Saying that craps is a casino game played with dice is like telling people that Mount Rushmore is a sculpture of some dead guys. Both claims are true, but neither one really suggests the intensity of what people experience when they make the trip to a casino or South Dakota.
Free Play - Craps
Craps bets are the driving force behind craps action. The game would be pretty dull if everybody just stood around waiting for an outcome.
Craps bets are based on the roll of a pair of dice. Once a shooter has established a point, s/he will, on average, roll eight more times before settling the pass line bets one way or another (by making the point or sevening out). Fortunately for adrenaline junkies, craps only gets more exciting after the point has been established.
The Most Basic Bets in Craps
A chunk of the craps table is reserved for come/don't come bets. These are essentially the same as pass/don't pass bets--except that they always treat the next roll as a come-out roll.
Let's say you're the shooter and you started by putting $5 on the pass line, but you didn't roll a natural (a 7 or 11). Instead, your come-out roll was a 4, so to make your point (and win your pass line bet), you need to roll another 4 before you roll a 7. Since you are twice as likely to roll a 7 as you are to roll a 4, you may already feel your $5 bet on the pass line slipping away.
You're not allowed to remove that $5 bet, but you can take the sting out of sevening out by putting $5 on come. A come bet treats the next roll as a come-out roll. If you throw a 7, then you win your come bet at the same time that you lose your pass line bet (because as far as the pass line is concerned, you just sevened out instead of making your point, but as far as the come bet is concerned, you just rolled a natural).
Essentially, come/don't come bets allow you to play embedded rounds of craps within a single round, each of which can have a different point than the one established by the shooter's real come-out roll.
Don’t Come Bets
Let's return to the earlier scenario with the shooter taking a slightly different approach. After putting $5 on the pass line, he rolls a 4. He doesn't feel good about his chances of making his point before sevening out, but he also doesn't feel a natural coming on the next roll. He decides to hedge by putting $5 on don't come.
He rolls a 10, which doesn't settle either bet. He still needs to roll a 4 before a 7 to win his pass line bet, but the point for the come/don't come bet that he just placed has now been established as a 10. If he had placed a come bet, then he would want to see a 10 before a 7, but since he placed a don't come bet, he now wants to seven out before rolling a 10. He is as likely to roll a 4 as he is to roll a 10, but still twice as likely to roll a 7 as either of those two established points. If his next roll is a 7, then he loses the pass line bet (of course), but he wins the don't come bet because he sevened out.
Getting involved in too many come/don't come bets can easily leave players confused about which outcomes are desirable--but don't assume that these bets are bad just because they can be confusing. In fact, come/don't come bets have the same low house edge (<1.5%) as pass/don't pass bets. And since these bets are completely a matter of luck, it doesn't really matter how confusing they are.
Novice craps players shouldn't worry about getting involved with multiple come/don't come bets. The soundest way to approach craps is to focus on backing up your initial pass/don't pass bets by placing (or laying) odds, which can allow you to bring the house edge even closer to zero. We'll discuss odds bets in greater detail in the strategy section because they are arguably the smartest bets available to ordinary players in most casinos.
For now, let's focus on IGNORING the other bets available in a craps game--especially the center propositions. These are sucker bets because the rewards offered by the casinos are disproportionate to the risks assumed by the bettors. Nevertheless, these wagers remain popular with people who drink enough to believe that there is such a thing as being "in the zone," which apparently involves a mystical connection with the dice.
If you put $10 on a hard 6, you're betting that the shooter will roll a 3-3 before a 1-5 or a 2-4 or any 7. The odds of that happening are 10 to 1 against you, but the casino will only pay you 9 to 1 if you're right. You'll lose $100 for every $90 you win on that bet.
Congratulations! You just let the house sextuple its edge (which shoots from under 1.5% on a pass/don't pass bet to over 9% on a hard 6 bet). Maybe you'll get lucky, but even if you do, it was still a chump move.
There are far more craps bets to learn about and consider before you play your first round of this casino classic. But the above examples and lessons in the basics of the game of craps should prepare you to learn about the rest of the game.
Experts agree that there are three foolproof strategies for winning at craps.
The first is to use loaded dice. These dice work wonders right up until someone notices you're cheating, which is when you need to start worrying about loaded guns.
The second surefire way to win at craps is to steal Dr. Who's Tardis and travel back in time to the moment before any given roll to place your bet on an outcome you already know. The problem, however, is that once you've stolen the Tardis, there's no time for craps anymore because you will be too busy fighting Daleks. (Don't ever play craps with a Dalek. They use loaded dice--jerks!)
The third way to win at craps is to open a casino and let people play at your craps table according to the standard rules of the game. It doesn't matter how lucky those people are because if they stay at the table long enough, they will eventually lose all their money.
More Craps Details
It's reasonable to think of a craps table as a complex machine with a number of different conveyor belts designed to carry money from your wallet to the casino. Some of the belts are tilted at a very steep angle. When you put your money on those belts, it tumbles quickly into the casino vault. Other belts have a very gentle slope, and it can take a long time for those belts to carry away the entire contents of your wallet.
