It All Started With… The History of Craps, or How Dice Found Its Way to the Casino
It all started with … the series that explains the beginnings of gambling powered by Betiton™
Welcome to another instalment of our series ‘It All Started With…’ where we dive deep into the history of casino games to uncover their origins. This time round, we’ll be turning our attention to history of craps.
‘It all started with hazard, a dice game that was extremely popular in Medieval Europe…’
Unlike some of the other games that we’ve looked at in the past, the origin of craps is a little clearer, in that, we can pinpoint the predecessor of craps with confidence. However, the origin of this predecessor is the one, rather, that’s shrouded in mystery and mythology.
This makes our quest doubly difficult as we’ll have to untangle the facts from the fiction as we descend into the dark ages of this game in our search for the truth.
Casting the First Die: On the Origin of Craps & Its Predecessors
Firstly, the history of craps is intimately tied with the history of dice. It’s interesting to know that dice are rather ancient in their own right. In fact, it’s believed that dice were invented before history was even recorded, making them one of the oldest gambling devices in history.
Fast forward in time and we can find the predecessor of craps emerging at some time during the Middle Ages. In fact, craps descended from a much older game known as “hazard”. The history of this game, however, is cloudy at best and there is no verifiable place or date of its origin.
In spite of that, most websites will glibly tell you that hazard was invented by a certain William of Tyre in 1125 AD as a way of passing the time when he and his knights were laying siege to the castle Hazarth during the crusades. According to this story, the name of the castle was then applied to the game, which came to be known as “hazard”.
However, this is nothing more than a legend that managed to stick around for far longer than it should have. First of all, let’s look a little at who “William of Tyre” is: there are two figures that bore the title of “William of Tyre”, both of whom lived in the 12th century — which would make the date 1125 seem correct.
The problems start when you understand who they were: despite their generous portrayal as knights and crusaders, the two figures known as “William of Tyre” were priests — archbishops, to be precise. They weren’t warriors by any stretch of the imagination.
The sole Archbishop of Tyre that was soldierly was a certain mysterious figure named “Joscius”, but he was archbishop from 1186 to 1202. Moreover, the first William of Tyre — William I of Tyre — wasn’t anointed as Archbishop of Tyre until 1128; furthermore, William II of Tyre was born in 1130.
This rips open a gaping hole in the above story: neither the figures nor the dates match up. However, the one thing that isn’t entirely incorrect is the name of the “castle”: Hazarth. Moreover, the year 1125, whilst having nothing to do with either William I of Tyre or William II of Tyre, actually gives us an important clue to uncovering the truth about Hazarth.
The Secrets of Hazarth Castle: Untangling the Facts from the Fiction
In reality, “Hazarth” wasn’t a castle at all but rather an entire city which certainly did exist and actually still exists today. Hazarth castle is actually the city of Azaz, a city in northwest Syria not far off from Aleppo (around 32 kilometres away). However, how did we get from “Azaz” to “Hazarth”?
This is where it gets interesting: Azaz had a part to play in the crusades. In fact, Azaz was successfully besieged in 1125 in what came to be known as the “Battle of Azaz”. However, for whatever reason, Azaz was known as “Hazart” or “Hasart” by the crusaders, which explains where the name “Hazarth” came from.
Moreover, the siege was not led by William of Tyre — as the legend goes — but by King Baldwin II of Jerusalem. So, if Hazarth is a real place and the year 1125 refers to an actual historical battle, then how did William of Tyre come into the story? Ah, this is where it gets interesting once again.
We saw above how the title of “William of Tyre” refers to two archbishops — however, William II of Tyre was also a historian who had written a comprehensive chronicle of the Crusades. Of course, a battle as important as the Battle of Azaz wouldn’t have escaped his notice, and thus he wrote about it in his magnum opus History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.
Somehow or other, William II of Tyre was confused for King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, the real leader of the siege, likely because he was the one to report on the battle. This confusion seems to have stuck for some reason and was propagated by a number of authors on the subject of the history of craps. For example, quoting from Keith Souter’s The Pocket Guide to Dice & Dice Games:
[Hazard] may have been played by bored crusaders during the lengthy siege of an Arabian castle, called Hazarth or Asart in 1125. Sir William of Tyre is reputed to have invented it and the name of Hazard is a corruption of the castle’s name.
