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PAULO MINORA. This essay, I need hardly say, consists of notes made before the war and put in order now, at a time when victory allows our thoughts to stray for a moment from the great tragedy in which the destinies of mankind have been at stake. For the rest, the subject, however frivolous it may at first sight appear, sometimes touches or seems to touch problems which it is not unfitting to examine, were it only to realize that they are perhaps illusive. Moreover it is unfortunately probable that, when peace is restored, our allies will visit in too numerous and confiding crowds the dubious havens of delight which we are about to enter. I have no pretension to serve them as a guide nor to teach them how to fight against the whims of fortune; but a handful of them may find in these lines, if not useful hints or profitable advice, at least some few reflections or observations which will pave the way for their own experiments or render them easier.
Let us then pay a last visit to one of those green tables which spread their length in the somewhat disreputable place of which I have written elsewhere1 as the "Temple of Chance." To-day I would rather call it the Factory of Chance, for it is here that, for more than half a century, without respite or repose, on weekdays, Sundays and holidays alike, daily from ten o'clock in the morning till twelve o'clock at night, with croupiers unintermittently relieving one another, men have obstinately manufactured Chance and doggedly consulted the formless and featureless god that shrouds good luck and ill within his shadow.
We do not yet know what he is nor what he wants; we are not even sure that he exists; but surely it would be astonishing if no result of any kind, no clue to the tantalizing puzzle, had emerged from this endless effort, the most gigantic, the most costly, the most methodical that has ever been made on the brink of this gloomy abyss, if nothing had been born of all this furious work, however trivial, however unhealthy and useless it may appear.
In any case, at these tables, as at all places where passions become intensified, we are able to make interesting observations and, among other things, to behold at first hand, violently foreshortened and harshly illuminated, certain aspects of man's lifelong struggle with the unknown. The drama, which as a rule is long drawn out, projecting itself into space and time and breaking up amid circumstances that escape our eyes, is here knit together, gathered into a ball, held, so to speak, in the hollow of the hand. But, for all its speed, its abruptness of movement and its extreme compression, it remains as complex and mysterious as those which go on indefinitely. Until the ivory ball that rolls and hops around the wheel falls into its red or black compartment, the unknown veiling its choice or its destiny is as impenetrable as that which hides from us the choice or the destiny of the stars. The movements of the planets can be calculated almost to a second; but no mathematical operation can measure or predict the course of the little white ball.
Your most skilful players, indeed, have given up trying. Not one of them any longer seriously relies. on intuition, presentiment, second sight, telepathy, psychic forces or the calculation of probabilities in the attempt to foresee or determine the fall of a destiny no larger than a hazel-nut. All the scientific part of human knowledge has failed; and all the occult and magical side of that same knowledge has been equally unsuccessful. The mathematicians, the prophets, the seers, the sorcerers, the sensitives, the mediums, the psychometrists, the spiritualists who call upon the dead for assistance, all alike are blind, confounded and impotent before the wheel and before Destiny's thirty-seven compartments. Here Chance reigns supreme; and hitherto, though it all happens before our eyes, though it is repeated to satiety and may be held, let me say once more, in the hollow of our hand, no one has yet been able to determine a single one of its laws.
Yet such laws seem to exist; and thousands of players have ruined themselves in following their forms or their elusive and deceptive traces. Let us take a bundle of those records or permanences, published at Monte Carlo, which give day by day the list of all the numbers that have come up at one of the roulette or trente-et-quarante tables. As everybody knows, these numbers are arranged in long parallel columns, the black on the left and the red on the right. When we look at one of these sheets, containing as a rule ten columns of sixty-five numbers each -- dead and harmless cyphers now, though once so dangerous, once destructive of so many hopes and perhaps inspiring more than one disaster -- we observe a tendency towards a fairly perceptible equilibrium between the red and the black. Most often the two chances balance each other, singly or in little groups, a black, a red, two blacks, three reds, three blacks, two reds and so on. When we come upon a series of five, six, seven, eight, sometimes eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve consecutive blacks, we are almost certain of finding not far away a compensating series of five, six, seven, eight or ten reds. There is a very real rhythm, a sort of breathing or a cadenced movement to and fro of the mysterious creature which we call Chance. This rhythm or balance is moreover confirmed by the final statistics of the day, from which we learn that, in a total of six hundred and so many spins of the ball, the difference between the black and the red very seldom exceeds twenty or thirty; and this difference is even smaller in the total for the week, that is to say, in a total of nearly five thousand spins, when it is usually reduced to a few units.
