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Roots of Modern Casino Games

16 May 2002

New casino games rarely are truly "new." They tend to be new takes on old games. Spanish 21 is based on blackjack. Caribbean Stud is based on stud poker. So are Let It Ride and Three Card Poker.

What about older casino games, the traditional standbys such as blackjack, craps and roulette? They're based on still older games, although with some the roots are old enough to be a little muddy. Blackjack certainly is European in origin, although nobody is really certain if the most direct antecedent is the French game vingt-un, the Spanish uno y trente or the Italian games baccarat or 7 1/2.

Other games we can trace with more certainty, even though their predecessors are centuries old. Let's take a look at the roots of a few modern casino favorites:

CRAPS: The craps game we play in casinos today is an early 19th-century Americanization of a 16th-century French game, but it's derived from a much older English game called hazard. Some sources date hazard to the 12th century, during the Crusades. Crusading knights are said to have played the game before attacking Hazarth castle in 1125, and it may be from that battle that the name is drawn. Other sources agree on the age of the game, but say its name comes from the Arabic words "al zar," meaning "the dice."

The pass and come bets in craps are essentially streamlined versions of hazard. Craps novices are sometimes intimidated by the pass and come bets, but they're models of simplicity compared with hazard. Hazard involves two levels called a "main point" and a "chance point."

At the start of play, the shooter keeps rolling until he rolls a two-dice total of 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9. That becomes the main point. If on the next roll, he rolls the main point again, he wins. If he rolls a 2 or a 3, he loses. If the main point is 7 and the shooter rolls an 11, he wins, but 11 loses on all other main points. If he rolls a 12, he wins if the main point is 6 or 8 and loses if the main point is 5, 7 or 9.

Confused yet? We're just starting.

If the roll after the main point does not repeat the point but is a 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10, that roll becomes the chance point. Now, no other numbers matter except the main point and the chance point. If the shooter repeats the chance point first, he wins. If he repeats the main point first, he loses.

Let's walk through a sequence. The shooter starts by rolling a 6. That's the main point, and the shooter is hoping the next roll will be a 6 or a 12. He wins on either of those rolls, but loses on 11. Instead, he rolls a 9. That becomes the chance point. The next several rolls are 5 ... 7 ... 11 ... 8. None of them matter. Finally he rolls a 9, repeating the chance point and winning the bet. Had he rolled a 6, repeating the main point before the 9, he'd have lost.

ROULETTE: Take an English game called roly-poly, move it to France and layer on an Italian game called biribi, and you have roulette.

The horizontal gaming wheel used in roulette was invented in England in 1720 for roly-poly. The wheel alternated black and white slots, and players bet on either black or white. There also were "bar white" and "bar black" slots, and all bets lost on either of the "bar" slots, giving the operator a mathematical edge on the game.

Roly-poly was banned in England in 1745, but the wheel survived in France. By the late 1700s, the French were playing a game similar to roly-poly. The French wheel alternated red and black slots, as on modern roulette wheels, but there still were no numbers. Russell T. Barnhart, in his book Beating the Wheel, speculates that the 36-number version of the Italian ball game biribi, then popular in France, was adapted to the existing wheel, giving roulette its numbered slots. Fully modern wheels, complete with numbered slots and both a zero and double-zero, have been traced to Paris in 1796.

KENO: Based on the Chinese lottery, keno was brought to the United States by Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s. It originally was played with 80 Chinese characters, which were replaced in the United States with 80 Arabic numbers.

When the game was introduced in Nevada in 1931, lotteries were illegal, but bingo was not. The adaptation of the Chinese lottery was made to resemble bingo as much as possible, with 80 numbered balls spun in a bingolike cage, and 20 numbers then drawn. At that time, each number was accompanied by the name of a racehorse, drawing a parallel with legal horse betting and giving the game the name "racehorse keno." The horses' names were eliminated in 1951, when Nevada started to tax off-track betting on horse races. No casino operator wanted any suggestion that racehorse keno also should have a tax added.

The name was shortened to "keno," but casinos continued to call individual games "races." That terminology is fading, but in some Nevada casinos, you still bet on keno "races" and buy "multirace tickets" when you want to bet the same numbers on several consecutive games.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
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. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski

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. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski