Dice used in human games of chance go back at least 4,500 years, and probably much farther, into the mists of prehistory. Craps is the most popular dice game in the world today; not just a staple of movie casino montages, but also played everywhere in bars, college dorm rooms, and military bunkhouses and out on the street.
But where did it come from, and how did it get its unfortunate name? As usual, we get to blame the French – for the ridiculous situation, as comedian George Carlin pointed out, of him not being allowed to say “sh*t” on a Las Vegas stage, while in the same casino, the biggest thrill was Craps!
Welcome to Genteel Hazard
According to the most popular theory, crusading European knights, among whom were some inveterate high-stakes gamblers, brought back an Arabic dice game from the Holy Land. The Arabic word for “dice”, they said, was “al-zahr” – mangled by the French and Norman tongues ruling France and England at the time, this quickly became “Hazard”.
It’s a much nicer name, isn’t it? Quite refined and English, really, with a delicious soupcon of risk. So proper, in fact, that Chaucer even mentions it in the Canterbury Tales. Although, considering the rest of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer would probably have mentioned it even if it were called “steaming pile of dog-poo”. More so, if anything.
But we digress. How did the genteel game of Hazard, imported to Canada by French settlers, turn into the crude Craps of Vegas? The French again, we’re afraid. But different French.
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New Orleans Crabs – or Toads?
Far away from the prudent north, where resources were husbanded for winter, New Orleans was blazing into subtropical life as a hotbed of hedonism and gambling, and Hazard was as popular in the saloons as it was on the sidewalks.
In fact, the fact that players often squatted in a circle to shoot dice on the street, like toads, led to the name “crapauds”, French for “toads”. And that, some will tell you, is where “Craps” comes from.
Others say no, the French sailors’ term for “snake eyes” – a roll of two 1s – at the time was “crabs”. That, they insist, was what has been corrupted into “Craps”. Either way, its popularity endured and it evolved to deal with the inevitable cheats.
Don’t Pass a Defence Against Loaded Dice
For example, the Don’t Pass bet was invented by dice maker John Winn around 1865; it was a measure introduced specifically to stop cheating. It neutralised the advantage of using loaded dice and then betting with or against the shooter, and has been a feature of casino craps ever since – along with a rigid set of checks and balances to ensure no one can use loaded dice in the first place, naturally.
No doubt the game’s online and mobile versions will continue to evolve. That’s where Craps came from – where’s it going next, we wonder?