The phrase “break the bank” is one with which most people are familiar, but it is probably far more likely to be used away from the world of gambling these days.
In football, we hear of clubs “breaking the bank” to sign a certain star player whilst a family might do the same to go on that holiday of a lifetime. But what does it mean in casino terms and where does the phrase come from?
Oxford Languages define “break the bank” thus: “(in gambling) win more money than is held by the bank.” What’s more, their example shines further light on the phrase as it is “winning the pools was the equivalent of breaking the bank at Monte Carlo”.
Ignoring the fact that the example doesn’t really make complete sense in relation to their definition, we have two key pieces of information.
The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo
“The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo” is a music hall song that was popular in the UK for around 50 years from when it was published in 1891. Written by Fred Gilbert but made popular by London singer and comedian Charles Coborn, it was inspired by the exploits of Charles Wells, a petty crook, gambler and trickster who did indeed break the bank in Monte Carlo (casino). We’ll return to Wells in due course but for now, let’s return to that broken bank.
As defined by Oxford Languages, breaking the bank is to win more money gambling than the bank holds. The word “bank” in this sense can take on a variety of meanings depending on the precise context of the bet. It may mean more money than is held by a casino, bookmaker or another gambling operator in general but typically it is taken to mean more than is held at a given table in a casino or in a specific high street shop in bookmaking terms.
The phrase is most commonly associated with Monte Carlo Casino, partly because of the famous old song and partly because of the glamour and opulence that establishment possesses. When the casino opened in the mid-19th century, every table would be given a cash reserve of some 100,000 francs. It is hard to calculate what that would equate to now but by our estimates a franc then would be worth around £10 today, meaning that each table was effectively stocked with a cool £1m.
This was designed to give the dealers and croupiers more than enough to handle any winning bets they might encounter throughout the day. However, if a player went on a spectacular run and won so much that the member of staff was unable to pay them, they were said to have broken the bank. Play would be suspended and more money would be retrieved from the casino’s vaults.
To add to the spectacle and glamour and even garner a little “free” publicity, François Blanc, known as the Magician of Monte Carlo, who operated the iconic Monaco institution at the time, created a mini ceremony whereby a black cloth would be laid over the table in question. Once the money was replenished and the bank-breaker paid, the cloth would be removed with a flourish and the play would resume.
Whilst breaking the bank is typically associated with roulette and the famous casino that has had a starring role in a Bond film or two (Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye), it can really be applied to any situation where a player wins more than can be easily paid by the table. Due to the huge sums of money involved, unsurprisingly relatively few people have broken the bank at Monte Carlo or anywhere else. That said, there are a few famous examples of punters sticking it to the house and here are some of our favourites.
Gamblers Who Broke The Bank
We have already mentioned Charles Wells and indeed, thanks to the song, this Hertfordshire-born man who lived from 1841 to 1922 is probably the most famous man to break the bank, certainly at Monte Carlo.
He is thought to have committed a series of frauds in France and the UK before a trip to Monaco in 1891 would seal his place in history. He is said to have arrived with around £4,000, which would be worth around £400,000 in today’s money.
According to the report above, which draws on information from the very well-researched book ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo’ by Robin Quinn, Wells played “a mixture of roulette and cards with what one observer described as ‘a recklessness that suggested a mad millionaire endeavouring to get rid of his capital’.” We cannot be 100% sure of these events that took place 130 years ago but it is estimated that over five days he won over £4m.
Wells claimed to have broken the bank 10 times and it was reported that at one stage he won 23 times out of 30 spins at the roulette wheel. At times he put his success down to an “infallible system”, whilst at others he claimed it was simply luck. Due to his dubious past, many assumed he cheated, whilst others believed it to be a publicity stunt, with the casino colluding with the Brit to generate publicity for the casino. We may never know the truth but we do know for sure that Wells broke the bank at Monte Carlo… more than once.
Joseph Jagger, Paul Newey, and Don Johnson
Before Wells’ visit in the summer of 1891, it has been reported that a player won the equivalent of £700,000. That may or may not have been enough to break the bank, but shortly after this, an English nobleman landed a win worth £10,000 (£1m in today’s cash), and that almost certainly was enough to break the bank. There have, though, been better-documented tails of success in Monte Carlo.
Another name for the list alongside Wells is Joseph Jagger, a textile engineer from West Yorkshire. It is believed he used his engineering expertise (it should be noted that Wells was also an engineer) to spot imperfections in roulette wheels that resulted in biases. The Bradford native was born at Cock Hill. No giggling, please.
Thankfully we know a lot more about Jagger, with much of that information coming from a 2018 biography written by his great-great niece. ‘From the Mill to Monte Carlo: The working-class Englishman who beat the Monaco casino and changed gambling forever’ may not be the catchiest title for a book but it reveals a lot about the times, the man and the concept of breaking the bank.
He was believed to have won around £8m in today’s money. He spent up to a month studying the various tables, seeking the bias that would allow him to cash in. And cash in he did.
Other notable names reported to have broken the bank at Monte Carlo include the Scot, Kenneth Clark, an industrialist, and Arthur de Courcy Bower who, like Wells, was a convicted fraudster, and is thought to have broken the bank five times in 1911.
As we have said, such casino-smashing feats are not confined to Monaco’s glamourous establishment. As recently as 2005, World Series of Poker finalist Paul Newey broke the bank in the rather more insalubrious confines of Birmingham’s Genting Casino Star City. Newey’s exploits reportedly wiped around £64m from the value of the casino’s parent company. These days we suspect the payment is not made in cash from the vault but, sadly, it is not an issue we have ever encountered ourselves.
Pro gambler Don Johnson has stuck it to the casinos even more recently, taking Atlantic City casinos for an estimated $15m in 2011. Johnson, primarily a blackjack player, was able to negotiate different blackjack rules that were player-favourable at the time (after the 2008 financial crisis) when casinos were desperate to get high rollers through their doors. They probably weren’t expecting him to break the bank though.