Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A run of luck

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I do not profess to have the gift of second-sight; nor do I believe in other people possessing it. Yet, without clairvoyance, or magnetism, or the intervention of mediums, I can tell—sitting as I am now in a room looking out on a dull London court—exactly what is going on in half-a-dozen places hundreds of miles away. I must confess, however, that my power of divination is not peculiar to myself. Anybody who has once visited one of the score of German baths, where the body is cured medicinally while the purse is lightened by the pursuit of fortune under difficulties, can tell exactly what goes on day by day at Wiesbaden or Homburg, or any other gambling bath you like to mention. Everything else changes after years of absence; but you may come back to Baden after spending half your life on the other side of the Equator, and you will find the same people, or their exact counterparts, playing the same game with the same fortune. No matter at what hour of the twenty-four, supposing it to be between noon and midnight, any one of my readers who takes up this paper, may tell to a certainty what is going on within the saloons of the Spiel-Bad Kursaal. A number of men and women, all faded and jaded-looking, are sitting or standing round the long green-baize tables; the numbers marked upon the boards are covered with a goodly array of florins and thalers and five-franc pieces, a few napoleons, and, possibly, if the play be high, a bank-note or two. “Faites vo’ jeu” is the cry as the ball begins to go spinning round. No human being except a croupier could well speak in that monotonous metallic tone. Then the same voice calls out “Rien va plus,” as the ball goes wobbling down into its fated compartment. There is a moment’s pause, and then the eager bystanders hear the living machine call out, “Vingt-cinq rouge, impair et passe,” or whatever else may be the number and its incidents. The bankers rake up the stakes, shovel out their winnings to the fortunate gamblers; and again the ball is set in motion, and again the croupier cries “Faites vo’ jeu,” and so on ad infinitum. This process has been repeated half-a-dozen times even while I have been writing these lines; and anybody who doubts the accuracy of my description has only to run over to Homburg—you can get there in four-and-twenty hours from London—and he will find that my surmise is correct. This much he may also reckon upon with certainty—that the bank will be winning, and that the players, taken collectively, will be losing. It always has been so, and always will be so to the end.

Possibly the inexperienced in such matters may be puzzled to understand how it is that the tables are always surrounded by new batches of victims. The sight of the rouleaux of gold and silver and the crisp bank-notes, have an attraction for the ordinary human intellect, which it requires great moral courage to resist; though of all kinds of gambling which I have ever seen, this, to my mind, has the least that is outwardly repulsive about it to one’s better feelings. There is no playing upon credit, no winning (at least directly) the money of men you know cannot afford to lose it. If you do win, your stake is paid down on the moment; and the mere fact of having drawn money from the proprietors of a gaming-table appears, by a mental sophistry, to be rather a meritorious act than otherwise. Moreover, the fact of your gambling in this fashion does not bring you into contact with all the blackguardism and rascality that you must perforce come into companionship with, if you wish to make money by gambling on the Turf or the Stock Exchange. I am not saying this with a view to defend the reputation of these institutions. On the contrary, I believe that the outward decency and decorum which characterise them, render them all the more dangerous to public morality. I only mention this to explain the fact, how it is that hundreds of respectable and well-to-do people frequent these tables daily, year after year. It is fair, too, to say, that the motives which induce men to risk and lose their money at roulette, or “trente et quarante,” are not so utterly absurd, as it is the fashion to assume. The stock commonplace assertion is, that nobody can possibly win, and that a man must be a fool to play when he is certain to lose. Like most commonplace truths, these assertions must be taken with a great deal of qualification. No doubt the chances against the players vary, at the different German tables, from five to ten per cent, in favour of the bank. In the long run, therefore, any man who goes on playing constantly must lose; but it by no means follows that every player always loses on every occasion. Some days, though I admit this is a rare occurrence, the bank pays out more than it gathers in; and not a day passes, but that some one or two out of the mass of players rise considerable winners.

