Many players dream of breaking the bank at the roulette tables but few have succeeded in achieving this seemingly impossible goal. In this game, whether a bet wins or loses normally depends on sheer chance. There is a house advantage built into every single wager, which wipes away most players’ bankrolls over time.
One of the very few exceptions from this norm is Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo, quite suitably dubbed the Master of the Roulette Wheel. Pelayo collected hundreds of thousands from the roulette tables in Europe and Las Vegas.
His is easily one of the most inspiring gambling stories of all times. We relate it in this article alongside several other accounts of gamblers who beat the game of roulette.
Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo's Life
1Pelayo's Early Days of Wheel Bias Analysis
Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo was born in Madrid on the 25th of June, 1947. He was enrolled in Spain’s Official Film School in the 1960s but his film-making education came to a halt when the establishment unexpectedly closed down.
It was at this point that Pelayo turned to music, accepting a job at the National Radio which laid the foundations of his successful carrier in the entertainment industry. Among his most prominent achievements are the creation of the Andalusian rock genre and his producer work with established Spanish musicians the likes of Carlos Puebla, Luis Pastor, and Maria Jimenez.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, Pelayo turned to his old passion for film-making and created several feature films including Living in Seville and Manuela. Pelayo’s career as a roulette player began in the early 1990s when he decided to take up the game as a hobby.
At first, he played solely for entertainment purposes at Casino Gran Madrid but then it dawned on him that maybe some numbers showed more frequently than others. This is when he began recording the outcomes of the spins to determine whether there were reasonable grounds for his suspicions.
Pelayo soon came to the realization it was rather laborious for a single person to collect data for multiple wheels, so he decided to recruit his son Ivan and daughter Vanessa to assist him in this task. They would spend hours upon hours each day at the Casino Gran Madrid to record the outcomes the roulette wheels produced.
While his children busied themselves with data collection (they recorded over 30,000 results manually!), Pelayo, who was keen on math, took it upon himself to create computer software that would enable him to accurately analyze the recorded results.
The program he created in the simple QBasic language would assign a numerical value to every numbered pocket on the roulette wheel. The higher the frequency of occurrence of a given number, the greater numerical value the software would assign to it.
This enabled Pelayo to create a profile for each wheel his children clocked, helped him identify biased wheels, and compile lists of the numbers with abnormally high hit frequency. Such numbers were more likely to occur, he reasoned. This was a turning point for the entire Pelayo family.
2The Pelayos' Success in Casino Gran Madrid
After profiling numerous wheels, Pelayo established that exploiting such biases can overturn the casino’s edge and give the player the staggering advantage of 6%. The player would not win on every spin, of course, but a smart person armed with this bias information could never lose to the house over the long run.
The roulette team expanded, with more members of the Pelayo family joining in. Pelayo understood that losing streaks would occur despite his advantage and that he needed a more substantial bankroll to recover from these bad runs.
Despite his successful carrier as a film-maker and music producer, he was by no means a rich man. Pelayo decided to sell the rights of one of his documentary films which helped him build up the bankroll to around $2,200.
Since Pelayo’s simulations showed pocket bias, he and his family members decided to bet straight up on the favored numbers. Individual numbers had smaller odds of showing (1 to 36) but they yielded higher payouts of 35 to 1. The Pelayos’ starting bankroll was insignificant in size, which helped the family avoid casino detection early on in their roulette career.
The family suffered a poor start in the beginning, losing half of their initial $2,200 investment while playing at Casino Gran Madrid. Despite this disappointment, the Pelayos did not give up but continue to wager on the favored numbers.
The bias soon began to pay off which encouraged the family to start visiting the casino as many as six times per week. Now that the whole family was recruited to the team, the Pelayos could afford to send a member to each of the biased tables. This tactic proved useful because it prevented the staff of Casino Gran Madrid from finding out they were associated with each other.
After a couple of months of play, the family succeeded in increasing their tiny $2,200 bankroll to over $100,000. This encouraged them to bet higher and higher amounts on the biased numbers. Despite this success, the Pelayos did suffer some bad streaks losing the hefty sum of $80,000 on one occasion.
3Casino Madrid Strikes Back
These bad runs were more than offset by the Pelayos’ massive wins that amounted to hundreds of thousands. Pelayo prohibited the team members from tipping the dealers. This, along with the mind-blowing profits they generated, drew the attention of Casino Gran Madrid.
The floor personnel was ordered to monitor the Pelayos’ play to figure out what was going on. They applied different tactics from pressuring the team members and instructing the croupiers to spin the ball at a higher speed to switching wheels between different tables.
All these efforts proved futile. After months of repeatedly playing the same biased wheels, the members of the Pelayo team were able to recognize them by small physical imperfections like scratches, for example.
