The History of Craps

The phrase “classic casino games” applies to a select few contests, each with a colorful origin story and some interesting historical context.

Blackjack is as much a product of European expansion as it is a game designed for betting, while the mythology of roulette includes references to devil-worshippers and fortune-tellers.

Gambling history can be heady stuff.

Craps is one of those classic casino games. Its main props, the tumbling dice, are instantly recognizable. The game is dramatic – from the dice shaken in a cupped palm to the stickman and other dealers with their loud voices and funny-looking wooden rake.

Few games on the floor have the flair for the dramatic that this game has.

What Is Craps?

In modern gambling vernacular, craps refers to a specific game played with a pair of dice. It is most popular in the USA, but a part of casino traditions all over the world.

And what about that name? It may cause the five year olds in my audience to snicker – okay, I’ll admit, I snickered a little bit too – but it comes from a totally benign source.

We’ll get more into the history of the game and its name down below, but for now, understand that it comes from the name of a similar game played in 18th century France called “Crabes.”

A Note on Street Dice

It’s important to point out that the word in modern times can refer to two very different contests.

There’s the well-known casino game, which is the major focus of this article. But there is also a game that’s essentially just street dice that goes by the same name.

Street dice games are informal (and almost always illegal), usually played in back alleys or in private homes. I’ve seen a few sources that say the game must have been brought back to America by soldiers returning from Europe in WWI, where the game had already been played that way for hundreds of years.

I won’t go into any more detail on the informal version of the game, as the rules vary wildly from region to region and game to game. There's an article on informal dice games by Wizard of Odds that’s better than anything I can say about it, in case you’re curious.

The Game’s Origins

The earliest game that we would recognize as a forerunner of the modern game is an ancient British contest called Hazard. Both Hazard and the modern game ask bettors to wager money against a central authority and bet on the outcome of the roll of the dice. Outside of those similarities, it’s not clear that Hazard was all that much like the version we play today.

We know who is credited with inventing the game, which is something of a novelty in terms of casino history. An English nobleman named Sir William of Tyre is given credit for inventing Hazard in 1125 as a way to keep a group of knights occupied during the doldrums of the Crusades.

Pretty cool, right? The name of the game supposedly comes from the name of a castle the knights had recently stormed – a place called Hazarth.

But I should point out that not everyone buys the Hazard origin theory – after all, what games were ever derived from just one ancestor? Classical scholars point out that Roman Legions are known to have gambled with pig knuckles that had been trimmed into rough cube shapes. In fact, it’s said that we get the term “bones” as a stand-in for “dice” from this old practice.

Whatever the origin, think of Hazard as the great-grandfather of the game we know and love.

The Game Goes Medieval

Let’s start by establishing that Medieval Europe was not a nice time or place to be alive.

The wealthiest one percent were the only people likely to ever encounter a hot bath – and they did that only a few times a year. Forget about antibiotics – heck, forget about germ theory. And if you think your taxes are too high now, imagine living under a 90-95% taxation burden, as most medieval peasants did.

I say all that to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of gambling went on during this Euro horror show.

During the Medieval period, dice games (influenced by the rules of both Hazard and the French game Crabes) spread rapidly from Western Europe, thanks mostly to English and French conquest during the Middle Ages.

One of the earliest references to the game in literature comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer talked about the game so much, it may as well be called the Dice Tales. Seven characters participate in some form of dice gambling, which tells us (among other things) that gambling was quite popular at the time, and that dice games were something of the norm.

By the late 17th century, gambling houses across Europe were offering a dice game called “craps” with rules very similar to our modern one. These games originated in England among nobility. It’s said that to host a game of craps was to host a major social event on par in terms of planning with a religious feast.

The French and the English, though difficult neighbors for much of history, are well known for cultural exchange. Naturally, the French noticed how popular this Hazard game was, and started offering this new version of the game in their betting shops as early as 1700.

The Game Comes to America

Gambling is a worldwide phenomenon.

Games of chance and skill are played from Timbuktu to Macau, and at all points between.

Still, a casino game hasn’t really “made it” until it catches on in America.

So when did the game make the exodus to the United States?

Craps crossed the Atlantic in the hearts and minds of French colonists moving to what was then known as Acadia. Today, it’s a territory of Canada known as Newfoundland.

When that group lost the right to live in Acadia after a war with the English in 1755, they wandered down the eastern seaboard to eventually settle in Louisiana, where their precious native greens would grow and where they found bountiful seafood. Their heritage, rich with unique language, food, and pastimes, travelled with them. Dice games (and other games of chance) were a big part of that heritage.

