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Martha, Here's Craps - Part 1

3 June 2006

Okay, so who's Martha? Well, you'll recall that my last article was about gambling in Australia and New Zealand. Organizing a trip like that, halfway around the world, is no trivial matter; one needs a really good travel agent. Martha is my really good travel agent.

When I returned from my trip I had to see Martha to return some coupons to her that I hadn't used and I mentioned in passing that I was going to write an article about my trip and the casinos in Australia and New Zealand. Martha was quite interested in this, and gambling in general, and eventually the conversation came around to the game of Craps. Martha's assessment of Craps was "That is one game that I simply don't understand!" I assured her that it was a simple game and I could explain it to her in just a few minutes. Of course I don't carry dice around with me (well, sometimes) so the few minutes were not to be, in fact, the lessons probably wouldn't ever occur. So, I thought to myself, "Why not explain Craps to Martha in an article?" In fact, why not tell her the whole story? Indeed!

Now most of you reading this probably already know how to play Casino Craps. But do you know how Craps got started? Have you ever played in a real Craps game? If not, maybe, just maybe, you'll find this article and the next enlightening; I hope so. You too Martha.

The reason many folks find Casino Craps confusing is because of the layout. It looks complicated. One of the reasons that some new casino games don't make it is because their layouts are, like Craps, too "busy". I have always contended that if it hadn't been for the First and Second World Wars, the game of Casino Craps would never have succeeded in becoming a popular casino game. Why? Well, let me begin at the beginning.

The dice game of Craps is a distinctly American invention. It seems to have its origins in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana sometime after 1800. Most historians of the game believe it to be a direct descendant of the French and English game of Hazard. One particularly fascinating study of the game's origin was done by the historian Russell T. Barnhart of Columbia University. Professor Barnhart's paper, "The Invention of Craps" was presented at the 10th International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada in early June of 1997. I quote the paper's Abstract:

Who invented the game of craps?

We know that the parent of craps was undoubtedly the English game of hazard, brought back to England by crusaders in the twelfth century. Although hazard was never legal, it was played by all ranks of English society, for whom it became a national mania from 1750 to 1850, especially in London. The English novelist, William M. Thackeray, for example, became one of its addicts, too often playing hazard in one of the many illegal gaming clubs in London's West end.

Although the provenance of hazard in America is still conjectured, we know that it was most probably brought to New Orleans from Almack's Club in London in 1801 by a wealthy French hazard addict, Bernard de Marigny, and that hazard play was perhaps simplified from its two point numbers to the single point number in craps by an anonymous New Orleans gambling house proprietor.

As Barnhart and other historians of the game point out, in a certain situation in the game of Hazard, specifically (using the jargon of Hazard) when the caster (roller) calls a main of 7, if the caster rolls a 2, 3, or 12, called crabs, he loses. Many theorize that the French (or American) adaptation of the game involved a Gaelic (or American) mispronunciation and "crabs" became "craps". Richard Epstein's book The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic [Academic Press, 1977] contains a footnote that offers another plausible legend as to how Craps got its name; this also involves Count Marigny. I quote part of the footnote:

Marginy was a Creole and as such was known as Johnny Crapeaud (French for "toad," the term was originally applied to Frenchmen by Nostradamus in allusion to the fleur-de-lis pattern of the French national standard which, as altered by Charles VI in 1365, resembled three toad like flowers: Gullium in Display of Heraldrie, 1611, refers to the device as "three toads erect, saltant" - the modern pejorative is "frog"). Thus the game was referred to as Crapeaud's, or finally, "Craps."

Whatever its origins and the origins of its name, the game of Craps certainly began in New Orleans and quickly spread quickly up and down the communities along the Mississippi river and eventually throughout the entire country. Its popularity was undoubtedly due to the facts that it was fast, that one could win a great deal of money in a short period of time, and that the only equipment one needed to play craps was a pair of dice that could easily be carried in one's pocket. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Craps had a rather sullied reputation owing to the professional cheats that played the game on riverboats and Pullman cars of that era. The Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, though romanticizing the game, certainly made clear the disrepute felt for the game in some quarters. The game gained back some respectability because of its huge popularity among the soldiers of World Wars I and II. I believe that the familiarity of the game in this large population is what enabled casinos to successfully market Casino Craps, a house-banked game, after these wars. We'll look at this form of the game next month.

To understand the game of Casino Craps and why the layout looks as it does, one must first understand the original game of Craps, so called Alley Craps, Riverboat Craps, Back-room Craps, or Barracks Craps. This form of Craps is usually played with three or more players, although it could be played with two. Players either kneel on the ground and form a circle or stand around a table on which there is a shallow open box (to confine the dice from rolling off the table). One player is known as the shooter and he or she holds and rolls the dice. The game begins when the shooter places a bet in the center of the playing surface (either the circle or the box). The players to the shooters right are called back-shooters and, starting with the back-shooter closest to the shooter, they may in turn cover as much of the shooter's bet as they wish, that is, they lay down an amount less than or equal to the shooter's bet. The first back-shooter may cover the shooter's entire bet, leaving the rest of the players out of the game, or it may take several back-shooters to cover the entire bet. Whatever the case, when the entire bet is covered the bet is said to be faded and the play to settle the bet begins. The first roll after the bet is faded is called the comeout roll and you'll generally hear players shout "They're coming out!" prior to this roll. If the shooter rolls either a 7 or 11 on the comeout roll, called naturals, the shooter wins, picks up all the money on the playing surface, and the bet is settled. On the other hand, if the shooter rolls either 2, 3 or 12 on the comeout roll, called Craps, the shooter loses and each back shooter recovers his or her bet together with as much of the shooters bet as he or she covered; again the bet is now settled. In either of these cases the shooter keeps the dice for a new comeout roll.

If, on the other hand, on the comeout roll the shooter rolls neither a natural nor a Craps, the bet has yet to be settled. In this case one of the numbers 4, 5, 6 8, 9, or 10, called a point, was rolled on the comeout. If the shooter rolls a point, say 6, then the shooter must reroll that same point, in this case 6, before rolling a 7 in order to win. This is called making the point. If the shooter makes the point then he or she collects all of the money on the playing surface. If the shooter rolls a 7 before the point, then the shooter loses and the back-shooters collect their portion of the shooter's original wager. This is called a seven out or a miss out. Notice that if a natural or craps does not occur on the comeout roll, then no numbers but the point and the 7 matter, that is, other numbers are ignored. If the shooter wins his or her bet by either rolling a natural on the comeout roll or by establishing a point and making it, then the shooter is said to have made a pass. If the shooter fails to make a pass by way of a seven out, that is establishing a point and not making it, then the dice are passed to the person on the shooter's left and that person becomes the new shooter; the old shooter becomes the first back-shooter.

It is customary for one or two back-shooters to fade the shooter's entire bet, and this leaves the other players temporarily out of the action. To compensate for this lack of action, it is common for these other players to make side bets on the action among themselves. They may make wagers on whether or not the shooter will pass, on whether or not the shooter will make an established point, they may make bets on the very next roll (called a hop bet), or they may make other bets. One popular bet, called a gag or a hardway bet, is a bet that an even point, say 10, will occur with two 5s (10 the hardway) before it is made any other way (10 the easy way) or before a 7. A player betting that the shooter will pass is called a right bettor; a player betting that the shooter will not pass is called a wrong bettor.

Okay Martha, that's it for basic Craps. Next month we'll see how this game translates into Casino Craps. See you all then.

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers