Winging it

Arriving in Paris penniless but with connections in high places, Casanova was able very quickly to make himself a fortune.  The monarchy was hard up for cash and Casanova claimed to have a plan that could help them out. In reality, he had no such plan at all.  Intrigued, one the chief financiers to the Crown, Paris Duverney, guessed that it was a lottery that Casanova had in mind and, after dinner one day, showed him the documents for a scheme they were already contemplating.  Casanova, a skilled mathematician who was fascinated by gambling, saw his opportunity and jumped at it.  The episode is a wonderful example of Casanova’s quick wits and skill at improvisation:

Directly the dessert had been served, M. Duverney asked me to follow him into a neighbouring apartment, and to leave the other guests at the table. I followed him, and we crossed a hall where we found a man of good aspect, about fifty years old, who followed us into a closet and was introduced to me by M. Duverney under the name of Calsabigi. Directly after, two superintendents of the treasury came in, and M. Duverney smilingly gave me a folio book, saying,
“That, I think, M. Casanova, is your plan.”
I took the book and read, Lottery consisting of ninety tickets, to be drawn every month, only one in eighteen to be a winning number. I gave him back the book and said, with the utmost calmness,
“I confess, sir, that is exactly my idea.”
“You have been anticipated, then; the project is by M. de Calsabigi here.”
“I am delighted, not at being anticipated, but to find that we think alike; but may I ask you why you have not carried out the plan?”
“Several very plausible reasons have been given against it, which have had no decisive answers.”
“I can only conceive one reason against it,” said I, coolly; “perhaps the king would not allow his subjects to gamble.”
“Never mind that, the king will let his subjects gamble as much as they like: the question is, will they gamble?”
“I wonder how anyone can have any doubt on that score, as the winners are certain of being paid.”
“Let us grant, then, that they will gamble: how is the money to be found?”
“How is the money to be found? The simplest thing in the world. All you want is a decree in council authorizing you to draw on the treasury. All I want is for the nation to believe that the king can afford to pay a hundred millions.”
“A hundred millions!”
“Yes, a hundred millions, sir. We must dazzle people.”
“But if France is to believe that the Crown can afford to pay a hundred millions, it must believe that the Crown can afford to lose a hundred millions, and who is going to believe that? Do you?”
“To be sure I do, for the Crown, before it could lose a hundred millions, would have received at least a hundred and fifty millions, and so there need be no anxiety on that score.”
“I am not the only person who has doubts on the subject. You must grant the possibility of the Crown losing an enormous sum at the first drawing?”
“Certainly, sir, but between possibility and reality is all the region of the infinite. Indeed, I may say that it would be a great piece of good fortune if the Crown were to lose largely on the first drawing.”
“A piece of bad fortune, you mean, surely?”
“A bad fortune to be desired. You know that all the insurance companies are rich. I will undertake to prove before all the mathematicians in Europe that the king is bound to gain one in five in this lottery. That is the secret. You will confess that the reason ought to yield to a mathematical proof?”
“Yes, of course; but how is it that the Castelletto cannot guarantee the Crown a certain gain?”
“Neither the Castelletto nor anybody in the world can guarantee absolutely that the king shall always win. What guarantees us against any suspicion of sharp practice is the drawing once a month, as then the public is sure that the holder of the lottery may lose.”
“Will you be good enough to express your sentiments on the subject before the council?”
“I will do so with much pleasure.”
“You will answer all objections?”
“I think I can promise as much.”
“Will you give me your plan?”
“Not before it is accepted, and I am guaranteed a reasonable profit.”
“But your plan may possibly be the same as the one before us.”
“I think not. I see M. de Calsabigi for the first time, and as he has not shewn me his scheme, and I have not communicated mine to him, it is improbable, not to say impossible, that we should agree in all respects. Besides, in my plan I clearly shew how much profit the Crown ought to get per annum.”


‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is freely available here.

Long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.


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