The bald-headed man in the dinner jacket was the only one playing. He stood in that strange angle formed where the round of the table housing the roulette wheel itself meets the straight of the numbered layout, highball glass clutched in one hand, watching as the croupier’s assistant placed his bets for him. The assistant’s fingers were long and nimble and he handled the chips with practiced dexterity. When he finished, he stepped smartly back and stood at semi-attention, waiting. The bald man nodded. Without seeming to notice, the croupier flicked the ball out onto the steadily turning wheel.
It spun rapidly around the rim, then bounced along the row of cups housing the numbers and finally fell in.
“Vingt et neuf, the croupier intoned. “Noir.” Twenty-nine. Black. The bald man had lost.
Dispassionately, the assistant raked the chips off the layout toward the house side, then looked up inquiringly. “Monsieur wishes to play again?” The bald man took out his wallet. It was empty now and only a short while before it had held a seemingly endless supply of banknotes. He smiled ruefully. “If I could arrange credit—” he said.
“At the cashier’s, M’sieu. Near the entrance.” The croupier nodded to his assistant, who came around to lean a chair against the table where the bald man had been standing. “We will, of course, reserve your place until you return.”
He continued to stand attentively until the man had moved off, then, signaling his assistant to return, began to arrange the chips the other had lost into neat stacks.
That broke the tension and the small crowd that had gathered to watch the action began to break up. I’d been standing near the front and now in the press I found myself facing a tall grey-haired man in impeccable evening dress with a long cadaverous face incongruously bisected by gold rimmed pince-nez. He smiled faintly.
“He won’t get it,” he said.
“The credit. It will not be given.” His English was practiced but undercut with heavy French intonations and resonances. At a guess I would have put him anywhere from his mid-fifties to his early seventies. “Those who have it,” he went on, “do not ask if it can be given or where. Nor do they play roulette—except perhaps once, at the very start of the evening, to test the luck.”
“You sound as if you know,” I said. “Do you come here often?”
The grey-haired Frenchman smiled. “Not as often as I used to,” he said. “I am Marcel Duchamp. Perhaps you have heard of me.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m afraid not.
For a moment he looked actually affronted, but then the polite smile was back in place. “Ah,” he said, “but then, of course, you are not a gambler.” He cocked his head to one side and looked at me quizzically. “But still you do watch. It interests you then at least a little?”
I smiled. “Let’s say people interest me,” I said. “I’m a writer.”
“Ah,” Duchamp said again, interest breaking out on his long face, “a writer. Like the Hemingway or the Faulkner perhaps?”
“Hardly that famous,” I said.
Duchamp shrugged, a very Gallic movement of the shoulders. “Ah, but then perhaps someday…After all, who can predict when fame will strike? Or whom?” He smiled again. “If you have the time, let me give you a drink. I’ve never spoken to a writer, even a not-so-famous one. And I think you have never talked to a gambler—at least not one like Marcel Duchamp. We may both find it amusing and instructive.”
I hesitated. This had all the earmarks of a classic come-on. Still, my wife would be down for dinner in half an hour at the most, and that, if nothing else, would keep me from getting too deeply involved. Besides, I admit it, I was intrigued. “All right,” I said, “but let me buy.”
Duchamp drew himself up. “I said I would give you a drink,” he said. “Neither of us will pay.”
The bar was set outside the entrance to the casino in the promenade that led to the hotel proper and across from the hall that served as a cabaret theater. There was a waitress, but the bartender himself came over to the table to serve us.
“M’sieu Duchamp,” he said. “It’s been too long since you were here. You shouldn’t forget your friends.”
Duchamp gave another example of his Gallic shrug. “One grows older,” he said, “and then it’s the friends who begin to forget.”
“Not you, m’sieu. Just last week the croupiers were talking about you. There was a run on table four and someone said: Remember? And someone else said: Could it be?” The bartender smiled. “But, of course, it wasn’t. Such a thing could never happen again.”
“No,” Duchamp said, “it couldn’t.” He ordered for both of us. When the drinks came he sat toying with his glass.
“I may have misled you,” he said. “I said I was a gambler. But no matter. Whether I am now or not, for over forty years I was. But not like our bald friend out there. No, I stood on the other side of the table—a croupier: tall, elegant, unbending. Lord of the casino. And so might I still stand except—” He touched the rim of his pince-nez regretfully. “The eyes—they failed me.
“Oh, I realized what was happening. Who could not? But in my foolishness I thought no one would notice. Then one day Bergeron, the casino manager, called me into his office.
He was seated behind his desk as usual but before I could approach he stopped me there by the door, holding up a card.
‘What is it, Duchamp?’ he said.
“I squinted. I craned my neck. But try as I might, the card remained a blur. Bergeron tossed it contemptuously onto his desk.
“‘Bah!’ he said. ‘Velez was right. You’re blind as a bat.’
