Gambler David Walsh takes a punt on a theatre of curios

Having acquired a fortune through a highly successful, but controversial gambling ring, David Walsh blew his winnings on a museum of the strange in his native Tasmania.

David Walsh, the arch-gambler they call the Tasmanian Devil, first made global headlines in 2009 when he took a macabre bet on the life expectancy of the French artist Christian Boltanski, says The New Yorker. Boltanski is still alive but, in an odd twist of events, Walsh has now found fame under a different guise. A bizarre gallery he has built in his hometown of Hobart has become such an international magnet that Walsh is credited not just with transforming Tasmania's ultra-staid reputation, but with beefing up its languishing economy. Lonely Planet listed Hobart as one of the world's top ten cities to visit in 2013 largely because of Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art (Mona).

Walsh built his theatre of curios (the collection is valued at $100m) mainly for personal gratification. "It's become a more serious endeavour than I intended it to be," he told The Australian. In fact, he only made his first acquisition a Yoruba palace door bought in South Africa for $18,000 because he couldn't take all his blackjack winnings out of the country in hard currency. It was a deceptively innocuous opener for what was to come.

Constructed underground in a labyrinth of tunnels and lit like a nightclub, Mona feels like a mash-up of the lost city of Petra and a late night out in Berlin: from the wall of 151 sculptures of vulvas, to the remains of suicide bombers cast in chocolate, to some stone blocks from Hiroshima railway station. Hi-tech scatology is well represented: there's a lavatory where you can study your own anus and Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Professional: a large reeking machine that produces excrement at 2pm sharp daily. The collection is dedicated to Walsh's twin obsessions with sex and death.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Walsh, 51, lives in a cliff-top villa above the gallery, with windows in the floor so he can study visitors' reactions. It's not far from the working-class district where he was raised. His father's ashes are now an exhibit. He wasn't much on the scene while Walsh was growing up. In an interview with the German magazine Kunstforum, he described himself as a misfit child, internal to the point of autism.

Yet it was Walsh's extraordinary gift for numbers that changed his life. While studying science at the University of Tasmania, he was asked by friends to develop a model to enable them to win at the local casino. One was Zeljko Ranogajec, with whom he forged a still-thriving partnership. "I'd spot the opportunities, David would do the maths," says Ranogajec. They went on to build one of the world's biggest gambling syndicates, the Bank Roll (see below).

One of the more remarkable things about Walsh is that he appears to have no sense of entitlement, says The New Yorker. True to his gambler's soul, he considers his extraordinary life a fluke.

How he cracked and won the lottery

"Mathematics," Walsh once wrote, "is unsullied and friendships are dirty." But his 30-year partnership with Ranogajec suggests he has a talent for both. Having started out together in a gambling den above a Hobart pub, they spent much of the 1980s and 1990s developing and refining complex systems for various forms of gambling before cracking real success, says Matthew Denholme in The Australian.

When ongoing wins saw them banned from Australian casinos, race courses and dog tracks, they took to playing in Korea, Sri Lanka, Macau and South Africa. But the first real pay-dirt came when they cracked an Australian lottery game called Keno. A later investigation by the Australian Financial Review found that between 1999 and 2001, their Waggon & Horses syndicate won the jackpot three times, against 11 million to one odds.

Having shelled out millions on Mona, which opened in 2011, Walsh now claims to be broke, says Amanda Lohrey in The Monthly. He credits Ranogajec for supporting his collecting mania, even though he doesn't like the objects. Some critics feel much the same including, occasionally, Walsh himself. "It's like I'm standing on my richman's soapbox shouting my views like they mean something". But Mona isn't really about money, it's about a relentless drive to test the meaning of things.