History of Craps

Dice games are among the oldest types of gambling. In Greek mythology, the gods on Olympus rolled dice to decide how to divide the Universe. Zeus, the big winner, gained his spot in the heavens. Poseidon got control of the seas. To the loser, Hades, went the underworld.

About 10,000 years ago, four-sided sheep hucklebones known as “astragali” were used by early humans for recreational purposes—the first instance of “throwing bones.” Some 5,000 years later, players shaped the bones into cubes that would roll more smoothly, leading to the use of even more uniform materials, such as ivory, jade and wood, to make six-sided dice. The pips (spots or dots) were added in 1300 B.C.

One of the very first board games using dice was Parcheesi, invented in India around 500 B.C. Two centuries later, another board game based on rolling dice called “Tabula” (tables) became a popular form of gambling among Roman legions, and over time it evolved into Backgammon.

From Hazard to Craps

Compared to these early dice games, Craps is quite modern. During the Crusades of the Middle Ages, William of Tyre and his soldiers played a game named “Hazard” to pass the time. Two dice were used, and the value of each roll was the total number of pips showing on both sides face up. Rolls totaling two or three were called “crabs,” and a player who rolled them was said to “crab out.”

From England, Hazard migrated to America around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. The French-speaking citizens of New Orleans took to calling the game “Crapaud.” In 1813, French-Creole nobleman Bernard de Marigny was said to have perfected the game by adding “Field” and “Come” bets. This new form of the game was dubbed “Craps,” and it quickly became a favorite of African-American slaves.

The original version of Craps was not played against a banker, but against other players. It required no equipment other than a pair of dice, making it a very portable game that could be played just about anywhere. Two or more players would form a circle, making wagers in the middle and taking turns being the “shooter.” Only later would “Bank Craps” develop—the version played on specially designed tables and against a fixed banker known as the “House.”

Modern Craps

The earliest Craps tables featured a layout much less complicated than the one used today. There were only four betting areas: one each for the Win and the Come, a section for the 6 and 8, and one for the Field (numbers 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, and 12). In this form, the game invited trouble. Clever “mechanics” used weights or hollowing to develop “crooked dice” that would allow them roll the numbers they chose. As the game spread to the rest of the country via Mississippi riverboats, so did cheating.

Then, a dice-maker named John H. Winn came up with the idea of allowing Craps players to bet “right” (for the shooter) or “wrong” (against the shooter). He created a new layout that replaced the Win with a Pass Line and added a space for Don’t Pass bets. This innovation revolutionized the game and earned Winn the title “Father of Modern Craps.”

During the early 20th century, society still frowned on “shooting dice,” which was seen by most people as an immoral activity practiced by hoodlums in back alleys. That view began to change, however, in 1931. Thanks to the legalization of casino gambling in Nevada, the stage was set for Bank Craps played at tables to become the standard version of the game.

Another breakthrough for Craps came in 1950 from an unlikely source—Broadway—when the Tony Award-winning musical “Guys and Dolls” romanticized the game. Five years later, the stage production was made into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, with Frank Sinatra singing “Luck Be a Lady.” Craps was suddenly a mainstream phenomenon, and it has remained so ever since. In fact, in terms of sheer money wagered, it is believed to be the biggest gambling game in the history of the world.