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GAMES : The Diceman Cometh

June 03, 1993|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

There are three characteristic San Francisco sounds: cable car bells, foghorns and the muffled THUMP! followed by a brittle rattle that announces the beginning of the after-work cocktail hour.

There is hardly a tavern in San Francisco that doesn't have a small row of dice cups on the shelf behind the bar. The tradition of shooting dice for the tab in that city is absolutely ironclad, and it is pursued with true devotion.

Baghdad-by-the-Bay may be the nation's dice capital, says Gil Jacobs, but that doesn't mean that dice games need to begin and end there. Jacobs, the vice president of a computer services firm, is also the author of an $8 guide that may be the definitive book on rollin' them bones, "World's Best Dice Games: How to Play and Win" (John N. Hansen Co. Inc.).

Dice games, asserts Jacobs, have been played at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians, around 3000 BC. The ancient Greeks also played, as did the Indians of 1500 BC (who also invented ways to cheat, says Jacobs). Dice (loaded ones) were recovered from the ruins of Pompeii, and the Romans invented a game called "ten," which was probably the game used to cast lots for Christ's garments at the Crucifixion, Jacobs says.

Today, however, the predominant dice game is called Boss (or Bull) Dice. Like many of the games in Jacobs' book, Boss Dice is based on forming a poker hand with five dice (three of a kind, four of a kind, full house, etc.) during the course of two rolls. It is quick and reasonably exciting if you have a stake in the outcome. There are many variations, also included in the book (along with a description of a scene from the 1955 film "The Left Hand of God," in which Humphrey Bogart plays a form of Boss Dice with an evil Chinese warlord played by Lee J. Cobb).

Second in popularity, Jacobs says, is Liar's Dice, and he offers several variations to the basic formula: to "guess the highest poker hand that has been rolled using the combined dice of all the players." This is both a guessing and a bluffing game, because each player may only look at his own dice during play. Any player may challenge any other player's guess at any time.

If this sounds simplistic, don't bet on it. There are permutations of basics all over this book, as well as dice games of the Yahtzee type that require score-keeping; high-ball and low-ball games; games specifically for children (Math Dice can be particularly helpful in teaching basic arithmetic), and international dice games.

Also, if the rules of casino craps have always baffled you, there's a good, concise explanation provided. Finally, to help you get beyond mere blind chance, Jacobs has included odds charts for the games.

Legal note: While public bar dice is a mania in San Francisco, the Orange County Code of Ordinances forbids such games. Checking your own local city ordinances may be in order before you start thumping the dice cup down for anything other than a gentleman's bet.

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