Slot machines are the most popular game in an American casino, but blackjack is #2. Craps is now a distant 3rd, but at one time, it was the #1 game in any casino in the United States.
As far as I’m concerned, it should still be the most popular game in the casino—it’s more fun than any of the other games.
This post is part of a series of gambling blog posts that try to get to the bottom of the essence of various gambling games.
This post explains what craps is and how it works is the one I’ve most been looking forward to writing, though. I have a passion for craps.
Most people who aren’t familiar with shooting dice are nervous or intimidated by the game. There are so many bets available on the craps table that the mind can be overwhelmed by the choices.
Luckily, you don’t need to know what most of the bets mean. Most of them offer lousy odds, anyway, so you should stick with the bets that are easily understood.
In fact, there are only 5 bets at the craps table I recommend making; you should ignore all the other bets, no matter how well the casino staff tries to pitch them to you.
Here’s everything a beginner needs to know about playing craps:
How to Play Craps
Craps is a dice game that’s played with 2 6-sided dice. Each die is numbered from 1 to 6. The most important thing about the results of a roll of the dice in the game is the total of the 2 numbers showing on the dice.
It’s easiest to think of a game of craps as being made up of rolls. The first roll in any game of craps is the “come out roll.” The shooter can either win or lose on this roll, or he can set a point.
He immediately wins if he rolls a 7 or an 11 on the come out roll.
He immediately loses if he rolls a 2, 3, or 12 on the come out roll.
Any other total—4, 5, 6, 8, 9, or 10—sets a point.
If a point is set, the shooter gets to roll again. At this point, if he rolls the point total again before rolling a 7, he wins. If he rolls a 7 before rolling the point total, he loses. Any other total he rolls has no effect on this basic mechanism.
On the come out roll, you roll a 6. That 6 becomes the point.
On your next roll, you roll an 8. Nothing happens; you just get to roll again. On your next roll, you roll a 9. Again, nothing happens—you just get to roll again. On the next roll, you roll a 6, which wins, and a new game starts.
If you’d rolled a 7 before rolling that 6, you would have lost immediately.
Generally, when a shooter wins, he gets to keep the dice and continue shooting. When he loses, the person to left becomes the next shooter.
How Craps Bets Work
The most basic bet in craps is the pass line bet, which is just a bet that the shooter will win. It pays off at even money.
The 2nd most basic bet in craps is the don’t pass bet, which is just a bet that the shooter will lose. It also pays off even money.
The pass line bet has a house edge of 1.41%, and the don’t pass bet has a house edge 1.36%. Both of these bets offer excellent odds and are well worth taking.
But there’s one more bet that I like to recommend to beginners—the free odds bet.
When a point is set in a game of craps, you have the option to place a bet called the free odds bet, which isn’t even labeled on the betting surface. You just place your chips behind your original pass line (or don’t pass) bet.
The odds of winning depend on what the point total is. A 6 or an 8 is likelier to come up than a 5 or a 9, for example. And both of those are more likely than a 4 or 10. I’ll explain a little more about how those odds are calculated in the next section, but for now, let’s look at the payouts for the free odds bet for each of the point numbers:
- If the point is a 6 or 8, the payoff is 6 to 5.
- If the point is a 5 or 9, the payoff is 3 to 2.
- If the point is a 4 or 10, the payoff is 2 to 1.
The first number indicates how much you’d win based on wagering the 2ndd number. For example, if you risked $5 on the odds bet when the point were 6, you’d win $6. If you’d risked $10 on that bet when the point was 5, you’d win $15. Think of these payout odds as a ratio of winnings.
You can also think of odds as the probability of winning a certain bet. The first number represents the number of ways you can lose, while the 2nd number represents the number of ways you can win.
The difference between the payout odds and the actual probability of winning is where the casino gets its mathematical edge over the player, and it’s the reason the casinos stay profitable.
For example, many casinos only allow you to “take 1X odds.” This means if you bet $100 on the come out roll, you’d only be allowed to bet an additional $100 on the free odds bet.
The more you’re allowed to wager on the odds bet, the better off you are. The cumulative effect of having money on the odds bet and the original pass line bet results in a lower overall house edge.
The lower the house edge is, the more likelier you are to leave the casino a winner. Also, even though you’ll still almost certainly lose in the long run, you’ll lose your money more slowly.
