Six Sides LuckyWhether you’re a Vegas high roller shooting for $30,000 or a hateful older brother hoping to crush your sister at a “friendly” game of Monopoly, everyone’s familiar with the feeling when they send dice, the most low-tech of randomisers, rolling across the playing surface. Here, we look at the past, present and future of the cubes of fate.
Dice originated thousands of years ago, and early types of dice were made from the ankle bones of hooved animals, hence the term “rolling the bones”. There are reports of dice being found in a number of ancient cultures, notably the Romans, who even developed laws to limit the explosion in dice gambling within their empire.
Throughout history, dice and dice gambling games have featured prominently, and one game that has transcended the ages is Cee-Lo. Originally a Chinese game from centuries ago, Cee-Lo has mysteriously become popular among American youngsters, possibly assisted by sharing a name with a major rap star. Rules vary from game to game, but the object is always to roll three dice and hit 4-5-6.
Backgammon of course also goes back thousands of years into Egypt and Iran, with play being driven by rolling dice. There are still large amounts of cash wagered on backgammon around the world, and a thriving, competitive online market. Proof that a quality product will stand the test of time.
Coming closer to home, we come across Hazard, a game played in Europe in the 1700s. In a roundabout way, this led to the development of the modern day craps (believed to have been named after a bastardisation of a losing bet in Hazard called crabs) in the early 1800s in America, which evolved into the game we see in Vegas casinos today.
All of us growing up have been involved in dice games. Without dice there would be no Ludo, no Monopoly, no Yahtzee and a lot less fun during the formative years. In the not-too-distant past, dice also became a key component of the trend toward role-playing games. Classics such as Dungeons and Dragons relied on dice to simulate the effects of chance in situations like combat. And in years gone by, every geek worth his salt knew that “3d20” meant rolling three 20-sided dice and adding up the totals. Role-playing games tended to use a variety of exotic dice, including 20, 12, 10, 8 and 4 sided dice to simulate various random factors. In case you’re wondering, a four-sided die looks like a pyramid, and the number is indicated around the base of whichever side lands face down.
These days in casinos, dice games have sagged a little in popularity. The apparent complexity of craps does tend to put the new player off (see sidebar below), and the core playing demographic of World War II old timers is dying out, despite efforts to make the game trendy for youngsters. In UK casinos, sic-bo was made legal a few years ago. It’s another old Chinese game where you simply bet on the result of three dice being rolled. The gimmick is that the dice are rolled but kept covered, so you’re betting on something that’s already happened but simply hasn’t been revealed yet. But the game never really took off and you’ll be lucky to see a table these days.
So what’s the future for dice games? Well, one company is trying to shape that future as we speak.
A Swedish company called Jadestone has developed a couple of new uses for our cubic friends. They’ve invented a couple of games called Dice Hold ‘em and Shoot the Moons, which they hope will rekindle interest in dice as the engine of gambling games. (By the way, Jadestone also offer classic backgammon for tradition’s sake.).
Both new games intriguingly mix the betting structure from poker with the random factor of rolling dice, and can be found on the internet. Sites like Bwin and GalaCoral have adopted these new variations and you can find them under the “games” section.
Dice Hold ‘em works very similarly to Texas hold ‘em, in that you have two dice which are rolled first for each player, and the results kept hidden from the other players. From here it’s basically Texas hold ‘em all the way, with the flop, turn and river and betting in the normal way. Where you have to pay attention, though, is the winning hands. Again they’re like Texas hold ‘em with straights, full houses and four of a kinds, although my local poker game doesn’t usually feature five of a kind, which of course can happen with dice. It takes a bit of getting used to the new possibilities though. Fundamentally you need to remember that if there isn’t a possibility of someone having a full house, then the board must not have paired, which means it’s likely someone has a straight (five dice in consecutive order)—three of a kind and two pair aren’t much good in this game. It’s also pretty straightforward to work out your odds once you’ve put your opponent on any given hand or draw, since probabilities of rolling any given number are pretty easy to calculate with one die.