“‘Not blind, m’sieu,’ I said. ‘A small difficulty—’
“Bergeron shook his head. ‘It won’t do,’ he said. ‘The other night, Velez says, a player was sliding chips over onto winners after the call and you were straining too hard to read the wheel to notice.’
“‘Then he should have reported it,’ I told him.
“‘To whom? To you? And what would you have done when you couldn’t confirm it? No, he was right to come to me.’ He shook his head again. ‘I’m sorry, Duchamp, but I can’t keep you on. Velez will take your place tonight.’
“‘M’sieu,’ I pleaded, ‘if you dismiss me like this, the word will spread that it was because I was caught stealing or cheating and I’ll be ruined. At least let me stay till the end of the month as if I had given notice.’
“Bergeron hesitated. He’s dead now. His heart, they say—but there was nothing wrong with it that day. ‘You’re ruined as a croupier no matter what you do,’ he said, grumbling to make himself sound harder than he really was. ‘But all right. You can work out your notice. But—’ he added quickly ‘—on the ladies’ table only. And Velez stays on as eyes—because if there’s the least bit of trouble—’
“‘There won’t be, m’sieu,’ I promised. The ladies’ table was set slightly apart from the others and under brighter lights, to provide a place for tourists and other innocents to play at playing roulette. The minimum bet there was much less than that allowed at the other tables and generally was the largest placed.
“Under other circumstances I would have quit on the spot rather than accept such an insult. But I took it gladly and fled.
“Later that evening I sat alone in my room, brooding over my fate. I had savings, of course. I had known too well the inevitability of the odds ever to be a bettor. But the casino had been my life just the same. The wheel has no memory, though. In a few weeks I would be gone, and in too short a time after that it would be as if I had never been. I swore to myself then and there that I would not allow that to happen. I deserved better after forty years. And I would have better.
“True to his word, Bergeron put it out that I had given notice and explained that my transfer to the ladies’ table was solely to allow me more opportunity, because of the lesser pressure there, to instruct Velez in the ‘fine points of the game. It was a subterfuge that fooled no one, least of all my assistant. Velez was a Spaniard. I have nothing against the Spanish, of course. They’re fine people even if they’re not French; But the young of all nations are arrogant. And young Spaniards—” Duchamp shrugged again, eloquently.
“In any case, I took to coming in earlier and earlier and even to setting up the table myself before any of the others had arrived. Velez dismissed it contemptuously as the futile attempt of a pathetic old man to curry favor and cling to a position he must inevitably lose to a younger and better man. But what I actually had in mind was something far different: And on the last night of my notice period I was ready.
“The evening began ordinarily enough. Play was desultory and I began to wonder if all my work had been for nothing after all. But then shortly after ten the first show at the cabaret theater let out and the tourists flocked over into the casino where the ladies’ table and I were waiting.
“At first no one noticed what was happening. The bets were too scattered. But finally a young girl barely out of her teens—and newly married, from the freshness of her face and the attention she paid the small ring on her left hand—placed a ten-franc chip on red.
“I’m not sure how familiar you are with the rules of roulette, monsieur l’auteur, but you must know you may bet on a number, which is the riskier since the odds are highest against you; or on a color, which is the safer, since there are only two—red and black. If your number wins, you are paid thirty-five francs for every one you bet. On a winning color you merely double your money. But so it is also in life. The more you strive for, the more also you stand to lose. And whether it is wiser to play it safe or daringly must all too often be determined after the fact.
“But I digress. Be that as it may, it was on red now that the girl placed her chip.
“‘Why not black?’ her husband said. He was a clean-cut boy, scarcely older than she. I liked them both, but I liked her even better when she shook her head.
‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘Black is such a dull color. Red is so much livelier. I like red.’
“I flicked the ball out. It spun, bounced, then dropped in. ‘Dix-huit,’ said. ‘Rouge.’ The girl had won.
“Prudently, she picked up one of her ten-franc pieces but let the other lie. ‘And now,’ she said, laughing, ‘I can’t lose, because I have my bet back.’
“Her husband laughed too. I spun the ball. Again the girl won. And so in fact would she continue to do-as long as she left her bet where it was. Because what I had done, of course, over the past weeks was to carefully loosen the screws holding firm every other one of the wooden sides separating the numbered cups. Thus, the side would now give slightly when the ball hit against it-not enough to be noticed, but enough just the same—so that the ball’s momentum magnified by the counter movement of the wheel would send it skipping over into the next cup, making it—since red and black alternated around the wheel—virtually impossible for a black number to win.
“I stood as outwardly imperturbable as ever, but beneath the surface my whole soul was concentrated on willing the girl to let her bet ride.
“Whether by the force of my thought or her own inclination, she did—and by the seventh spin her small ten francs had grown by geometric proportion to a princely twelve hundred eighty. By then a small crowd had begun to gather around her.
“‘Impossible,’ someone said, ‘it can’t go on.’ There were calls for her to quit and others for her to ride her luck. The girl hesitated, then did the safe thing. She took back all but two hundred francs, which she left solidly on red. Then, clutching her husband’s hand more tightly than ever, she leaned forward to watch breathlessly what would happen next. “The crowd held its breath too as the ball spun, came to rest. ‘Vingt et un,’ I said. ‘Rouge.’
“It was too much, and the excitement began to spill over to other tables as well. Tourists found themselves shouldered aside as the really heavy gamblers pressed forward to see this impossible thing for themselves. A fat man in a tuxedo, impatient not to be left out, dropped chips onto the table. Velez pushed them back.
“‘Ladies only,’ he said.
“But the fat man was not to be denied. He thrust his chips into the hands of a woman next to him. ‘You play. We’ll split the winnings.’
“Overwhelmed, the woman dropped the whole stack onto the board. Velez was appalled.
“‘The size of the bet—’ he began.
‘There is only a minimum,’ I put in loftily. ‘There is no maximum.’
“That, of course, opened the floodgates. Bets poured in, and poor, overwhelmed Velez soon gave up trying to determine whether it was a man or a woman who placed them. And as the bets grew, so did the crowd. Play literally ceased everywhere except there at that one table. People too far back to see or hear passed their bets forward in relays and learned the results the same way.
“At some point as it went on, I became aware of Bergeron standing off to one side, frowning. He would have liked to close the table and end the madness, but he dared not. To do so would have been to invite a riot.
“But it was time to bring it to a close just the same, and in the clamor that followed the next winning call of red, I palmed the ball I had surreptitiously taped beneath the table before play began. This one was heavier and had a small magnet at its core. The polished brass of the rim wouldn’t affect it, but the steel bracing beneath the cups would insure that where it fell it would stay.
“Even so red came up three times purely by chance before finally I could call: ‘Trente et cinq. Noir.’
“There was a sigh like a groan from the crowd. Reason had at last reasserted itself. The laws of chance had not suspended themselves after all. And Bergeron could now rush forward to close the table before the crowd could change its mind again.
“‘How many reds were there?’ I said to Velez. ‘Before the black?’
“He looked stunned. ‘One hundred and five,’ he said. ‘Or perhaps one hundred six. I think the one before the girl started to play was red also. Or maybe more. I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything anymore.’
“‘No matter,’ I said dismissively, and left. Bergeron gave me a hard look as I went by, but my gaze as I met his was serene.
“The boy and the girl were waiting for me just inside the entrance to the casino, the girl smiling shyly and the young man nervously holding out a packet of banknotes. ‘They told us it is customary to tip the croupier when you win,’ he said.
“‘So it is,’ I agreed gravely. ‘But all I will accept from you is a glass of wine.’
“I did it because I could see they were nice children—just the age a daughter or son of mine might have been if I had ever married and had children – and I didn’t want their lives ruined. And so when we were seated over our wine, I said, ‘You must think yourselves lucky now.’
“The young man grinned and squeezed his bride’s hand. ‘The real luck came a long time ago,’ he said. ‘When we met and fell in love.’
“‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and just as you will never find another girl as fine as your wife, or you, madame—’ I almost said mademoiselle, she was so young— ‘a man as good as your husband, so never will you have another streak of luck like tonight’s. Take your money. Spend it wisely—or foolishly, if it pleases you. But don’t try to repeat what happened tonight. It would only lead to sadness.’”
“Did they follow your advice?” I asked.
Duchamp shrugged. “Who can say? I never saw or heard of them around the casino again, so I like to think they did. It would be sad otherwise.”
“And what about you?”
“Me? I too never gambled again. I became what you see—a man comfortable in his retirement, no longer in the game but still not forgotten either. Because, after all, who could forget Marcel Duchamp, the croupier who spun the ball the night red came up a hundred and five times in a row—more or less?” He smiled.
“But when they checked the wheel, the casino must have realized what you’d done. They certainly couldn’t have let you get away with losing all that money for them.”
Duchamp’s smile broadened. “Ah, but did I?” he said. He took a coin from his pocket and held it up for me to see. “Tell me, my friend,” he said, “if I were to toss this coin fifty times and each time it landed the head side was up, what would be the odds against my tossing heads a fifty-first time?”
“Oh, lord,” I said, “I’d need a pencil and paper to figure that out.”
Duchamp shook his head. “No, my friend, you would not. Because the odds are exactly what they were for the very first toss and each and every one in between — fifty-fifty in favor of either heads or tails. As I said, the wheel has no memory. Nor does the coin or the die or anything else that depends purely upon the laws of chance. It doesn’t know what went before. But people do and as a result they tend to confuse the odds against the sequence with the odds against the event.
“And so, after the seventh spin that evening, everyone in the casino except that one young girl was betting on black, secure in the knowledge that it had to come up, and that each time it didn’t the ‘had to’ became more imperative.
“The casino lost thousands—but it won millions. And would they willingly give that back?” He raised his glass.
“Your health, monsieur,” he said. “And my night to remember.”