Sunday, March 2, 2014

Missing Slices of Cultural History: Craps

The role of the historian is to attempt to decode what came before.  Typically, when we think about what we need to decode, we tend to imagine that we need to travel far back in time.  How can we understand, for instance, the complex administrative structure that was the Roman Empire and how it operated in everyday life?  How can we make sense of what used to be called the 'Dark Ages,' a time when crucial events were instigated by groups that did not record history?

But we tend to forget that knowledge does not require centuries to be lost.  In fact, it can sometimes disappear within decades.  Philip Roth novels, for example, often successfully re-create these 'lost worlds' that were occupied by our parents and our grandparents, yet contain elements almost wholly foreign to us today (....this may need a separate post....).  Take, for instance, Nemesis (2010), which tells of the fear that takes over a community during the 1940s when there is a polio outbreak.  Most of us are fortunate to live in a time when polio is nothing more than a distant memory, with only the occasional vestige to remind us that it even existed.  Yet polio was a common fear not that long ago.

Let me shift from polio to the game of craps.  Craps is a dice game that you can now play if you visit your local neighborhood casino (or the larger gaming venues at Las Vegas or Atlantic City).  The principles are relatively simple:

However, craps is also a popular choice for American stage productions when they need a dice game.  For example, in Porgy and Bess, the dice game that the men are playing is craps.  Also, a craps game is a major plot elements in Guys and Dolls, a musical based on the writings of Damon Runyon:

Why craps?  Was that really what everyone was playing?  Was this the illegal dice game of choice?  Is this the illegal dice of choice and I just don't know about it?  Are there more examples?   Please feel free to discuss in the comments!


  1. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the rules that made it a simple cue for audiences to identify. If they were playing a more complicated game, the plot might have to be interrupted to self identify, this way one gets a visual cue that is loaded with understood significance in a visually stimulating and easily-identifiable form. Just a thought...

  2. Yes, I am wondering if it is that too! It's a good group dice game as well. I'm not sure how much of the actual game gets depicted though. Although, even in 'Guys and Dolls,' the game is simply 'the game.' They don't really get into too much detail about how it's played. Same thing in 'Porgy and Bess.' I think it's also possible that this *was* the game of choice for those wanting to gamble illegally. After all, it's pretty portable since all you really need are dice and markers (there's a reason that permanent craps game can remain floating).