Sunday, February 3, 2013


Dice gambling then and now
Keith Souter  aka Clay More
Marlene Dietrich was one of the Hollywood greats. She became an international star in 1930with her role of Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer in The Blue Angel. Her western debut was in 1939 in the light-hearted Destry Rides Again, playing opposite James Stewart. Then in 1942 she played Cherry Malotte in The Spoilers alongside Randolph Scott and John Wayne. A decade later she played Altar Keane, the femme fatale owner of Chuck-a-Luck, an outlaw ranch on the Mexican border in Rancho Notorious. This was one of the first westerns I remember seeing and I thought it was fantastic.

I was particularly enthralled by it, because of the dice reference, since I was fascinated by everything to do with dice. And of course, Chuck-a-Luck was one of the dice games played in the Old West.

Rancho Notorious was originally to have been called The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, but Howard Hughes, the head RKO Pictures changed the name. It was probably a good decision, for the name may have given too much of the story away. Rancho Notorious has a great ring to it.

                                            Marlene Dietrich as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel

Chuck-a-Luck was played with a shaker cage, and was a popular gambling game on the frontier. It was sometimes called ‘birdcage’ for obvious reasons, and was also referred to as chucker luck, since it was notorious for helping the unwary to lose money. It was played with three simple dice and a simple arrangement of 6 numbers on a felt sheet.
In Rancho Notorious Altar Keane was a saloon singer who had bet her last $20 on a rigged chuck-a-luck game, but won a lot of money when gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont (played by Mel Ferrer) steps in on her behalf. She named the ranch she would establish in honour of the game.

Interestingly, Professor JB Rhine of Duke University reckoned that the birdcage was uncheatable; hence he chose to use it in his famous ESP experiments in the1930s.

Tinhorn gamblers
Before the shaker-cage or birdcage was introduced, Chuck-a-luck was played in the old saloons using a hazard horn. This was a tinhorn that was generally used to play Grand Hazard; another gambling that was played in slightly more up-market gambling houses. It was actually nothing like the English game of Hazard that would eventually evolve into the great American favorite of craps. It was in fact pretty similar to Chuck-a-luck in that it also used three dice and six numbers on a sheet or board with various odds added at various points to make it look both complex and enticing. Again, the house would pay out evens for one number, 2:1 for a double and 3:1 for a triple.

The tinhorn was a metal cone-shaped horn through which the dice were dropped. Inside it had projections, which ensured that the dice fell out at random. The first ones were made of leather, but these were replaced, especially by small gambling houses or by independents with metal tinhorns. In time the term came to be used for any individual who believed they had superior knowledge or aptitude than they actually possessed. Hence the phrase so often used in the west – tinhorn gambler.

Dice through the ages
Dice have been played for millennia. A tablet found in the Great Pyramid of Giza, dated to about 3,000 BC describes a game of dice played by the gods in order to add five days to the calendar.
Several sets of Senet, a board game played with dice were famously found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (c 1371-1352 BC). Intriguingly, some of these sets have a Senet board on one side and the Royal Game of Ur on the other. The Royal Game of Ur was played in ancient Persia, but may have originally come from India.

                                     The ancient Egyptian game of Senet, played with dice
The Royal Game of Ur was played in ancient Persia, but may have originally come from India.  

                                                           The Royal Game of Ur

Crooked dice
There have been dice swindlers around for centuries. The Museum of London has a pewter box that was dredged up from the mud of the River Thames that is dated to the sixteenth century. It contains 24 crooked dice, including a set of Fulhams, and a number of loaded dice. There were lots of ways that crooked dice could be made and used in order to fleece the unwary.

Of course, casinos now use high precision, transparent dice, which has removed any chance of them being tampered with. Yet still there are many adepts who reduce the odds against them by exerting skilful dice control. This includes setting the dice up in such a manner to reduce the odds of certain numbers showing up and to increase the chances of others. 

                                                         The Flying 3V set up

As I said earlier, I have been fascinated by dice ever since my early years and have made a study of dice games, dice tricks, dice divination, dice lore and all manner of dice games – from the ancient games of Senet and the Royal Game of Ur, to the medieval Gluckhaus and English Hazard, to Chuck-a-Luck and the great American game of craps. 

The Pocket Guide to Dice and Dice Games, p/b Skyhorse  2013
ISBN-10   1620871807
ISBN-13   9781620871805
Kindle ASIN: B008O8HRHE

The fruits of my study are collected in The Pocket Guide to Dice and Dice Games. It includes chapters on craps and dice odds, which may just be useful if you are venturing near the casinos of Las Vegas this summer.


  1. I meant to add that if enough folk comment I will be rolling dice to find a winner, who will receive a signed copy of The Pocket Guide to Dice and Dice Games. I'll just need them to email me their actual address. I am afraid that due to technical problems I can't send the ebook.

    Keith Souter

  2. Keith, thanks for the info on gaming. I always wondered where the word "tinhorn" got its roots.
    I enjoyed the post.
    Jerry Guin

  3. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of dice games and gambling. I love these informative blogs.

  4. Thanks Keith! I'm always looking for little colorful touches for my stories -- now I have some dice games they can play!

  5. Thank you, Jerry, Livia and J.E.S. Plenty scope for crooked dice in the old days.

  6. WOW!! what great info - love the tinhorn reference, and the info on crooked dice. Thanks!

  7. The house wins from loaded dice to marked cards - is it any better today? Fun post!

  8. You are welcome, Meg. In fact shop dice are probably slightly crooked.This is simply a matter of the weight of paint on a die. (Dice is the plural of die). If the die is an accurate cube then the six face will have six times as much paint as the one, which is opposite it. Since the four, five and six will meet at a vertex there will be a tendency for these numbers to show slightly more frequently than the one two and three. It may not be a huge difference, yet it is a difference.

  9. Thanks, Neil. I guess the house always has an edge, but that's not dishonest like the cheating in Rancho Notorious.

  10. Totally enthralled with this post. I also appreciate your sharing your vast knowledge. The fact that you put it out in book form is even more wonderful. Thank you.

  11. Keith, awesome post, as always. I really enjoyed this and I'm so glad you've got a book written about it to share your knowledge. I'll be picking this one up, for sure.

  12. Very cool. I always wondered how the game Hazard was played (the English version). I grew up on Georgette Heyer novels. And, like Jerry, I wonder about "tinhorn" too. Now I just have to find out about Faro.

  13. Thanks for the great, usable, information. Great blog. Rod T.

  14. Thanks, Cheryl. It was a fun book to write. In researching it I chatted with the real expert on ancient games who actually translated some cuneiform tablets from ancient Persia.

  15. Thanks, Alison, Hazard haas a really long history Geoffrey Chaucer mentions it in The Pardoner's Tale and even Galileo researched the mathematics of it. Faro will be in the next book on cards! Maybe!

  16. Interesting post. I didn't know there were so many games to be played with dice. I love the tinhorn reference. I've seen Senet mentioned in some historical books and am pleased to have a better idea of what it was. Ur looks totally confusing.

  17. Thanks for stopping by, Linda. The Royal Game of Ur is basically both a race game not too different from Ludo, and a betting game. The set pictured here was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and is now in the British Museum. It dates to 2,500 BC. Two players played against each other, using a set of five or seven markers each. It was a game for the nobility, hence it was called the Royal Game of Ur.

    Yet the common people also played it and wagered on it. We have evidence of this from graffiti etched on various Assyrian or Mesopotamian monuments that are housed in the world’s museums. A graffito grid of such a game was found etched on the foundation of one of a pair of human-headed winged bull sentinels of an Assyrian gateway from the palace of Sargon II, which is on exhibition in the British Museum. It is believed to have been made and used by sentries at the gateway in about 710 BC. Fascinatingly, similar etched grids have been found on other Assyrian monuments in the Louvre in Paris and in Nineveh in Iraq.

    It may be of interest to know that Agatha Christie met her future husband Max Mallowan (later Sir Max) who was Woolley's assistant on the dig. She later used this background in her famous novel Murder in Mesopotamia.

  18. I'm amazed at the ways they could load dice, or roll the dice so that certain numbers would more than likely come up. I'm not much of a gambler, but did go to a casino to learn how to play craps because I needed to know for a book I'm writing. All I did was lose my money and I still don't understand how to play. What I did learn is that people take their dice very seriously!

  19. Hi Jacquie, thanks for dropping in. Dice-setting reduces the odds a lot, even in simple rolls of one die in games like Trivial Pursuits.

    And the craps table looks incredibly complex, yet enticing at the same time. When you study the odds of the various craps bets, you realise you are probably best just keeping your money in your purse or wallet. Casinos don't go bust, after all. It is a serious business indeed.

  20. Thanks to everyone who called in and left a comment.

    Now, I am pleased to announce that after rolling the dice, literally, Alison E. Bruce has won a copy of The Pocket Guide to Dice and Dice Games.

    I'll contact you off-line, Alison.

    And finally, today the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton of a man discovered in the foundations of an old church that had been covered by a car park is none other than King Richard iii. DNA testing has been conclusive.

    I find it interesting that King Henry Vii, who won the throne from him at the Battle of Bosworth Field, was a notorious dice player, whereas there is no evidence that Richard had any such vice.

    Signing out,


  21. Thanks so much for all this fascinating information. As others here have said, I appreciate knowing more about the derivation of tinhorn, a familiar but peculiar term from westerns. A favorite table game of the women in the farming community where I grew up was a dice game called Bunco.

  22. Thanks for dropping by, Ron. That is interesting. Bunco parlours mopped up during prohibition and over in Europe Bunco booths did the same at fairs. It was amenable to swindling, but was also a good family game. There is a World Bunco Association nowadays.

  23. I like the way dice look and feel, but I know nothing about dice games of chance. I've only used them playing board games. I sure found out a lot about them from your blog...very interesting information. When I was in Vegas a few years back, I bought a set of clear red dice just so I could look at them. They are so cool.
    I really enjoyed your blog. All the best to you.

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