The monster has other strange habits. We see, for instance, that it is not uncommon for a number to come up twice in succession; and it is undeniable that, in each day's play, two or three numbers are obviously favoured, so much so that we may hurl out a challenge to logic and declare that the more frequently a number occurs the more chances it has of reappearing. This seems to conflict with the law of equilibrium which we have remarked; but it must be observed that this equilibrium will be recovered later, that by the end of the week the difference will no longer be very great and that they will almost disappear when the month is over. The equilibrium is more slowly restored because we must multiply the number of series by eighteen and a half to reach the proportions of the even chances.
Players note yet another law which, for that matter, is but a corollary of the former habit, but which has something curiously human about it: the chances which lag behind show a greater eagerness to regain their lost ground at the moment that follows more or less closely upon a halt, as though they had recovered their breath after a brief rest on the landing of a staircase.
Let us add at once that it is wise to distrust these fluctuating habits and these gropings after laws. For instance, red has been known to beat black by seventy per cent. in the course of a day's play. Black, on the other hand, as people still remember at Monte Carlo, one day came up twenty-nine times in succession and the second dozen twenty-eight times without a break. Chance has not our nerves; it is not, like us, impatient to make good its losses or to carry off its gains. It takes its time, awaits its hour and does not trouble to keep step with our ways of life.
Players as a rule attribute these habits or caprices to a trick of the croupier's hand. This is hardly tenable. After all, we know how the thing is done. The ball drops into its compartment and the croupier announces, for instance:
"13, black, impair and manque."
The losses are raked in, the winnings are paid out, the players renew their stakes, there is sometimes a brief dispute, somebody asks for change and so on. These operations vary a good deal in length; and all this time the wheel carrying the ball is making hundreds of revolutions. The croupier stops it at last, takes the ball, reverses the wheel and sends the ball spinning in the opposite direction. It is impossible under these conditions for his particular trick of the hand to exercise any influence whatever. Besides, we can easily see from the chart of the permanences that the change of croupier does not perceptibly affect the rhythm of the even chances. It is not the man who controls the rhythm but the rhythm that controls the man.
These gropings after laws m what would seem a negation of all or any law; these strivings on the part of Chance to quit its own domain and to organize its chaos; this god who denies himself and seeks to destroy himself by his own hand; these incomprehensible stammerings, these awkward efforts to achieve utterance and assume consciousness are rather curious, we must admit. For the rest, it is these efforts, these hankerings after equilibrium, this embryonic rhythm that constitute the gamblers' good and bad luck. If Chance were simply Chance as we conceive it on first principles, one would stake any sum anyhow and at any moment. I am well aware that, according to the most learned theorists on roulette, each coup is independent of all the others and begins as if nothing had happened before, as if nothing were to happen afterwards, as if the table were fresh from the shop, the wheel from the factory and the croupier from the hands of God. In theory this is quite accurate; but we have just seen that in practice it does not seem to be so. For that matter, it seems impossible to explain the reason. Players are satisfied to observe the fact, while yielding to a dangerous but very human tendency to exaggerate the scope and the certainty of their observations.
They are too ready to see laws where there is only a mass of coincidences as fleeting as clouds. It is of course necessary that the reds and blacks, emerging successively from nowhere, should find a place somewhere and form certain groups; and, if it is rather surprising that at the end of the month their numbers are nearly equal, it would be no less surprising if one of the colours were to prevail largely over the other. It is perfectly true that, at first sight, the reds and blacks seem to balance on the permanence sheets; but it is also true that, when we examine more closely, a series of five or six reds, for instance, interrupted by one or two blacks, not infrequently begins a fresh run; and ill-luck may well have it that, at this moment, the player, in his search for equilibrium, will start punting on the black and in a few coups behold the disappearance of all the winnings slowly and laboriously wrested from Chance, which is niggardly when one is winning and extremely generous -- to the bank -- when one is losing. For that matter, he will suffer the same disappointment if he bets on the variation, in other words, against the equilibrium, and will too often discover that these laws, when he puts his trust in them, are writ in water, whereas they seem to be graven in bronze so soon as they betray him.
