Rolling with the lords of the craps table.
For the gambler, dice have long been the best machine with which to turn a small amount of energy into a large amount of uncertainty. For the philosopher, there is no handier piece of rhetoric with which to evoke the foggy relations between God and universe, universe and man, or man and his own affairs. And so as I watched two members of the Golden Touch Craps team construct a dice pit in a windowless conference room of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, I could not help but feel as though I were witnessing the creation of a universe, a green, felt-covered, racetrack-shaped cosmos where the dice are subject to the will of man and the men, therefore, are gods.
The cosmos, in this case, was a bundle of hinges and planks that had emerged the same morning, ex ovo, from the back of Colonel Joe Fox’s Ford. The gods were milling around like Teamsters, lugging boxes and power tools and their own steak-fed bodies, gradually transforming the beige void of the Allegheny Room into a miniature casino, a school for the study of dice control. I myself felt moved to pitch in, holding one end of the scuffed rail as Colonel Fox unrolled the layout with its pass and come solicitations lettered in red and gold. He wore a gold crucifix and four gold rings and a gambling face like something out of the Old West, lines of stony indifference etched around his mouth and eyes. “I musta re-covered three hundred pool tables in my life,” he muttered as a GTC colleague plugged in a tiny vacuum cleaner and ran it over the felt.
The Golden Touch Craps team had scheduled one of their “Crap$ 101” courses to begin the following day. In Crap$ 101, novice players receive two days of hands-on instruction in Golden Touch betting systems, Golden Touch visualization techniques, and, most important, the Golden Touch “controlled throw,” a method of retaining influence over the dice after they leave the hand. Tuition is $1,495, which does not include room, board, or a ticket to Chicago O’Hare; but with eight coaches and sixteen students, the student-to- faculty ratio bests the Ivy League. For an additional $300, students can take home an instructional Golden Touch DVD and the Gripper, a block of green foam designed to enhance the muscle memory of the fingertips. As graduates, students are eligible to enroll in the $1,995 Advanced Course, though some of the school’s wealthier alumni opt for private instruction at up to $10,000 per day. Those who prove themselves capable dice controllers and clubbable personalities are sometimes invited to teach Crap$ 101 as assistants to the assistant instructors. The post includes a $400 honorarium, drawn from tuition receipts.
I spotted Frank Scoblete, the gray-bearded, potbellied Zeus of the Golden Touch, unpacking a box of Grippers. Frank spent more than thirty years teaching high school English on Long Island before reinventing himself as America’s Number One Best-Selling Gaming Author. In person he seemed easygoing, with rounded features and feathery white hair, but when we shook hands his eyes had the watchful opacity of security cameras. He began gambling during the Eighties on the weekends, counting cards in Atlantic City. “I wasn’t addicted to the gambling,” he told me; “I was interested in seeing whether we could beat the casinos, these monsters, this industry that relies on the stupidity of its clients.” On the table beside the Grippers lay a selection of Frank’s teachings: Forever Craps, The Craps Underground, Golden Touch Dice Control Revolution! and Beat the Craps Out of the Casinos! On the cover of this last book is a photograph of Dominic “Dominator” LoRiggio just after releasing the dice. The cubes hover in perfect alignment below his outstretched hand, like tiny kites guided by invisible strings. He is dressed conservatively, in a blue Oxford and rimless glasses, but his eyes shine with a mystical blaze.
A slightly mellower Dominator soon arrived, puffing at a cigarette and grousing about the Bears’ chances of covering the spread. The faculty gathered round, wearing pleated khakis and GTC logo-ed polo shirts. All had workaday careers, I would later learn, and treated gambling as a pleasant and profitable sideline. Bob “Mr. Finesse” Convertito sold cars in Connecticut. Jerry “Stickman” Stich was an I.T. director. Rick “Missouri Rick” Schulten was a paramedic; he had seen action in Desert Storm and had won a world championship in foosball. Howard “Rock ’n’ Roller” Newman owned a chain of physical-therapy practices in Florida. Colonel Joe Fox dealt in rare coins. He was not a colonel in the military sense; the title referred to his skill as an auctioneer. (“Not a failure in the bunch!” Frank would say later that night, surveying his instructors with pride.) Across the room, Rock ’n’ Roller played craps with a pair of imaginary dice. His arm churned the air with the slow fluidity of a Tai Chi master.
