Here’s something I came across researching the book project I’m working on right now, set in early Georgian London: hazard, a dice game with crazy rules, though it’s the ancestor of the simplified dice game craps, which I’m pretty sure is familiar to anyone reading this.
Kristen Koster has a reasonably good summary of the game here, but I figured I’d try write it up as well, and see if I couldn’t make the rules a little simpler to follow. I figured some notes about cheating would also be appropriate, since that was widespread in dice games historically. Whether you’re researching the game for a writing project, looking for a gambling game to add to your favorite tabletop RPG, or just curious about the history of gaming as a pastime, this post is for you.
Hazard’s one of those dice games you run across mentions of in older literature—all the way back to Chaucer, in fact, and it turns up in Shakespeare too—but unless you look it up, you might not know how to play. Here’s a hint: craps in a very simplified version of it. It’s an English game, though doubtless travelers to England and those in touch with English travelers could easily have picked it up. (I’d imagine it was played on English ships around the world as a pastime, for example.)
Here’s how you play:
First, if it’s your turn, you declare a target number (the “main”). That number must be between 5 and 9. Then you roll.
What happens as a result of that first roll depends, in part, on the target number (or “main”) chosen at the start:
|5 or 9||LOSE||WIN||LOSE||LOSE|
|6 or 8||LOSE||WIN||LOSE||WIN|
Obviously, if you roll the “Main” you always win.
What if you roll neither the Main, nor 2, 3, 11, or 12? (Say, if the “main” is a 6, and you just rolled a 5?)
In that case, whatever you’ve just rolled becomes the new target number (called “chance”). At that point, things flip-flop: you want to roll anything but the “main”: if you roll that, you lose, and you can only win by rolling the “chance”… You still need to avoid rolling 2-3, and either 11, 12, or both, depending on the “main” you chose. If you roll none of those numbers—neither your “main,” nor your “chance”, nor 2, 3, 11, or 12—then you roll again, and keep doing so until you roll one of those six numbers.
(This is why people believe the expression “at sixes and sevens” is linked to the game hazard: each number is risky as a “main” because if one doesn’t roll it right off the bat, one is likely to roll it after a “chance” has been rolled. In other words, if you don’t roll a six (or a seven) right away, you’ve got very good odds of rolling it when it’s going to lose you the game.
What’s the likelihood of that happening? Here’s a table that shows the odds pretty clearly (ganked from the Traveler Central website).
You have to lose three times in a row for it to become someone else’s turn.
Betting is a little complicated too, of course: basically, there was the caster (the person rolling the dice), the bank, and other players. The original wager was between the caster and the bank: if the caster rolled the main on the first go, he won an amount equivalent to his stake.
Failing that, if he rolled chance instead of main, he’d win back his stake. But of course, once you had a “chance” and a “main” further wagers would be made by the caster (and by onlookers making side bets) about whether the caster would roll chance or main first, or simply throw out by rolling the dreaded 2, 3, 11, or 12 (depending on the main chosen). There’s a table of odds for each main and chance combination available at the Wikipedia page for this game, along with a description of the rules that may even be simpler to follow than this explanation. (So if you’re still confused, have a look there.)
There was some terminology besides “main” and “chance,” of course: “throw out” was the term for losing, while “nick” was the term for winning.
If that sounds confusing, well, that’s because it is confusing. As Kristen Koster notes, there’s a flash game of Hazard that was posted by someone named DrakonLady on Deviantart, and that’s probably the easiest way to learn the rules.
Of course, I hard to get my brain around it, or I thought I did, since a character of mine (in the book I’m working on) ends up in a gaming hell, confronting a “nickum” (a professional cheat who uses loaded dice). There were plenty of ways of loading dice, incidentally: shaving them slightly to make them roll favoring one or another face was popular, as was an attempt at using sleight of hand while rolling. Sleight of hand was also useful for switching between weighted and unweighted dice, or different sets of weighted dice.
Another trick, noted by Stephen Hart in his excellent Cant—A Centleman’s Guide to the Language of Rogues in Georgian London, was to “bristle” a die or dice by affixing the bristle of a pig to one corner or face of a die, which would force it to roll one way or the other and avoid landing a certain way. As Hart notes, this was probably reserved for when one was gambling against a truly drunken opponent.
But the cleverest of cheats is the use of “tappers”: these were specially-crafted “bones” (dice) that contained two internal reservoirs: one at the core of the die, and one off to one side. The two reservoirs were connected by a fine capillary (if the hidden weight added to the die were liquid, like mercury) or by less-fine tube, if the hidden weight were a small pellet of metal, like gold or bronze. The trick here is that the dice would roll true until they were “tapped” (or “stamped”) upon the table at the correct angle or with the correct face facing upward, at which point the weight would shift from the core of the die to the side, making it heavier so that the opposite face would be likelier to show up as a result.
If that gives you the feeling that gaming hells were crawling with professional cheats out to gull anyone foolish enough to give gambling a whirl, then you’ve got it right. The thing is that early Georgian London was a place where risk and chance were kind of embraced in a way that was new: people had gambled since time immemorial—indeed, Roman spintriae tokens are imagined by many to have been gaming tokens, and we have polyhedral dice going all the way back to Ptolemaic Egypt—but there was a newfound excitement about risk and the opportunity it presented Londoners in the early 1700s. (The costs of what newfound excitement over the payoffs of risk evidently contributed to the severity of the South Sea Company stock debacle, to be sure, and they seem to have continued throughout the century.)
In the end, all that research ended up being only somewhat useful to the scene I was writing that involved a visit to a gaming hell—which is why historical fiction can be such a challenge: there’s so much interesting research to be done, and you never know what’s needed till you’ve failed to use something in the text. Still, it’s still fascinating enough to share.
Oh, and by the way: “long” dice?
Here I thought at least some of the weird dice out there were modern innovations. Next someone will tell me Zocchi dice date back to the Victorian era, or ancient Babylon or something.
(No, no, I know they don’t. But still.)