Roll with it: The Story of Craps

dice game

The bones, puppy paws, the rail, snake eyes, up pops the Devil, stickman, hard eight, seven out, and the easy way: a music festival line-up? No… it’s just a sample of the slang you might hear when you join the action at a craps table.

Craps is one of the most iconic games you will find at any casino. It’s big, brash, raucous, and a riot to play. Crowds gather. Punters get to roll the dice. If the shooter can avoid hitting a seven, the bets keep on paying. It’s one of the few casinos games where players get to determine their own fate.

To play, you need at least four dealers and a boxman, as well as a craps table. These floor-space hogging giants can range in length from 10 feet to 16 feet. Because of this, it’s not a game you find in every casino. In brief: craps is what happens when you let the United States of America play dice. It gets supersized.

Early Rollers

So… where did it all begin? It all starts with a game of dice, in two locations, 6,000 kilometres apart, more than 5,000 years ago.

In 1850, a severe storm on the island of Mainland, in the Orkney Islands, stripped the land, revealing an ancient buried village on a knoll called Skara Brae. The Neolithic settlement was occupied from 3180 BC to 2500 BC.

Also occupied in 3200 BC was the city of Shahr-e Sukhteh, in the south-eastern part of Iran. Known as Burnt City, the ancient urbanisation was discovered in the early 1900s and excavated from 1967.

Although 6,000 kilometres apart, the two ancient civilizations had one particular archaeological discovery in common: dice. Dice were found at both locations. Both the Skara Brae and Burnt City dice were six-sided and cube shaped. The game of dice has deep roots.

A Long History

There are records and accounts of dice games throughout history. Roman soldiers loved the game. Sophocles talks about the Greeks playing at the battle of Troy. It’s mentioned in the ancient Indian Vedas and Sanskrit epics. It was played by Buddha. In China, playing cards evolved from dice. There are even references to dice when Ptolemy was ruling Egypt. With such a long history, it’s no surprise that a multitude of games have been created that use dice. Craps is just one of many. The closest relative to craps, arguably its cousin, is a game called Hazard.

Hazard Alert

Hazard has been around since at least the 14th century. Chaucer mentions it in the Canterbury Tales. It was a very popular medieval game and may even have Arabic origins. The rules are very similar to craps. There is a caster (shooter) who rolls continuously until he or she loses three times in succession. There are different payouts for different dice totals and you can bet either against or with the caster.

The origin of the name craps is said to derive from Hazard where a 1-1 and 1-2 combination was known as ‘crabs’. However: this is just one theory. Another is that craps is taken from the French word “crapaud” which means “toad” and refers to the stance taken by players as they crouched on the floor or pavement to play.

Dice in the USA

Whatever the precise origin of the name, the game’s journey into the United States is well documented. French-Creole playboy and gambler Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville introduced the game of Hazard to New Orleans in around 1805.

The rules were simplified. The main number was now only a seven. In Hazard, you could choose from five to nine. To combat accusations of loaded dice, you could bet either Pass or Don’t Pass (for or against the shooter); removing any incentive for a casino to cheat.

This was an innovation from dice maker John H Winn, who also manufactured both the craps tables and the transparent dice. The Philadelphia-based pioneer is considered to be the father of modern-day craps. His version of the game is what you will play in a contemporary casino.

Craps is a tricky game to learn but worth the effort. Fortunately, if you can’t get to a real table, you can always try a game online.

Just remember the tale of New Jersey grandmother Patricia Demauro. She beat odds of 1.56 trillion to 1 by rolling dice 154 times, without hitting a seven, for four hours and 18 minutes, at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City. That’s a roll to remember.

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