A diagram of a European roulette layout showing the bets that may be made, the odds at which poker are paid on each bet, and the correct odds. (the true odds shown for impair 1 1/18 to 1 are the same for all other “even-money” bets like pair, passé, manqué , rouge, noir.) Below a representation of the European (oen zero) roulette wheel.

One of the earliest and most ingenious types of crooked roulette wheels was the “needle wheel.”  By means of pressure on a secret button, tiny needle points came up in front of the red or black compartments, a different button controlling each group.  If the needle blocked the “reds” the ball was deflected into one of the “blacks,” and vice versa.  Since the needles were out of sight before the wheel stopped, they were almost impossible to spot.

The needle device went out of fashion with the introduction of the more efficient electromagnetic wheel. This had small electromagnets installed under certain numbers, and the ball used had a steel core.  When the croupier wished to insure against a heavily backed number, he touched a concea led switch controlling one of the magnets and drew the ball into a number not covered by heavy betting.

Even some extremely crude and obvious devices have proved successful in milking unwary roulette players of large sums of money.  These include simple friction brakes that slow the wheel as the croupier presses a hidden pedal in the floor, or adjustable table legs that tilt the wheel to favor the house.  Though some of these devices still survive today, they would never be found in any reputable casino or club-only in the most dubious of gambling dens, if there.

It has been said that the player can never cheat at roulette, since he is unable to control the wheel.  But in the history of roulette, incidents are recorded in which take card players did come out on top through some ingenious and crooked approaches.  Alexander Woollcott’s short “Rien ne va Plus” is a fictional account of a supposedly factual case of such ingenuity.  In the story the author and some friends are sitting one night on a terrace at Monte Carlo “eating a sofflé and talking about suicide.”  Earlier they had watched a young man in a dinner jacket in the Aalles Privées lose all his money.  Now they hear that he has been found on the shore with blood staining his shirt front and a smoking revolver still in his hand.  The watchman who discovered him has reported post-haste to the casino (he is probably paid a commission for such information).  Quickly and discreetly an official goes down to the beach and tucks ten 1000-franc notes into the corpse’s dinner-jacket pocket “so that the victim would seem to have ended it all from Weltschmerz.” But the casino has been tricked.  The young man has merely fired the gun in the air and smeared his shirt front with tomato sauce.  Before long he returns to the table and uses the 10,000 francs with which the casino bought off his “suicide” to win 100,000 more.

A chart for the system player, showing each number from 0 to 36 (center column) in relation to its left and right-hand neighbors on the wheel.

Woollcott’s story is by no means farfetched. Casino entrepreneurs everywhere naturally live in dread of scandal of the wrong kind.  They all keep extensive black lists of unwelcome visitors, and as Woollcott’s story shows will always attempt to dissociate the casino from any suicide that might appear to be the  result of gambling losses.  In actual fact, however, the number of suicides attributed in gossip to losses at roulette is out of all proportion to the facts known.  Monte Carlo has suffered more than any other gambling center through this kind of innuendo; but, though people die as often in Monaco as elsewhere, very few do so mysteriously and fewer still by their own hand as a result of gambling.  (Certainly none of these incidents involve native Monagasques, for they are forbidden to gamble in the casino.) Over a period of 50 years the number of suicides due to gambling losses-plus, sometimes, the guilt preceding the discovery of embezzlement has been 285.  There were 200 additional suicides, but these were not attributable to gambling.  The total number of visitors and foreign residents during the same 50 years was around 50,000,000.
Incidentally, suicide, faked or threatened, isn’t the only form of blackmail that has been used against the casino game . One blackmail story in particular (though unsubstantiated) has long held a prominent place in roulette lore.  It concerns a gambler who, in 1884, is supposed  to have threatened to contaminate the water supply of New York City with bubonic plague if he wasn’t repaid $ 20,000 he’d lost at roulette. Of course, no one believed him; the croupier sent for the police and he was arrested.  But it was found that the threat could easily have been implemented: The man was a laboratory assistant who had been experimenting on ship’s rats and was, in fact, carrying the bacteria of plague in a phial in his pocket.  (The phial was later restored to the laboratory without having at any time been opened.)

There is one kind of roulette player whose name is very unlikely to appear on a casino’  “blacklit” of unwelcome visitors.  This is the system player, the man who devises methods ranging from the mathematical to the mystical that, he is convinced, will succeed in breaking the bank of the casino.  This man is welcomed with open arms at the roulette tables, since the table’s owner realizes what the system’s owner apparently never does: that the bank must always win in the long run, because it pays slightly less than the true odds on any win, has the advantage of a zero (or two), and always limits the amount of the stake.

These are the advantages the bank must give itself if it is to remain in business against the unlimited time and unlimited capital it faces.  So any kind of doubling-up system (one of the most common) is in the long run doomed to failure as far as breaking the bank is concerned.  A system may work wonderfully for one game, or even for a series of several games as one did for Charles Deville Wells (the original subject of the song “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”) who in 1891 turned $ 40,00 in three days’ play as a result of his adoption of the Martingale system.  But if your ‘system” is to bet hap-hazardly you may find that the results are equally marvelous.  Dependence on systems is always psychological: System bettors prefer to dazzle themselves with the blinding light of mathematical “probabilities” rather than face up to the fact that they are the slaves of chance.  The most any system can do is minimize losses over a long run of play- i.e., a gambling career of many years.

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