Craps may not be the most popular table-game in the casino – that distinction seems to hold by blackjack – but it is the most exciting. Walk past a busy craps table on any given night and there will be a palpable sense of money-grabbing energy in the air.
It almost feels like the table, and all those around it, are levitating as gamblers call out for points to be hit and 7s to be avoided – except, of course, on the come-out rolls, when 7s and 11s are automatic winners.
But if the dice do land on the right numbers, look out, because the sheer intensity emanating from around the table will feel strong enough to knock you off your feet. I’ve experienced it from a distance. From up close and personal, to the point that the energy translates into cash lining my pockets? Not so much.
History and hitting the tables
I won’t lie. I’ve basically avoided the venerable game – which supposedly dates back to the 12th century when it was created in Arabia and brought to Europe by the country’s traveling merchants.
According to the more fanciful origin story, it was dreamed up by Roman soldiers who used pig-knuckles as dice and armor shields as tables – knowing all too well that the best craps bet is also the most boring: making a pass line wager before the first round of dice rolling begins and then taking odds (which pays out with no advantage to the casino when and if the point hits).
But, again, that is absolutely no fun. Guys having all the fun are the ones spraying chips around the table, calling for boxcars and field bets and wagering on random numbers hitting – decent odds be damned.
My first time playing craps for real? I was doing a story in Tunica, Mississippi, on a female card counter who, amazingly (considering that she was all about finding an edge at blackjack), had a soft spot for dice.
We ran into a crew who swore that they could influence how the dice landed. It rarely worked out that way. I left the casino with pockets lighter. Luckily, her card counting skills helped to keep me more-or-less whole as 7s landed at all of the worst possible times.
Beating the dice
Not long after, I was in Las Vegas, having lunch with the great poker player and sports bettor Billy Baxter. Earlier that day, I had been tipped that another crew of guys, once again claiming to have a move for beating dice, were in town. In fact, they were at the Bellagio, the very place in which we were lunching.
I suggested that Baxter join me on a stroll to the craps tables, not more than two football fields away from the restaurant. He heard me out and said, “These casinos are so fucking paranoid that they’re not going to let a group of guys stand there and beat their dice game. I don’t believe it.”
I walked over solo and, a couple-hundred-dollars later, I had to figure that he was right. But, then, it didn’t have to be all bad – and, if you have a large enough bankroll, negotiate good discounts on losses from the casino and understand the mathematical thresholds, dice can be an advantage play. But honestly, my level of play does not qualify.
Nevertheless, there have been times when money could have been won but was, metaphorically speaking, left on the table due to my own timidity.
Most brutal of all? The time I was doing a story with George Maloof and his brothers, who, at the time, owned The Palms. They invited me to go out gambling with them. We went to the old Las Vegas Hilton and they pulled up to the dice table, greeted pit bosses by name, bought in with markers and instantly had piles of high denomination chips in front of them.
Based on past experiences, I was unenthusiastic about playing, but I also did not want to look like a complete stiff. So, fine, I bought in for $100 and threw some $5 chips on random numbers.
I was probably betting below table minimum, but the Maloofs were such high-rollers that a tight-fisted friend (i.e., me) was able to get away with less-than-min’ wagering.
On a heater
One of the brothers suggested that I be first to roll. That sounded reasonable. Little did I know that I would go on a once-in-a-lifetime heater and toss dice as if God himself was guiding my right hand.
I made points, I hit numbers, I rolled 7s on my come outs. Guys around the table were roaring. People pumped me on the back between rolls; a woman kissed my cheek and gave me a hug. I kept fortifying my wagers with red chips while the Maloofs were tossing out blacks and purples, betting hundreds of dollars at a time.
Eventually, of course, I crapped out, as everyone ultimately does, but the brothers won so much that one of them tossed me a yellow chip for the hell of it. It was worth $1,000 and I protested that his gesture was over the top.
But he insisted I take it and I felt like a million bucks (albeit, also like the character played by Sharon Stone in Casino, but, whatever…). Never mind that his tip probably left me ahead by $1,500 when I should have had 10 or 20 times that.
Dice control to comedian gambler
A similarly lost opportunity hit when I did a story on the gambling theoretician, an advantage player in his own right, Stanford Wong. He had just published a book about dice control and he wanted to show me what he could do.
The first night was a bust, with Wong insisting that the table was too flat. Next morning, though, we convened at the old Las Vegas Club (since torn down and reborn as Circa).
There, he put on a dice rolling clinic, winning so much that croupiers were sweating, fills were called in, and gamblers joked about seeing dust at the bottoms of emptied chip trays. Could I have cleaned up on the ways of Wong? Yes. Did I? Uhm, no. Once again, I was done in by timidity.
By the time I found myself doing a story on the late comedian Norm Macdonald, famous for being a wild card of a gambler, I had little stomach for betting on dice. I didn’t. And that was all for the good.
Standing alongside Norm, I watched his so-called “pensioner’s system,” which had him betting the don’t (wagering with the house), decimating half of his $40,000 bankroll (blackjack and sports-betting did in the rest).
Less than 48 hours later, he begged me to loan him $10,000 so that he could continue gambling and I ponied up $1,000, which quickly went to the house. Honorable man that he was, Norm paid me back with a timely check and a note that read, “Better sorry than safe.”
Cashing in at the craps table
I had given up on craps when a call came from a man who ranks as one of the world’s most highly regarded advantage players. He was in the midst of a craps play and needed a guy to do the betting.
Would I be interested in joining him and his crew? Of course. In fact, I hastily booked my flight to a middle-of-nowhere city in the Midwest, close to where the gambit was going down. Though the game was craps, it was played with cards instead of dice, and the AP had a legit system for beating it.
After nine days, I managed to leave with a tidy five-figure profit. It was sweet and made up for all of my crappy craps experiences. So, now, in the wake of that, where do I stand with the game?
Let’s just say I’m happy to let the dice grow cold as I wait for my phone to ring with said AP on the line.