The casino countered with cheating accusations and tried to bar them permanently from its floors. Things escalated to such an extent that the matters were taken to court.
The Spanish Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Pelayos reasoning that exploiting biased wheels is a form of advantage play, not cheating. The family finally quit Casino Gran Madrid not because they were prohibited from playing there but because of a wheel change which eliminated the bias. By the end of this stint, biased wheels had made the Pelayos $1 million richer.
4The Pelayos Take on Las Vegas
Their massive success at the Casino Gran Madrid tables encouraged the Pelayos to go on a tour across European casinos, with the first stop being Amsterdam. The family’s good run continued there as they amassed profits to the amount of $400,000 over a period of several months.
This fuelled the Dutch casino’s suspicions so they called Casino Gran Madrid and the Pelayos were exposed. As the family traveled to other major European cities like Vienna and Paris, casino after casino barred them because of their advantage play.
They would exploit the tables in each country for three to four months until local casinos would eventually detect them and ask them to leave. As the family’s reputation traveled all over the continent, one security guard in a Copenhagen casino even threatened them with his gun when they tried to enter the premises.
Pelayo’s nephews decided to call it quits and the team whittled down to three members, Pelayo, his wife, and his son, Ivan.
It was becoming increasingly difficult for the Pelayos to get any action on European soil, so they started to explore the possibility of attacking the roulette tables on the other side of the pond. Las Vegas seemed like the perfect option for advantage players of the Pelayos’ caliber.
However, an assault of Sin City came with several drawbacks. For one, the roulette tables there played under the American rules and featured wheels with a single and a double zero, which doubled the casinos’ advantaged to 5.26%.
Enhanced surveillance also proved to be an issue. It was much harder for advantage players to go undetected in Las Vegas casinos.
The family managed to maintain their advantage over the double-zero wheels by looking for more pronounced number biases. As for detection, the team members tried to blend in as much as possible by changing their accents.
5The End of Pelayo's Roulette Career
The Las Vegas stint went smoothly for a while until Pelayo hit a major snag one night. He was betting huge amounts on two biased numbers when something extraordinary happened. The number with the most minuscule odds according to his computer simulation, 19 red, miraculously did show.
Ironically, 19 red was located right between his sure winners, 8 and 31 black. Pelayo again covered the two likely numbers with massive bets, reasoning the odds of 19 red showing twice in a row are extremely small, nearly non-existent. What was his surprise when the ball settled on 19 again during the next spin!
The advantage player did not give up, however, but assured himself there is absolutely no way for this number to hit three times in a row. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened next when the wheel again produced that dreaded number.
Overcome by a sense of utter failure, Pelayo collapsed on the casino floor from fatigue and disappointment. The player was in such a poor state when they took him to the hospital that the personnel initially thought he had suffered a heart attack.
When he recovered, he returned to the casino a couple of days later only to find he had completely lost his confidence as an advantage player.
As Pelayo himself describes it in an interview for the US National Public Radio, this is similar to what happens to a bullfighter who has been gored and is afraid to face the bull again. The family eventually decided to call it quits permanently and return to their normal lives in Spain.
Pelayo ended his career as an advantage roulette player with more than $1.5 million in net profits. His amazing story has inspired aspiring roulette players the world over, so much so that he went on to on publish it in his 2003 book The Fabulous Story of Los Pelayos (La Fabulosa Historia De Los Pelayos), which was later adapted for the silver screen.
Today, Pelayo continues to collect data and study probabilities but has now turned to other areas of gambling, most recently poker.
Other Famed Assaults of the Roulette Tables
As inspiring as his story is, Pelayo is hardly the only player who have succeeded to crush the casinos at roulette. Others have managed to earn some decent profits at the roulette tables, some by wheel bias exploitation, others by sheer trickery. Below, we feature the stories of four players who have beat the house at its own game.
Charles Wells - the Trickster Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo
Charles Wells is a man many roulette players have heard of. Wells’ roulette journey began around 1861, shortly after he patented one of his inventions, a machine that could control the speed of ships’ propellers, which earned him ₣5,000.
It was around this time that Wells started frequenting French casinos, losing all of his money and developing a serious gambling addiction, a problem that ran in his family. He then started another project, a railroad in Berck but instead of finishing it, he fled with his investors’ money to England.
Wells continued to scam people to fuel his addiction until he eventually ended up at the Monte Carlo Casino in 1891. At this time, each roulette table on the premises was loaded with a bank of ₣100,000, a solid amount at the time.
When a player succeeded in winning a sum larger than this amount, they “broke the bank” and a black cloth was ceremoniously laid over the table to indicate it was temporarily out of service. The cashiers would then visit the casino’s vaults to get more money and pay the lucky winner in full.