The Dominator distributed room keys to the teachers. We broke huddle, rode the elevators, unpacked, and reconvened that evening at the hotel sports bar. It was called Knuckles, an auspicious name, for the first dice were astralagi, the six-sided knucklebones of cloven-hoofed beasts. At a table near the bar, hemmed in by billiard tables and plasma TVs, the world’s top dice controllers angled at a plate of potato chips. Frank held forth on what makes a good gambler.
“Actors, athletes, anyone who deals with an audience is going to be a better gambler. You have to be willing to put yourself on the line and completely fall on your face, all in front of strangers.”
A chorus of nods. “It’s a performance!” said Stickman.
“A physical discipline!” clarified Colonel Fox, embarking on his second bourbon.
“When you see a great shooter, you see that there’s no such thing as luck, just math,” said Frank. His eyes were wide, his face animated. Before he took up gambling, Frank was part owner and leading man of a community theater company. He can still engage his face like a motor. “When I’m shooting, I believe in having a totally empty mind. I believe in nothing. I think of nothing. Nothing but numbers.”
For as long as men have chalked certain occurrences up to chance, and so set them beyond human intervention, other, more ambitious men have sought to bring these events under control. Scoffing at Dante’s warning that wisdom cannot stand against Fortune, they have devised or divined systems—methodical ways of winning her over. The ancients invented systems they believed could manipulate the weather, bring triumph in battle, and appease the gods. Most modern systems have a narrower object: making money at gambling. Usually they comprise a series of if/then statements. The Original Lucky Red Devil Numbers Almanac, for instance, says that if I quarrel with my mother-in-law, I should play the 329 in the daily Pick Three. The ruinous Martingale says that if I lose at blackjack, I should double and redouble my bet until I win. Today, systems occupy a dingy corner of the gambling subliterature, a way for casino veterans to sell their ruined fantasies to a new generation of chumps. I have collected a small library of these systems. Most are overpriced and underwritten, and they contain a wild diversity of guesses as to the mechanism that secretly influences the outcome of a game. In the dice genre alone, there are betting systems, throwing systems, charting systems, and trend-oriented systems of “hot” and “cold” tables. The Art of Psychic Dice, which quotes liberally from Einstein and Napoleon, teaches the art of influencing dice with telekinetic brain waves. Those who wish to analyze a promising system can test it against the heap of data collected in 72 Hours at the Craps Table, sixty-two pages of hieroglyphic. A more sensible title, a $1 pamphlet called The Facts of Craps, contains warnings like “play for recreation only,” and “you figure to lose every time you play.” Yet its cover, like all the others, warrants that it will teach you “how to win.”
Even in their folly, these books embody many essential features of Western thought: the fetish for prediction and control; the fear of the unknown and unexplained; the urge, in the absence of a complete explanation, to build patchwork models of unobservable particles and massless ethers. Reading them is like watching science’s messy birth over and over again. As the authors take aim at the mysteries of random phenomena, we see that no amount of contrary evidence will shake their faith in an underlying order. Consider the beginning of the Numbers Almanac:
…every person, place, thing and activity is influenced by a number; therefore a certain knowledge of numerology reveals numbers indicated for certain days and months of each year because it is numerology that influences number activity, and their selections are probabilities, which the ancient and indisputable law of averages will justify.
Here we see the author straining to bring the Red Devil’s numerological hoodoo into line with the “law of averages.” He is about to launch into a highly speculative system, one that proposes that everything from nosebleeds to birthdays to black cats can influence tomorrow’s lottery numbers. To make his system seem more reasonable, he begins by kowtowing to probability, a theory that does little for the lottery player in its authentic non-numerological form, aside from disparaging his decision to play at all. What probability knows about picking lottery numbers is that all are equally likely, equally meaningless, and that one will happen to win. It does not give him tomorrow’s winning number; it doesn’t even give him a satisfying way to conjecture about it.
This is where the system comes in. It offers protection by linking the numbers to events in the player’s daily life. Betting becomes personal, winning becomes providential, and the numbers themselves come alive with meaning. They run Fast, Medium, Slow, or Dormant according to the Almanac’s nationwide “number performance” report. Even if the system is bogus, the numbers it suggests are no worse than any others. The argument that Blaise Pascal made for believing in the existence of God can be applied to the Red Devil as well: It can’t hurt. It might work.
