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Rolling Las Vegas

Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

The table is blanketed with chips, nearly $50,000 worth of colorful tokens belonging to a huddle of 12 anxious bettors, thrown together by chance. They've never met each other before tonight, but like soldiers in combat they share an unspoken bond, an unwavering connection to two small ivory cubes dotted on all six sides ... the dice.

The auto paint supplier from Ohio has only a few hundred riding on the next roll; the real-estate broker to his left is gambling several thousand. But you can't tell who has the most at stake by looking at their faces--everyone at this Caesar's Palace craps table has put on the familiar visage of a dice player awaiting the next fling of the ivory: expectant, slightly pained, aroused. Oblivious to the centurions and Roman goddesses strolling past with trays of cocktails, thoroughly uninterested in the horse races and baseball games being beamed into the adjacent sports book by satellite, these people are fixated on the right hand at the far end of the table, the guy holding the dice.

Some bettors slump on their forearms, feigning nonchalance; some fiddle with their chips, compulsively rearranging them into color-coordinated stacks; some look as if they're praying.

The croupiers try not to appear bored. The box man, sitting at the center of the table, surveys the felt like human radar. The pit boss, vaguely interested, stands in the background with his arms crossed around his ill-fitting suit. For a moment--a moment that will last two seconds--the assembled players will feel as though the entire universe revolves around this slab of wood, this plane of felt in the Nevada desert.

And, a moment later, all the denizens of Caesar's Palace, entranced by their own private dramas, will look up and smile. Because an instant after the dice are flung a startling, joyous yell will be heard--the sound of someone beating the odds. Someone at the craps table will have made his point.

Of all the games of chance, craps holds a special place in the hierarchy of American gambling. Before Ed Thorp wrote Beat the Dealer in 1962, making blackjack the most popular pit game in the world, craps easily held that distinction. From Damon Runyon's dice-shooting hoods to Atlantic City's odds-laying tycoons, craps has always attracted the most interesting gamblers in the casino, the most knowledgeable, the most superstitious, the most courageous. And the noisiest.

Blackjack boasts its studious card counters, baccarat its James Bond pretenders and roulette its wheel-obsessed number watchers. Those that roll the "bones," however, are an altogether different breed, an amalgam of the bookish scholar and the degenerate gambler, thoughtful yet aggressive, cautious yet headstrong, a winner and a loser. Give a linebacker a bankroll and an advanced degree in statistics and you might have the perfect Diceman.

At the craps table you'll recognize everyone from the vaunted "high roller" (the dice game is where this generic term came from) to the tightfisted mathematician with a proven "system." With its low minimum bet--a buck or two at most Las Vegas joints--craps is the most democratic of gambles, attracting both ends of the monetary spectrum. No matter their finances, players at the craps table are there for more or less the same reason: it is the only game in the casino where, if played absolutely correctly, the patron can reduce the house edge to almost zero. And it is the game in which miracles can happen. Very quickly.

Still, the surest way to win at the craps table is not to play. But what fun is that? To novice players the game looks hopelessly complicated and too daunting to learn. In some ways, it is. But for those who have never "rolled the bones," the game can be reduced to its essentials, and a beginner armed with these few basic facts can take on the house with the best possible advantage.

The sequence of each "game" begins with the Come Out Roll. Players bet that the person rolling the dice (the shooter) will roll either a seven or an eleven (called a "pass," a winner) or a two or three (a "don't pass," a loser). This is an even-money bet. If any other number is rolled, except for twelve, which is also a loser, that number becomes the point. According to Howard Schwartz of the Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, the casino's edge on those who are betting on a pass roll is a mere 1.414 percent, and with full odds or up to ten times' odds it is a minuscule .18 percent or $1.80 for every $1,000 bet.

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