Many of the people on this list of famous roulette players are chancers, scallywags, or mathematicians. It’s easy enough to get behind them and cheer them on because we all love to see someone taking on the establishment (the casino) and winning.
Charles Wells, however, is much more difficult to like.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1841, Wells’ family relocated to Marseille in France when he was young, so he grew up speaking both languages.
He started work as an engineer on the shipyards, and clearly had some talent as an inventor because he created a device which regulated the speed of a ships’ propeller, which he patented and sold for five times his annual salary.
Perhaps this also foreshadowed his later attraction to the spinning roulette wheel?
Ten years later though, around 1879, Wells had become a conman and fraudster, convincing many in Paris to ‘invest’ in inventions he had no intention of creating. He later moved back to England where he did the same thing, promising to make his victims rich before running off with their money.
One person in particular lost £19,000 – around £1.9 million in todays money.
Not a man you would naturally root for.
Breaking the Bank at Monte Carlo
To ‘break the bank’ at a casino, is to wipe out the funds at the table you are playing at. Each table has a pot at the start of the night, from which they pay out winnings and where they collect players’ losses.
Most of the time, there is more in it at the end of the night than there was at the beginning.
In the second half of 1891 though, Charles Wells had won so much money from the table where he was playing that there was no money left; he had broken the bank.
Safe to say that this does not happen often, and Wells is popularly thought to have been the first to do it.
This is not true, it had happened before, but Wells’ story gathered so much momentum that history was re-written – there is even a song about him made famous by Charles Coborn:
I’ve just got here, to Paris, from the sunny southern shore;
I to Monte Carlo went, just to raise my winter’s rent.
Dame Fortune smiled upon me as she’d never done before,
And I’ve now such lots of money, I’m a gent.
Yes, I’ve now such lots of money, I’m a gent.
Chorus: As I walk along the Bois de Boulogne
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
“He must be a Millionaire.”
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
I stay indoors ’til after lunch, and then my daily walk
To the great Triumphal Arch is one grand triumphal march,
Observed by each observer with the keenness of a hawk,
I’m a mass of money, linen, silk and starch –
I’m a mass of money, linen, silk and starch.
I patronised the tables at the Monte Carlo hell
‘Til they hadn’t got a sou for a Christian or a Jew;
So I quickly went to Paris for the charms of mad’moiselle,
Who’s the lodestone of my heart – what can I do,
When with twenty tongues she swears that she’ll be true?
No one really knows how he managed to do so well at the roulette table, but many believe he must have been cheating, especially given his history as a trickster. It has never been proven though, so he could have simply got lucky, or even come up with an ‘infallible system’ as he himself claimed.
However he did it, he managed to walk away with the equivalent of £4 million today, after several marathon 11 hour gambling sessions, one instance of winning 23 out of 30 consecutive spins, and breaking the bank many times over.
This would have been enough for any normal person to disappear with and live a very happy life, but Charles Wells was not an ordinary person.
Luxury Yachts, Further Fraud, and Prison
Already a wanted man for fraud in two countries, it was only a matter of time before Well’s past caught up with him.
He didn’t exactly keep a low profile though, investing much of his money in a fleet of luxury yachts, and was eventually arrested on one of them, the Palais Royal.
This occurred in 1892, and he was sentenced to 8 years in prison, serving 6 before being released and relocating to Ireland, where he ended up in jail again having set up a fake fishing company in order to swindle money.
It was in 1910 that one of his biggest scams occurred. He headed back to France and opened a bank, promising customers a ridiculous 365% interest on their savings. You might wonder why anyone would trust Wells by this point, but he was using the name Lucien Rivier, one of 12 fake names he used during his life.
This bagged him around £120,000 in investments from those he had fooled, and he used the money to buy another luxury yacht, which he used to evade the authorities for another couple of years.
A Pauper’s Grave
Wells was finally caught moored up in Falmouth, and after much legal to-ing and fro-ing, he was extradited to France to be tried for his latest crimes.
It didn’t take them long to find him guilty, and he was sent down for another prison sentence of 5 years. He was already 70 by this point, and thanks to a life of continued crime he no longer had any money or assets to speak of, despite having once been a very rich man.
He was released a poor and elderly man, and moved to Paris with his long time mistress and now wife, Jean Paris.
He passed away aged 81, in 1922, and the couple were so poor that Jean couldn’t even afford to bury her husband.
In fact, all Charles left her was a bill for two weeks rent that he hadn’t paid.
He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, despite having got through enough money to last ten lifetimes.