To borrow and bastardize a phrase from Mark Twain, the reports of craps demise have been greatly exaggerated.
I’ll admit my bias… having dealt craps, taught craps, supervised craps, run craps promotions, counseled inventors of new craps game variations, consulted with craps operators and having played craps for over 40 years, I don’t believe that craps is a dying table game. On the contrary, I believe it is a sleeping giant.
The game of craps is also a survivor. While there is some disagreement as to the origin of the game of craps, many historians believe it is an offshoot of the Western European game of “hazard,” whose own origins are obscure and date back to the time of the Crusades. There is some belief that hazard was brought from London to New Orleans by the young son of a wealthy colonial Louisiana landowner family. Naturally, he was an avid gambler.
The game was rejected by Americans of his social class and might have had an early demise right then. But the game (and some innovations to it) was introduced to the local New Orleans underclass, where it caught on. Field hands taught their friends, Mississippi riverboat deckhands carried the game to cities up the Mississippi River and eventually “hazard” got renamed as “craps” and looked and played more like the game we see in casinos today. Craps quickly became popular when gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1930, and it became mainstream during World War II, when American soldiers played craps for gambling, entertainment and to take their minds off the horrors of war.
HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED
The game of craps has actually changed little since it was popularized by returning G.I. Joes. The game is played with two dice on an enclosed felt table that typically holds 12-14 players, who stand throughout the game (although craps games with seats have been tried, with little player acceptance). A crew of four dealers typically works on a craps table (three working at any one time), as well as a supervisor seated at the game (called a “boxperson”) and a supervisor standing behind the game (called a “floorperson”). Over recent years, many small casinos have dispensed with the boxperson and/or the floorperson positions, and often run the craps game with only two dealers, or even a single craps dealer on a game that is cut in half at slower times.
While there have been numerous books written on how the game of craps is played, suffice it to say that players at the craps table all have an opportunity to shoot the dice and make any of the scores of bets that are available, ranging from bets with a house advantage of 0 percent (Odds Bets) to bets with a house advantage as high as 17 percent (Proposition Bets). Without getting deep into the complexities of craps, bettors can essentially wager that any of the two dice combinations of four, five, six, eight, nine or 10 can roll before the combinations of seven does, or conversely, they can wager that the seven combination will roll before the four, five, six, eight, nine or 10 combinations do. Players can either select their “numbers” (Place Bets) or put money down to get “assigned” a number by the next roll of the dice (Come and Don’t Come Bets and Pass and Don’t Pass Bets). Or players can just make longshot craps bets and try to predict the exact next roll of the dice (Proposition Bets, which offer high payoffs but with a high house advantage).
Each craps bet can be easily understood by an average craps player. But that same player gets overwhelmed by the fact that all of those bets are made, or results are determined on them, at the same time with all different payouts. This fast-paced, complex betting environment is what intimidates most potential new players (or even existing players) from fully understanding craps and the wide array of bets they can make.
Besides the fast-paced complexity and payoff variances in the game of craps, there are numerous other challenges and “embedded craps historical procedures” that make craps a difficult game to grow and nurture. Those include:
Rules: All the table games have rules and procedures for the smooth operation and integrity protection. Craps is no exception, but the rules of craps, or more specifically the enforcement of those rules, are legendary and problematic. Some examples: “Dice must hit the back wall each time!” “Don’t throw the dice too hard!” “Don’t bet late!” “Hands off the table!” “Keep your drink behind the rail!” “Hardways bets are ‘on,’ unless you call them ‘off!’” “Only one hand on the dice at all times!” “Set your money on the table to buy chips, do not try to hand it to the dealer!”
While rules are necessary, does any of this sound like fun when announced or enforced aggressively?
Dealers: The game of craps is easily the most difficult game for dealers to learn. There are rules, procedures, “teaching the game” aspects, difficult players, complex mathematical computations, entertainment components (especially in “calling” the dice as a “stickperson”), necessary sales skills, conflict resolution needs and much, much more inherent in the craps dealer position. Most craps dealers get very little in the way of formalized training in these varying aspects of effectively dealing the game of craps… and it shows. My estimate from observing and interacting with literally thousands of craps dealers over the last 40 years is that perhaps 20-30 percent of them provide a mostly positive craps-playing experience. The rest… well, frankly, they are busy enforcing rules and an adversarial relationship with players, creating a closed social circle among themselves (“cross-firing”), “going through the motions” with little personality or sociability and a variety of other revenue-killing behaviors.
Player behavior: Craps has a pretty well-defined player base that has shrunk significantly over the decades. It is mostly made up of middle-aged and older, men. This is a tough environment in which to attract women, Millennials, slot players, “newbies” and other demographics. In addition, “institutionalized behaviors” (accepted by table games management) of the current core craps player base also make it challenging to build new craps business. Some of those more egregious player behaviors are:
- Taking a long time to shoot the dice- Some players are superstitious, some believe a “controlled dice shot” is possible to overcome the house advantage in craps. Some shooters want to be the center of attention when they “roll the bones.” Others are just plain slow. Whatever the case, numerous craps “shooters” take 20 seconds to one minute to (finally) shoot the dice, setting them on certain combinations, blowing on them, shaking them and otherwise slowing up the craps game when all bets have already been made. I strongly believe that this “slow shooting” player behavior alone costs the entire gaming industry millions of dollars each year in lost game decisions.
