Monday, November 22, 2010


This Thanksgiving week, I’m concluding the series on Colonial Gaming with an item that would have gotten you stocked if you played it in front of our Pilgrim forebears. Hazard is, essentially, craps, and it was probably the most played “game” in both the New World and the Old.

Dice go back at least 5,000 years, and almost certainly much further. They were highly portable, easy to make, and provided a regular medium for gambling, which has always been a popular recreation. The Pilgrims frowned on dice not merely as part of their general prohibition on gambling and frivolous games, but because they would have associated them with the lots cast by the Roman soldiers for the garments of Jesus. Other regions of America, however, embraced dicing with a passion, and wherever common people gathered, dice appeared sooner or later.

There’s no telling just when the game of Hazard first emerged in Europe and England. Geoffrey Chaucer showed a ready familiarity with it, so we can place it in England at least as early as the 14th century, and almost certainly earlier. In the Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer plays on the words “chance” and “hazard” several times, and makes an explicit reference to the game itself.
And if a prince plays similar hazardry 
In all his government and policy, 
He loses in the estimate of men 
His good repute, and finds it not again.
 And later:
And when he came, he noticed there, by chance, 
All of the greatest people of the land 
Playing at hazard there on every hand. 
And again, as part of a list of sins
O cursed sin, full of abominableness! 
O treacherous homicide! O wickedness! 
O gluttony, lechery, and hazardry! 
O blasphemer of Christ with villainy 
So hazard = not good. Check. (Although I'm pleased to see that "abominableness" is a real word.)

The word hazard comes to us from the Spanish word azar, meaning a “bad roll of the dice.” The word stopped off in France to pick up a final letter D before arriving in England via the French courts. Yes, our word “hazard,” meaning “potential danger,” comes from the name of this game.

Playing Hazard 
As with modern craps, Hazard is driven by bets placed on the likelihood of certain rolls. One player rolls at a time, using two dice.

Before the player rolls, he picks a main, which is a number between 5 and 9.

If he rolls the main, he wins. This is called throw in, or in, or nick.

If he rolls a 2 or a 3, he loses instantly. This is called throw out, or out.

The other combinations are contingent upon the main itself. They break down this way:

If the main is a 5, then 5 is in, and 2, 3, 11, or 12 are out.

If the main is a 6, then 6 or 12 are in, and 2, 3, or 11 are out.

If the main is a 7, then 7 or 11 are in, and 2, 3, or 12 are out.

If the main is a 8, then 8 or 12 are in, and 2, 3, or 11 are out.

If the main is a 9, then 9 is in, and 2, 3, 11, or 12 are out.

If the roll is neither in nor out, the number thrown becomes the chance.

On the next roll, the chance wins and the main now becomes a losing number. The roller keeps going until he hits the main or the chance, and then the dice are passed.

Wagering is done by the player and the observers at various stages and at various odds, with people betting either for or against the next roll of the dice. 

There is a straight line between Hazard and modern casino craps, so remember when you're sweating over the Pass/Don't Pass line that our forefathers were doing the same thing hundreds of years ago.

And if you’re utterly sure you have a foolproof system for beating craps … you don’t. No, really, you don’t. (And if your theory includes the names “Pascal” or “Fermat,” then you really don’t.) All of the odds set by a casino for each roll are set below the actual odds for the roll itself. The odds are better if you know what you are doing, but there is no casino game in which you can fully bend the odds in your favor. The house always has the advantage. 

Most "systems" are based on what's called the Gambler's Fallacy, which is this idea that someone who stays in a game long enough will eventually find probability turning in their favor. Probability is not cumulative. It resets itself with each roll of the dice. A gambler with a system always thinks he's "due" for a hit after a long series of misses. If the chances of flipping heads on a coin are 50/50 for the first flip, and you get tails, that doesn't mean they're 60/40 for the second flip. But that's the way many gamblers approach their games.

Here's an example just from yesterday. My daughter and I were waiting for people to join a game. We drew through an entire deck of cards, with high card winning. That's 26 draws for each of us. We "should" have each drawn 13 high cards. I drew no high cards. She drew 26. As Ralph Wiggums would say, "That's unpossible!" 

Consider this: I know games inside and out, and I never bet money in a casino unless I'm just enjoying the process of being there and willing to pay for the pleasure of a hyperoxygenated atmosphere and $10 beers. Skill does matter. Skill can improve your odds, but it never tilts them wholly in your favor. And casinos don't trade in games of pure skill: they trade in games where luck dominates. There's a reason casinos don't have chess or backgammon tables. It's the same reason that neither chess nor backgammon were all that popular in Colonial times. These are games where skill outweighs chance, and, like modern casinos, early Americans didn't favor games of skill. They only found real excitement when chance and luck were involved.


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