Our myth-busting duties, however, don’t stop there: even the purported origins of the name of the game — a corruption of the name Hazarth — and the game itself — the invention of bored crusaders during a foreign campaign — are specious. Firstly, the account of crusaders playing at dice is nothing but pure invention.
In fact, William II of Tyre’s original account of the Battle of Azaz never mentioned anything related to dice games; there is, however, a reference to “jeus de dez” (“games of dice”) in an Old French translation of William II of Tyre’s chronicle. Thus, the mention of dice was nothing but a creative insertion by a translator of William II of Tyre’s text.
At the same time, this disproves the theory that the name “hazard” came from a corruption of the crusaders’ name for the city of Azaz, despite the very uncanny similarity between the two words. To get to the truth of the matter, we need to delve into the translation itself and understand the motives for the translator’s insertion.
A Tale of Creative Translations: Uncovering the Truth of the Origins of Hazard
Despite the unmistakable quality of William II of Tyre’s work, it went unnoticed for much of history. On the other hand, not long after his death in roughly 1186, his work was translated to what is now Old French.
This translation proved to be immensely popular — much more popular, in fact, than William II of Tyre’s original. However, the popularity of the book might be attributed to the stylistic choices of the anonymous translator or translators.
As Philip David Handyside tells us in his doctoral thesis titled simply “The Old French Translation of William of Tyre”, the translator, whilst remaining quite faithful to the original work, added ‘various embellishments and set phrases to various scenes’ in order to appeal to regular audiences. This was the complete opposite of William II of Tyre’s intended audience, who wrote the book for a highly educated and priestly audience.
One of the many stylistic insertions by the translator involves the mention of games or sets of dice being found at the city of Azaz. This insertion was taken to be true due to the similarity of the crusaders’ name for the city (“Hasart”) to the Old French word “hasart” (“hazard”).
Incidentally, the word has multiple cognates across a number of languages, like Italian (azzardo & zara), Maltese (azzard), Spanish (azar), and Portuguese (azar).
Furthermore, the fact that these words have ties to gambling (take, for example, the Italian word “zara” which is mentioned in Dante’s Purgatorio as ‘gioco de la zara’, “the game of zara”) only made the insertion more credible. Despite all of that, however, there doesn’t seem to be any historical evidence to back this up.
At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive etymology of the word “hazard” either. Instead, there are two prevailing theories on its origin: firstly, the word is thought to be a loanword from Arabic, namely the Arabic word for dice: az-zahr. However, this etymology is dubious because the word is absent from Classical Arabic dictionaries.
The second theory, on the other hand, also suggests that the word comes from an Arabic loanword, this time the word “yasara”, “he played at dice”. The word travelled from Spanish to French, changing as it went, until it finally achieved its modern form: hazard.
Finally, despite the spuriousness of the translator’s insertion, it doesn’t mean that the insertion itself isn’t useful in any way; if anything, it goes to show that dice games were already played at the time of the translation.
The actual date when the translation was finished is up to debate, however it’s generally considered that ‘the translation was made after the Fourth Crusade at a date sometime between 1204 and 1234, with a more likely terminus date of 1223 or a few years afterwards.’
Moreover, the fact that the name of the city was confused for being the origin for the word “hasart” means that the word “hasart” was already referring to a game of dice at the time. In fact, a poem from around 1155 written by the poet Wace under the title of the Roman de Brut mentions the game:
Auquant demandent dez et tables :
Tex i a joent a hasart
(Some asked for dice and tables:
They played hazard)
This is likely the earliest mention of the game of hazard, meaning that the game was played almost 900 years ago. However, it’s unknown what rules the game originally had and if they were similar to the rules we know of today. Since it’s no use speculating what rules the game might have had, let’s look at what rules we know that the game did have.
Proceed at Your Own Hazard: On the Game of Hazard, Its Rules, Popularity, & Dissemination
Whatever the origin of hazard is, we at least know that it was definitely played from the middle 12th century onwards. Moreover, whilst we cannot say for certain where hazard originated (though somewhere in the Arab world seems to be a likely place of origin) we know that it definitely spread to England.
