Notwithstanding the fact that he was not the first, or only, person to do so, Charles Wells was immortalised in the Victorian music hall song, ‘The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, popularised by Charles Coborn. An inventor, gambler and convicted fraudster, Wells arrived in the Principality of Monaco in July, 1891, with the express intent of winning enough money at Casino de Monte-Carlo to fund an ambitious naval architecture project. Wells was infatuated with a French artists’ model, Jeannette Paris, who was less than half his age, and he aimed to impress her by creating one of the largest luxury yachts in the world.
In any event, Wells embarked on a five-day winning streak, during which he converted his initial £4,000 into £600,000 and ‘broke the bank’ on several occasions. Each card and roulette table at Casino de Monte-Carlo had a reserve of 100,000 Monégasque francs and, if any player won more than that amount they were said to have ‘broken the bank’. In a deliberately melodramatic ceremony, the table in question was covered with black crepe cloth, play was suspended, and extra cash was retrieved from the vault.
Exactly how ‘Monte Carlo’ Wells, as he became known, repeatedly beat the house remains a mystery. Wells insisted that his winning streak was down to an infallible gambling system, based on six years’ study of games of chance. He said, ‘Anyone is free to watch me play and imitate me, but the general defect of the ordinary casino gambler is that he lacks courage.’ However, granted Wells’ criminal tendencies, even after his exploits at Casino de Monte-Carlo, it would be fair to say that his protestations of innocence probably need to be taken with a generous pinch of salt.