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History of Craps
History of Craps

The History of Craps

The game of craps nearly transcends time; its roots are that deep and strong. More than 2000 years ago people gambled by casting lots, and dice made of bone were used for many games. Dice that bear a striking resemblance to modern casino craps dice have been found in locations all over Europe. Standard six-sided dice were used for centuries, and it is possible that an early form of craps was played in the 11th Century when Sir William Tyre became linked to the game.

At the time, English soldiers were storming the countryside and during their crusade are said to have overtaken an Arabian castle known as “Hazard.” And, during the long siege, the soldiers played at dice. However, it is also possible that the name Hazard derives from the Spanish “azar,” which translates to “an unfortunate card or dice roll.”

Regardless of the initial naming of the game, today’s game of craps certainly comes from the English game of Hazard mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of the 14th century. Hazard had more complicated rules than craps, but was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and was played alongside roulette games. Its overall appeal eventually waned while roulette stood the test of time.

Hazard Becomes Craps

Like modern craps, Hazard allowed any number of players to get in on the action while one player – the caster – rolled the dice. When allowed to choose a “main” number, the shooter would choose a number between 5 and 9. If he immediately rolled the number, it was a winner. If he rolled a 2 or a 3, his bet was lost. If the dice totaled 11 or 12, he won (throws in) or lost (throws out) based on his main number. If any other number was rolled, it was called the “chance,” and the dice were thrown again.

After the first roll, the caster (shooter) and the other players were allowed to place an odds (or chance) wager, much like today’s pass line odds wager. Depending on the rules of the game, the main was determined by tossing the dice, giving the house an advantage of 1.84%. In other games the caster could choose their own main, which eventually resulted in most players (the smart ones, at least) choosing 7, which had house odds of just 1.41% This phenomenon didn’t go unnoticed on one of the game’s most loyal players, Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville.

Mandeville was the son of a wealthy New Orleans plantation owner who traveled to Europe at 15 years of age with the wealth of his father’s labor. He played Hazard regularly at Almack’s and other gambling establishments, and upon returning to New Orleans, introduced the game to his friends. Eventually, Mandeville would lose much his father’s inheritance, breaking down large parcels of land and selling them in 60-foot frontage lots. One of the street names he gave to the newly partitioned areas was Craps.

According to historians, Mandeville may not have fully understood the version of the game he brought back to New Orleans, but John H. Winn (Wynn) considered the choosing of 7 and the subsequent wagering by many players against the shooter to produce a game rife with cheaters. To even-out the possible outcome and keep one side from dominating, he introduced a simple pass-line bet (the choosing of 7 as the main) and a don’t pass bet, so either side could win on any one roll. His new version of the game became quite popular in the French Quarter, and the term “craps” is likely to be from the French word, crapaud, which means toad. When played in the back of a bar or on a street corner, players routinely squatted down, crouched over their wagers, giving the impression of a toad at rest.

Craps Popularity Grows

The game was played regularly by soldiers in the Civil War, but the popularity of craps really exploded during the Second World War. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers away from home, simple forms of gambling were the most likely to be played, and a pair of dice didn’t take up much room in a duffle bag. Soldiers were often young men from farming communities that had little knowledge of odds or gambling, so the game of craps was most often offered by an older soldier or two sharing a bankroll against all comers.

In most cases the game was simply the shooter trying to make the point and nothing more, although the game operators fattened their wallets by offering proposition bets at terrible odds. A player wanting to bet on an “any craps” roll of 2, 3, or 12 would be paid only 5-1 (the casino game regularly pays 7-1). Higher odds bets like “12” would be paid 25-1 instead of anywhere close to the real odds of 35-1 (the casino game regularly pays 30-1).

Experienced game operators often preyed on unsuspecting players by using crooked dice, loaded to favor certain numbers (most notably 7, switched in after a point was established). Other players were also known to use a “blanket roll” where the dice didn’t tumble. In this “roll” the numbers on the inside and the outside of the dice were much more unlikely to be face-up when they stopped moving ( a precursor to “dice control”).

However, most craps players had fun with the game and were eager to give it a try when they returned home from overseas at the end of the war. In Nevada, where craps games were often a tub-style run by a single dealer that accentuated the “field bet” where the house had at least a 5.6% edge, players became more savvy and demanded a better way to play.

To accommodate the expanding popularity of craps, casinos in Reno and Las Vegas built larger tables, often 12 and 14 feet in length, that had a pass and don’t pass line available to as many as two-dozen players at a time. The larger games needed three dealers to run the game efficiently and a great amount of training was suddenly in order to produce enough qualified dealers to handle the games. The stickman position also became the games talking point, with a carnival barker style of voice and a spiel that brought new players into the game.

The new style of craps offered players a chance to bet on the pass line with a small house edge of just 1.41% and the house made a much higher percentage of income from the proposition bets like “eleven” and the hard-ways. The better the stickman, the more prop bets he got for the casino at those higher odds. The same still holds true today.

In addition, casinos learned that offering true pass-line odds was a good thing even if the house had no edge on the wager. Today, casinos offer double, triple, and even higher pass-line odds, and players are happy to be able to make a wager where the house has no edge. Of course the house also knows that a player’s bankroll is finite, and eventually they are likely to lose what they have, regardless of the house edge.

There are fewer craps tables in casinos today than there were in decades past, partially because the core of older players have not been replaced by younger players. Casinos have tried to alleviate this problem by pointing out that the game really isn’t that hard to play, but players just hate to feel like school children learning a new game.

Players that take a few minutes to learn how to shoot dice are likely to find the game extremely exciting, especially if they get a 10 or 15 minute run of good numbers. Long dice hands are legendary in Nevada and Atlantic City, sometimes lasting over an hour of winning rolls. The lure of that pot of gold is enough to keep most players coming back, and as legendary player Nick “The Greek” Dandalos said, “The next best thing to winning at craps, is losing.”

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