Rollin’ the bones

For some families, the dice are more than a crapshoot; they are a way of life

Photo by David Robert

Once, when he was young, he threw so hard, flicked his wrist with such force, that the dice hit the basement wall and actually cracked. The fracture was on a come-out roll and came up showing 11. I imagined them smoking, hot to the touch. Later, he’d stack the dice carefully in his fingers and pitch them so slow and high you could finish a cup of coffee before they hit the wall and slid to a controlled stop.

All his stories were dice stories. Colorful tales of old-time places like the Arrow Club, the Benore, the Ohio Villa. They always seemed to include a guy who was missing a finger or a tooth and guys with names like “Golden Arm,” “Good Time” Jack and “Dancing” Dane. One time in the library I found a book by a guy called Damon Runyon and started reading. I guess he had heard my father’s stories, too.

My dad’s been trying to beat the game of craps for the last 60 years. To be sure, a young man from the rural slums of Ohio with a name like Earl might have found his niche in life just about anywhere: a bowling alley, an auto parts store, sitting outside a Piggly Wiggly in bib overalls sipping beer through his teeth. Not my father. He just wanted to shake the dice.

He taught me when I was young. Ring-Around-the-Rosy young. Not that we used to toss the dice around with baseball gloves or pitch them against the side of the house or anything, but it was the one thing we did together that he really took an active interest in.

There were baseball dads in nut-hugging bike shorts and goofy tube socks, crew-cut football dads with screamed-out, scoured vocal cords and red faces. I had a gambling dad, a father who encouraged me to stay inside and read The Gambling Secrets of Nick the Greek and quizzed me on things like the percentage of house advantage for different field bets. Other kids knew Ozzie Smith’s batting average. I knew the correct payout for a High-Low-Yo. He had me practice 100 rolls a day.

He had theories; he just couldn’t articulate them. Craps to him was a game for the religious. Surely the odds were against you. A nonbeliever would simply look at the numbers and pass. The mathematics would grind your money down to nothing if you played long enough. Yet that didn’t always happen. A hot table, a long roll—these were acts of faith, proof of the divine. Sure enough, rolling bones to unlock the will of the gods is as old as human culture.

In the basement, he built a plywood platform, covered it with green felt, and claimed it was for his old Lionel train set. He even went as far as to put the tracks together and hitch up the cars, putting up miniature green metal billboards and a Styrofoam mountain. But on Sundays after church, the train came off and the game began. One by one, the boys from Mount Carmel stomped down the wooden staircase whooping and hollering. The stakes were low, nickels and dimes, but they played forever.

Whether my mom actually thought all those guys were down there playing with his train set the whole time I really don’t know. It was a nice train set. Later, when my parents got divorced, I sold it to a guy who advertised in the paper as “Loco Larry.” Of course, I blew the money on craps.

Stanley Fujitake’s monster roll at the California Club in Vegas changed my father’s life. The legendary three-hour marathon made all the guys at the table that day rich, but it made my dad, who heard the story some time later, poor. Convinced there was some esoteric secret, some new information, he plunked down money on every “system” he saw offered. There was Ultimate Craps. 7-1 Craps. The Knudsen-Monahan Method. The 90 Percent Protection System, World’s Best System, Win-on-Every-Other-Play System, the $500-an-Hour System. He tried new and exotic dice grips: the “ice tong” grip, the “two-fingered Palooka"—anything to get an edge.

Slowly the game began to change for him. It evolved. The layout started looking like a Ouija board, the dice an oracle, deciding all facets of his day, whether he should eat steak or pancakes for breakfast. He brought a pair of dice with him wherever he went, divining his next move by their clickety-clack. Take the freeway or the bridge? One roll and it was decided. Everything became a grim exercise in randomness and superstition. A new voodoo, tinged with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Last Sunday, he came to see me for the first time in five years, ostensibly for the holidays, but really for the opening of the new downtown casino, the Golden Phoenix, an event he regarded as very favorable. New casinos are always lucky, he told me.

He’s really starting to show his age. He’s withering. He’s got degenerative arthritis and something called “reflex sympathetic dystrophy.” The tender skin at his wrist and elbows has thickened and every other place thinned. His bones are brittle. It makes it hard for him to even throw the dice. It hurts.

“But no matter how bad I get, don’t ever let them put me on one of those damn life support machines,” he admonished.

He meant slots.

At the Golden Phoenix, a lone security guard sat on a stool under the lights, the gaming area roped off. The casino wouldn’t open until sometime on Wednesday. We walked up Sierra Street through the chilly air, my father juggling a pair of dice in one pocket, shaking a bottle full of Zocor in the other. Up ahead a bell started clanging, red lights flashing. A train was coming. My father did a double-take, looked around. “What the hell is all this?”

“It’s OK,” I said. “They’re building a trench. For a quarter-billion dollars.”

He looked at me funny. “A what? Where?”

I shrugged. “Never mind.”

We waited at the tracks, then walked up to Circus Circus.

My father nudged me as we went in. “Hey. You know how many cars were on that train?”

I smiled.

“Thirty-six," he said pushing his way to the tables. "It’s gonna be one hella lucky night," the life left in him building to a slight flush in his cheeks. "You better believe it."