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IT’S QUITE AN achievement to lose money running a casino, but one or two manage it.  The most celebrated gamblingnews establishment in Europe, Le Sociét é des Bains de mewr in Monte Carlo lost over 12 m francs on its gaming activities in 1984-5, which was well over £ 1m, and over 30 m francs in 1985-6, which was about £ 3.25m.

            What saved the board’s face was the fortunate fact that the American–run Loews casino, jut down the hill, showed a hefty profit, of which the Sociét é des Bains de mer’s 50 per cent share was worth very nearlym 36m   francs in 1985 (£ 3.7m) and 44m francs (£ 4.7m) in 1986.  Given that the two casinos are so close together.  One up hill and one down, their results make an intriguing contrast between European and American methods of management.
            In its annual report the SBM blamed the 1985 gaming loss on an increase in salaries of the casino staff by 10 per cent, while income fell by 1 per cent.  It congratulated itself, overall, on ‘an honourable result ’.  Loews income rose only marginally, so yielding a profit of around 13 per cent was, presumably, very honourable indeed.  The excuse offered by the SBM for the increase in its losses on gaming in 1986 was weakness in European (single–zero) roulette exacerbated by certain difficulties in collecting bad debts.  At the same time Loews had racked their profits up to 14 per cent of gaming income.  I decided to take a closer look at the Sociét é des Bains de mer.
            Monte Carlo today presents a very different face from the monte Carlo of even twenty years ago, which still displayed, like the fringe of silk petticoat, just a nuance of the great days of the Belle Epoque, that heady, leisurely, elegant period which extended from the fin de sieche 1890s down to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.  Now, between the high rise blocks and the underground parking, the strongest impression on a visitor’s senses is of exhaust fumes from the traffic jams.  The air in the narrow roads around the old casino, especially on windless August days, makes one choke.  The port is jammed with oily cruise boats.
            Nor is there any relief to be found in climbing up the steps to enter the casino itself.  It is, frankly, tawdry.  The one consolation and it is worth the detour, as the michelin Guide might put it is its fading décor.  The gaming salons, with their ceiling high murals of dark-eyed damsels in wistful contemplation what are they dreaming of, rouge or noir on the next spin? revive memories of by gone days.  A balm against the sweaty style less shambles of cheap gambling gaming all around.

            What Monte Carlo has kept is the talisman of its name.  It is still evocative of high life, princes and courtesans, fortunes won and lost, gold coins heaped across the tables and suicide in the gardens outside, ‘the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’, and all that.  Though even he, a British engineer named Charles Wells, turned out to be a bit of a fraud.  The system he used back in 1892 to break the bank (which meant emptying the table of its reserve of plaques ) was based on luck: when his luck ran out, the unfortunate fellow resorted to trickery, finally landing up in prison.
            Yet despite monte Carlo having changed out of all recognition, the name of the place is still synonymous with gambling, and has been so for over a hundred years, all around the world.  What a triumph of marketing! This achievement, which any modern public relations man might envy, was the inspiration of a nineteenth-century entrepreneur.  His technique in promoting gaming was two or three generations ahead of his time, to be exploited more fully, like so many other ideas of the old world, when translated to America.  (The doors of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo opened with the invitation ‘Come as you are to America’s monte Carlo’.)
            François Blanc grew up in the countryside of South-west France and, with his brother Louis, tried his hand as a young man in a variety of jobs in the big cities.  They both had a gift for cards, practiced the games of cards of the time with each other, and were smart enough to make a little money in the cheap gaming houses.  Their first financial success was in that most respectable casino of finance, the Stock Exchange.  From their little agency in Bordeaux  they devised a method of discovering the movement of consoles on the Paris bourse, via a semaphore message signaled from hill-top  (the Rothschild’s could afford their own special couriers or used carrier pigeons) so as to get advance information  on the way the market was going.  This clever scheme finally came unstuck when the brothers were charged with corrupting a telegraph official, but not before they had made quite a lot of money.
            Moving up to Paris, they quickly saw the opportunities in gaming, particularly in Germany, whose assorted duchies and principalities had no ban on gambling.  They secured a concession to open a casino in Hesse-Homburg.  From the start, running the little pump-room, they were successful, advertising in the French papers and attracting gamblers from other German resorts by removing the second zero from roulette (a lesson which the combined wisdom of managements in Nevada and New Jersey has still failed to apply) and reducing the bank’s advantage in trenteet - quadrant (the card game played in French casinos).  The new casino they built, and the villas and hotels which sprang up all around, in due course served to transform what was a crumbling hilltop fortress into a fashionable spa.

