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The gambling world has seen its fair share of notorious gamblers, celebrity poker players and winners who’ve gained fame for placing a risky bet. Below are five of our favorites – famous gamblers who’ve won our admiration for their antics and/or accomplishments in roulette, blackajack and poker.
WILD BILL HICKOCK
In the Americas, there is no name more closely associated with outlaw poker as that of Wild Bill Hickok. Hickock was really a lawman, but was also known throughout the Old West as an avid gambler. He met his maker in Deadwood, South Dakota on August 2, 1876. That’s when a man who disapproved of his opposition to slavery shot and killed him during a game of poker. The cards in Hickock’s hand at the time – two aces and two eights – has since been dubbed the “Dead Man’s Hand.”
Long before the MIT card-counting scandal rocked the blackjack gambling world and produced the popular film Rounders, there was the father of card counting Edward Thorp. A mathematics professor by trade, Thorp invented the system for card counting in the early 1960’s after a visit to Las Vegas with friends.
Obsessed by the idea that there was a mathematical way in which player’s could gain a statistical advantage, Thorp simulated billions of blackjack hands on the computer at the university where he taught. Over time, he developed a system that “accounted for the variations in those [cards] that remained after certain hands were dealt.” In short, he realized that:
-when smaller cards are left in the deck, the house has the advantage.
-When larger cards are left in the deck, the player has the advantage
Players should therefore keep track of which cards remain in the deck and bet less money in the former case and more in the latter. Thorp chronicled what would become known as the ‘ten count system’ in his 1962 book “Beat the Dealer.”
Born Alvin Clarence Thomas in 1892, Titanic Thompson was a prolific gambler, golfer and hustler who gained fame for wagering on prop bets of his own devise. Legend holds that he began hustling at age six, when he bet a stranger that his dog could fetch a marked stone from a pond. The stranger took the bet and Titanic won – he had filled the pond with marked stones before placing the bet. Among his alleged partners in “the hustling game” were pool player Minnesota Fats, who called Titanic “the greatest action man of all time.”
In addition to his fame as a gambler, Titanic was well-known for his crime dealings. In 1928, he was involved in a high-stakes poker game that led to the shooting death of New York City crime boss Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein. Titanic also killed five men himself – four he shot in self defense when they tried to steal his gambling winnings, and the other, after accusing Titanic of cheating and throwing overboard the yacht on which they were gambling, he struck in the head with a hammer.
Charles Wells, the roulette player believed to be the inspiration for the song “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, came into fame and riches in 1891. That’s when, in a matter of 13 hours, he “broke the bank” a record 12 times and parlayed £4000 into 1 million francs (worth approximately £4 today). Wells’ wins made him a celebrity and Monte Carlo a gambling Mecca.
Wells won again on two subsequent visits. The first netted him 1 million francs over three days. The second saw him break the bank another six times.
Unfortunately, his hot streak ended as quickly as it began, and Wells, who had become accustomed to grandiosity, began coaxing and cheating friends and former investors in order to support his addiction and his lifestyle. He was eventually arrested, extradited to England, and sentenced to 8 years in prison for fraud. When released, he changed his name and took up his racket again, only to serve two more prison terms for fraud and financial schemes.
Wells died penniless in Paris in 1926, but his legacy as “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” lives on.
In 2004, another roulette player came to fame, this time for betting his life savings and everything he owned on a single spin of the wheel. Ashley Revell made what many say was the craziest bet in gambling history when he put $135,300 on red. So wild was the bet that Britain’s Sky television broadcast it live on the reality series “Double or Nothing.”
Fortunately for Revell, he won, and thus went home with $270,600 in his pocket. Revell used his winnings to launch a poker website called Poker United.