Craps is one of the most popular games of chance today, having made its way through a vast array of world history from ancient street games to modern casinos. While the specific origins of the games of craps have some controversial elements, such as when it particularly originated, in which country, and how it got its modern name, a great deal of craps history is consistently told via craps enthusiasts. Those seeking to promote the almost-lost game back into expansive popularity write about not only the development of craps throughout history, but also the strategy of enjoying this boisterous and enticing game of chance.
In the history of the world, some form of dice throwing has been used for many purposes throughout time. As some ancient culture followed stars and astrology, runes, bones and dice were also used by tribal shamans and fortune tellers to read the future for commoners and leaders. Overlapping with this mystical use of dice is the gaming history involving chance tosses of dice to win against opponents. Some craps historians date the origins of dice games well into the ancient world, where Koreans, Egyptians and Roman Emperors like Caesar Augustus, Nero and Caligula all purportedly engaged in various dice games, even learning to cheat opponents in the games. The idea of tempting the fates by throwing dice as a chance to win seems to blend these two ideologies of mysticism and gaming into a common experience.
Historical records trace more specific dice games at least as far back as ancient Egypt in 1573 BC. In this era, the game known as Theban dice was one of the earliest games of chance in the world. Archeologists have found one pair of ancient Egyptian dice dating back to this era. Whether this is direct predecessor to modern craps is unknown.
Other craps historians date the game to the days of the Holy Roman Empire. Roman legionary soldiers commonly took pigs’ knuckles, shaved and squared them down into cubes, which they tossed into their upturned shields as dice games, to wager for condemned prisoners’ effects or to pass the time. From this variation of dice tossing, the term “to roll the bones” developed. Since soldier’s pay was poor compensation, a simple game like this was an easy pleasure.
A third potential origin for modern craps comes from an Arabic game, which was popular to play in the Middle Ages. The game was called azzahr, from the Arabic words “al zar” or “azzah,” which simply means “dice.” It is this Arabic origin that weaves together with the history of the long-popular English game, Hazard.
Evolution of Craps in Europe
It seems that the most common understanding of the history of craps in Europe places it in England first, as a direct descendant of the game Hazard. Around the time of the Third Crusades, led by the powerful and well-known Kings Richard the Lionhearted of England, Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire and Philip Augustus of France, crusader knights under Sir William of Tyre besieged a castle named Azart or Hazarth. This was 1125 A.D. Sir William’s soldiers, much like the Roman legionaries, were fans of throwing dice and the game they played became known as “Hazard.” This name was attributed to being a variation of the siege castle’s name.
However, with the other ancient cultures also popularizing dice games, some scholars attribute the name to the aforementioned Arabic origins, which may have been simultaneously picked up during the Crusades. Englishmen imported a great deal from Arabic culture back to the Empire during the Crusades, including spices and riches and words. It’s possible that the overlap of the Arabic game azzahr and the English game Hazard come from this culture transfer of the Crusades.
In either case, whether it originated in England or Arabia or both, the game called Hazard remained popular throughout England until well into the 17th century. Nobles and aristocrats flooded into various gambling houses to spend their money and their chances on winning at Hazard. This was some of England’s earliest popular gambling. Ironically, at this stage the “poor man’s game” became a game for the aristocracy. This pattern of the history of Craps seems to repeat again later in the United States.
From England, Hazard crossed the Channel into France at some point in the early 1700’s. The game became equally popular on French soil as it had become in England. The game ran its stint in France, to the point that the French new word colonizers took the game as well as their culture across the Atlantic to the settlement that became known as Acadia. Acadia is modern Nova Scotia and parts of Eastern Canada.
The French get credit for the first the major name transition that moved the game from “Hazard” to “Craps.” There are several discrepancies as to the exact name transition process, however. First, the French, to distinguish themselves from the English players of the game, began calling it “crabs.” This was the term for Hazard’s lowest, losing roll of a 2. Throwing crabs was the way you lost the game. The assumption is that the French took this as the descriptive name for the game. From there,”crabs” supposedly transferred to a French spelling, crabes. When the French colonists took the game into Acadia, the Acadians adjusted the name yet again into “crebs” or “creps.” From there the journey of the game, and its changing name, takes the story to the Americas.
Craps in the United States
While the new world was not yet the modern United States, French colonists in the early 1700’s apparently brought the game with their way of life to the Americas in the province of Acadia. However, when the French lost their Acadian colony in 1755 to the British, the Acadians moved far south and ended up settling in New Orleans. It’s equally possible that the British also brought the popular Hazard along with them also, so the game trend continued even with the British takeover. For the displaced Acadians, who became known as Cajuns in their new southern home, Hazard, or Crebs, came with them.
The Cajun culture that further developed in French-resettled New Orleans was a mixture of French and African-American ways in the south. Throughout New Orleans Crebs wove its way into the Cajun culture as much as other items inherited from the French. According to some craps enthusiasts, however, the game’s development in the U.S. is credited to the African-Americans of the south in the early 19th century, who picked up on playing the dice game. “African Dominoes” came to be used as a slang term for Crapshooting and dice games in the South. Again, the mixed origins of the game show that it gained favor among all types of people from all varieties of cultural backgrounds.
Of course again, the transitions of the name of the game in this part of the history of craps are a bit confusing. Crebs is said to have earned the name craps from the French word for toad, crapauds. This may be due to the toad-like crouching posture that players of craps used when throwing dice in the street game. It may also be because Johnny Crapaud was the Cajun slang for French people in New Orleans who liked to eat frog legs as a delicacy.
