Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Magician of Monte Carlo

Gambling in Monaco was first allowed by HSH Prince Florestan I, two months before his death, who signed the law legalizing it in April of 1856. However, once legal, it did not actually come about until December 14, 1856 when the first gaming facilities were opened at the Palais de la Condamine, over a century before what most regard as the start of the gaming industry in the principality. That is understandable as it did not become a major focus until the reign of HSH Prince Charles III who, on December 3, 1860, instituted the constitution of the Societe des Bains de Mer (which still owns the opera, casino and Hotel de Paris to this day). It would take still more time, and further development of road and rail links to France and Italy for the business to start booming. In time, it did so and the Casino of Monaco was inaugurated on February 18, 1863 with a great deal of publicity and international attention. What really made the gaming industry take off though was largely through the effort of Monsieur Francois Blanc.

It was Francois Blanc who purchased control of the SBM for the (then) enormous sum of 2,290,000 francs. An ingenious businessman and wizard of finance, economics and (significantly) promotion, it was Francois Blanc to whom a great deal of the credit is owed for making Monaco, and the soon to be created district of Monte Carlo particularly, the most famous and fashionable gaming center in the world. Francois Blanc was a native of Provence, born with his twin brother Louis on December 12, 1806. Growing up in a small, quiet town, the two boys dreamed of fame and fortune and were impressed when a circus came to down, particularly the games of chance which were so obviously lucrative. They followed the circus throughout the south of France, taking numerous jobs and learning all of the tricks of the trade. Eventually they went into the gambling business in Marseilles and became quite successful. Both realized they had found a way to make their boyhood dreams a reality.

Eventually Francois and Louis amassed enough of a fortune to branch out. In Bordeaux they speculated on government pensions and got into real estate development. Using inventive strategies (some of which would later be outlawed) their already considerable fortune grew rapidly. This attracted attention and they were arrested and brought to trial on accusations of fraud. However, there were no laws against what they had been doing (no one had been creative enough to come up with such a system before) and so, in the end, they were fined for bribing government officials and released, still far ahead of the game. After that bit of unpleasantness they left Bordeaux for Paris. There, they came up with new games of chance to get around existing anti-gambling laws and opened up a number of establishments before King Louis Philippe passed new laws that put them out of business.

Never ones to give up, the brothers moved to Luxembourg and opened a very profitable gaming business there. That was only a stepping stone to their biggest success yet in the Principality of Hesse-Homburg near Frankfurt. Homburg was suffering under a mountain of debt and the local monarch signed a very beneficial contract with Francois and Louis Blanc to develop the tourism industry. This they did with phenomenal success. Homburg quickly became the ‘hot spot’ of Europe with gambling houses, lavish hotels, theatres, spas, gardens and cultural attractions that caused the rich and famous across the continent to flock there. Soon, Francois Blanc was given the nickname, ‘the Wizard of Homburg’. Eventually, once the debts were gone and the prosperity seemed permanent, the government in Frankfurt turned against gambling and Francois Blanc was once again out of business but, as always, not out of ideas.

Homburg had been able to attract visitors only in the summer months. During the winter the elites all retreated to the mild climate of the Riviera and that gave Blanc the idea that, in such a location, he could attract tourists all year round. He also read that, seeing the rags-to-riches story of Homburg, the Prince of Monaco had recently legalized gambling in his tiny principality. Francois Blanc went to Monaco, bet his fortune on gaining control of the SBM and, as they say, the rest is history. He invested heavily in the country, helped establish the new roads and rail lines that would make it accessible to the population centers of Europe and he promoted the area as the new fashionable spot for fun, relaxation and games of chance. Prince Charles III gave him considerable freedom and, again, he invested heavily in the country but it all paid him back handsomely.

The “Wizard of Homburg” had become the “Wizard of Monte Carlo” and the recurring money problems the principality had endured throughout her history would largely become a thing of the past after the arrival of Francois Blanc. He died in Switzerland in 1877 leaving behind a fortune of 72 million francs which, today, would be roughly equivalent to over 450 million euros.

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