Dice themselves were first made out of animal bones shaped into cubes, and history records instances of Roman soldiers playing games with these on the backs of their shields to pass the time. This is the source of the term “to roll the bones”. Of course rolling the bones was also used in almost every culture from Europe to Africa to divine the future and communicate with the spirit world, and predates rolling the bones for entertainment purposes.
There is general agreement that craps descended from the English game of Hazard, which was played in the Middle Ages. Hazard itself was derived from an earlier Arabian game called ‘az-zahr’, which spread to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea to France, where it was renamed. The French then took it across to England, where it became known as hazard.
In England it was played in exclusive upper-class gambling houses, as was the case with most gambling games of the time. The English used the term “crabs” to refer to the lowest possible roll, a pair of ones. The terminology for this throw in turn spread back to France, where it became the French ‘crabes’, although they still retained ‘hasard’ as the name of the actual game.
When the French established their first colony in North America, called Acadia (modern-day Nova Scotia), the game of craps found its way there in the early 18th century. When they lost the colony to the British (who renamed it Nova Scotia), the French moved to Louisiana, taking the game with them. It was at this point that they stopped calling it ‘hasard’, and began referring to it as ‘crebs’ or ‘creps’, which was the Cajun version of ‘crabes’ – Cajun being the language that they had developed from their original French. In 1813 a New Orleans resident, Bernard de Mandeville, simplified the game and the name ‘craps’ started emerging.
The game spread in the same was as poker did – up the Mississippi on the steamboats and into the gambling houses. At that stage bet types were limited, and loaded dice could easily be used to win – and often were. This corruption was rife until new rules were introduced, allowing players to bet with or against the dice-roller, thus rendering loaded dice useless.
Craps then spread rapidly, making it the most popular casino game in the world, and something of an American national pastime.