he cleaned up a further quarter million francs. He made a spectacular start: with a tiny stake of 120 francs, he worked up to 98,000 francs in his first sitting, aided by a phenomenal run on No. 5.

It was about this time that Fred Gilbert first conceived his song. Walking down The Strand, it was said, his eye was caught by a newspaper poster headline, THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO, that set a rhythm beating through his brain.

Coborn first sang the song at London's Oxford Music Hall in April 1892. It met a poor response. At its first performance in the Trocadero, the audience response, too, was terrible, and no one would join the chorus at all. Coborn walked firmly to front of the stage. "I am engaged here for 12 weeks," he announced, "and I am going to sing this song every night and repeat the chorus till you join in with me." By the end of his engagement, the song was all over the country.

But by the time the song was published, its hero was far less happy. His third visit to Monte Carlo came in January 1892; this time Camille Blanc in person acted as chef de parti at Wells' table; and Wells' "system," if such it was, did not appear to stand up to prolonged trial. He started to lose heavily; applying his bold methods, he reinforced his losses with even larger bets; few of them worked. Soon he had run out of cash; to raise more, he cabled to the backers of his yacht fuel-saving system. Even fresh funds could not save him, and he retreated to the Palais Royal, his capital now shrunk to a fraction of its peak. By now. he heard, things were hotting up for him in England, and he cruised from place to place around France pondering schemes to get out of his difficulties.

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