In fact, we can find hazard being mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For those who are unfamiliar with this work, The Canterbury Tales is an unfinished collection of stories, largely written in verse and written between the years 1387 and 1400. In one particular story known as ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, a group of people are described as playing hazard: ‘Pleyinge atte hasard he hem fond’ (‘playing at hazard he them found’).
However, it’s difficult to say what rules the game had at the time of writing and if they were any different to the rules we know today. This is because the rules we know nowadays come to us from a 19th-century book titled The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims, which was written by Andrew Steinmetz and published in 1870.
The Rules of Hazard
The rules of hazard are quite complex: essentially, a thrower chooses a number between 5–9 and throws two dice. If they land their chosen number, they win; however, if they land either a 2 or 3, they lose. Moreover, depending on the number they chose, different things happen if they land either an 11 or 12:
- if they chose either 5 or 9, they lose when landing both an 11 and a 12;
- if they chose either 6 or 8, they lose when landing an 11 but win on a 12;
- if they chose 7, they win with an 11 but lose when landing a 12.
However, if they don’t land either a 2, 3, 11, 12, or their chosen number, the number they rolled becomes the new winning number. Thus, they need to roll that number again to win. However, if they roll the number they chose in the first place, then they lose. Despite the complexity of these rules, the game proved extremely popular nonetheless.
In fact, it was most popular between the 17th and 19th centuries in gambling houses in England. For example, a 19th-century gentleman’s club known as “Crockford’s” was quite well-known for its gambling table where hazard was played. In fact, Sir William Gregory’s autobiography mentions how ‘too many an ardent admirer of hazard had lost all his fortune’ at the gambling table of Crockford’s.
How Hazard Found Itself from Europe to the US
At around the same time that various gentlemen were bankrupting themselves playing hazard at Crockford’s, hazard was finding new popularity elsewhere in the world: in America. There are a number of theories as to how hazard found itself in the US, first of which being that hazard was taken to America in 1620 by English settlers on the Mayflower.
Another theory regards French settlers in America: for those in need of brushing up on their history, many parts of what is now Canada were colonised by the French. These lands, however, were later contested by the British empire, including the area that is now the region of Nova Scotia.
The British succeeded in conquering this area (originally known as “Acadia”) in 1713 but allowed the French settlers (known as “Acadians”) to remain — that is, until 1755. Despite allowing the Acadians to stay, tensions between the British and the Acadians were always high, leading to much strife and many attacks by Acadians on the British.
Following a series of forays and political disagreements (the Acadians refused to vow allegiance to the British), the British decided to deport the Acadians. Thus, it’s theorised that these French deportees took hazard along with them when they scattered to various places in the US.
However, when it comes to all these theories with regards to the importation of hazard from Europe, one theory seems to be the most credible. Sometime before the establishment of Crockford’s (1823), a young gentleman by the name of Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville went to New Orleans to make a name for himself.
Bernard de Marigny was your typical 19th-century magnate: he was a playboy, a gambler, a duellist, and accustomed to a lavish lifestyle thanks to his family’s wealth. However, he was beyond those qualities: de Marigny also moved on to become an accomplished businessman, a real estate developer, and a politician.
After his father’s death sometime between the years 1799–1800, de Marigny became unruly and as a result, was sent to London in the hope that he might finally fix his manners. Spoiler alert: he didn’t. If anything, his time in London served to fuel his debauchery, as he was known to attend various gambling houses in London.
It is said that it was there that he became acquainted with hazard, a game which he seemed to have fallen in love with. By the time he arrived to New Orleans in about 1802, de Marigny was as fond of gambling as ever. He simplified hazard by removing the rule that the thrower had to choose a number between 5–9 and made the number 7 as the winning number, since 7 was the best possible choice in hazard.
Afterwards, he attempted to introduce his simplified version of hazard to his American peers, but they quickly rejected it. Never one for giving up, it seems that de Marigny introduced this game to the lower classes, becoming an instant success with the underclass that spread the game like wildfire.