The question of how to win at gambling attracted many of the Enlightenment’s leading minds. Gali leo, Pascal, and several members of the Bernoulli family all worked on it, often at the behest of a gambling friend or patron. Girolamo Cardano had a more personal interest. A doctor, scientist, and author of more than a hundred books, Cardano likely would have been among the leading figures of the Italian Renaissance were it not for his addiction to chess and dice, which he gambled on daily for twenty-five years. Cardano’s notes on gambling were published in 1663, eighty-seven years after his death, as Liber de Ludo Aleae or The Book on Games of Chance. The work is rambling, contradictory, and probably incomplete, yet in between its crackpot superstitions and dire warnings not to gamble at all is Cardano’s novel technique for calculating the odds on a roll of the dice. He proposes that a fair die has the property of “equality” in that it is equally likely to land on each of its sides. He then calculates the probabilities for various throws. “The reckoning is not exact,” he notes, “yet it happens in the case of many circuits that the matter falls out very close to conjecture.”
The reputed gambling talents of certain astrologers do not impress Cardano. Their ability to “occasionally make the right forecast” he writes off as luck. When it comes to his own gambling, though, he is not so eager to dismiss the supernatural. In a lengthy digression, Cardano tells of how he lost his clothes, his rings, and twenty-five gold pieces to a bearded stranger at the villa of a Venetian senator. He then repairs to his home and devises a system, consulting the occult art of geomancy to determine “all the numbers whereby I should win and all those whereby I should lose.” He returns to the senator’s house and wins everything back in his first twenty bets. “This fortune of mine seems to have been something greater than mere chance,” he boasts, looking back on this big win, “although we do not know the law that connects the parts.”
At nine o’clock the next morning my fellow students and I arrived to find the Allegheny Room in perfect academic order. Each seat was furnished with a notebook, a pen, a green Golden Touch knapsack, and a syllabus filled with such enticing terms as “optimum spin control” and “pendulum delivery.” As promised, the newcomers were friendly and prosperous-looking creatures with no obvious indicators of desperation or degeneracy. All reported themselves to already be winning or break-even craps players. Among them were a married couple, a retired accountant, a smooth-jazz deejay, and a businessman who rolled dice to stop worrying about business. One man switched from slots because he “got tired of pressing buttons.” (“Most are highly successful individuals,” Frank had said of the students the previous night. “What we see is a person who is educated,” the Dominator had added. “A person who understands that there’s something to winning. It’s not just luck, but skill involved with luck. It takes an educated person to realize that.”)
Frank put on his teaching voice, a modulated Brooklynese that rang with authority as he described the conversion we were about to undergo: “You come to us as gamblers. My hope is that you will leave as advantage players.” Advantage players, he explained, think like a casino. They are prudent and disciplined, making bets only when they have a statistical advantage. To them, luck is the enemy, and they look with contempt on the ordinary craps players who rely on it, those “random rollers” who indulge in “crazy crapper” bets.
Despite the complexity of the craps layout and its surfeit of sucker bets, craps is a very simple game. On the player’s first throw, known as the “come out roll,” 7 wins, 11 wins, and 2, 3, or 12 loses. If the player hits any other number—a 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, or 10—that becomes his “point.” The object of the game is then to roll his point again before rolling a 7. The key to beating craps, the Dominator explained, is to control the number that controls the game—the 7, also known as “the Devil,” “Big Red,” or simply “It.” A random roller will throw a 7 six times in every thirty-six rolls, yielding a “Sevens-to-Rolls Ratio,” or SRR, of 1 to 6. But if the player can occasionally keep the 7 from coming up, he can tilt the game in his favor. The house edge on craps is so minuscule—less than 1 percent for particular bets—that it doesn’t take much control to turn a gambler into an advantage player. An SRR of 1 to 6.3 will suffice. In other words, if one can successfully prevent the dice from showing 7 just once every thirty rolls, then one can consistently win at craps.
The Dominator held two big yellow dice together. The faces read 5-5. “This is what we call the Hardways Set,” he said, as he slowly turned the pair to show 4s, 3s, 2s, then 5s again. “This set is designed to protect you against the seven. See, it takes what we call a double pitch”—he spun one die 180 degrees so that the pair read 5-2—“to roll a seven. Your dice can have a single pitch in either direction”—he showed 5-5, 5-4; 5-5, then 5-3—“and you’re covered.”
It sounds simple, I thought, and it is simple, until you let the dice go and they fly through several feet of empty air, bounce against the felt, rebound off the inner wall of stiff rubber pyramids, and return to the table. Each stage of this flight subjects the dice to an array of unpredictable forces, and every part of the game—dice, pyramids, felt—is engineered to give a random result. This can be overcome, the Dominator told us, with the heart of the Golden Touch: the Delivery System. Using Golden Touch Dice Control Revolution! as our guide, he described the throw that will carry the Hardways Set to the back wall without disturbing its tight formation. “We want a smooth, gentle toss. Your dice should keep together in the air, like they were stuck with crazy glue. Then they smack the table, release all their energy, and gently kiss the pyramids.”
A hand shot up in the front row. “Can you say a little more about the mechanics of it? I understand what the dice are supposed to look like when they leave our hands, but where’s the guarantee that they’ll land that way?”
The Dominator sighed. “Dice control is like a watch. We’re not here to teach you how to build the watch. What we are gonna teach you is how to read the watch.” The real proof, he said, is witnessing the throw in action.
We took a short bathroom break and gathered around the craps table where Mr. Finesse had slung his ursine body over the rail. He gathered the dice in one thick hand and paused a moment, focusing his attention on his target area, an island of felt near the far wall. He set the dice, paused, and swung his forearm back smoothly, like a pendulum. There was a collective gasp when the dice left his hand—the control was indeed palpable. Only a narrow column of space separated the two dice, which rotated from front to back in tandem, like a space satellite. They struck the table with a loud slap, softly caromed off the pyramids, and fell to rest perhaps three inches from the back wall. Two pips, three pips: a 5.
The Dominator wielded the stick. He slid the dice back to Finesse. Finesse shot again. The throw was identical, except one die seemed to dip below the other. They landed with a cackle. 7. “Double pitch,” Finesse muttered. Then he gathered himself and threw… another 7! Silence. Everyone stared at the dice. This was exactly what the Hardways Set was supposed to prevent. Like medieval surgeons gathered around the dissection table, our faces wore varying shades of belief. Frank said: “One more, Bob.” Finesse finished with a 5.
Next up was Stickman, who possesses, Frank told us, “the perfect body for a dice controller. Just look. He’s in control of this whole side of the table!” Indeed, Stickman’s lanky frame and long arms allowed him to release the dice perhaps a full foot closer to the wall than his less gifted peers could. His dice were tighter and quieter than Finesse’s. His first shot was an 8. The second looked good as well, but landed 7. “Whoops,” Stickman said softly. Frank didn’t appear to notice. “You see how perfect those shots are? See his form? It’s perfect!” Then five consecutive sevenless throws. “Can you all see what we’re talking about?” Frank asked, as Stickman loaded up, released, and watched another gorgeous-looking throw land 7. “Oh, man,” said Frank, as though some fleet-footed outfielder had reached over the fence and robbed Stickman of a home run. “The die went scooting out! One more, Jerry.” An 11.
Now came Rock ’n’ Roller, renowned by the Golden Touch team for his ability to “drop into the zone.” He closed his eyes, gently rubbed the dice into felt, and began to throw. Frank’s voice grew more excited after each shot: “Ladies and gentlemen… you are seeing… bee-you-tiful throws!” Seven times the dice flew. The Devil stayed out of sight. “Now get ready for the Dom-in-ay-tor!” Frank touted, and the headstrong Dominator, looking to vanquish any lingering doubts, warmed up. He began to call his shots, his voice taut and steady.
“Gimme a six and a three.” He rolled a 2-1.
“Now a four and a two.” He rolled a 1-3.
“Eleven,” said Frank, softly, and the Dominator nailed it, a 5-6 landing clean against the wall. “Look at that!” Frank exulted, “Look how his dice are right together!” as the Dominator lofted the dice back into the air.
The two men chortled as they fell, and, 6-1, the Devil 7 appeared. As the class continued to watch in volatile silence, Frank took the dice from the Dominator and delivered a coup. “Hard four!” he commanded, and three throws later the dice obeyed, showing two pips each—a 35-to-1 shot. “Beautiful!” cried the Colonel. The students turned to one another in laughter and relief. Frank zapped the four white spots with a magician’s flourish.
“You can hear when they’re hitting. You can see how they’re dying, close to the wall. You can feel the control. Now, go to your tables. Bring your own dice. For the next forty-five minutes, you are going to work!”
By the nineteenth century, probability theory was well established, and the throwing of dice could no longer be considered a serious scientific pursuit. Gambling systems, however, enjoyed a period of public fascination beginning in the 1870s, when Monte Carlo became the world’s first international gambling destination. Now any theoretically inclined gambler who wanted to test his system against the roulette wheel could book passage and find a fair, legal, high-stakes game waiting for him. Systems players acted like legitimate entrepreneurs, soliciting investors with detailed prospectuses and newspaper advertisements. There were con artists like Charles Deville Wells, a failed inventor who sailed to Monte Carlo on his yacht in hopes that the Martingale might fend off his angry creditors. In a remarkable run of good luck, he turned £400 into £40,000, a feat memorialized by the song “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Wells hung on to the money for six months, lost it back, and wound up serving eight years in an English prison for his deceptions. The public’s credulity began to fade after 1903, when Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, challenged a British nobleman who claimed to have a system that could reliably beat the house. The two men locked themselves in a room with a roulette wheel. Newspapers around the world waited for the verdict. Two weeks later, Maxim the skeptic emerged triumphant.
In the middle of the twentieth century, another scientist became entranced by cards and dice, and his fixation would have far wider consequences than Cardano’s. In the early 1920s, Joseph Banks Rhine attended a lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the possibility of communicating with the dead. Doyle’s conviction resonated with Rhine, a professor of psychology who had once considered joining the ministry. “If there was a measure of truth in what he believed,” Rhine would later write, “it would be of transcendental importance. This mere possibility was the most exhilarating thought I had had for years.”
Rhine spent the next decade looking for a way to study paranormal phenomena. He dabbled in hypnosis and séances. He investigated a horse named Lady Wonder that could reportedly read minds and predict the outcomes of boxing matches. Finally, after establishing himself as head of the parapsychology lab at Duke University, he settled on cards, a twenty-five-card deck consisting of five symbols: a star, a cross, a circle, a square, and wavy lines. He conducted experiments on hundreds of Duke students, looking for subjects who had improbable success at guessing the order of the cards. He dubbed this ability extrasensory perception, or ESP. Eventually he found Adam Linzmayer, a Duke undergraduate who seemed to consistently score well above chance. But when the abilities of his star subject began to fade, Rhine became frantic. He tried giving Linzmayer sedatives, and even drove him out to the country, where he guessed twenty-one of twenty-five cards from the passenger seat of Rhine’s car.
Following the publication of his mass-market book in 1934, Rhine became a magnet for would-be savants who wanted his lab to confirm their claims, among them a young crapshooter who said he could control dice with his mind. The results of an impromptu trial in Rhine’s office were modestly successful. Rhine then conducted some preliminary experiments with his wife and friends at home before moving to the lab, where he found what he believed to be conclusive statistical evidence that gifted individuals could alter dice throws by desire alone. This power he named psychokinesis, or PK.
By the end of the 1940s, ESP and PK were media sensations. Rhine wrote a best-selling book; his research was debated in the pages of Life and Esquire; he was adored by graduate students, one of whom called him “the Galileo of our age.” In 1952 he was invited to conduct a secret experiment for the Army, attempting to psychically guide two German shepherds to boxes buried under sand. But even as Rhinediscoveries began to achieve popular credibility, skeptical opponents in the scientific community were busy undermining his methods. After decades of research, Rhine had still not found a subject whose powers didn’t abruptly disappear or an experiment whose results could be replicated outside his lab. The records of his PK experiments were found to contain numerous clerical errors, almost all of which were made in PK’s favor. Most damning of all was evidence that Rhine sometimes neglected to report unfavorable results. Once these defects became public, Rhine and his fellow parapsychologists were shunned by the mainstream scientific consensus.
Rather than give up on his hypothesis, Rhine made excuses. He argued that bored, tired subjects and skeptical observers disrupted the operation of psychic powers. His arguments remained focused on the astounding success of a few subjects, none of whom maintained a high level of performance over the long run. One Lillian Pegram, he reported, correctly identified twenty-three of twenty-five cards, then twenty-five of twenty-five, “and thereafter dropped back to the chance level again. The conditions were the same throughout. It was Lillian who changed.” These occasional breakthroughs, however fleeting, were enough to shore up Rhine’s certainty. “We destroy the phenomena in the very act of trying to demonstrate them,” he wrote in 1962. “Evidently the tests themselves get in the way of the abilities they are designed to measure.”
The Rhine experiments failed to prove the existence of psychic powers, but they are full of lessons about cards and dice—namely, that within any random series are Linzmayers, cases so stunning they can be used to prove almost anything. The urge to turn these cases into stories, then generalize the stories into theories, and then, after performing some experiments, promote the theories to truth can be irresistible. In this way, the scientist who stakes his career on a venturesome hypothesis is not so different from a stubborn gambler following a hunch. Push the same theory for long enough and eventually you will find data to support your claim. Howard Schwartz, who owns the Gambler’s Book Shop, Las Vegas’s biggest systems emporium, has an apt metaphor for this phenomenon. “If you shoot at the sky long enough a duck will fly by, and then you will be a great duck hunter. Just make sure you don’t run out of ammunition.” Among other variants are the Texas sharpshooter who paints bull’s-eyes around bullet holes, and the semidiurnally accurate broken clock.
Arranged in a semicircle around the main craps table were six “throwing stations,” folding tables with raised cushions designed to simulate an arm’s worth of rail, and six dustpan-shaped “receiving stations,” whose back walls were upholstered with green pyramidal foam. (Paying $598 for a pair of these stations, we were told, greatly increases the odds that our skills will continue to blossom.) For the small-group learning session I was paired with fellow southpaw Ralph Nozaki, the jazz deejay, who is known as Rick O’Dell to his listeners in Chicago. Ralph, a tall, slender Asian man in his mid-forties, said he plays craps perhaps a dozen times a year, sometimes around Chicago, sometimes in Las Vegas, always for modest sums.
“Did you see that last throw?” he asked me in butterscotch radio tones. “There’s really something to this, don’t you think?”
I hedged: “Yeah, the dice look good.” But not until I attempted the Golden Touch controlled throw did I realize the difficulty of consistently hitting the same spot, let alone keeping the dice together in the air or controlling their backspin. Despite my application of the pendulum swing, my first shots deviated wildly from their flight plan, soaring over the receiving station and crashing into the wall. The Dominator said my grip was too tight. I loosened up. My dice started hitting the table. Watching my own throws, I realized the action around the wall unfolded too quickly for the eye to follow. I could see where the dice were and where they were headed, but as soon as they hit the table their pips dissolved into a red blur.
Our throws were built up piece by piece. Each instructor’s station was another stop on the assembly line. Stickman taught us how to diagnose our own throws, how eccentricities of flight can be traced back to small quirks in one’s grip or release. Mr. Finesse focused on pacing. “You’re moving too fast,” he advised me. “Go slow. They’ll get there.” By lunchtime Ralph was clearly improving. His dice were consistently landing near the back wall with almost no wobble or yaw. I watched one throw smoothly rotate around the outside one-pip and land exactly as he set them:
5-5. “Sunflowers!” exclaimed Rick. “Ten the hard way! I saw them in the air! That wasn’t an accident.”
His excitement reminded me of a question I had asked Frank and the Dominator the previous night. We had quit Knuckles and had strolled along an arterial road to a Morton’s Steakhouse located in the basement of a nearby office park. In the luxuriant gloom, as I listened to the team recount their greatest rolls, I thought of a prehistoric hunter clan gathered around the fire, telling stories of their biggest kills. The Dominator leaned into me, describing the transcendental experience of shooting.
“It’s like slow motion,” he said. “I know that when those dice are in the air, I am gonna hit the number I want to hit. When I’m in that zone, per se, there’s absolutely no stopping me.”
What kind of temperament does one need to enter this zone?
“You gotta be like me,” said Frank, abruptly.
“The temperament you need to be a great controlled shooter is the temperament that Frank Scoblete has,” agreed the Dominator.
“That sounds insane!” said Frank.
“No, but it is true,” said the Dominator.
“It is,” admitted Frank. The Dominator recited the ways their association has improved his game. He gave much credit to the Captain, the anonymous and possibly apocryphal shooter in Scoblete’s books who pioneered the art of the controlled throw.
“Craps is life,” said Frank. “It’s life boiled down to little things.”
I asked him what he meant. Frank (now well into his third vodka) shifted to a tone of wiseguy intimacy, as though everything up to this point had been for show and we were now, finally, getting to the heart of matters.
“You’re gonna die ultimately, right? Your life is a negative-expectation game. No matter what you do, you’re dead. You can eat your broccoli. You can take the whole thing and just shove it in your mouth. You’re still gonna die. But by doing what you do, you can push off death another few months, a few years, in order to take more for yourself out of life. Advantage play is the same thing. We take the casino’s money and we enjoy it. Ultimately it will be meaningless. They will make billions of dollars to our hundreds of thousands. But we will have taken them for what they’ve taken everybody else as. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Are there ever bad streaks, I asked, times you’re not in the zone?
“Right,” said Frank, “sometimes you’re off. There were times when I was in the zone, Rock ’n’ Roller was in the zone, Dom was in the zone… and there were other times when we… when we stunk.” He grimaced at these shameful memories, then suddenly set his fork down and plucked my digital recorder off the table. “Do you want any of this?” he asked, considering the thin black bauble. “You know I could destroy this right now, if I wanted to.”
“You could,” I said. A tense moment, then Frank surrendered the recorder. I turned it off. We finished our steaks and walked back to the hotel.
The first day had ended with a warning: we should not, under any circumstances, drive to the casino and gamble. “Today your body learned something,” Frank had explained. “Tonight you need to let it gel.”
The second day began with a confession. “I did something last night,” said a sheepish older gentleman in the front row. “Something I’m not proud of. I drove to the boats and I played. I shot dice.” Frank shook his head in gentle admonishment. Placing his hands on the gambler’s shaggy white head, he shouted like a revivalist preacher: “Brothers and sisters! We gonna heal you!”
There was more hawking of practice stations (“Would you pay tuition to go to Harvard and then not buy any books?”) followed by more practice. My throws were still wild. Colonel Fox dropped a quarter on the felt and instructed me to focus on this target.
“So you buy into this thing, totally?” Rick asked the Colonel as I shot. This surprised me. The day before he had seemed convinced.
“No doubt. It works,” said the Colonel.
After an hour, the Dominator summoned us back to our desks for a lecture on the mental aspects of the game. He had a precise model for how a controlled shooter’s mind should work, a mix of positive psychology and locker-room Zen that unfolded from the acronym POWER. The “P” was for Preparation. This meant practice, practice, practice, two months of daily practice at least, before we ever entered a casino. “O” was for living Only in the present. “W” was for Witnessing only good thoughts: “The sale you’re trying to make. See the customer sign the order form. At the craps table, you’re witnessing numbers.” “E” was for Energy, best obtained by sitting down, closing our eyes, and breathing in through our centers. And the “R” was for Risk. We must learn to accept it. To this end we were to create a “401G,” a separate bank account dedicated exclusively to gambling. This would help us treat our craps play like a business and segregate it from the rest of our affairs. If we were afraid of losing the kids’ college fund, Frank said, we would not be able to focus on the dice.
More practice, then Frank ran through the Golden Touch betting system. We were to make wagers only when the house advantage was less than 2 percent. Everything else was for the crazy crappers. He explained the 5-Count, a multistage progression by which we were to make smaller wagers less often. We should treat “comps”—the free rooms and meals that casinos give away to regular players—like another casino game, exaggerating the stakes and duration of our play so we can, in the Dominator’s words, “extract every goddamn dollar from the casinos.” Much of this information was commonsensical and available elsewhere, but Frank had a way of making it sound like the fire-breathing maxims of a grizzled cornerman.
By now I could see that the Golden Touch had some undeniable value. If the average craps player followed the GTC system—betting smart, betting less, and leaving as soon as he gets tired—he would recoup (in diminished losses, if not in actual gains) the cost of the two-day seminar many times over the course of his craps career.
But what of the control? Was it real or imaginary? I still had no idea. My hopes now rode on three words at the end of the syllabus: “No Sevens Contest,” the Golden Touch equivalent of a final exam. Each student was to take a turn rolling the dice, throwing as many Hardway Sets as possible without hitting a 7. “This is a little taste of what you’ll be feeling in the casinos,” Frank announced, as he laid a prize of fifty dollars down in the middle of the craps table. “Everybody is looking at you. There is money at stake.”
The results were miserable. Three students had decent results (eleven, twelve, and thirteen consecutive sevenless rolls), but the other thirteen of us couldn’t break six. Ralph sevened out on his first throw. When I sevened out on my second, Colonel Fox offered this consolation: “You knew from the time you let go that it wasn’t a good shot, right?” Our collective SRR was a pitiful 1 to 4.4, about 25 percent worse than random. “This doesn’t look very good for the instructors,” muttered Roy Malley, the winner, before accepting his fifty-dollar prize. Nobody seemed to hear.
SRRs notwithstanding, there was plenty of valedictory applause as Frank handed out laser-printed diplomas. Frank gave us some parting words. “Do what we say and you can become winners. Go to our website, practice for six months, come back, take a refresher course. Maybe in a year, two years, you’ll be ready for an advanced course, and you’ll be on your way.”
After the students left, I called the coaches back around the pit. I expressed my skepticism bluntly, then proposed a second No Sevens Contest, one roll per coach. I sweetened the proposition with a friendly wager, one dollar per roll, setting the line at six and taking the under.
“You got yourself a bet,” said the Dominator, evenly, but his eyes burned as on the book cover.
“Novices first,” said Frank. Rumbling and clicking, the dice began to fall. I took an early lead. Missouri Rick sevened out on his third throw. Colonel Joe threw a 7 on his first. By the time Nick “Lefty” Ticaric picked up the dice—to shouts of “Come on, Nick! Let’s go, baby!” and “Show us how it’s done!”—the room had lost all scholarly restraint. The men were cheering, hollering, and leaning over the rail; every eye followed the path of the airborne dice. Lefty, an auto mechanic, made an eleven-roll run. Then came Stickman, who closed his eyes as he cast the dice through exceptionally consistent parabolas. His shooting hand had the stillness of a surgeon’s; his face showed the strain of preserving a fragile geometry. On Stickman’s thirteenth throw one die tottered to a stop just short of the wall to make a 7. “That was Lady Luck there,” said Colonel Fox, shaking his head.
But Mr. Finesse sevened on his fifth shot, Rock n’ Roller on his fourth. Fortune, it seemed, had made herself numb to the team’s ministrations. Now it was Frank’s turn, and the mood in the room grew even graver. This felt like the clutch, the showdown within the showdown. Frank leaned over the table, paunch resting on the rail. He set the dice, loaded them in his right hand, and released them with a careful lob. They flew strangely, a quick rise and a lazy fall with almost no spin, and landed in the corner, where the table meets the back wall, neither bouncing nor rolling nor touching the pyramids but dying on contact, like two cubic baseballs received by a pliant green mitt. The throw was so clean, so laden with intention, that it took a moment for the white spots to register. A 3 and a 4: 7.
“Jeee-sus Christ!” Frank gasped.
“Well, it just goes to show you, anything can happen,” said Missouri Rick.
“It was pretty, though,” observed Colonel Fox.
“It looked pretty,” corrected Frank.
“It did, it did,” said the Dominator, with an edge of disappointment, or suspicion, or faux suspicion. He would later accuse Frank of deliberately throwing a 7 to keep dice control a secret. But first came his own attempt to redeem his colleagues’ sub-random performance. He tightened his face into a rigid mask of athletic focus. Almost immediately he entered the zone, hitting two double-4 hardways in his first eight shots and snapping his fingers as the dice hit. Cries of “Come on!” and “Get up! Get up!” erupted around the table. After twelve sevenless throws, Colonel Fox inquired whether I’d brought my checkbook. At fifteen throws the table’s supplications grew more insistent. There was a sense that the Dominator’s lease on the zone was evaporating. on, monkeeeey!” pleaded the Dominator. “Oh come on! Just a little luck,” shouted Frank. “Attaboy!” Then he calmly turned to me and said, with the right amount of irony, “Sometimes, if you yell at the dice, it helps.” The seven-out did not come until the Dominator’s seventeenth throw.
I read off the results and the Dominator punched them into a pocket calculator. There were eight 7s in fifty-five throws, yielding a collective SRR of 1 to 6.875. The GTC team had succeeded in beating the theoretical odds by a single 7, but the sample size was far too small for this result to confirm or refute the existence of dice control. To the team, however, the meaning of the data was clear. Once more they had pitted their powers against an unbelieving House, and once more the House had left the combat a few dollars poorer.
“The point is that we’re the instructors, and we’re better than random,” said the Dominator, a wad of singles now coiled in his palm. “And that was cold!” added Colonel Fox. We settled up. I had lost seven dollars and proven nothing.
A few minutes later Frank appeared in the lobby, preparing to rendezvous with his wife for a tour of Chicago. From his plush, leather-like chair the hotel’s geometry scrolled outward, an imperial court. He was no longer embarrassed about his early seven-out.
“You saw it,” he said. “It was a beautiful throw.” Then he said something God might say, if I met Him on the street and asked Him for proof. “Look, there’s no answer to it. Either you believe me or you don’t.”
This article was first published in Harper’s Magazine, December 2008.