I was having the best breakfast in the world: a paper cup of steaming watery coffee sipped at the rail of the craps table at O’Shea’s Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, with sticky Sunday morning sunshine lighting up the dust and duct tape on the felt. Around me, the cheery chimes of a hundred slot machines blurred with nearby voices and passing traffic. I finished the coffee and Doris the Waitress appeared beside me, Doris with her smoker’s rasp, blue perm, and great legs. “Another? Sure thing, hon.” I smiled into the air, and leaned over the rail to place a bet. Heaven will have dice and black coffee.
I must have one of those approachable faces, because when I’m playing craps, rookies ask me what to do. They’re intimidated by the cryptic jumble of words and numbers on the table. I was there once, so I don’t mind educating them.
First, basic etiquette. Keep your drinks away from the felt. Only touch the dice with one hand. And my automatic response to the one question posed by every craps virgin: “Is this a hot table?” The answer: “It doesn’t matter. The dice have no memory.” At its heart, craps is simple math. Six sides to a die, two dice to a throw. On any roll of two dice, you’re more likely to see a total of seven than any other number, but the dice don’t care what came before or what may come again. A so-called hot streak is a series of single-roll dramas as random as a six a.m. jakewalk down a Vegas street. “The dice have no memory.” It’s my meditation.
I used to play the same basic line bet over and over, waiting for the inexorable odds to rattle out in my favor. It’s damn near the smartest bet in town, with a casino advantage so slim they only offer craps for the atmosphere. The game is lively and dirty and sophisticated all at once, with the hint of danger from its dark-alley origins, and the comradeship of your fellow players (in craps, you’re called “shooters”) and no less than four friendly, well-dressed casino employees who are always on your side. Our other lives vanish for the minutes we commune around this table, these dice.
My same smart little bet let me feel smug while burning or earning fifty bucks over a lazy, nameless stretch of time. The excitement came in every roll, watching the dice tumble—two sharp-edged rubies skittering down the felt—and listening for the stickman to bark that winning number. “Five, no-field five!” “Winner, six came easy!” “Twelve midnight!” The thump of dice against the rail, the jingle of chips tossed to the felt, the rising tension and joy and fellowship when the shooter is on a burning tear and the whole table rakes in the spoils. It’s slow, savory ruin at five bucks a throw.
But over time, the thrill turned dull. I felt restricted, always making the exact same bet in a game with precise odds. It was still my money at risk, but I’d become a passive observer, even when I rolled the dice. Craps is a game, after all; betting by flawless logic felt righteous, but dull. There was no imagination in it.
So I added whimsy to my dice game by letting intuition tell me when to play an array of other relatively favorable bets: multiple odds, come bets, place bets. It brought that tickle of wickedness back into a game of pure reason. The dice have no memory, but I still have free will. I choose how to play, when to play, and when to walk away. And when I’m feeling content, I preach to curious novices at the rail.
That sunny morning, I drained the last of my second coffee—bitter and almost sour; the urn hasn’t been washed in years. Glorious. I looked outside and saw a beautiful girl in a bathrobe reeling barefoot down the filthy sidewalk, yelling at her friend limping beside her in last night’s platform heels. God bless O’Shea’s, the only casino on the Strip wide open to the fresh Vegas air and unpolished drama, the sublime and the grime. “… Because if I remembered,” whined the girl with the sunlight tangled in her hair, “I wouldn’t be asking you!” Distracted by this little scene, I didn’t realize someone was speaking to me from the other end of the craps table. The shooter.
“Hello. Hi.” It was just us and the dealers. He was maybe thirty, hadn’t shaved in few days, and wore a faded t-shirt too tight around the middle. He glanced down, then back at me, squinting. “Were you here three years ago?”
I blinked and turned to the dealer on my left. “Well, probably. Seems about right, eh, Liz?”
Liz neatened a stack of white chips and said, “Oh yes, we were here.”
The man was still looking at me, motionless. The stickman pushed the dice back in front of him—he’d just won his second point, a warm streak for a shooter—but it was an awkward five seconds before he looked down and took them. “Yeah. I thought so.” He shook the dice slowly and seemed to be speaking to them. “That night, my friend’s bachelor party, we kept going all night, all morning, I was pissing vodka Red Bull, but I still remember you. Huh. I was starting to wonder if I imagined it.” He pitched the dice.
“Six easy, the point is six,” said the stickman, who gathered the dice and pushed them back to the shooter. I didn’t look at him, just stacked the chips for an odds bet behind my original line bet.
The man spoke again, louder. “You were talking about how the dice don’t care about the past or the future, and how you waste your life playing like a machine, like a computer program, might as well count the cigarettes in the gutter from here to the Tropicana, it’s just heartless numbers.” He took a breath. “You said it’s our money, our dreams at five dollars a pop that bring humanity to these plastic dice.” He threw them again.
“Yo eleven,” said the stickman, practicing his lingo on a roll that didn’t matter.
I looked at the shooter. He squeezed the rail in both hands and glared at me. Liz the dealer tapped her callused fingertips against the rail, fidgeting. Finally I said, “Maybe I didn’t put it quite like that, but yeah, that’s how I play.”
The shooter smirked and then reached for the dice, and as he threw them, he said, “Well, that’s how I live.”
The dice settled. “Eight the hard way, the ol’ eighter from Decatur,” sang the stickman for the benefit of no one. Another meaningless throw.
Now the shooter gazed out into the daylight and muttered, “On the drive home after the party, I kept thinking about it. The numbers, the machine. That was my life—my precious education, my bullshit career, the corporate ladder—all of it. Just … empty. I couldn’t take it. So I quit. My boss actually laughed in my face.” The stickman stirred the dice around the middle of the table, letting the shooter speak, his voice rising. “It felt good at first. I got a waiter gig and got back to work on my album, wrote some new songs, did a few open mikes real late nights.” He coughed. “After a while it was just the same couple of friends showing up to hear the same songs, y’know? Then I lost my job when the restaurant closed. Ran out of savings, went on unemployment. There ain’t shit out there.”
He kept staring into the distance. I glanced at Liz and mumbled, “Times are tough.” I’ve never been more tempted to just walk away from a live bet, to leave O’Shea’s Casino forever.
“No shit,” he said, scratching his neck. “After eight months I found a job, finally. Graveyard shift at a gas station. You know what that’s like?” I barely shook my head. “I’m behind bulletproof glass. I never talk to anyone. I never see my friends. Still have the guitar, though.”
A pause signaled the stickman to send the dice his way. Liz said, “Hang in there, buddy. Your luck’ll turn.”
He didn’t reach for the dice. “There is no luck.” He coughed again. “The dice don’t care, they don’t remember. It’s just math, just a machine.” He looked back at me, and raised his chin a bit. “You taught me that. You. I almost don’t believe it.” Then he scooped up the dice and rattled them, and tossed them down the table. I closed my eyes. Please, I thought, anything but …
“Seven out,” sighed the stickman. The dealers swept in our bets. Losers, both of us.
©2021 by Marianne Stokes