On the flip side of the slang names, toads or craps may have been a derogatory name the English used for the Cajun (black) players who quickly picked up on the game and played it frequently. Regardless of the reasons behind the name’s adaptation, the game became as popular in the United States South as it had been in England and France in the previous centuries. Craps stuck as the name, and the games became an easy pastime because all players needed to enjoy it was a pair of dice.
From here, it is clear that the game of craps moved its way from New Orleans up the river with those who travelled along the Mississippi to the north. It also made its way to the riverboats that cruised up and down the Mississippi River. The official credit for this next adaptation of the game in 1813 is given to Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a French politician in New Orleans who liked to gamble with the game.
Whether it indeed was de Mandeville or the commoners who inherited the game from soldiers, the game continued it growth and popular spread into the rest of the developing United States. This riverboat journey of the game helped launch the game into its two modern variations, street craps and bank craps. The riverboat culture was the precursor to the modern casino, where the development of the game now took a much more formal turn.
When dice maker John H. Winn encountered the game of craps from the riverboat scene, there were easy ways to cheat the game in hopes of beating chance. Most commonly, players used some kind of loaded or crooked dice that they could use to manipulate the chance outcomes of tosses. Winn is now considered the Father of Modern Craps because he introduced the table layout as it is now used, though it was originally called the Philadelphia layout.
Winn also introduced the Pass and Don’t Pass line bets, as well as the Big 6 and 8. Most significantly, Winn included additional table options of betting right or wrong – either with or against the shooter. This particular adjustment of betting right or wrong made fixed dice far less useful as Winn helped preserve the integrity of the game. Winn’s layout is still currently used for official craps tables and craps rules.
Into the twentieth century, craps remained a popular game. World War II soldiers, both American and European, were known to play craps in the downtime between fighting. Again, the soldiers’ dice game retained its status. It also again moved around the world as soldiers occupied new territories around the world under modern era developments. Hollywood started using craps as the gambler’s choice game in movies, adding to the public awareness and interest of the game. Even the 2009 movie Push demonstrates the popularity of street craps in countries around the world for common players. At the same time as casinos were developing, the game took on its formal variation, bank craps, distinct from the simple street game.
The distinction of Street Craps and Bank Craps repeats the English history of the game transitioning from a poor person’s game to an aristocrats’ game. The street version remains popular, still using only a pair of dice and simplified bets. Bank craps, the official casino version, added multiple dice to guarantee a fairness to the toss of dice. A full, expanded betting system developed, which now includes 29 formal bets that can be placed by various players for a single craps roll. Typical casino craps players will seem much more like the old English nobles around a craps table than street players of the game.
Plus, there’s now a full cast of people in bank craps who are part of a craps game beyond the shooter. Additional craps roles include the dealers, who represent the bank or the house that will cover the bets, and against whom other betting players are competing. There are usually two dealers, one on each end of the table who pay out winning bets, collect losing bets and place a few certain types of players’ bets on the table. The other table personnel are the boxman and stickman.
The boxman sits at the table and watches the flow of play and checks for corrupt dice, distributes the casino bankroll, potentially issues comps for high rollers and settles any disputes between a player and dealer. The stickman is the dice mover, passing the three pairs of dice with a stick, in turn, to the players around the table. The stickman also announces the outcome of a roll so that players around the table know clearly what has transpired.
Modern craps continued its popularity as a casino game until the 1990’s. At this point in the history of craps, slot machines and other early video gaming machines made their way into casinos. The fast and simple play of these new games overshadowed the once-simple craps game. Of course, some dedicated players still preferred the excitement of the craps table, but the game to a mild downtown in popularity for a while as these other games drew new players into casinos. Nowadays, however, craps games are making a comeback. Casinos have continued to offer craps tables, of course, but the return growth of craps is due to the introduction on internet craps, taking the game into its next new era.
With the on-going expansion of online casinos that all offer the standard variety of brick and mortar casino games, craps is making a comeback with a new generation of online gamblers. In many online casinos craps is considered a specialty game, rather than a table game, though the table layout on casino software matches live casino craps tables. Craps enthusiasts are now developing an online network, discussing strategy, tips and even this kind of extended history of craps to educate new players who are discovering the ease and thrill of this simple game of chance.
Online craps games follow the standard craps rules that hold for brick and mortar casinos. The full complement of bets can be placed by a player, including right and wrong bets, Pass and Don’t Pass bets and odds bets, that allow a player to multiply their chances on an already given Pass bet. Top International, online casinos are favorites for online craps players.
While many players today don’t know the complex and sometime disputed history of craps, most craps players do know that it is a riveting game, full of the thrill of chance and the potential to be a high roller if the dice go well. Winning at craps is a matter of debate. Most players will be content to set a spending limit and play their stack for better or worse. Some players, like the old Roman soldiers or Crusader knights, play more for fun than because they have lots of money to spend or win from the game.
Craps is a seemingly simple game, but the development of the game, such as in the bank craps version, has its distinct nuances that make it a challenge for players who want to learn a variety of bets and the best ways to play them. In all the long history of craps, what is evident is that players of all types and varieties around the world have enjoyed the game. Craps players will continue into the modern online craps world, as well as in live casinos for the thrill of the dice and the compelling chance to see them roll in one’s favor.