The tumbling dice
Refusal is the great Nevadan bar game
I asked Duncan Mitchell to teach me to play the game Refusal.
“Well, it takes more than one day to learn,” he said. Before attempting to teach me the basics, he told me a little background. “It’s indigenous to Reno. … It combines 53 bar games into one big game.”
Mitchell is the owner of Chapel Tavern in central Reno. At Chapel, as in many Reno bars, especially those with old-school Nevada flavor, Refusal is a bar game of choice. This is especially the case during weekday afternoons, when the bars are relatively slow except for a core group of regulars. It’s a dice game.
“I learned it as a bartender at Mr. O’s nine or 10 years ago,” says Mitchell. But he estimates the game is nearly 25 years old. “They’ve been playing it in local bars for at least 22 or 23 years, and they don’t play it anywhere else.”Name the game
Refusal is a bar game, not a casino game. This means that players compete for drinks, not money. The loser buys the round. The game can be fast, jargon-laden and mathematically complex. It’s difficult for a neophyte like me to follow, let alone document. I’ll do my best to explain what I know with the caveat that this is a crude portrait of a very complex, engaging game.
I watched a trio of avid players—Mitchell, Chapel bartender Richard Jackson, and a regular customer named Jason—go at it, and I quickly got the sense that in order to really understand the game, you’ve got to spend a few months playing it.
“Once you’ve played this, as a bartender or a bar patron, you’ll never play another dice game. They just seem boring in comparison,” says Jackson, a sentiment echoed by the other players.
What makes Refusal such a unique game is the open-ended gameplay. As many players who can sit around a bar can play, though the ideal number is three. In order to reach that magic number, all the players play Boss, a more straightforward dice game where players roll sets of five dice to complete poker-like dice combinations (pairs, three of a kind). The winners of each round of Boss are out for the duration of the game, but in for the round of drinks. Unlike many games—poker, for example—where you want to be the last player standing, in Refusal, you don’t want to be the one left holding the bag and footing the bill.
Once all the players but three have been eliminated, the real game begins. Refusal is a framework for individual games. Every round is potentially different. Each player rolls five dice, and keeps their dice concealed from the other players behind their leather dice cups. Then the caller—usually either the newest player or the player who lost the last game—names the game.
“In years of teaching people to play, I’ve found that’s the best way to explain it,” says Mitchell. “The caller names the game.”
In most games, you try to fit your hand to the game. In Refusal, you try to fit the game to your hand. The twist is that the caller has to get another player to agree to the game proposed. The other players take turns to accept or refuse the games called. From this part of the game came the origin of the name Refusal.
An example of a call is “Three to make Vegas, low.” In other words, a combination of three dice to make 11 and then the lowest combined score of the two remaining dice wins. (“Vegas” is 11. “Reno” is 7.) A dice hand of 5, 4, 2, 2, 1 would be a good hand for this call, 5 plus 4 and 2 to get Vegas, and then a low score of 3.
Each round includes the forging of a unique contract among the players. There’s a lot of strategy to calling. The first call is often refused, so it’s often wise to bluff on the first call or to save your best call for later. The first player to lose three rounds loses the game and has to buy the next round of drinks.Take your lumps
It takes a long time to master, and Mitchell jokes about players who have been playing for years but have yet to master the basics—players who make predictable calls and predictable bluffs.
“Most people who do learn, learn to play by watching us,” says Mitchell.
“You’ll definitely take your lumps the first few games,” says Jackson. “You’ll need a few hours to blow and a few dollars to blow.”
But even for experienced and knowledgeable players, the game is consistently rewarding, always offering up new challenges.
“It’s an organic game,” says Mitchell. “We’re always encountering new situations, exploring the limits.”
“It’s far and away the best dice game out there,” says Jason.
In the game I watched, Jason won the last round with a call of “Twin cities, low:” 11 and 7, with low dice. Some locals might find it strange to think of Reno and Las Vegas as “twin cities.”
“But, as far as I know, there’s nobody playing it in Vegas. It’s strictly a Northern Nevada game,” says Mitchell.
The perfect harmony of strategy and luck make Refusal a game like poker in many ways. It helps to know the players and to know the familiar strategies. But to reiterate, unlike poker, it’s not played for money, it’s played for drinks.
“The great American bar game,” says Jackson, before correcting himself. “Actually, it’s the great Nevadan bar game.”