            ‘The real casino was opened with great pomp and  ceremony.  Over two hundred people sat down to a banquet.  The walls of the large gambling salon were covered with silver-grey silk; the chairs were gleaming gilt; no expense had been spared.  The effect was immediate, particularly as, in spite of their depleted bank account, the brothers continued to advertise in the leading French newspapers.’ It was not just the medicinal and climatic attractions of Homburg which were advertised; their brochures claimed, for instance, that the town was ‘filled with young, lovely and exquisitely dressed women, perfumed with the fragrance of flowers and animated by music ad dancing.’ Mm …mm …all this, and gambling too.
            The story of the Blancs, and much colorful detail besides, is related in Charles Graves’ The Big Gamble (1951).  François Blanc’s success in Homburg owed much to his adroit handling of the press, as Graves notes, but perhaps even more to the way in which he set out to attract gamblers and dazzle them with his opulent style.  That is very modern, as was his encouragement of the French railway companies to hasten extension of their lines towards the Rhine (in our day, cheapo flights to Las Vegas ).  When, as sometimes happened, players had big runs of luck  and huge wins, which actually threatened the financial stability of the casino, blanc did not panic.  He calmly advertised these winners’ successes in the French and British press.  Brilliant! At the same time, the intrepid Blanc and British press.  Brilliant! At the same time, the intrepid Blanc ran newspaper campaigns in Nice and Italy to persuade local public opinion against the opening of casinos in rival resorts!
            Quite an operator so it was no surprise when he was invited by the destitute ruler of Monaco, Prince Charles III, to take over the casino there in 1862.  Blanc, who had his eye on the place for some while, drove a very hard bargain, and got what he wanted.  Within 24 hours he drew up the articles of the Sociét é des Bains de mer et Cercle des Etrangers.  The town was renamed Monte Carlo in honour of the ailing prince.
            Blanc next proceeded to carry out on a larger scale the programme he had run in Hesse-Homburg.  He chartered a steamer to ferry people over from Nice and fleet of hackney carriages to take them by road, began rebuilding the casino meanwhile increasing the states and introducing a single zero-and completing the Hotel de Paris in  sumptuous style, lobbied for improved road and rail links and orchestrated newspaper publicity across the continent, stressing particularly the ‘ aristocratic’ character of the clientele.  (some resounding names were made up for effect.)

            Now in his late 50s, blanc was as full of vigour as ever, and greatly assisted in his work by his young wife marie, his main partner since the death of his brother some years before.  A village girl, daughter of a cobbler near Hesse, blanc at first had been taken by her extraordinarily pretty looks, but hesitated about proposing marriage; then a widower of 42, he was 27 years her senior.  So, with her father’s approval, he had sent the girl to Paris for four years to be educated and polished, and given a Parisian accent, to turn her into a suitable consort for the illustrious chairman of a society casino if, when the time came, she herself should give her consent to matrimony, which she did.  It proved an excellent match; they had a son and a daughter.  It was marie who thought of bringing in the Comedie François to Homburg, to attract the customers (like the modern casino floor show), and who now persuaded.  Blanc to introduce the viatique, the hand-out for heavy losers, which became so celebrated in Monte Carlo (a version of a complimentary ticket for high rollers).
            The viatique  was not quite so free and easy under the Blancs as modern freebies, as this charming account from a little handbook Ten Days at Monte Carlo at the Bank’s Expense  by V.B. (1898) makes clear: ‘If you apply to the Administration, you have first got to swear that you have lost over £ 300 (say £ 10,000 at 1980 prices); they will then take you round the Rooms like a criminal, in order that the croupiers at the tables where you have played may identify you and confirm your statement …
            ‘After this you are photographed, and once more taken round to be shown to all the doorkeepers, who are then given orders not to admit you any more.  Next you have to sign a promissory note for the amount of your traveling expenses, and instead of giving you the money, you are told that an employee of the establishment will meet you at the station at such and such an hour, and hand you a second-class ticket to your destination.’
            The stories of suicides by ruined gamblers have been greatly exaggerated, Monaco’s average being pretty constant year by year.  The original story, supposed to be true, was of the gambler who smeared his face with tomato sauce, fired his revolver in the air, and threw himself down in a clump of bushes.  The casino staff, so the story goes, stuffed his pockets with banknotes to avert any scandal that he had taken his life in despair at his losses: whereupon the dead man got up, dusted himself down and returned to the tables.

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