Many gamblers see roulette as a game of pure chance — a wheel is spun, a ball is released and winners and losers are determined by luck.
Richard Jarecki refused to believe it was that simple.
He became the scourge of European casinos in the 1960s and early ′70s by developing a system to win at roulette. And win he did, by many accounts accumulating more than $1.2 million, or more than $8 million in today’s money — until, that is, the casinos finally found a way to eliminate his edge.
But no matter. By then he had filled his pockets and achieved a level of celebrity and was on his way to carving out a career in another arena of risk-laden wagering back in the United States — as a commodities futures trader.
He died on July 25 at 86 at his home in Manila. He was 86. His wife, Carol Jarecki, said the cause was pneumonia.
Richard Wilhelm Jarecki was not the sort of rakish bon vivant that might come to mind as the epitome of a successful gambler. He was a married medical doctor and researcher at Heidelberg University in Germany. The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia described him in 1969 as “rather tall and slim and reedy — looking just like a professor should, complete with a rumpled suit and a bewildered look.”
That look concealed a keen eye for detail and a sharp mathematical mind, which Dr. Jarecki first turned to the problem of roulette in Germany in the early 1960s.
He and his wife honed his technique at dozens of casinos, including in Monte Carlo; Divonne-les-Bains, France; Baden-Baden, Germany; San Remo, on the Italian Riviera; and, briefly, Las Vegas. He became a regular in San Remo, where he had lucrative runs over several years.
By 1969 he had become “a menace to every casino in Europe,” Robert Lardera, the San Remo casino’s managing director, told The Morning Herald.
“I don’t know how he does it exactly, but if he never returned to my casino I would be a very happy man,” Mr. Lardera said.
At the time, Dr. Jarecki told reporters that he had cracked roulette with the help of a powerful computer at the University of London. But the truth was more prosaic. He accomplished his improbable lucky streak through painstaking observation, with no electronic assistance.
Ms. Jarecki said in a telephone interview on Monday that she, Dr. Jarecki and a handful of other people helping them would record the results of every turn of a given roulette wheel to discover its biases, or tendency to land on some numbers more frequently than others, usually because of a minute mechanical defect caused by shoddy manufacturing or wear and tear.
“There was nothing original in his method — only in the successful way he employed his fanciful computer explanation to delude the managements of European casinos, the gaming police and the general public,” the gaming writer Russell T. Barnhart said in a chapter about Dr. Jarecki in his book “Beating the Wheel: Winning Strategies at Roulette” (1992).
Ms. Jarecki said that watching, or “clocking,” a wheel, as Mr. Barnhart described it, could mean observing more than 10,000 spins over as long as a month. Sometimes a wheel would yield no observable advantage. But when Dr. Jarecki and company did find a wheel with a discernible bias, he would have an edge over the house.
“It isn’t something he invented,” Ms. Jarecki said. “It’s something he perfected.”
Choosing the right casino was as important as finding the right roulette wheel. Roulette in European casinos offered better odds than in American casinos because wheels in Europe have 37 numbered slots on which the ball can land, while American wheels have 38. Dr. Jarecki also found that European casinos were more accommodating to players on hot streaks than their American counterparts.
Some European casinos tried to end Dr. Jarecki’s streaks by switching wheels from table to table, but his memory could thwart them. He had memorized nicks, scratches and other telltale identifiers on individual wheels and thus could still recognize the ones he should play.
News media reports at the time said that some casinos had barred Dr. Jarecki outright, but Ms. Jarecki said that rarely happened, in part because he had befriended casino officials and employees.
Still, steady losses came to torment the San Remo casino, especially as others began betting along with Dr. Jarecki. Ms. Jarecki said that at one point Italian officials tried to keep them from entering the country, at the municipality of San Remo’s request. But they successfully appealed the decision, she said, and were back at the casino in a few months.
“If casino managers don’t like to lose, they should sell vegetables,” Dr. Jarecki told The New York Times in an article about his win streak in 1969.
When he returned to San Remo he ran the table again until management replaced some two dozen roulette wheels, negating his advantage. Moreover, roulette wheels came to be manufactured more carefully, offering fewer biases to exploit, and Dr. Jarecki’s edge began to ebb.
He returned to the United States in 1974 and began trading commodities futures on his own, specializing in silver and gold. In the 1980s he was named a governor of Comex, a commodities futures exchange.
He also continued to play roulette, as well as blackjack, in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Ms. Jarecki said that casino owners sometimes asked him if he would like to partner with them, but that he always turned them down.
“He likes to take money from the casinos, not give it to them,” she said.
Dr. Jarecki was born to Jewish parents, Dr. Max and Gerda (Kunstmann) Jarecki, on Dec. 1, 1931, in Stettin, Germany. His father was a dermatologist, and his mother’s family owned a major shipping company. But with the rise of the Nazis and the growing persecution of Jews, Hitler’s regime took control of the family’s shipping fortune, and they fled Germany in the late 1930s, ultimately settling in the United States.
He grew up in Asbury Park, N.J., where he graduated from high school and then studied at Duke University before returning to Germany to earn his medical degree at the University of Heidelberg in 1958.
Dr. Jarecki met Carol Fuhse, an anesthetist, during a medical residency at a hospital in New Jersey. They married in 1964, and Dr. Jarecki worked as a medical researcher in New Jersey until 1967, when they moved to Germany. He studied electrophoresis at the University of Heidelberg when he was not at the casino.
In addition to his wife, with whom he also had a home in Las Vegas, he is survived by a brother, Henry, a billionaire psychiatrist, commodities trader and entrepreneur; two daughters, Divonne Holmes a Court and Lianna Jarecki; a son, John, a chess prodigy who became a master at 12; and six grandchildren.
Two nephews of Dr. Jarecki are the award-winning documentarians Andrew Jarecki (“Capturing the Friedmans” and the HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”) and Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight” and “The House I Live In).”
Dr. Jarecki moved to Manila about 20 years ago, his wife said, because he liked the lifestyle there and preferred the city’s casinos to those run by Americans.
His touch at the roulette wheel endured until nearly the end. Ms. Jarecki said he last played in December, at a tournament in Manila. He came in first.