Fixing The Roulette Wheel

Back in 1894 a group of innovative cheats rigged a roulette wheel and beat the house out of $20k. They did it by understanding that people see only what they are looking for, aka "Inattentional Blindness"


Richmond Dispatch 1894

7/10/20225 min read

Richmond Dispatch March 8th 1894


How Red Leary's Gang Won $20,000 At One Sitting.

To beat a gambling house by underhanded schemes is it almost impossible thing. All the important gambling establishments in this part of the country employ men to lookout for such attempts and the number of times when faro cards had been fixed, cogged hazard dice substituted, roulette wheels corked or any similar game played successfully by gamblers against the house can be counted under the fingers of one hand.

The gambler of today must depend on his luck to come out ahead of the cards, the dice or the wheel. One of the few schemes and perhaps the most successful ever perpetrated on a gambling house in this part of the country was worked in filled dailies place at Long Branch, known as Monte Carlo Jr., by a gang of crooks headed by Red Leary, since killed on 6th Ave by a brick which a companion of his tossed in the air and by big Frank McCoy, the bank robber.

The game was roulette, and although the affair occurred nearly ten years ago no account of it has ever been made public and even the chief loser, the late Charles Frederick Woerrishoffer, a well-known banker of this city, never knew of the crooked work that lost him $5000 within three hours. When Leary, McCoy, and three others, one of whom is a well-known bunco man, arrived at Long Branch one day that summer, a report got abroad that they were going to make an organized attempt at robbing the big safe in Monte Carlo Jr. Every night 5 guards slept in the gambling house with loaded shotguns at their heads, but they might have spared themselves the trouble.

The five crooks would come over in the afternoon, lounge about the house until evening, when they would play, but not heavily, and generally lose. They always played roulette. There came a night however when they stopped losing in one enough to make up for all their losses 10 times over.

One afternoon previous Phil Daly had noticed McCoy and one of the others taking a great interest in the roulette wheel and said to Major Crump, whose duty it was to look the tables over and see that everything was right before play began: “Those fellows are up to something. I think they're going to try to plug up some of the numbers in the roulette wheel and then play the adjoining numbers. Look out that the wheel isn't corked.”

Crump examined the wheel with particular care that evening, but found nothing wrong. McCoy and Leary didn't come around, but two of their pals did, and they began playing heavily. About the same time Mr. Woerrishoffer for, who was a constant customer, came in and sat down on the other side of the wheel opposite the two crooks.

"I think I'm going to win tonight", he said to Frank Snyder, who was the croupier on his side. "Give me $1,000 worth of chips. And I'll play 6 and 13." He began by putting $20 on each of the numbers and watched his coin disappear without a winning. His $1000 had gone in little more than no time, and neither six nor 13 had turned up.

"They'll turn up pretty soon”, he said as he bought his second $1,000 in chips. “35 to 1, when I hit will soon square me.”

But his second thousand went the way of the first without either number turning up. Still he persisted, insisting that the luck would soon come his way hard. Meanwhile the crooks on the other side of the wheel were playing heavily on numbers 8 and 11, and on the 1st dozen, which pays 2 to 1. And on the middle column which pays the same, and they were winning on all with remarkable persistency as steadily as Woerrishoffer, at the other end, was losing.

After the fifth thousand had gone and his numbers had not shown up once banker Woerrishoffer said to Snyder: “Well Frank, there's no luck for me tonight. I have lost $5000 on 6 and 13, and that's enough for one evening. This isn't there night on. I'll try them again tomorrow.” “The luck is at the other end”, replied Schneider. “Those fellows on the other end are hitting us hard.” The two crooks played on, and still they won.

Each played the limit every time on the middle column and the first 12, and $10 at every turn of the wheel on numbers 8 and 11, and so remarkable was their luck that other smaller caliber players began to follow them with ill results to the bank. When finally major Crump, who is spinning the wheel, called the last turn, the two men were about $10,000 apiece ahead. And the rest of the McCoy Leary gang left Long Branch on the following day.

When the wheel stopped, Snyder leaned over to Crump and whispered:“Neither six nor thirteen has turned up once tonight. There's something wrong with the wheel.” “

Can't be,” returned Crump. “I looked it over carefully before the game began I'll swear there isn't a cork in the wheel.” “Well, let's look it over,” suggested Schneider, and the two began to examine the wheel. Their investigation failed to discover any number six or thirteen on the wheel. They tried again and found two number eights and two number elevens. Over number six a square a very fine tissue the exact counterpart of number eight had been set in, and in a like manner 11 had been substituted for 13.

Besides doubling the two numbers this put one extra chance in the first 12 and two chances in the middle column. Crump turned to Schneider: “Now I get into why those fellows played the same numbers right through.” He said. “They must have fixed the wheel this afternoon it's a pretty piece of work as I've ever seen, but it'll never go again here.”

Daly himself was summoned to examine the wheel. He declared the not even the best trained eye could have detected the counterfeit and told his two companions to say nothing about it, lest it should hurt the reputation of the bank. So well did they keep the secret that when Woerrishoffer died sometime later, he was still in ignorance of the reason that the wheel ran so persistently against him on that night that he had the remarkable ill luck of choosing for play the only two numbers not on the wheel.

Our Take:

This is one of the best outside cheating plays I have ever heard about. Impressive in its simplicity and audacity. Back in the day, the most common way for cheats to “fix” the wheel was to wait for the gaming house to close and then “snake” the wheel by adding cork to a few number pockets. The cork would decrease the co-efficient of restitution (bouncy-ness) and thereby increasing the probability of the "corked" pocket and the numbers adjacent to be the final resting place for the ball. But, as we have just read, the crooks were more innovative than that. With the noncomplicated move of covering two numbered pockets with duplicated numbers they “owned” table and got the money.

There is a scholarly theory called “inattentional blindness” which explains how the game operators missed this seemingly obvious change to their own wheel which they had inspected before opening it for play. This theory surmises that people see only what they are looking for. The cheats counted on the fact that no one would be looking for two 8s and two 11’s on the wheel, and they were correct. Correct to the tune of a $20k profit. By the way $20,000 in 1894 is worth $680,000 in 2022.