Now, there are many positions in life in which the chance of winning a large stake is worth much more than the certainty of retaining a small one. If a man wants a hundred pounds to-morrow, and has only got five pounds to spare, I know of no way in the world by which he has a fairer prospect of multiplying his one note by twenty than at a German gambling-table. The odds are perhaps ten to nine against him, and I should like to hear of any legitimate speculative business in which the odds against the speculator are not far greater. Now, the vast majority of the players at these tables are very much in the position of the man I have spoken of. They have got a few florins or napoleons they do not mind losing, and they would like particularly to win a few hundred. Of course they would do much more wisely not to play at all; they may form habits detrimental to their ordinary pursuits; and if by luck they do win, they are very likely to go on playing till they have lost all their winnings, and a great deal more besides. All this is undeniably true; but it is also as undeniably true that if you want to make a good deal of money with a very little in a very short time, your best chance of performing that extremely difficult feat is by playing at the tables of Baden or Homburg. Another commonplace assertion is, that scenes of wild excitement and elation and despair may be witnessed at these haunts of gambling. On the contrary, a more inoffensive and decorous assembly it has never been my lot to witness than those usually gathered round the green-baize tables. Everybody looks tired and jaded, as I have before remarked, but not more so than the audiences at a scientific lecture or the performance of a five-act tragedy are wont to appear. The truth is that, as a rule, the stake played on each round of the game is not sufficient to create intense interest. It may be extremely annoying to lose a hundred or two of guldens in a day, but each individual loss is not to the run of players any serious calamity. In the course of my life I have spent a great many weeks and months at different German baths, where public play is carried on, and I never but once saw what may properly be called a “scene” occur there. That occasion was after this fashion.

It so happened that I was stopping one autumn at Wiesbaden very late in the season. It was getting cold and damp and cheerless, and the company was disappearing rapidly. The fishes in the Kursaal Garden waters must have been wondering at the intermittence of the miraculous supply of crumbs with which they were daily provided by unknown hands. The shops under the arcade were encumbered with packing-boxes, and the shutters were making their appearance in front of the stores, where the smartest of young ladies used to dispense the most motley collections of pipes and braces and Bohemian glass; the croupiers were to be seen at unusual hours loitering about the corridors, for default of employment at the half-deserted tables; and the bank was beginning to reckon up its annual profits with great satisfaction to the fortunate proprietors. At this fag-end of the season there appeared a pair of gamblers, who immediately became the talk of the place. They were come with the avowed design of breaking the bank when its coffers were supposed to be at the fullest. A stranger pair I never witnessed. Faust and Mephistopheles were the names that we, old habitués of the place, baptised them with; and to what names they answered in real life, or what position they occupied, we were never able to ascertain. Faust was a man of immense bulk and size, and looked something like a cross between a Manchester betting-man and a Belgian brewer. His linen was of the dirtiest, and his huge hands were even dirtier than the fragment of shirt displayed about his bull-neck. His great gold chain and the diamond rings on his fat fingers bespoke a wealth strangely at variance with the slovenliness of his dress. Moreover, there could be no question about the fact of his wealth, though there might be about its origin. He carried with him on all occasions an immense greasy pocket-book, fastened with an india-rubber band, and literally bursting with bank-notes. He was said to have brought five hundred thousand francs with him; and from what I saw him lose, I have little doubt he might well have had half that amount. Mephistopheles, on the other hand, could have been bought up bodily, to say nothing of his soul, for half-a-guinea: he was a little old Jew, who might have been any age between fifty and a hundred. His threadbare clothes stuck so close to him that you felt convinced if he ever took them off, which he had obviously not done for weeks, he would never get them on again. His nose was the most hooked and his eyes the sharpest that I ever saw in any of his race; his hands, too, were the very pattern of a vulture’s talons. Apparently, his sole possessions in the world were a long tattered note-book, filled with elaborate calculations of chances, and the confidence of Faust. In fact, in the unholy partnership entered into between the two, Faust supplied the capital, and Mephistopheles the intellect. The plan on which the firm intended to operate may be understood even by persons unacquainted with any game of hazard.

There are an equal amount of odd and even numbers on a roulette-board, and therefore, in the long run, the odd or even numbers turn up one as often as the other. Now, supposing you put a sovereign on the odd numbers and lose it, you would then, according to the Mephistophelian system, stake next time two sovereigns on the same numbers. If you lose them you stake four, and so go on doubling till an odd number turns up. Whenever this event happens, the difference between the stake you win and the amount of the various sums you have lost is exactly your original stake; and therefore, as the odds must turn up some time or other, the termination of any series of even numbers must always leave you a winner. The system is infallible but for two fatal defects. The first is that, besides the eighteen odd numbers on the table, there is a zero; and whenever the ball falls into the hole corresponding to the zero (which of course it does, on an average, once in thirty-six times), the bank wins all the stakes, whether placed upon the odd or even numbers. This difficulty, however, is less serious than the second. If you go on doubling, the amount of your stake increases with a rapidity that is perfectly awful. Starting with a stake of five shillings, in ten rounds the amount you would have to put down would be 128l. If you won it you would gain five shillings on the balance. If your courage gave way before the prospect of staking 256l., you would lose 255l. 15s. on the series. To carry on this system, therefore, with absolute certainty of success, even laying aside all consideration of the zero, you ought to have the purse of Fortunatus. Practically, however, a run of more than eighteen consecutive odd or even numbers is I believe extraordinary, and a run of more than eight is unusually rare. To guard themselves, therefore, against the success of this system in the hands of very wealthy players, the bank has forbidden more than 400l. to be staked on any one single chance.