Every bet you can make in a craps game gives some kind of advantage to the house, but that advantage can range from tiny (e.g. an odds bet backing a pass/no pass bet) to enormous (e.g. the center propositions).
Odds Bets Strategy
The magic of odds bets is that even though they can only be made in support of pass/don't pass or come/don't come bets that have already sacrificed a small edge to the house, the odds bets themselves yield no advantage to the house or the player. Just about every other possible wager in the casino favors the house by some margin, but odds bets in craps offer gamers a level playing field.
Odds bets yield rewards that are perfectly proportioned to the risk assumed when placing them. If the odds are 2-to-1 against an outcome (such as rolling a 4 before a 7), then the house pays 2-to-1 on a winning wager. You will lose twice as often as you'll win, but you'll win twice as much as you risk, which means that if you had an infinite bankroll and an infinite amount of time to place odds bets against a casino, you could expect to break even forever. That's a FAR better position to be in than just about any other gambling opportunity afforded by casinos.
But since casinos are in the business of relying on a house edge, they won't let you just come in and make an odds bet. You can only place odds bets AFTER you have already sacrificed a small edge to the house by placing a pass/don't pass or come/don't come bet.
And that's exactly what you should do if you're serious about maximizing your winnings (or, more realistically, minimizing your losses).
Most casinos allow craps players to place 2X odds bets in support of pass/don't pass or come/don't come bets. In such cases, if you put $5 on the pass line, you can place an odds bet of $10 as soon as the point has been established. Some casinos allow 3X odds bets (for a maximum wager of $15) or 5X odds bets (for a maximum wager of $25). The smart play is to make the maximum odds bet allowed in support of your initial pass bet. Since odds bets give the house a 0% edge, every dollar you place in an odds bet whittles away at the edge you conceded by making the pass/don't pass bet in the first place. The bigger your odds bet, the more the house edge approaches zero on the packaged wager of the pass/don't pass bet plus the odds bet.
The Trick to Winning at Craps
Once you've applied your mathematical understanding of odds bets to pare the house edge down to virtually nothing, the real trick of winning at craps is knowing when to quit.
Statistics can tell you what will happen on average over time, but craps is a game of streaks, and no mathematician can tell you precisely when a winning streak will end. Worse yet, when you've been riding the high of a fifteen-minute win streak, it's hard to stop just because of a couple of bad rolls. Of course you think the magic will return if you just keep playing. We all do. That's part of the fun.
And maybe it will. But maybe it won't. Either way, you probably won't be in the proper emotional state to see those "maybes" with any clarity.
So if you're serious about winning at craps, my advice is to:
1) Stick to pass/don't pass or come/don't come bets;
2) Support those wagers with the largest odds bets the house will allow;
3) Define, in advance, how much money you need to accumulate to walk away a winner; and
4) Leave the table as soon as you lose your bankroll or hit your target. If you find yourself saying, "I know I reached my $1000 goal, but I'm hot, so I'll keep going," then I'll bet my bankroll that you're about to lose that $1000.
Why Play Craps?
Craps is much more than a game. It's a party waiting to happen because it screams "The more, the merrier!" with every roll. It's hard to find other games (inside the casino or elsewhere) that allow so many people to play at the same time. If you see a hundred people playing slots, they're playing independently. And if you see seven people gathered around a blackjack table, each one is playing a private match against the dealer.
Not so with craps! When you roll a seven as the shooter, you can thrill a half dozen people and break the hearts of a half dozen others, and the commotion can draw even more people into the unique dynamic of your table.
And when you seven out and the next shooter steps up to replace you, you're not out of the game. It just means you have your hands free to do more drinking and place more bets.
Numbers in Craps
The number one obstacle to understanding craps isn't the complicated layout of the table or the unfamiliar jargon used by the crew. It's the assumption, made by most people, that seven is always a lucky number.
Seven is the most important number in craps, but that has nothing to do with luck--and everything to do with probability. If you roll two standard dice, you'll produce sevens more often than any other total.
Just think about it. No matter what number comes up on the first die, there is ALWAYS a number on the second die that can bring the total to 7 (1 + 6, 2 + 5, etc.) That's not true of any other number between 2 and 12. If the first die comes up as a 2 or higher, then there is NO WAY to achieve a total of 2 because the other die will add at least 1. Similarly, if the first die comes up as a 5 or lower, there is NO WAY to roll a 12 because the most you can get from the second die is 6. The closer a number is to 7, the more likely it is to come up, but 7 is the king.
So when is 7 a lucky number in craps?
If you're the new shooter and you've just placed a $5 bet on the pass line and it's your very first roll (the come-out roll), then a 7 is good luck. Rolling a 7 or an 11 on a come-out roll is called a natural, and all bets on the pass line are paid even money. (You just turned your $5 into $10.)
However, if your come-out roll is a 2, 3, or 12, then everyone with money on the pass line just lost.
If your come-out roll is anything other than a 2, 3, 7, 11, or 12, then the bets on the pass line remain in play because whatever number the dice totaled (4, 5, 6, 8, 9, or 10) has now been established as the point.
What is “The Point?”
This is when craps gets exciting--and when seven becomes the enemy of bets on the pass line.
