Dice are among the oldest gambling tools known to historians, and as such the origins of craps stretch back into antiquity.
People have been playing games involving dice since the days of ancient Rome, when soldiers fashioned cubes from pig knuckles and other bones before rolling them on their upturned shields during their downtime. This is actually where the slang term “roll the bones” – which is used in craps to this day – first appeared.
While dozens of dice games were likely played during that era, the precursor to craps as we know it today likely developed during the middle ages. Most scholars studying the subject agree that craps descended from an English game known as hazard, which was invented by a nobleman named Sir William of Tyre in 1125 A.D.
According to historical accounts, Tyre led a band of knights during the Crusades, laying siege to the castle of Hazarth around this time. As the siege stretched on over many months, Tyre devised a simple dice rolling game and named it hazard after the castle he was attempting to conquer.
In hazard, players took turns rolling a pair of dice, with the roller being referred to as the “caster.” The caster chose a number between 5 and 9 (called the main) before rolling, and the result of their roll determined whether they won or lost their wager. Should the caster roll the main exactly, they automatically won (or nicked), while rolling 2s, 3s, 11s, and 12s resulted in either a win or a loss (“throwing out”) depending on which main was being played. Any other number was called a chance and this resulted in the dice being re-rolled.
For example, with a main of 7 in play, the caster won by rolling a 7 or 11. Rolling a 2, 3, or 12 caused the caster to lose, and any other number led to a re-roll. As you can see, the connection between hazard and modern craps is quite clear.
Tyre’s hazard caught on and spread throughout medieval Europe over the following centuries. In his acclaimed work The Canterbury Tales, author Geoffrey Chaucer makes reference to the game, and eventually hazard was being played in France as well.
French immigrants making their way to the North American colony of Acadia (modern day Nova Scotia in Canada) brought the game along with them, but by that point hazard was known as crabs. The name crabs stemmed from the fact that, in hazard, the lowest possible dice roll (known as snake eyes today) was colloquially called “crabs.” When the English took control of Acadia in 1755, thousands of Frenchmen were forced out of the area, and they eventually settled in modern day Louisiana. The subsequent Cajun dialect to emerge from the mixture of French and English gave rise to the word creps.
Along the way African Americans living in the South also adopted craps, forgoing the house option and betting against fellow players in a version known as street craps. Remnants of this game are still played in neighborhood games around the world, as street craps requires no table or dealer and allows for a much simpler set up.
Modern craps as we know it today was created by dice maker John H. Winn in 1907, after Winn revolutionized the game’s betting structure. Now known as the Father of Modern Day Craps, Winn tweaked the table layout used in craps, adding the don’t pass bet to remove the possibility of a gambling house employing loaded dice. The layout created by Winn survives to this day, setting a standard for craps games all around the world.