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Rolling the dice on an education in craps

The game is simple; winning isn't. An instructor offers tips on improving one's chances, but at the end of the day Lady Luck is in charge.

December 23, 2007|Marc Cooper | Special to The Times

AS a professional dice coach, Beau Parker has had his share of troublesome students, and the one he's teaching now is particularly tough. Letting someone not known for physical coordination -- me -- roll the bones is like handing a gushing garden hose to a 2-year-old and telling him to be careful.

"Grip them tight between your middle finger and your thumb," he counsels me with what seems like infinite patience.

We're hunched over the full-size craps table in his suburban Vegas home, where Parker runs a thriving "precision dice-throwing" business by way of his website.

The game of craps is simple: Roll a seven or 11 on the first or "come-out" throw, and you win your basic wager, known as the pass line bet. If two, three or 12 comes up, you lose. If any other number comes up, that becomes your "point" -- meaning that to win you have to keep rolling and hit your point before you toss a seven and lose. And if you're not rolling, you're betting on a stranger's good fortune.

"Don't flick your wrist," Parker tells me for the umpteenth time. "You want the dice flying low and parallel to the table, you want them staying on their axes, you want to them to hit right about here" -- he points to a spot about 5 inches in front of the table's back wall -- "and finally you want them to make a short, straight bounce onto the rubber diamonds on the back wall and then come right down."

Saddled with performance anxiety, I splash the dice out one more time. And one more time they go spraying too high into the air, spinning off their axes, hitting too far from the wall and ricocheting wildly when they hit the hard rubber diamond studs on the table back (put there by the casinos to randomize the outcome). I throw a 5-4, a nine. Then another nine. Then a five, an eight, a nine, a four, another eight, and yet another five. Everything except the seven I was trying to hit on the first roll.

"Well," says Parker, "remember, we can't teach you how to control the dice. The most you can do is only influence them."

Some argue that that is hoping for too much; there's no way to increase your odds and any talk of it is pure voodoo. Others disagree, saying that the courses Parker and his many competitors offer for a couple of hundred dollars can improve your game.

What all agree on is that craps gets a bum rap. The crowds that flock to Vegas often sneer at what they think is a back-alley game for ruffians. Or they are intimidated by what they think is an unfathomably complicated game.

"They're both wrong," says Parker. "But you've got to be careful as it's the only game in Vegas where you can get the best odds and the worst odds all on one table. It depends on what bet you make."

Indeed, betting that simple pass line on craps gives the casino only a 1.41% advantage. In Vegas, that's a pretty darn good bet. It's four times better than roulette, maybe six or seven times better than an average slot machine and on par with most blackjack games.

But don't be a dope, Parker counsels. Stay away from the sucker propositions in the middle of the craps table -- the so-called "hard ways" and "the horn."

These sorts of wagers, high-paying bets that double fives or threes, for example, will look tempting. But at too high a cost. Some of these bets give the house a whopping 10% or even 16% advantage, a fast track to going broke.

"Also, stay away from the field bet," he says, referring to one of the most-favored choices of newbie players, who think the next roll will be two, three, four, nine, 10 or 12.

"It looks great because there are 16 ways to win," he says. "Unfortunately, there are 20 ways to lose. And remember, in the end, it's all about the love." Parker smiles as he points me toward the Strip and takes a radical departure from his more technical teachings. "You gotta feel that love, or it ain't gonna happen."

An hour later, I was trying to make some of that love happen at the Venetian at a $15 table. "Nine, nine center-field nine," yelled the Korean-born croupier as I tossed another 5-4. Jae, who wouldn't tell me her last name, may have recently immigrated to the States, but she called the game as colorfully and traditionally as any sailor straight off a battleship.

"Winner, winner, chicken dinner! Pay the front-line winner," she says sternly tapping her stick in front of me as I hit another nine, "making my point," as they say, and getting paid off.

My success, however, was short-lived. I kept straining to hold and shoot the dice as Parker had taught me, but all I did was lose.

I didn't have much better luck that evening when I bought into the game in my favorite craps venue at the lower-end Main Street Station casino on the edge of downtown. To compete with the glitzier palaces on the Strip, the house offers generous 20-to-1 odds on the pass line -- significantly more than the standard of three, four or five times the amount most casinos allow you to put behind your initial bet after the come-out roll.

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