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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Craps Is the Most Philosophical Game

17 July 2001


Casinos don't exactly jump to mind when you think of philosophers congregating to ruminate and debate. Yet, many a philosophy is espoused in these joints. Gamblers can be downright Aristotelian about their action. And, when it comes to solid citizens who vie against the house, none are more philosophic than craps players.

Philosophical in all its forms. Unruffled in the face of adversity. Diligent in the search for truth. Exacting in the use of logic. Persistent in the exercise of ethics and morality. Unfailing in the exploration of human nature. Argumentative in the resolution of paradoxes. Well, you get the idea.

In part, the philosophical bent of craps aficionados may derive from the abstract symbology inherent in the game. Fortunes can be made or lost, the futures of participants and those with whom they come into contact decided, by counting dots on a mystical pair of randomly falling cubes. Much akin to finding the meaning of life in tea leaves, shapes of clouds, or wolf droppings. At the same time, little resembling the banal bouncing of a silly ball into a groove at roulette, the flow of commonplace cards at any of innumerable games, or the spinning of actual or virtual reels ?? festooned with frippery ?? on a slot machine.

Then, too, the philosophical underpinnings of the game may arise from the befuddling array of ways craps players can stake their fates on a universe comprising only 36 possibilities ?? 11 if you skip composition-dependent hardways and hops. In six of the 11 cases, you can bet for or against. Indirectly by means of Pass, Don't Pass, Come, or Don't Come. Directly by placing, buying, or laying a wager. Singly or in combinations, the latter with individual elements or pre-established groups that augment or offset one another to greater or lesser degrees.

The philosophical character of craps may further follow from the plethora of strategies and systems. Or from the fact that while the gurus can say which bets give the casino the least edge, no "book" decrees when to do what, as in blackjack, video poker, pai gow, and the like. Or from the fluidity that attends starting with one set of goals when a shooter is coming out, ending with another when a point is marked, and turning the laws of nature upside down when the dice leave the table or hit someone's hand.

Sure, you occasionally hear blackjack buffs arguing whether to insure a natural against an ace for guaranteed even-money, or to split eights against a ten and become an underdog for twice as much. You sometimes catch disputation among roulette enthusiasts about the merits of betting with something that's been hitting because the game runs in streaks, or against it because the opposing result is due. And if you hang around video poker fans long enough, you'll run into wrangling over whether games with extra wild cards are better because they have more chance to win.

These issues pale in comparison with the points pondered by dice devotees. The relative merits of Pass versus Don't Pass, alone, fill volumes of the gambling literature so recondite that the experts who made the pronouncements on either side scarcely understand most of it themselves. The issue of whether to take or lay odds after the point is established may never achieve universal resolution. And this is before even asking whether betting the come is better than placing a number because the edge is lower, or the converse because a box has to hit twice before a come wins and only once to collect on a place bet.

Sadly, some cynics scoff at the notion that gambling is a philosophical endeavor. Those who've read Damon Runyan, or seen the movie, "Guys and Dolls," may be especially dubious about craps. They obviously don't recognize the seemingly endless debates as paths to enlightenment. Could they be right? Is it all, as the mathematician, Norbert Wiener, wrote in his memoir, Ex?Prodigy, "an undigested mass of mathematical logic, completely uncombined with any knowledge of what it was all about"?

Perhaps the poet, Sumner A Ingmark, offered a clue when he observed:

Wisdom is where e'er you find it,
'Neath a rock, perhaps behind it,
Often nobody designed it,
Trivial 'til you've enshrined it.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.