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How the Casino Game Got Its Name

20 April 2010

By John Grochowski

Everyone knows how casino games get named nowadays. The game inventor, or perhaps the marketing department in a large company, decides what best describes the game, or what will sell the game to the public. Someone at Shufflemaster decided, "Hmmm …. You can choose to pull a bet back or let it ride for another card … we'll call it Let It Ride."

Sometimes the names are descriptive. When Derek Webb invented Three Card Poker, he gave us exactly what the name says: a three-card version of stud poker. Gaming Entertainment Inc.'s 3-5-7 Poker pays off on separate bets as a three-card poker hand is expanded first to five cards, then to seven. Easy enough, right?

Spanish 21? Game creator Richard Lofink said it was because the game used a Spanish deck, with 48 cards. The 10s were removed from our standard 52-card deck, leaving Kings, Queens and Jacks as the 10-value cards in this blackjack derivative.

So it goes with modern patented, copyrighted, trademarked games, the ones whose names are capitalized when you see them in these pages. With older games, name origins are often obscure, accidents of history and location. Blackjack, craps and keno weren't named by anybody's marketing department..

Let's play the name game, and try to decipher why we call these games the names we do.

CRAPS: The French seem to have brought craps to North America, via Louisiana in the early 1800s, before Thomas Jefferson brought the lands into U.S. jurisdiction via the Louisiana Purchase.

It was derived from an earlier game called Hazard, played by English knights during the Crusades. It's said that Sir William Tyre and his men played the game in 1125, during the time the English were laying siege to a castle called Hazarth --- the source of the earlier game's name.

Why craps? Why not just all it "Haz" or some simplified form of Hazard, or perhaps a French version of the word --- perhaps "risqué"?

It seems come down to the French borrowing the game and developing it into a form similar to the one we know today. French slang for a pair of 1s was "krabs."

ROULETTE: If only the English had let it ride, we might all be playing roly-poly today instead of roulette. The horizontal gaming wheel was first used for the game of roly-poly in 1720. Players bet on black or white, as the wheel alternated black and white slots instead of today's red and black. The house got its edge from "bar white" and "bar black" slots. When the ball fell into those slots, all bets lost --- the rough equivalent of today's 0 and 00.

The spin through England was not smooth for roly-poly. It was banned by the gaming acts of 1739 and 1740. A version called E-O surfaced in Bath, where players could bet only on even or odd. That was banned, too, in 1745.

So just as the French turned Hazard into craps, they morphed roly-poly into roulette. Wheels recognizable as the modern game can be traced to Paris in 1796. They had black and red slots, numbers 1 through 36, and both 0 and 00. That sounds a little odd, since the "French" wheel today has no 00, but the single-zero wheel didn't appear until 1842.

The name? Easy enough. "Roulette" is French for "little wheel."

KENO: A Chinese game, keno became known as the Chinese lottery when it was brought to the United States by the immigrants who worked on building the railroads in the 1800s. The game itself dates back more than 3,000 years, when a ruler named Cheung Leung came up with the idea of a lottery that not only refilled his coffers, but proved popular with his people.

Then the game, which originally used 120 Chinese characters, eventually reached New Orleans. Somewhere along the way, numbers were substituted for the Chinese characters, and that was a key to the new name of the game.

There, the French-speaking population called a set of five numbers a "quine," as in "keen." The name game rolled that all into "keno."

BLACKJACK: The name of the game is a giveaway, right? Something to do with hands that include black jacks. The game has multiple European ancestors, including Vingt-et-Un, 7-1/2, Quinze, and Trente y Quarente.

But the name blackjack didn't appear until the early 20th century. No one is quite sure exactly when or where, but the traces seem to lead to Evansville, Indiana, and gambling in the backrooms of saloons.

There, to goose the popularity of the game, the house started paying bonuses on two-card totals of 21 that included a black jack. How big a bonus? Some sources say 10-1. With a bonus like that, I'd be looking for a little of that black jack game, too.

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago, with podcasts at Look for John Grochowski on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).

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