It is often said that Roulette is a sucker’s game. The House Edge is such that players are doomed to lose over the long term, and it is impossible to devise a betting system to beat the wheel. Indeed, the study of Roulette once prompted Albert Einstein himself to claim, “You cannot beat the table unless you steal money from it.”
How, then, can we explain the uncanny ability of William Nelson Darnborough (1869~1958) to pick the right numbers to bet on, not just now and then, but consistently over a period of seven years at the tables of Monte Carlo. Was it luck? Did he cheat? Or had he stumbled upon a secret that only a few gamblers would ever be able to replicate?
Eye on the Ball
By all accounts, Darnborough was not destined to reign over Roulette tables. He was born and raised in Bloomington, Illinois, where as a boy he was completely infatuated with America’s favorite sport—baseball. At the age of 18, he tried out for a local minor league club called the Bloomington Reds and made the team as a pitcher.
Although many of Darnborough’s teammates would go on to major league contracts, he languished on “farm teams” for five years. His career included a lackluster 14-16 season with the Denver Grizzlies in 1889, followed by fewer and fewer opportunities to pitch after trades to Aurora, Lincoln, Kansas City and Rochester. He finished up in 1892 with an unremarkable lifetime record of 18 wins and 25 losses and a batting average of .235.
According to one biographer, Darnborough managed to graduate from the University of Illinois during his baseball days and then drifted from job to job. Along the way, he developed a fascination for Roulette and purchased his own wheel to study “the mechanics of it and its motion for considerable lengths of time.” He then set about forming illegal games, using his wheel as he “travelled across America taking on all comers, winning considerable amounts of money from drifters and losing gamblers.”
During a decade of practice and perfecting his techniques, the once-failed pitcher became so proficient at spinning the Roulette ball that he decided it was time to make a big move. He would immigrate to Europe, where casino gambling was legal, and take his Roulette skills to the next level.
Darnbourgh took up residence in London shortly after the turn of the century and soon became a regular visitor to the casinos of Monte Carlo. In 1904, he reportedly won £83,000 playing Roulette. In 1910, he turned a stake of £1,600 into £63,000 during a one month stay. It has been said that by 1911 he won close to half million dollars (in early 1900s currency), a run of good fortune that included one spectacular, legendary feat, too—winning with bets on the number 5 on five successive spins.
Those who witnessed Darnborough at work noted the alarming speed with which he would place his bets. They also said he never wagered until after the dealer had spun the ball. That’s because Darnborough was a “wheel watcher, a man who could anticipate with an unusual degree of accuracy where the ball would land.” Simply by knowing at what point the ball was released and where the numbers on the wheel were in relation to the ball, his experience had taught him to predict, with considerable success, exactly what sector the ball would come to rest in.
After 1911, Darnborough married a “glamorous and determined” young English woman named Frances, who was a cousin of the Duke of Argyll and the Duke of Portland. Together, the wedded couple would live on a huge estate in Weybridge, Surrey. However, the new wife’s noble family frowned on gambling, so the now-wealthy wheel watcher had to promise to give up his vocation. In 1913, the couple had a son, Antony, who would become a noted film producer. Two years later, daughter Hermione was born, and she would go on to be a famous ballerina.
Darnborough never revealed the specific secret to his Roulette prowess, although clearly it had to do with his ability to read the spin. Many have speculated that he had an accomplice that assisted him in identifying the most likely areas of the wheel for the ball to land. But if such a helper existed, he never stepped forward. To this day, we can only marvel at Darnborough’s keen talent for observation and its daring application to Roulette.