The Great Gambler

Written by Claude Cueni
Review by Anna Belfrage

This is the story of John Law of Lauriston, a man who made his name and fortune gambling but whose impressive intellectual capacity was directed at reforming the inefficient financial system of Europe in the first few decades of the eighteenth century. The Great Gambler also credits John Law with being the inventor of paper money, but this is actually wrong. In 1665, the first paper money in Europe was issued by the National Bank of Sweden, and in 1695 both the Bank of England and Scotland issued bank notes.

In general, Mr Cueni paints a vivid and engaging picture of John Law, although sometimes this is done against a historical background that is incorrect. As an example, the book portrays William III as an eager participant in hedonistic orgies in which he enjoys both male and female lovers – not, I would argue, an entirely correct representation of this rather staid and serious monarch.

However, there is no denying John Law led a most exciting life – and Mr Cueni has clearly explored his hero in depth. John Law is of fundamental importance in the history of Economics – in many ways, a proto-Keynesian, attempting to tackle the rampant poverty that afflicted Europe through a variety of creative measures. For decades, his ambition to test his theories was thwarted – in many ways John’s thinking was too modern. Instead, he spent his life travelling round Europe, and along the way he amassed a fortune, won at the gambling tables. John was invited back to France, a country hovering on the precipice of bankruptcy. At last, Law was in a position to implement his new ideas, and for a while it seemed they might actually work. Until the bubble burst.

The Great Gambler is a book about an interesting man. As a financial professional I was impressed by how elegantly Mr Cueni inserted detailed and complicated economic and mathematical theory in his text, although as an avid reader of historical fiction, I was frustrated by the faux-pas regarding historical accuracy, the somewhat stilted language, and the relatively shallow characterisation – with the exception of John himself. A good editor could assist with giving this novel the boost it deserves.

E-book edition reviewed