It was by playing this doubling game that the firm of Mephistopheles, Faust, and Company, hoped to make their fortunes. Every morning, as soon as the tables opened, they seated themselves side by side at the board.—Mephistopheles with his note-book before him, and the stump of a pencil in his lips; Faust with his pocket-book of bank-notes sticking out of his breast-pocket. The senior partner never played himself, but whispered his instructions to his colleague. Their rule was to stake a hundred-franc note, say upon the red, and to go on doubling till they won. To guard against the zero turning up, they placed a florin on this particular number, which they also doubled each time they lost. On the first day, as far as I could gather, they won a thousand francs or so. On the second evening, however, the fatal defect of their system made itself visible. They were playing on the odd chance, and there was a run of enormous length on the even. Thirteen times in succession the croupier called out, “Pair!” By the time the seventh number of the series was reached, the players had reached the maximum. Six times they played the maximum. and lost; and when at last the run turned, they had lost close upon 3000l. in the space of thirty minutes. However, there was plenty of money still left amongst their assets; and the next day fortune favoured them. At the close of the evening they had won 1200l. Mephistopheles, to do him justice, was a fine player; winning or losing, he never showed the slightest emotion, possibly because the money embarked in the speculation was not his own. Faust, on the other hand, was easily intoxicated with success, on this occasion he jumped up at the close of the evening’s play; shook his bank-notes in the face of the croupier, and informed him he would never leave till he had taken every franc out of the bank. Anything more calmly contemptuous than the bow with which this remark was received it is impossible to conceive.

The following two days the play went on with little interest, at any rate as far as lookers-on were concerned. Sunday was destined to be the day of the final triumph of the bank. In the morning I entered his room, and found Faust losing heavily and continuously. He had grown weary of the infallible martingale, and was staking large sums constantly on the odd or even, and always with ill-luck. I went away for a long walk into that pleasant Nassau country, and came back quite late in the evening. The tables were deserted, with the exception of the one at which Faust was ruining himself, where a dense crowd was gathered. Mephistopheles had quitted him in disgust; but even the absence of that disreputable guardian angel had brought him no change of fortune. He was playing wildly and madly—staking no longer on the even chance, but putting down the largest permitted sums on single numbers, which of course never turned up at the time they were wanted. The fat pocket-book had grown marvellously thin; great drops of black sweat were trickling down the unhappy man’s face, and every moment I expected to see him fall in an apoplectic fit. At last he staked what apparently was his last note; the zero turned up, and the stake was remorselessly swept up by the croupier’s rake. There was a sort of hush, and everybody turned towards the ruined man. Happily, the scene—instead of ending, as I feared, in a tragedy—had a termination which was grimly comic. By the side of the table there stood a mild little English curate, with the glossiest of black coats, the neatest of white ties, and that ineffable look of self-satisfaction which only a popular clergyman can attain to. What he was doing there I cannot tell. I hope he had not won his money; but there is no doubt that an imbecile smirk was on his face. Of a sudden Faust staggered up from the table: his eye caught that of the parson. I cannot wonder if that smirk grated irresistibly upon his feelings. At any rate, he sprang forward, grasped the wretched curate by the collar, spun him round as he would a child, and asked him what he meant by laughing at his misfortunes. “Come into the garden, sir!” he shouted, “and fight me with swords or pistols, and I will kill you like a dog.” Of course the poor little clergyman, being very diminutive, had an immensely tall wife. This valiant British matron, seeing her husband’s life in peril, rushed up, threw her arms round Faust’s neck from behind, and screamed out to him to let her lord and master go.

Meanwhile the waiters had been summoned hastily; the curate was rescued, and Faust was led away, not unkindly, and given water to drink, and a few pounds to take himself off where he liked, so long as he did not kill himself on the premises. I believe, however, that this vent of anger saved him from a fit. Wiesbaden saw him no more. Both he and Mephistopheles disappeared as mysteriously as they came, and the accounts of the bank showed an additional two or three hundred thousand francs to the credit side.

E. D.