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Monte Carlo, Monaco

Monte Carlo fallacy

In the mid 1850s, with his principality almost bankrupt, the then prince of Monaco, Charles III, was compelled to grant a licence permitting a pair of local businessmen, Albert Aubert and Napoleon Langlois, to open and begin operating two new commercial enterprises on the Monaco seafront. One was a health resort specialising in thalassotherapy, the use of seawater in the healing and treatment of various diseases. The other was a casino complex. One of these businesses proved considerably more successful than the other. And no, this isn’t an entry dedicated to the origin of the word thalassotherapy .t

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The casino opened in 1863, and after a troublesome few years quickly helped the tiny principality to turn its fortunes around. The cash-rich district that developed around the complex became known as Monte Carlo – Italian for ‘Charles’ mountain’ – in honour of the prince who had kickstarted the entire enterprise.

So successful was the Monte Carlo development that its name, and indeed that of Monaco as a whole, soon fell into use in various money-related contexts in nineteenth-century slang. By the late 1800s, a monte or monty was a sure thing – a bet destined to pay off. In French slang, monaco became a slang name for cash or loose change, or else a low-denomination coin that could be spent or gambled without being missed. But the term that brings us here now is the name of a theory outlined in the 1950s to account for a notoriously misjudged example of gamblers’ reasoning: the Monte Carlo fallacy.

Also known simply as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ (or, if you want to be technical, the ‘fallacy of maturing chances’), the Monte Carlo fallacy explains the misguided belief some people develop that, just because something has happened less frequently than might be expected, it is now more likely to occur.

Imagine that a coin is tossed ten times in a row, and every single time, bar none, it lands on heads. To some observers, that peculiar run of heads might seem too unusual to ignore – and make it seem that the coin landing on tails is now somehow ‘overdue’, and more likely on the next flip or, at least, sooner rather than later. But as everyone knows, every coin toss carries a 50/50 chance of either heads or tails. With that in mind, and with each flip taken in isolation, a run of ten heads in a row doesn’t seem all that unusual, and certainly wouldn’t do anything to alter the odds of tails coming up next.

However misguided, this presumption is nevertheless a common trait: us humans are hard-wired to look for and appreciate patterns, and in doing so find any perceived imbalances (like ten heads in a row) worthy of note. And it is this pattern-seeking behaviour that led to this entire phenomenon earning itself a nickname namechecking Monte Carlo, the gambling capital of Europe.

On 18 August 1913, a game of roulette at the Monte Carlo casino attracted more than its usual share of the local gamblers’ attention. In fact, the entire building was abuzz with the fact that on one of the roulette tables, black numbers had come up fifteen – then sixteen, seventeen and eighteen – times in a row. In all, the ball went on to land on a black number some twenty-six consecutive times – and the longer this streak of black numbers continued, the more the gamblers around the table began to be suckered in to the fallacy. Surely, they began to wager, a red number was now due?

The fact that each spin of the roulette wheel, just like the flip of a coin, has a roughly equal chance of landing on red or black did not matter. Bet after bet was placed, and as the run of black numbers continued, the wagers on red grew ever larger. Millions of francs were placed and lost as more and more players bought into the misguided assumption that this uncommon – but not impossible – run of black numbers had at some point to be balanced out by a red number.

Eventually, of course, a red number did appear. And by then, presumably, the players had learned a very valuable and very expensive lesson.

While we’re here, the etymology of the name Monaco is worth noting: it derives from the Greek words for ‘one’ or ‘single’, monos, and ‘house’, oikos. Monoikos, or ‘single-house’, was an epithet of the great hero Heracles, who is supposed by legend to have passed through Monaco on his travels. The temple of Heracles Monoikos was built there in his name, and we’ve known this tiny enclave of France as Monaco ever since.

Spoiler alert: it’s from thalassa, a Greek word for ‘sea’.

In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937) the lexicographer Eric Partridge pointed out that the name Monte was also used as a slang nickname for Monte Carlo as a whole, but ‘mostly by those who have never been there’.

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