In order to profit by these laws, which are perhaps fallacious and in any case untrustworthy, and to secure himself against their treachery, he has contrived a host of ingenious systems which sometimes enable him to win but most often merely retard his ruin.
But, before speaking of these systems, let us begin by saying that we shall concern ourselves here only with the even chances, red or black, pair or impair, passe or manque. These are sufficiently complicated in themselves and set us problems that would be enough to exhaust all the shrewdness of a human life. As for any other than the even chances, en plein, à cheval, transversales, carrés, douzaines and so forth, these, both in theory and in practice, escape all control, calculation or explanation.
Whatever system he adopt, the gambler is always tossing heads or tails against the bank. He has a chance and the bank has a chance; but zero gives the bank odds against him; and, though zero is apparently a very mild tax, since at rouge-et-noir in thirty-six chances the bank has only half a chance more than the player, it is bound to be ruinous in the end. To escape the abruptness of a decision which, if he placed all that he possessed on the red or the black, would end the game at a single stroke, the player divides his stake, so as to be able to defy a large number of chances, hoping that, thanks to a skilfully graduated progression, he will end by lighting on a favourable series in which the gains will exceed the losses. This is the underlying principle of all the systems, which are never anything but more or less ingenious, prudent and complicated martin-gales. There are not, there never will be any others, in the absence of a miracle which has not yet occurred, of an intuition which foresees what the ball will decide, or of an unknown force which will oblige it to act as a player wishes.
I have no intention of reviewing all these systems, which are innumerable and of unequal value: the paroli pure and simple, that artless, violent, doubled stake which leads straight to disaster; the D'Alembert and all its variants; the descending progressions; the differential methods; the montant belge; the parolis intermittents; the snowball; the photographie; the staking of equal amounts on certain groups of figures, which is a Chinese puzzle demanding days of patient observation before it is attacked; and many others which I forget, from the most clear-cut to the most mysterious, which are sold at a high price, to credulous beginners, in sealed envelopes containing what is everybody's secret and with all or nearly all of which I have become acquainted thanks to the kindness of an erudite player. A detailed account of those most frequently used will be found in D'Albigny's treatise Les Martingales modernes, in Gaston Vessillier's Theorie des systemes geometriques, in Hulmann's Traite des jeux dits de hasard, in Theo d'Alost's Theorie scientifique nouvelle des jeux de la roulette, trente-et-quarante, etc., and, above all, in the Revue de Monte Carlo, which has given a system in every issue since the day of its foundation some fifteen years ago. Whether mystic or transparent, all these methods present more or less the same dangers, being all founded on the quick-sands of equilibrium and temporary disturbance. If they are very cautious, the loss is trifling, but the gain is still smaller; if they are bold, the gain is great, but the loss is two or three times greater. The best of them, in order to continue the defence of a moderate stake and of what has already been sacrificed, involve the risking an the cloth, at a given moment, of all the previous winnings, which are soon followed by the sums held in reserve. This is the inevitable revenge of the bank, at which you thought that you were nibbling with impunity, but which suddenly opens wide its jaws, like a blind and drowsy crocodile, and swallows profits and capital at a single gulp.
The players hearten themselves by maintaining that they have an incontestable advantage over the bank. They begin to play, they "punt" when they like and as they like and they withdraw when they please, whereas the bank is compelled to play without stopping, to accept every stake and to meet every coup up to the limit of the maximum, which, as we know, is six thousand francs on the even chances. This advantage is a real one if the player, after winning a big sum, goes away and does not come back again. But the lucky gambler, even more infallibly than the one who has no luck, will return to the enchanted table and in so doing loses the only effective weapon that he had against his enemy. To choose your time for punting is but an illusory privilege, because everything, at any moment, is equally shifting and uncertain; and you never know beforehand when the precarious and deceptive law of equilibrium will reassert itself. After a long sequence of blacks, you wager on a fine series of reds, a certain run, you would say; but no sooner have you staked your money than the series gives up the ghost and remorseless black resumes its devastating course; or else you do the opposite: you bet on black and it is red that settles down for a run. At whatever moment you start punting, you are always fighting red against black, that is to say, one to one. Once more, the only real advantage is that you can go away when you like; but where is the gambler, whether losing or winning, who is able to go away and not come back?