Shoot the Moons is simpler still, but intriguing in its own way. The betting is the same as hold ‘em, but the action is very different. In Shoot the Moons the winner is simply the person who scores the highest total of three two-die rolls. First every player sees their own roll (of two dice) and there’s a round of betting, with higher scores obviously better. Then the scores are revealed, and each player then sees the result of their second roll. Another round of betting follows, with another reveal. Then there’s the third roll, and if a player rolls double threes, he’ll split the pot with any other players with higher totals who would have otherwise won.
The result might sound simplistic, but in a lot of ways it boils down the basics of poker into tense bursts of steely fortitude.
There’s no great skill in calculating pot odds, chances of nut “hands” or overly tricky play, but everyone can see exactly the state of play so judicious use of bluffing is critical. The games also tend to have a mandatory ante to generate action and to keep players interested in seeing their next roll.
In terms of the clued-up player, it looks like these games may be an opportunity to gain an edge. Any time a new game is introduced and becomes popular (and there is pretty good liquidity in these dice game, especially at peak late-afternoon times), then those players who learn the finer points early will reap the rewards. There’s no Harrington guide to Dice Hold ‘em or Shoot the Moons just yet, so the tiresome phenomenon that you increasingly see in Texas hold ‘em—of everyone having a reasonable level of skill—is not yet present in these games. If you’re a shrewdie, now might be a good time to take a look and see if you can get into the rookie-schooling business.
It’s good to expand your repertoire of games, and now might be the time to get involved on the ground floor. After all, who can resist getting involved with a game whose designers have, in their promotional material, described the dice themselves as “clattering tools of destiny”?
Dealing with Craps
The craps table is often the scene of the most frenzied excitement in the casino, but it’s also the most confusing table to look at, with over 100 different bets available. So how does the beginner get involved? Well, it’s simpler than it looks. As a beginner, you’re best off just looking at one bet, which is called the pass line. How does it work? It all starts with the “come out” roll, which the dealers (who will usually help you out if you’re uncertain) signify by calling “coming out”. You put your money down in the pass line area, clearly marked on the table, before the “shooter” lets ‘em fly.
From this roll, you either win, lose or set a “point”. If the come out roll is a 7 or 11 you’ll win, while a 2, 3 or 12 means you lose. Anything else is a point, and means the shooter has to keep rolling the dice. The “point” (which will be 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 or 10) is marked by the big white disk on the table (“the puck”) and all the shooter has to do is hit their point again (you win) before he hits a seven (you lose). That’s basically all there is to it, and you can ignore all the other bets and action until you get the hang of it.
The beauty of craps is that nearly always, everyone on the table is hoping for the same result (the shooter to hit the point) so when they hit three or four in a row, the place goes nuts. This means whopping, hollering and atrocious attempts at high-fives from semi-inebriated Brits trying to look cool. You can’t beat it!
Dark Side of Dice
Over the years, there have been plenty of cheat moves pulled in dice games, mostly in craps. Astoundingly, one of the simplest is simply to introduce mis-spotted dice, with an extra six in place of a lower number, with the obvious intention being to bet on a higher result. Weighted dice have also been used in the past, often with one or more of the spots drilled out and replaced with a heavier material. The advent of transparent dice combats both of these problems.
Another well publicised technique is “Dice Control”. Opinions are divided between whether it’s possible to “set” the dice in the hand and effectively influence the final result, especially after they bounce off the “alligator”—the bumpy material off which the dice must ricochet— but any casual internet search reveals a suspiciously large number of purveyors. In terms of a get rich quick scheme that’s not normally a good sign.
One more respected advantage play/cheating technique is to fling the dice down the table, but actually have one die skating along the surface of the table spinning on its horizontal axis rather than actually tumbling. It’s a tricky skill to pull off, but if you can fix the result of one die you’re in a great betting position. Casinos are wise to this though, and have countermeasures, some of which are more civilised than others.