Do other theories exist? Of course – remember, there is no concrete oral or recorded tradition about these games. For me, the lack of a firm history makes the games more appealing.

One opinion I read in a message board held that early English settlers must have brought Hazard and other dice games with them to the Americas, and that it was these game that the Acadians picked up on years later and popularized.

I think I’m happy with assuming that both the English and French had something to do with the origin of the game, with each adding a unique flavor. Dice have been a popular gambling tool since human beings first stepped out of their caves, so it’s hard to say exactly what happened.

John H. Winn – The Father of Modern-Day Craps

In 1907, an American dice and playing card manufacturer named John H. Winn made some big changes to the game that led immediately to its meteoric rise in popularity.

John H. Winn is known as the “Father of Modern-Day Craps” for his contributions to the game.

Among many innovations, he suggested rules that led to the ability to bet either right or wrong – either with the shooter or against him. Winn standardized the game’s layout, and his basic arrangement is still the same today. He is the inventor of the Don’t Pass bet, which is credited with destroying the impact of crooked dice and other cheats.

In fact, the game as outlined by Winn is what we now call “modern craps.”

Taking the Game into the 20th Century

Winn wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the game’s massive US popularity. The fact that Nevada legalized gambling and created a massive betting market in Las Vegas had a lot to do with it.

The 1930s were a time of huge success for the American gambling industry. Bettors flooded casino floors from all over the country, and the state became the absolute casino capital of the country.

Casino dice, which was originally known as Las Vegas craps, was such a huge hit in casinos because of the obvious visual appeal of dice-throwing and the fact that it was novel and unique. The game still pretty much acts as a stand-in for the casino industry.

Card-based games had been the most popular, but this simple dice game was the first to unseat poker as the game of choice in American betting houses.

Another factor that greatly enhanced the game’s popularity – the First and Second World Wars. For the first time, a huge chunk of Americans were sent to Europe and Asia. There they would mix with native populations and learn their customs, including games of chance. It turned out that European, American, and even Asian troops loved to gamble, and some rudimentary form of dice was likely played on all sides of the trenches.

When a game or a food or anything catches on with soldiers at war, that thing is likely to spread once the war ends, and that’s partly what happened with this popular dice game. The European and American soldiers found they were playing essentially the same game, and any American soldier who didn’t know how to play dice before the way were certainly familiar with it upon their discharge.

Online Casinos and Craps History

Web-based (“online”) casinos launched about twenty years ago. These days, it is a billion-dollar industry, legitimate competition for existing land-based venues. Including dice games in online game libraries was an obvious decision, since Web-based casinos wanted to show off their veracity and attract players already familiar with popular casino table games.

Online, the game play is essentially the same as in casinos, except that you can play it from any place where you have a wireless connection. The game still has its rich history, whether you place bets with your mouse or your hand. Yes, the dice rolls are animated, but you get over the shock of it pretty quickly.

Modern Craps Etiquette

The game has changed a lot over the years, from humble beginnings as a disorganized pastime to its modern status as maybe the classic casino contest.

One aspect of the game that is vastly different in the modern world – etiquette.

Craps is a group game, in the sense that most bettors wager with the shooter. Often, the entire table’s money is on the line together. It creates a sense of camaraderie not found with other games in the casino.

Because this game is played in a small group, it’s even more important to play by the rules so as not to ruin the experience for other players.

Here, then, are the most up-to-date notes on how to behave at the craps table.

Take your turn as shooter

Though you are allowed to pass when your turn is up to be the shooter, it is considered rude to do it more than once. Remember, someone has to be shooter for the game to continue.

Tip your dealers (the right way)

It’s easy – toss your chips onto the table and say “for the dealers.” How much you tip depends on how nice a guy you want to be. How often you tip is up to you, but I like to give the boys something at least once per hour of play.

Do not “late bet.”

If the dice are not in the middle of the table, it is really bad etiquette to place a bet. It’s called a “late bet” and it is technically allowed, but even the dealer will get miffed and warn you about it.

Don’t eat and drink anywhere near the chip rail

It’s gross, distracting, and annoying.

Don’t leave the table after a successful Come Out roll

This only applies to you when you’re the shooter.


The game as we know it has been around for over a century. It has gone through every iteration imaginable, from an evil vice to a harmless pastime. It is played informally in the street and for huge amounts in high roller rooms in Vegas and Atlantic City.

Though thousands of betting systems and other attempts to outwit the game has been attempted, modern craps is essentially unbeatable without collusion or equipment-tampering. Thanks to continued interest in the game in Hollywood films, and its widespread availability in online casinos, it is still one of the most popular table games, though its true heyday was seventy or eighty years ago.

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