At the time of Wells’ arrival only five people have succeeded in breaking the bank of the Monte Carlo Casino.
Wells alone did it five times during his first Monte Carlo stint which lasted only five days, winning ₣500,000 in the process (around $13 million in today’s terms). This feat of Wells’ raised a furor in Monte Carlo.
Some believed his success was a lie intended as a publicity stunt, others were convinced he cheated the house by bribing the croupiers, a rather reasonable supposition considering the many frauds he was involved in. Wells himself attributed his success to his “infallible” system, which later turned out to be the Martingale betting progression.
The trickster went on to purchase a fabulous yacht with some of his Monte Carlo profits. He continued with the schemes, which eventually earned him two jail sentences for confidence trickery and frauds.
After his second release from prison, Wells continued playing roulette, eventually losing all of his remaining money to the house. He died in 1922 of kidney failure.
While Wells’ was hardly an exemplary life, his short-lived success at the Monte Carlo Casino earned him a place in gambling history and inspired various movies and songs, including Fred Gilbert’s “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”.
Joseph Jagger's Monte Carlo Stint
Wells was not the only Englishman to break the bank at Monte Carlo, though. His compatriot Joseph Hobson Jagger actually preceded him. Jagger ran a textile business in the 1870s but without much success. With bankruptcy looming over him, he borrowed some money from friends and relatives and took off to Monte Carlo in the company of his nephew and son.
Unlike Wells who allegedly relied on a progressive system, Jagger had some experience with spinning wheels from his textile business. He was well-aware of the fact that wheels were prone to imbalances. This applied in full force to roulette wheels which were prone to bias when slight physical defects were present.
With some help from his relatives and clerks, Jagger established that one particular wheel in the Beaux-Arts Casino showed an inclination towards numbers 7, 8, 9, 17, 18, 19, 22, 28, and 29. And sure enough, his bets on the biased numbers earned him £65,000 (around £7.4 million by today’s standards) in as little as three days.
The Beaux-Arts Casino grew suspicious of Jagger’s massive wins and decided to move the biased wheel to another table. When Jagger arrived on the next day, he was quick to notice something was off. However, he recognized the biased wheel by a small scratch and continued his winning streak.
The casino responded by rotating the frets that separate the pockets, so that the wheel showed bias toward different numbers each night. This time around, Jagger could do nothing but was smart enough to call it quits and return to England with what remained of his roulette profits.
Jagger’s roulette exploits are related in further detail in his niece’s 2018 book From the Mill to Monte Carlo: The Working-Class Englishman Who Beat the Monaco Casino and Changed Gambling Forever.
Richard Jarecki, the German Doctor Who Uncovered the Secrets of the Wheel
German physician Richard Jarecki was yet another gambler to beat the casinos at roulette for seven-figure amounts. Being a person with a mathematical inclination, Jarecki began toying with the idea of roulette advantage play in the late 1960s.
Similarly to Pelayo, Jarecki recruited his wife along with several other team members to collect the data. They approached the task with due diligence, sometimes recording as many as 10,000 spins for a single wheel. This was a cumbersome task that often took a month to complete.
Jarecki played roulette with an advantage across all major casinos in Monte Carlo, France, Germany, and Italy. A 1960s managing director of Casino Sanremo described him as a “menace” and expressed hopes for Jarecki to “never return to [his] casino”.
This hostility certainly makes sense when we take into account the fact Jarecki extracted a massive fortune from Casino Sanremo’s roulette tables. By the end of his European stint in the early 1970s, the American doctor had generated more than $1.28 million in winnings, which is equal to around $8 million by today’s standards.
Jarecki’s success at roulette was of such magnitude that the Sanremo authorities insisted that the government bans his family from entering Italy. Despite the animosity, the doctor continued to harass the Italian casino until they eventually changed all of their wheels.
The Roulette Exploits of William Walters and His Team
William Walters is a name spoken with reverence by most gamblers as the person behind it is known as one of the most successful punters of all times. Walters holds a record for the longest winning streak in sports betting which extended for more than three decades.
Another accomplishment of his is beating Atlantic City’s Atlantic Club Casino Hotel (now closed) at roulette. He achieved this in the 1980s with the help of his team and the advanced computer calculations he used to spot possible advantages.
Similarly to Pelayo and Jagger, Walters and his team recorded spin outcomes in person at the casino. The computer analysis indicated a bias toward five particular numbers, namely 7, 10, 20, 36, and 27.
Jagger and his team deposited $2 million at the casino’s cashier in 1986 and finished their two-day session with $3.8 million on top of that by betting on the biased numbers.
The Atlantic Club was much displeased by this turn of events and went on to ask Walters and his team to quit playing at the premises. The team kindly obliged and took their action to the Claridge Casino, extracting $610,000 more from the biased wheels there.