After mature examination, all these systems merely carve the brutal and crushing mass of luck into small pieces. They act as a defensive padding against the blows of Chance, making them less grave. They prolong the player's life or his agony. They enable the owner of a modest purse to stake as often as the multimillionaire, who would confine himself to betting double or quits indefinitely, if he were not stopped by the fatal barrier of the maximum. But all mathematical operations, all combinations of figures flutter and struggle like blind captives between bronze walls. They merely dash themselves in vain against these walls, whether black or red: both remain invulnerable and impregnable; and from their imprisoning embrace there is no escape.
Does this mean that there is no such thing as a defensible method and that the most skilful calculations have not revealed a means of defeating Chance? In theory, I cannot bring myself to believe that baseless calculations will ever do what they have not done up to the present. It is none the less true that, in practice, we come upon some which struggle with fair success against ill luck. For instance, a friend of mine, a British officer, has a system which he has been using for a long time and which yields astonishing results. It is, of course, a progression, the whole of whose virtue lies in an ingenious and very simple key that seems to act as a sort of talisman. I have not found this method in any of either the recognized or the catchpenny treatises. It has its dangers, like the others; it has its difficult moments, when, to save your anticipated profits and your earlier losses, you have to risk a rather large amount. But, if you prudently stop playing during runs which are too obstinately hostile, if you allow the storm to pass as it spreads over a large number of chances, you end by obtaining the necessary compensation. At any rate, it has never seriously failed my friend so far.
Nevertheless it must not be supposed that we have only to use this system blindly and automatically. As with other systems, a certain science, a certain experience, a certain deftness are indispensable. Though science and experience are evasive qualities here, fugitive and at the mercy of Chance, they are by no means illusory. The careful and experienced player understands how to approach and nurse his luck, or at least how not to thwart it. He guesses the beginning and the end of a favourable series. He foresees alternations and intermittences; and, when he does not succeed in grasping their rhythm, he prefers to abstain from playing, rather than encounter them inopportunely. He makes more than one mistake, but makes far fewer than those who, faithful to the very scientific theory of the absolute independence of each coup, back either colour at any moment. He does not surrender to the fixed rigidity of logic, he does not throw the gauntlet down to fate, he does not defy the animosity of fortune. He is never obstinate. He does not struggle on, sullenly, to his last coin, against an iniquitous run, in order to gain the bitter satisfaction of learning the utmost depths of his ill luck and the injustice of fate. He has no self-conceit, no prejudices, no inflexible opinions. He is docile, plastic and accommodating. Devoid of all false shame, he cheerfully abandons his pretensions and pays court to fortune. He retraces his steps and retracts at fitting times. He stops, starts afresh, yields, tacks about, allows himself to be borne upon the tide and comes safely to harbour, while the arrogant, overbold and headstrong pilot founders in deep water.
Beyond all else, he studies the character and temper of the table at which he takes his seat, for each table has its psychology, its habits, its history, which vary from day to day and yet by the end of the year form a homogeneous whole wherein all temporary errors, all anomalies and injustices are compensated. The question is to know on what page of this history he should prepare to play his part. He will not learn this at once. It is of little use for him to peep at the notes and permanences of the players who have come before him. What he wants is the immediate contact, the very breath of the hidden god. But the god is already thrilling into life, taking shape and countenance, giving a whispered hint of his intentions, speaking words of approval or condemnation; and the tragic struggle begins between the player, so infinitely small, and Chance, so enormous and omnipotent.
Now that the battle is joined, now that the player has done what he could to summon and welcome luck, there is nothing left for him to do but wait; for luck, when all is said, will remain the supreme power that pronounces the final verdict, the formidable and inevitable unknown factor in every combination. The best of systems cannot overcome an abnormal and pitiless run of bad luck which makes you stake incessantly on the losing colour. A run like this, without favourable intermittences, is extremely rare but always possible. It corresponds, for that matter, with the extraordinary strokes of good luck, which seem more frequent only because they attract more attention. From time to time we see a man, or rather let me say a woman -- for it is nearly always female players who have these inspirations -- walk up to the table and with a high hand and not the least hesitation gamble en plein or era cheval, on a transversale or carré, and win time after time, as though she saw beforehand where the ball would fall. These moments of intuition are always very brief; and, if the player insists or grows stubborn, she will soon lose whatever she has won. It is none the less true that, when we observe this very obvious and striking phenomenon, we wonder whether there is not something more in it than mere coincidence. When all is said, can luck be anything other than a passing and dazzling intuition of what will flash into actuality before everybody's eyes a second later? Is not the compartment which does not yet contain the little ball, but which in an instant will snap it up and hold it, is not this compartment already, somewhere, a thing of the present and even of the past? But these are questions which would lead us too far afield in space and time.
