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From Colosseum to Casino

Chapter 1: A random year BCE

Soldiers sit encamped by a river on a far-flung campaign in the hinterland of Europe, for the greater glory of Rome. As we are easily 3000 years prior to the invention of the smartphone, these soldiers are bored. Like any bored soldier of the time, they looked around for ways to amuse themselves. Sleeping… singing… lute-playing… all fine pastimes, but where’s the excitement?

One day an industrious infantryman looks at his dinner plate and has an idea for some fun—pigs’ knuckles! He fashions a series of dice-like hunks of bone, and he and his companions start making bets based on how they fall. Ever heard “roll the bones” when referring to dice? Here’s where this phrase is thought to come from.

This early form of gambling not only gave us a classic gaming expression, it would also evolve into the modern game of Craps. As improbable as it might sound, the casino favourite that usually conjures up imagery from the golden age of Los Angeles—tuxedos, evening gowns and cosmopolitans—likely owes its origin to a Roman soldier’s leftover dinner. As you’ll see the game gradually picked up all the elements it would need to become the game now played in casinos worldwide.

Here’s how the rest of the story played out.

Chapter 2: 1125 AD

Another soldier, this time a medieval crusader looking for some levity during years of campaigning through the Middle East, Sir William of Tyre, develops the game Hazard. Thought to be named after the Arabic word “al zar” or “azzah,” meaning “the dice,” Hazard involves rolling dice and placing bets. Years later, the game makes its way to the UK, along with a pile of weary crusaders.

Chapter 3: 17th century

Flash forward a few hundred years, and Hazard has become popular amongst the nobles and commoners of Merry Olde England. So popular in fact, that noted author Geoffrey Chaucer writes about the game in his work, Canterbury Tales. Hazard’s broad appeal helps it make the leap from the battlefield to luxurious London gambling houses—thought to be the precursors to today’s casinos—where society’s upper crust will sit before roaring fires, rolling dice.

Chapter 4: 18th century

As time marches on, Hazard makes its way to France, where it comes to be called Crabs. Pourquoi? There are a couple of theories. One indicates that “crabs” derived from old British slang for throwing a two or a three. Another says the word is a corrupted way to say crapaud (toad)—for the toad-like squat adopted by those playing dice in the street. A definitive answer is lost to the mists of time.

Chapter 5: 19th century

Along with spiced frogs’ legs, Crabs makes its way to the new world via French settlers to Louisiana—better known as Cajuns. The Cajuns introduce the game to the people of New Orleans, a city richly steeped in gambling history (Riverboat casinos anyone?). Around this time, the name evolves into Craps. The game grows in popularity, but is still missing a key element that will turn it into the gambling juggernaut it is today.

Chapter 6: Still the 19th century

Enter 19th-century dice maker and the “Father of Modern Craps,” Mr. John H. Winn. Mr. Winn took the game to the next level with the invention of the Don’t Pass Bet, and the design of the modern Craps table, featuring the rules still used to this day. Interestingly, his design popularized the concept of being able to bet not just on what might happen, but also what might not happen. Bravo!

Epilogue: Modern era

Today, Craps is loved by casino goers worldwide for its excitement, huge range of betting options and social fun. What keeps the game exciting is the same element that made the original versions of the game so popular—the random unpredictability of a dice throw. The names and rules may change, but that universal element remains the same. Something to keep in mind the next time you step up to the table.

Le fin.

Click here to learn how to play Craps.