Let's say that your come-out roll was an 8. Now it's your job to keep rolling until you either make your point (by rolling another 8) or seven out (by rolling a 7). All of a sudden, a 7 is bad news for everyone with money on the pass line. And since you're slightly more likely to roll a 7 than you are to roll an 8, those folks will be cheering for you to beat the odds and make them all winners.
Many people have the idea that since 2, 3, and 12 are automatic losers for pass line bets on the come-out roll, they must always be unlucky. That's not true. Once you have established the point with a come-out roll, the only rolls that matter for the pass line are the point itself and the number 7. If the point comes up first, pass bets win and don't pass bets lose; if 7 comes up first, pass bets lose and don't pass bets win. Rolling snake eyes AFTER you've established the point is meaningless (except for come/don't come bets or the sucker bets in the middle of the table).
Even though winning at craps is completely a matter of luck, the house edge against a standard bet on the pass line is so low (less than 1.5%) that you can have a great time on a limited bank roll even if the only thing you understand about craps is that 7 wins for the pass line on a come-out roll and loses if the shooter is trying to make a point.
If you started this article as a total craps newbie, congrats, you’ve already learned enough to make one of the safest bets on any casino floor.
History of Craps
According to The New Complete Hoyle Revised, "Dice are the oldest gambling implements known to man," so no one really knows how far back we have to go to find the true origin of the game currently known as craps.
Nevertheless, historians can trace craps to an earlier game called "hazard" that was popular in Europe at least as far back as the medieval period, when dice were made from the bones of dead animals (especially pig knuckles). Even though Geoffrey Chaucer referred to dice as "bones" way back in the 14th century, the phrase "roll the bones" first appeared in print in 1897--specifically in reference to the descendant of hazard known as craps.
The popularity of hazard surged in England in the 1600s and 1700s. When Shakespeare's Falstaff quipped, "I diced not above seven times . . . a week!", his audience probably couldn't help thinking specifically of the game they called hazard.
But even if the origins of hazard are shrouded in mystery, the origins of craps are fairly well understood. In the decades just before America's Civil War, a Louisiana playboy named Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville introduced a simplified version of hazard to the community of gamblers in New Orleans.
Where Did the Name Craps Come From?
The reason to include that guy's Frenchity-French fried name in its entirety is to underscore the fact that the name of craps has nothing to do with a slang term in English for excrement. If you think that craps is called craps because the shooter yells something along the lines of "Feces!" when he rolls snake eyes, think again. In the first place, Mandeville's pals were much more likely to yell "Merde!" And in the second place, craps is apparently short for "crapaud," which is French for toad.
Huh? What do toads have to do with playing dice? Can you even make dice out of toad knuckles?
Well, it's not as far-fetched a connection as it seems. Imagine a bunch of guys playing craps on a sidewalk. They're all hunched over the dice--not quite sitting, not quite kneeling. Each player is, to borrow a phrase from John Milton, "squat[ting] like a toad."
(Please pause for a moment, gentle reader, to appreciate the fact that I have now worked in references to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton in a single article about the history of craps. Be warned that this is what happens when English majors write about gambling.)
The Origins of the Modern Game
Modern players of craps would have no trouble recognizing the version popularized by Mandeville in New Orleans, but there were still a few wrinkles that Mandeville hadn't quite ironed out. Enter an American dice manufacturer named John H. Winn, who introduced the pass/don't pass mechanic in the 1860s.
With that alteration (along with a handful of other tweaks), Winn gave us the version of craps that we still play today. Craps was incredibly popular from the 1860s to the 1970s, but despite being one of the most thrilling casino offerings, craps has been losing ground to other games for decades. Many gambling experts speculate that young people are choosing not to learn how to play craps because it seems complex and intimidating.
That's a shame if it's true because the best bets in craps are incredibly easy to understand. Craps only becomes complicated once you start paying attention to all the fluffy prop bets that favor the house by a ridiculous margin. You can absolutely play (and enjoy) craps without worrying about any of the crazy terminology, and you can (and should) simply ignore the exotic bets.
But maybe people aren't shying away from craps because the game intimidates them; maybe they are simply being steered towards other games (games with better odds for the house) by the casinos. A 2013 study conducted by the University of Las Vegas at Nevada found that whereas craps accounted for nearly 30% of casino revenue in 1985, it generated less than 10% of casino revenue in 2012.
The “Floor Space” Issue
In the same way that grocery stores have to decide how much shelf space to dedicate to Coke vs. Pepsi, casinos have to consider the floor space taken up by a craps table and the manpower involved in staffing it vs. the ease of installing another handful of slot machines. Since the smart bets in craps are among the safest bets possible in a casino, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the decreasing popularity of the game has a lot more to do with the people who manage casinos than the folks who patronize them.
But even if the casinos don't want craps, they're stuck with it because it's part of what defines the casino experience. It's arguably more exciting than any other casino offering, and statisticians can demonstrate that, when played intelligently, it gives people a better shot at breaking even than just about any other gambling activity (short of becoming an expert at blackjack). For those two reasons, perhaps Americans will play craps for as many centuries as the English played hazard.