Craps Odds and Probability
Let’s talk for a minute about how craps odds are calculated. This requires some understanding of probability. I’ll start with some general ideas about probability and then move on to how those concepts specifically apply to the game of craps.
The first thing to understand about an event’s probability is that it’s always a number between 0 and 1, or a fraction. You can express it in multiple ways, but it’s still the same thing—a number between 0 and 1.
Something that will always happen has a probability of 1. For example, if you want to know the probability that the total on the 2 dice will be somewhere between 2 and 12, wonder no more—it’s 1. All the possible totals lie within that 100%.
But most events have ways they can happen and ways they can’t. For example, when rolling 2 dice, one of the possible results is to get a total of 7. That’s not the only possible result, though, so it’s useful to be able to calculate the probability of getting that total.
The probability of something is equal to the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of possible outcomes.
There are 36 possible outcomes when rolling a pair of dice, but significantly fewer total scores.
That’s because most total scores can be produced in multiple ways.
Here they all are:
- 2 – This means you’ve rolled a 1 on the first die and a 1 on the 2nd die. There’s only one way to get this result, which makes the probability 1/36, or 35 to 1 (in odds terms).
- 3 – You have 2 ways of getting this result. You could get a 1 on the 1st die and a 2 on the 2nd die, or you could get a 2 on the 1st die and 1 on the 2nd die. Either way, your total is 3. The probability is 2/36, which can be reduced to 1/18, or 17 to 1 odds.
- 4 – You have 3 ways of getting this result. 1, 3; or 2, 2; or 3, 1. This makes the probability 3/36, which is the same as 1/12 or 11 to 1 odds.
- 5- You have 4 ways of getting this result. 1, 4; or 2, 3; or 3, 2; or 4, 1. This makes the probability 4/36, which is the same as 1/9 or 8 to 1 odds.
- 6- You have 5 ways of getting this result. 1, 5; or 2, 4; or 3, 3; or 4, 2; or 5, 1. This makes the probability 5/36, or 31 to 5 odds.
- 7 – You have 6 ways of getting this result. 1, 6; or 2, 5; or 3, 4; or 4, 3; or 5, 2; or 6, 1. This makes the probability 6/36, which is the same as 1/5, or 5 to 1 odds.
- 8 – You have 5 ways of getting this result. It’s the same, probability-wise, as rolling a 6.
- 9 – You have 4 ways of getting this result. It’s the same, probability-wise, as rolling a 5.
- 10 – You have 3 ways of getting this result. It’s the same, probability-wise, as rolling a 4.
- 11 – You have 2 ways of getting this result. It’s the same, probability-wise, as rolling a 3.
- 12- You have only 1 way to get this result—a 6 on each die. It’s the same, probability-wise as rolling a 2.
That’s 11 possible totals with 36 possible outcomes. Once you know the odds of getting each of them, you can start comparing them.
For example, on the come-out roll, what’s the probability of rolling a 2, 3, or 12?
You only have one way to roll the 2 or the 12, and you have 2 ways to roll a 3, so you have 4 possible outcomes out of 36. That’s 1/9 or 8 to 1 odds of crapping out on the come out roll.
What about the 7 or the 11? You have 6 ways of rolling a 7, and you have 2 ways of rolling an 11, so you have 8 possible outcomes of 36 that win immediately. 8/36 is the same thing as 2/9.
This also means that 3 out of 9 times, or 1/3 of the time, the come out roll will be resolved without setting a point.
The other 2/3 of the time, the shooter’s going to be trying to roll the point.
For example, if the point is 5, you have 4 ways of rolling the point, versus 6 ways of rolling a 7. This is why the odds bet pays off on this one at 3 to 2. Those are the odds of winning.
What about All Those Other Craps Bets
Here’s the thing, and I mentioned it earlier:
Most of the craps bets aren’t worth making.
The only other craps bets I recommend making, besides pass, don’t pass, and the free odds bet are the come and don’t come bets.
And you’re going to love these 2 bets, because they’re going to look mighty familiar.
The come bet is just the pass line bet, but it treats the next roll as a new come out roll even if it isn’t one. The don’t come bet is just the don’t pass bet, but it treats the next roll as a new come out roll even if it isn’t one.
And the house edge for each of those bets is the same. You can even place a free odds bet on either of those, too.
More about the House Edge
The house edge is a mathematical prediction of how much the casino will win every time you place a bet on a specific casino game.