Be this as it may, to return to the system of which we were speaking, even if I were at liberty to divulge its secret I should not do so. I am not a very austere moralist and I look upon gambling as one of those profoundly human evils which we shall never be able to uproot and which, for all our efforts, will always reappear in a new form. Still, the least that we can do is not to encourage it. The gambler, I mean the inveterate, almost professional gambler, is not interesting. To begin with, he is an idler and nearly always a part of the world's flotsam, with no justification for his existence. If he be rich, he is making the most foolish, the most dismal use of his money that can be imagined. If he be poor, he is even less easily to be forgiven: he should know better than to sacrifice his days and too often the welfare and the peace of mind of those dependent on him to a will-o'-the-wisp. Underlying the gambler we find too often a sluggard, an incompetent, a boneless egoist, greedy of vulgar and unmerited pleasures, a dissatisfied and inefficient individual. Gambling is the stay-at-home, imaginary, squalid, mechanical, anaemic and unlovely adventure of those who have never been able to encounter or create the real, necessary and salutary adventures of life. It is the feverish and unhealthy activity of the wastrel. It is the purposeless and desperate effort of the debilitated, who no longer possess or never possessed the courage and patience to make the honest, persevering effort, the unspasmodic, unapplauded effort which every human life demands.
There is also a great deal of puerile vanity about the gambler. Taken for all in all, he is a child still seeking his place in the universe. He has not yet realized his position. He thinks himself peerless in the face of destiny. In his self-infatuation he expects the unknown or the unknowable to do for him what it does not do for any one whomsoever. And he expects this for no reason, simply because he is himself and because others have not that privilege. He must tempt fate incessantly, hurriedly, anxiously, in I know not what idle and pretentious hope of learning to know himself from without. Whatever fortune's decision may be, he will find cause for preening himself. If he have no luck, he will feel flattered because he is specially persecuted by fortune; if he be lucky, he will think all the more highly of himself because of the exceptional gifts which she bestows upon him. For the rest, he does not need to believe that he deserves these gifts; on the contrary, the less right he has to them, the prouder he will be of them; and the unjust and manifestly undeserved chance which makes them his will form the best part of the vainglorious satisfaction which he will contrive to extract from them.
It would be extremely surprising, I said when I began, if this indefatigable and exhaustive enquiry into Chance, pursued for over fifty years, had failed to yield some sort of result. I am wondering, at the end of this investigation, what that result is. At the cost of an insane waste of money, time, physical, nervous and moral energy and spiritual forces perhaps more precious still, it has taught us that Chance is in short Chance, that is to say, an aggregate of effects whereof we do not know the causes. But we knew as much as this before; and our new discovery is a little derisory. We have seen the shadowy appearance of certain laws or habits from which a few players appear to derive advantage, though this advantage is always precarious. But these apparent laws, which tend obscurely and uncertainly to instil a little order into Chance, are, like Chance itself, but inconsistent and ephemeral summaries of results from unknown causes. Upon the whole we have learnt nothing, unless perhaps it be that we were wrong to attach greater importance to those manifestations of destiny than they possess. If we look at them more closely, we find that there is nothing more behind all these catastrophes and all these mysteries of luck than the catastrophe and the mysteries which we put there. We link our fate to the fate of a little ball which is not responsible for it; and, because we entrust it for a moment with our fortune, we fondly imagine that mysterious moral powers are bent on directing and ending its course at the right or wrong moment. It knows nothing of all this; and, though the lives of thousands of men depended on its fall to the right or the left of the point at which it stops, it would not care. It has laws of its own, which it must obey and which are so complex that we do not even try to explain them. It is just a little ball, honestly seeking the little red or black hole in which to go to sleep and having nothing very much to tell us of the secrets of a luck or destiny which exist only within ourselves.