Craps is a beautiful thing. An aggressive player on a happy run could potentially turn one white chip into a thousand purple ones in the space of ten minutes and a dozen rolls of the dice. It is the most complicated game in the casino but reaps the greatest potential rewards for the player who can master it. The game is unique in that it allows the player to play as the house or against it, positive or negative as the mood strikes. Odds of up to ten times the amount of your original wager can be placed in large casinos, allowing for the geometric acceleration of wealth or poverty.

A methodical craps player can build his empire slowly over several hours of careful mathematical jousting and approach the unthinkable, a level playing field. The house advantage in craps can be theoretically reduced to something approaching zero but the casinos aren't worried. After half an hour of gratuitous adrenaline and free drinks, most of us can't even pronounce "theoretically" much less do the math.

The party atmosphere around the craps table and the promise of quick riches appeals to our lusty passion, not our analytical mind. You may walk into the casino planning a faithful strategy of pass line and come bets, tweaking the odds on the strong numbers and betting against the weak ones but the bones are a fickle mistress. Before long you'll find yourself tossing desperation bets on "Any Craps" or "Big Red 7" with the rest of the tourists.

With craps you are either sleeping in the penthouse suite or crashing in the gutter.


The police killed both of the last two occupants of the apartment across from Billy's in separate incidents. I'd bug him about living in a dangerous part of town and he'd shrug it off as the calculated risk of being a city dweller. The first guy was gunned down during a hold-up at the Taco Bell on the corner but the latest one had his ticket punched right there in the hallway in front of Billy's door.

His name was Tommy Green and there was evidence to indicate that his death resulted from a case of mistaken identity. Most urban guerillas assume a nom de guerre or several and "Green" is a common one because it's the color of money and it's easy to remember when you're high. The cops were looking for a Tommy Green the day they came to serve the fugitive warrant but later conceded that it was most likely a different one.

The bad luck apartment across from Billy's was comically tiny, euphemistically called an "efficiency." It looked like it had been converted from a walk-in closet; toilet, bed and kitchenette all crammed into an eight by twelve-foot space. Tommy was a mammoth man and had to turn sideways just to get past the kitchen counter to the little bed in back. His toilet was an open throne right next to the kitchen sink. The little room appealed to the kind of person who spent time in a cell, so it suited Tommy Green just fine.

Tommy was a career criminal. He was going on forty years old and had been outside of prison for less than two weeks since his fifteenth birthday. He was sent to the reformatory in Red Wing for raping his high school English teacher and then to grown-up prison for killing the rogue who tried to rape him. After doing his seven years on the second-degree manslaughter rap he was released to the world at age twenty-five for the first time since puberty. On day two of his parole he killed a liquor store clerk for the contents of a cash register and went back inside for murder.

Tommy served thirteen years of a twenty to life sentence at Oak Park Heights and then moved into the apartment across the hall from my brother.


I thought Billy lost his mind the night he invited his dangerous neighbor over to play craps with us but it was just another in a long line of calculated risks. Tommy was flashing a big wad of dough from some nefarious activity or another and Billy saw the profit potential in being neighborly. Our new friend had the same luck with gambling as he had with life in general so Billy eventually separated Tommy from his green but not without a terrifying roller coaster ride of wacky field bets and hard ways.

Billy bought the full sized craps layout and chips in Las Vegas in the hopes of mastering the arithmetic of the game in the relative safety of his home. Most of his sessions were among friends and rarely went beyond a five hundred-dollar bank but things took a serious turn the night that we played with his dangerous neighbor. Within the first few rolls of the dice, Tommy tossed boxcars, hitting a fifty-dollar proposition bet and just about breaking the bank. Billy's expression was uncharacteristically grave and his hand shook a little as he paid out seventeen hundred and fifty bucks just ten minutes into the game.

Tommy freaked out when Billy paid the wager with plastic chips instead of folding money and demanded that the game be switched to cash. Billy's face went pale and he appeared to shrink in the shadow of the aggressive gambler. I worried that my brother didn't have enough cabbage laying around to make good on the boxcars and when Tommy stood up to demand payment I saw the pistol sticking out of his back pocket. Billy had already raked me over the pass line for everything but cab fare so I was in no position to help him cover the bet.

I couldn't tell if Billy was pissed off or scared when he sat back on the couch and started taking off his cowboy boots. I was afraid he was going to go into some kind of Kung Fu karate man deal against a guy with a gun and come up short again. Tommy was hitting on a crack pipe between every roll of the dice and his eyes were wild and murderous from the smoke as he loomed over my brother. To my great relief, Billy shook a pile of greenbacks from his boot onto the craps table and counted out enough to cover Tommy's twelve.

The reckless gambler's eyes are drawn to the little boxes with the big odds but even at 35 to 1 the boxcars and snake eyes are a sucker bet. You might just as well throw your money at the roulette wheel. Any croupier will tell you that the hard ways and proposition bets are for dreamers and that the field is for fools so Billy eventually got all of his money back and then some. Tommy left with empty pockets at about four o'clock that morning looking sullen and desperate. He told us, with twitchy bravado, that there was plenty more where that came from and made my brother promise to host another game the following evening.

Five hours later they drew his chalk outline just outside Billy's door.


Rationalization is the gambler's best friend and the only way to beat the house. If you can't explain away a losing streak then you don't belong in the casino. The way Billy sees it none of us gets to take anything away from the table so we aren't really playing for keeps anyway. We were standing over a winning game one night and I asked him how much he was ahead. He did the confused puppy head slant and told me that he didn't understand the question.

"I'm gonna count it when I'm dead."

Tommy Green most likely had violence in his heart when he left his apartment that day so there wasn't much weeping when the cops cashed in his chips. The gun was in his hand not his back pocket when he met them in the hallway and they dispatched him without controversy. When the fates directed the police to the wrong address that morning they did everyone a favor, especially Tommy.

Billy is a penthouse or gutter kind of guy and he majored in rationalization at gambler's college. He had lived in the tough Midway area of St. Paul for decades and was accustomed to the gritty underbelly but I thought that the flying lead outside his door might finally nudge him out of the hood. When our mom heard about the shooting she telephoned him every night with a frantic plea to consider the suburbs but he wouldn't hear of it.

"Mom, the cops hardly ever kill bad guys in the suburbs. It's much safer here."