For example, when I say the pass line bet has a house edge of 1.41%, it means that every time you bet $100 on it, the house predicts it’s going to theoretically win $1.41.
The higher the house edge is, the worse the bet is.
And keep in mind that in the short run, not only is it unlikely for you to see results that mirror the theoretical predictions—it’s impossible.
When you bet $100 on the pass line, you’ll either win $100 or lose $100. Losing $1.41 on a single $100 bet on that outcome isn’t a possibility at all.
That’s $1.41 is an average over a large number of rolls. The Law of Large Numbers tells us that the closer we get to the long run, the likelier we are to see results that resemble the theoretical predictions.
This means that after 100 die rolls, we’re going to be more likely to see results resembling the house edge than we will after just 10 die rolls. And 1000 die rolls will probably even look more like the predicted results.
Of course, the ultimate large number in this situation is an infinite number of die rolls, which you’ll never see.
But still—you should avoid the bets with a high house edge and stick with the bets which have a low house edge.
Here are some examples of some of the worst bets in the casino.
I call them:
Bad Craps Bets
Let’s look at some of the bets available at the craps table that offer a high house edge. One of these is a bet on a hard total. You can roll a 4 or a 6 the “hard way” or the “easy way.”
The hard way is to get a result of 2, 2 or a result of 3, 3.
The easy way is to get a result of 1, 3 or 3, 1 (in the case of a 4, or 1, 5; 2, 4; 4, 2; or 5, 1. It’s easier because it’s twice as likely to happen, in the case of the 4, or 4 times as likely to happen, in the case of the 6.
A hard way bet on the total of 4 pays off if you hit a pair of 2s before the shooter rolls a 7 or rolls an easy 4. The odds of winning this bet are 8 to 1, but the payout is only 7 to 1.
What does that make the house edge for this bet?
Let’s assume you’re betting $100, and you place this bet on the hard 4 for 9 consecutive theoretical rolls. Since this is a theoretically perfect example, you’ll win once and lose 8 times.
Each time you lose, you lose $100, so your total loss on these 9 spins will be $800. On the one roll where you win, you’ll get paid 7 to 1, which is $700. That’s a net loss of $100 over 9 bets.
The house edge is an average per bet. Since you lost a total of $100 over 9 bets, you divide $100 by 9 to get the average, which is $11.11 per bet.
That’s 11.11% of your wager, which means that the house edge is 11.11%.
This is almost 10X the size of the house edge for the pass line bet.
That’s just one example of the many bad bets at the craps table. I won’t list them all here, as there’s not enough space, but I’ll give one more example:
The hi-lo bet is a bet that the shooter will roll either a 2 or a 12. The odds of winning this bet are 17 to 1. The bet pays off at 15 to 1, though.
You can do the same set of calculations to determine the house edge. 18 bets at $100 each, and you lose 17 of them, for $1700 in losses. On the one bet you win, you’ll get paid off $1500, for a net loss of $200.
This time, you made 18 bets, so you divide $200 by 18 to get the average loss per bet, and you’ll see that it’s again $11.11 per bet, or 11.11%.
Some of these bad craps bets are better than others, but none of them are good enough that you should bother with them. Stick with the pass, don’t pass, come, and don’t come bets. Take the free odds bet, too.
Getting an Edge at Craps via Controlled Shooting
Most people are hoping for something more when it comes to gambling strategy for a casino game than this. They want some system that will make them more likely to walk away a winner.
Choosing the bets with the lowest house edge will do this, but you’ll still be operating at a disadvantage to the casino.
This is called dice setting or dice control, and I’m skeptical of it.
Better minds than mine think it’s a real possibility, though, so I’ll publish a post about what is dice setting soon with some thoughts on the subject.
Craps is the most exciting and streak-heavy game in the casino. The house edge is excellent, too. Everyone should learn to play craps.
Once you understand how the game works, the best strategy is to just focus on the bets with the lowest house edge. This means you’ll stick with 5 bets, and probably just 3.
If you like rooting for the shooter to win, you’ll probably want to stick with the pass, come, and odds bet. That would make you a “right bettor.”
On the other hand, Nick the Greek was a “wrong bettor,” so you’d be in illustrious company if you went the other way. This would mean betting on don’t pass, don’t come, and laying odds.
Are you willing to try craps now? What sounds appealing about the game to you, and what’s still intimidating about it?