Modern history



He came to Paris, where he cut such a fine figure that he held the bank at Faro. He usually played at the house of a famous actress, where they played for high stakes, although he was in as great demand with Princes and Lords of the first order, as in the most celebrated academies, where his noble manners and even temper, distinguished him from other players.

Barthélemy Marmont du Hautchamp,

Histoire du système de finances (1739)

IT IS AN EVENING IN NOVEMBER 1708 IN THE PARISIAN salon of Marie-Anne de Chateauneuf—“La Duclos”—a celebrated actress of Paris’s Comédie Française, and as usual she is entertaining Parisian society. Despite the lustrous presence of sundry ducs, marquis, and comtes, talk is uncharacteristically desultory. France is in the throes of the world’s first global war, the War of Spanish Succession, which has raged already for seven years and will endure for another six. This country, the most powerful and populous in Europe, has been ruined by the perpetual conflict. But this cocooned Parisian circle is scarcely conscious of it: the talk is not of the devastating defeats France has suffered at the battles of udenaarde, Turin, Ramillies, and Blenheim. It focuses instead on the move of the elderly Louis XIV, the Sun King, and his court from Versailles to Marly, and the love affairs of the fascinating but apricious Duc d’Orléans.

Those who find these topics less than engaging are drawn instead to the cluster of players engrossed in a card game, faro. Most are habitués of the tables—at this level of society everyone knows everyone else—but among them one man stands apart. He is fashionably clad as one would expect in a wideskirted velvet coat, unbuttoned to reveal a damask waistcoat and cravat of Brussels lace, while a periwig of black curls cascades over his shoulders. But at over six feet tall—a remarkable stature in these diminutive days—he is a man of grand and imposing looks that according to one acquaintance “places him among the best made of men.” Amid the twitchy players, he is also remarked for his gentle and insinuating manners, a serenity of temperament that amply reflects his outward appearance.

During a lull in play La Duclos proudly presents the stranger as John Law, a Scottish gentleman visiting Paris. Her guests soon realize, however, that although Law is as charming and witty as he is physically attractive, he’s reticent when questioned on his circumstances. They also discover, as the evening progresses, that he is a master gambler.

According to the rules of the game, the players must defeat a single opponent, the tallière, or banker, to win. This evening Law has been permitted to pit his wits against the rest and adopt the solitary role of opponent. He is the bank. As the stakes grow higher, the players’ mood shifts from studied composure to overt unease, and a crescendo of voices pledge increasingly reckless sums. But no matter how great the amount at risk, Law never relinquishes control over his outward expression.

Each player chooses one, two, or three from a deck of cards on the table before them, using gold louis d’or as their stake. Slowly the croupier takes his pack, discards the uppermost card, plays the next two—the loser and the winner—and places them in front of him. Winning depends on players having selected the same number as the second card dealt by the croupier (suits are irrelevant), so long as he does not deal two cards of the same face value, in which case the banker also wins. The dealing continues, players betting on every draw until three cards remain. The room is transfixed for the final turn, when the players must guess the cards in order of appearance. Inevitably, Law triumphs over most. He scoops the gold coins he has accumulated into the leather purses he has brought with him, leaving the losers, ruefully, to review their depleted wealth. Once again he has apparently defied the laws of chance and emerged spectacularly victorious.

Few among those present perceive that he has been assisted by anything more than unusual good fortune. Years later his closest acquaintances, such as the Duc de Saint-Simon, failed fully to understand his gaming victories, and described him as “the kind of man, who without ever cheating, continually won at cards by the consummate art (that seemed incredible to me) of his methods of play.” In fact, success on this scale has almost nothing to do with luck or consummate art but lay in ensuring that the odds are stacked heavily in his favor. Even when not in the lucrative role of banker, by marshaling a remarkable mathematical intellect and employing his understanding of complex probability theory, of which few are aware, Law was able to measure with astonishing accuracy the likelihood that a given card would appear. To him there was little doubt about the evening’s outcome.

Not far from the opulent interior of La Duclos’s salon, in a plain but comfortably appointed apartment of the Benedictine Priory in Faubourg St. Antoine, was one of the few men in Paris to whom John Law’s success was of pressing concern. Marc René de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis d’Argenson, Paris’s superintendent of police, was as physically unattractive as Law was outwardly engaging, with sallow skin and deep-socketed eyes. He was noted chiefly for his “subtle mind” and “natural intelligence,” and his business—others’ secrets—was a métier at which he excelled. As the eagle-eyed Duc de Saint-Simon remarked, “There was no inhabitant [of Paris] whose daily conduct and habits he did not know.”

D’Argenson relished sophisticated company and felt easy in the elite world to which John Law’s gaming skills had given him access. During the decade he had held his position, Law’s sporadic appearances and extraordinary successes had grown increasingly perturbing. D’Argenson was convinced that John Law was filling some secret role for the British, or that he constituted some other even more insidious threat. His unease deepened when, despite every attempt to find out more about Law, intelligence was discovered to be worryingly sparse. Some said he was a fugitive from British justice, that he had escaped from prison, where he had been sentenced to death by hanging for killing a man. His fortune was variously rumored to have come from gaming tables in Vienna, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Brussels, and The Hague, or from an inherited Scottish estate. But all this was hearsay and speculation. A year earlier, when d’Argenson discovered Law intent on masterminding a dangerous scheme that might undermine France’s economy—the introduction of paper money to France—he had expelled him from Paris. Now the King’s foreign minister, the Marquis de Torcy, had informed him that not only was Law back without a passport but that “his intentions are not good,” and that “he is serving our enemies as a spy.” Torcy was worried and wanted to know more. D’Argenson, equally disturbed, had attempted for some weeks to track Law down. The quarry had proved elusive.

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