The bald, bearded gent who sat at the gaming table of the renowned Casino de Monte Carlo in the summer of 1891 had a certain austere dignity about him. At 50 years of age, Charles Deville Wells certainly had the gravitas and demeanour of a businessman, not a gambler. Yet, his exploits there on July 28 would see him go down in history, and a popular song would be sung to celebrate his achievement for being ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte Carlo’.
‘Breaking the bank’ meant wiping out all cash reserves at a particular gaming table. Deville Wells managed to do this not once, not thrice, but ten times during his stint in the casino.
But then Wells had arrived ‘loaded for bear’ so to speak, with £4,000 packed into his suitcases (£400,000 in today’s money). Wells would walk away at the end of the week with the equivalent of £4 million during his spell at the card and roulette tables. Was it just cool nerves and skill that earned him his fortune, or was something else at play? Could blind luck really explain how he managed to win 23 out of 30 successive spins of the wheel?
Looking into his background might provide the answer. Deville Wells was an unusual fellow. His sober appearance belied a lifestyle and wayward moral compass that would see his name become notorious in some parts, and many would rue the day they ever met him. Wells had a chequered career as an engineer and inventor, creating a series of gadgets, none of which made him the fortune he dreamed of.
Hitting 40 and dispirited with his lack of legitimate success, he turned to crime as the means to achieve his riches. Deville Wells set up an investment scam into a fictitious engineering business that netted him a fortune – one investor actually paid out the equivalent of £2 million.
Yet even this was not enough to satisfy his needs, particularly when he fell for the charms of a 21-year-old model called Jeannette Pairis. Deville Wells bought an aging cargo ship and intended to turn it into a huge luxury yacht for Jeannette to enjoy. It was to fund this costly enterprise that he turned up at the Casino de Monte Carlo in 1891.
His winning streak caused a sensation. For five days, Deville Wells sat behind a growing wall of banknotes, playing the tables from lunchtime until closing time at 11pm, when he would haul his winnings up to his room, stick them under his pillow and fall asleep. Crowds gathered eight–deep to watch and replicate his own bets with their own, hastening the bank to ‘break’ in the process.
You might think the casino would be in torment as a result, yet it as been suggested that its director, Camille Blanc, may have actively colluded with Wells in his winning streak.
In the book, The Man Who Broke the Bank At Monte Carlo, author Robin Quinn makes that very assertion, and with good reason.
‘Breaking the bank’ was actually good for business. Blanc knew that the publicity such events generated attracted vast numbers of gamblers to the casino.
He even played up the drama by having a black cloth ceremonially spread over the table in an act of tribute to the ‘fallen’ table. Once an appropriate amount of time was given to reflect on the ‘sad’ loss, the table was reopened for business.
This piece of theatre ramped up the fervor of the crowds, who hoped that they, too, would break a bank.
The casino faced the threat of closure following the succession of Prince Albert to the throne in 1889. Albert was unhappy with the principality’s reliance on funding from the casino to fund municipal spending. There was even talk that it might be closed. Aware of this, Blanc – or so Quinn’s theory goes – would have wanted to maximise his profits in any way possible before it was too late.
Wells had once lived in Nice (just a short hop from Monaco) and had worked for one of Blanc’s relatives, so there is a possibility that their paths may have crossed. Could he have come up with the idea of breaking the bank with Wells as the frontman, in order to bring in the crowds and boost business?
Wells’s run of ‘luck’ saw thousands of people flock to the casino, to such an extent that within two years the Blanc family’s stake in the business had risen by approximately £120 million in today’s values.
Wells’ winning streak didn’t last much beyond hise casino coup. Never again would he achieve the heady heights of his Monte Carlo win. In 1893, he served six years for fraud. Despite this, he and Jeannette stayed together until Deville Wells’s death from a heart condition in 1922. By that stage his personal ‘bank’ was truly bust – the man who gambled big and won huge owed his landlord two weeks’ rent and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
There have been bigger wins and even bigger losses, though. Poker player Archie Karas went to Vegas in 1992 and turned $50 into $40million following a three-hour ‘losing’ streak playing Razz – a type of poker in which the lowest hand wins.
Alas, businessman Terrance Watanabe wasn’t so fortunate in 2007. In a year-long gambling spree he managed to lose $127 million of the family inheritence to Harrah’s Entertainment In, in Las Vegas. Watanabe would often play for 24 hours solid, regularly losing sums of up to $5 million in one sitting.
But if you want the daddy of all losers, look no further than Australian real estate developer Harry Kakavas. Renowned as a big-money gambler, the Melbourne’s Crown Casino spent €10 million trying to induce Kavakas to their tables. Inducements included luxury holdiays, free flights, food and accommodation, plus €50,000 hard cash delivered in a cardboard box.
The money was clearly worth the investment. Kavakas rolled into town and over 14 months staked $1.5 billion playig baccarat. In May of 2006, he clearly lost the plot – playing games at $300,000 a hand, and lost $164 million … in five-and-a-half-hours.
Kavakas later took a case against the casino, claiming that it had exploited his weakness. Not surprisingly, he remained true to form and lost that, too.
As Kenny Rogers would say, ‘you gotta know when to fold ’em…’