- Player complaints- I can’t tell you how many craps player “dust-ups” I’ve seen over the years. Sometimes a player doesn’t like how another player shoots the dice. “Do” craps players tend to not like “Don’t” craps players, as they are rooting for exactly opposite results. Players routinely, often innocently, claim another player’s craps payoff, because they were confused. And on and on.
- Superstitions- Most gamblers are superstitious, but craps players take it to a new level. They expect a negative result, often “7 out,” when the dice go off the table, hit a player’s hands, or have been “short rolled.” They know a shooter will have a bad roll because “they always have a bad roll.” They believe when the dice are changed (a common occurrence, usually every eight hours), the table will “go cold.” Crazy beliefs, sure, but they impact the playing experience.
Regulatory environments: Some state and tribal jurisdictions do not allow craps games. In states like California, entrepreneurs have developed a “card based craps game” that meets regulatory muster by having the craps result based on the turn of cards rather than the roll of dice. Yes, it’s screwy, but some craps players still play “California Craps.” Look for some changes and liberalization here (most recently in Oklahoma) as states become more comfortable with the gambling business and ultimately realize that, if you are going to allow gambling, there is no good reason to not allow craps.
A PROMISING BET
If you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering where my optimism comes for the future of craps. I have outlined a game that has shrunk in numbers of players as well as amounts of revenue. The game is complex and hard to learn. Craps dealers can be disinterested, aloof and even antagonistic. Craps players have commandeered the game with revenue-deflating habits and game-slowing practices.
So why the optimism, Dennis? Well, let me make the case for craps:
The decline of craps revenue seems to have stopped in the industry. In Nevada, craps revenue as a percentage of total table game revenue has gone from more than over 50 percent in the 1940s and 1950s, to 30 percent in 1965 to 9 percent today, where it has remained very steady for the last few years. In addition, there are regional pockets where craps has a strong, avid player base. Try getting on a craps table in Biloxi, Miss., or at Foxwoods in Connecticut or Isleta in New Mexico on a weekend day or night.
Craps is clearly the most fun game in a casino, which is obvious to even a casual casino goer. I have often remarked that there would be no wars in the world if angry people could all experience a hot craps table together for one hour. In addition, both formal and informal research of casino players reveals that most non-craps players state that “craps seems like a lot of fun and I wish I knew how to play.”
New players are “sticking their toes in the craps waters.” Over the last five years I have seen more and more Millennials and women playing craps. Granted, this cannot yet be called a “torrent” of new craps business, but given that no marketing activity was used to attract these new players (and given the “snarly” current craps environment that had to be overcome to get them to even try the game), it is still impressive that the game is showing its potential for player appeal. The socialization aspect of the game (and when combined with free drinks while playing) seems especially interesting to Millennials. Ditto with roulette.
Craps has numerous bets with a huge house advantage. For the progressive craps operator, those bet payoffs can be “loosened” to attract new players, keep the most profitable players playing longer and having a better experience, and creating competitive craps advantage.
An estimated core of 20-30 percent of craps dealers are ranked as “excellent.” With high potential to be “memory-makers,” there is considerable potential to mobilize this cadre of elite dealers to build a better, more fun, more player focused and less adversarial game of craps.
PATH TO SUCCESS
For decades, I have thought about what the ideal formula is to create a “one of a kind craps experience.” I think about it every time I play craps and witness the experiences, both good and bad, that I have described in this article. Recently, I had an opportunity with a progressive casino client to create a craps “beta test site” for many of these “guiding craps principles” I have mentioned here. I believe even more strongly now that there are millions of dollars in unrealized potential revenue for the gaming industry waiting to be harvested with the game of craps.
And the formula for meteoric growth in craps profits is surprisingly simple… but not easy. In my humble opinion, here is what you need to do:
- Leverage the great craps dealers you already have. Recruit their participation in creating an “Elite” craps game totally focused on the players. Train them well. Reward them generously for the additional craps revenue they will surely create.
- Loosen up some of the “sucker bets” in craps for marketing purposes and competitive advantage. Let all players know you offer a “better deal with better dealers.”
- Eliminate as many of the egregious (and revenue sucking) player behaviors as you can as you craft a better and more value-filled craps experience. Yes, it is time for a “10 second shot clock” in craps. Trust me, most of your players will cheer you, as they want a game that moves along.
- Inspect often the “New Craps” that you have created. Assign a spiritual leader of this powerful new craps brand. Tweak. Innovate. Analyze.
There you have it, my case for craps. Essentially, you can choose to “run a craps game” or “create a craps experience.” Your choice. But I believe I know which path will lead to the most craps revenue.