How Did We Get “Craps” from “Hazard”? On Hazard’s Name Change
However, as the game was spread through Louisiana, it underwent a change in name: from “hazard” to “craps”. The name change is, again, subject to a couple of theories: the first of which is that it derives from the French word “crapaud” (“toad”), which was used to refer to the squatting players playing at craps.
However, the most credible etymology is that “craps” is a Louisiana Creole corruption of the English word “crabs”, a slang term used to refer to the worst rolls in the game of hazard (2 and 3). The slang term “crabs” is thought to originate as a reference to crab-apples, wild apples which are extremely sour. Over time, the term for the worst rolls became the name of the game. We’ve actually seen something similar in the game of blackjack, where “blackjack” first referred to the best possible hand and was then used to refer to the game itself.
Finally, as a sort of homage to the game, de Marigny is said to have named one particular street after the game he was so fond of. The street — which is now known as Burgundy Street — was called the “Rue de Craps”. This name didn’t last too long, however, owing to the fact that the street held three churches.
New Bets, Same Old Dice: How a Single Man Redesigned Craps & Got Rid of Cheating
Eventually, the game caught on so much that it found its way in American casinos and gambling houses (New Orleans was quite well-known for being an illegal gambling hub), but just as we saw with roulette, where cheaters took advantage of a fault in the roulette wheel’s design, craps was also a victim of much cheating.
In fact, it’s said that casinos would often use weighted dice to rig the game and thus, always have the odds in their favour. Weighted dice worked in the casinos’ favour because of the way casino craps is played: the main bet is called “Pass” and it’s a bet that wins if the shooter lands a 7 or 11, which are the winning numbers.
Thus, the casinos would weight their dice in order to make it more difficult for throwers to land the winning numbers. This was thankfully no longer the case after around 1907, with the intervention of a certain dice-maker from Philadelphia named John H. Winn.
Winn introduced an entirely new form of betting in craps, earning him the nickname of “The Father of Modern Craps”. Essentially, Winn rendered weighted dice useless as he introduced the rather infamous “Don’t Pass” bet, a bet that wins when the shooter “craps out” — that is, “loses” by landing either of the numbers 2, 3, and 12.
By introducing the possibility of betting on the shooter to “lose”, the usefulness of weighted dice completely disappears as no matter how you weight the dice, you can simply bet against it. In actual fact, this only turns the weighted dice in the bettors’ favour as the weighted dice will then allow them to consistently win when betting against the casino. Thus, casinos were quick to abandon the practice.
Casino craps was further improved upon — as is the case with all games in the casino — to include more and more bets. These include the Field Bet, the Come and Don’t Come bets, and so on. As the game of craps was continuously improved upon, countries around the world started legalising gambling and casino craps found itself in casinos all over the globe. Moreover, with the launch of the first online casino in 1996, craps would eventually find its way to the internet as well.
Why Was Craps Created?
As with pretty much every other casino game out there, craps was surely invented as a way to pass the time. Everyone loves a bit of entertainment, of course, and in the past, it was generally the case that there wasn’t much entertainment to be had other than to do chores, do sport, play games, or gamble. We know that, for example, the Romans absolutely loved to gamble.
At the same time, we can’t avoid the fact that entertainment serves as a distraction, which would obviously prove useful when you’re a soldier who’s risking his life day in, day out. In fact, the stories of Romans playing dice before battle; the Crusaders playing hazard during the uneventful periods of a siege; and of American soldiers playing craps during their campaigns attest to how casino games like craps can usefully serve as distractions.
And even if these stories are nothing more than stories (in fact, we already debunked the “Crusaders playing dice at Hazarth castle” story above), it’s understandable that soldiers would want to take their mind off things when they’re preparing for the battlefield. Whilst we can never truly know the circumstances of how games like craps were created in the past, our gut feeling is that these games came about as ways to entertain oneself.
How Did Craps Become Popular?
There are many reasons as to why craps became so popular. The first reason is likely because of its ease of playing due to the fact that players only really need two dice to play it. Moreover, when Bernard de Marigny simplified the rules of hazard to having only two winning numbers, the game must have become even more popular.
Above all those reasons, artistic media also helped to boost the popularity of this game and probably to make gambling seem less distasteful. In fact, one particularly famous musical in 1950 featured craps in several of its scenes. The musical, titled Guys and Dolls, ran on for 1,200 performances, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and received a film adaptation in 1955. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Guys and Dolls was quite a well-known production and it seems to have served to further popularise the game.
Making Its Way in the World: How Craps Became a World-Famous Dice Game
It may strike you as unbelievable but two years after John H. Winn’s introduction of the “Don’t Pass” line, Nevada had made gambling illegal. A bit hard to believe, huh? Yet, it was in 1909 that Nevada illegalised gambling due to being ‘the butt of ridicule and criticism all over the country’ for being the only state to legalise all forms of gambling.
However, despite the prohibition, gambling was still thriving. Moreover, the gold and silver mines of Nevada were running dry and a global economic decline was soon to rear its ugly head. In fact, the infamous Great Depression hit the US in 1929 and continued ravaging economies around the world for much of the 1930s and even later.
Due to a combination of the massive pressure to combat the destructive force of the economic collapse and the disillusionment with the ineffectiveness of truly curbing gambling, governor Fred B. Balzar approved the 1931 bill that served to legalise a number of casino games and regulate gambling in general.
This was the first step in truly popularising craps and putting it on the global map. The next step came with one of the greatest tragedies of human history: World War II. Due to the ease of playing craps (all you really need is a set of dice), American soldiers would play it during their various campaigns. This helped to spread craps to the four corners of the Earth.
The Future of Craps
After so many decades of popularity, and an evolutionary history of several centuries, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world without craps. If anything, we think that craps would go on to achieve even greater heights of popularity! Moreover, we think that the game will continue being innovated upon.
In fact, recent innovations include live craps and first-person craps, which provide interesting ways of playing the game. This is not to exclude the excitement of playing online craps, of course. Who knows? We might even be able to witness the creation of virtual-reality craps and other innovative takes on the game!
Craps, like many other casino games, has a history full of myths and legends, as well as a rather obscure one due to the sheer lack of documentation. Whilst the usual story behind the origin of craps is that craps was invented by Sir William of Tyre and his crusading knights whilst besieging castle Hazarth, we saw above that this story is false.
We saw that William II of Tyre was a historian and archbishop; that the “castle” was a city called “Azaz”, known as “Hasart” by the crusaders; and the siege was carried out by King Baldwin II of Jerusalem. Moreover, we saw how the story of dice games being found at Azaz was nothing more than a creative insertion by a translator.
It’s impossible to truly say where craps originated from other than as an offshoot of the game of hazard, whose origins are also extremely obscure. Our best bet is that hazard might have been of Arabic origin, possibly imported into Europe from Spain. From there, the game became extremely popular throughout Europe, but especially in England.
The game continued being popular in England, even up to the 19th century. However, a French-Creole American nobleman by the name of Bernard de Marigny took hazard to America to introduce it to his American peers. de Marigny was an avid gambler and seemed to have especially fell in love with hazard.
When he took it to America, he greatly simplified the rules. In spite of that, American nobles rejected the game and thus, de Marigny showed it to the lower-class workers of Louisiana. The game became immensely popular from there, changing its name from “hazard” to “craps” as it grew in popularity.
As the game grew popular, gambling houses picked it up but it was susceptible to cheating through the use of weighted dice. However, that was until 1907 when a dice-maker named John H. Winn invented the “Don’t Pass” bet, effectively rendering weighted dice useless.
Whilst the tales of Bernard de Marigny and John H. Winn seem to be apocryphal at best, they can at least be used to fill the gaps in the history of craps. Despite that, it’s a shame that the history of such a great game is simply full of unverifiable stories! Moving on: the 20th century saw many countries finally legalising gambling.
From there on, craps became more and more popular, changing even more as it went around the world. This brings us to today’s times, where craps is a highly popular online game the world over. We believe that craps will continue being popular, as well as be continuously innovated upon. However, only time can truly tell where this game will go!
In the meantime, join us on our next entry where we’ll be going into the history of another highly popular casino game!
Other Articles in Our Series It All Started With…
Curious to know more about the history of gambling? You can find out more by reading our other articles in our series It All Started With… which you can find below: