Roll the Bones: Annotated Contents

I had so much fun doing this for Suburban Xanadu and Cutting the Wire, I thought I’d try it for Roll the Bones, too. So here are the contents of that book, with some notes on why I selected the chapter titles.

Responding to some reader questions, I explained a little more about Chapter 21 on my AmazonConnect blog. I’m reposting the pith of that post below.–DGS

Preface: Rainmaker Reborn

I wanted to start with a powerful example of both the impact of gambling on society, and the ways that our views of gambling have changed. Fast-forwarding from the Mystic Massacre to the resurgence of the Pequots thanks to Foxwoods seemed like a good idea, and the title is intended to reflect both the re-emerging Pequots and the common use of gambling as a tool for revenue and development.

1: Thoth’s Gift

Combing through myth and history, there are dozens of men, women, and dieties credited with (or blamed for) introducing gambling to humanity. After I saw Thoth depicted on the doors of the Library of Congress, I figured he was as good a candidate as any.

2: The Die is Cast

Caesar’s legendary quotation prefectly sums up the importance of gambling to the Romans, and it’s an appropriate title for the chapter that talks about the origins of dice.

3: Knaves and Kings

This chapter talks about the origins and evolution of playing cards; the jack used to be called the “knave.” The title is a rephrasing of a lyric from Eden Abhez’s “Nature Boy” popularized by Nat “King” Cole: “And while we spoke of many things, fools and kings, this he said to me…”

4: Taming Tyche

Since this chapter is about the development of probability theory and mercantile gambling, I wanted a metaphor for how the thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment took much of the mystery out of gambling. Since Tyche was the Greek goddess of luck, and since alliteration rocks, I ended up with “Taming Tyche.”

5: The Ridotto Revolution

The first casino in Venice, the Ridotto, is the house from which today’s commercial casino industry is descended. Hence it’s revolutionary nature.

6: All is on the Hazard

Cassius’s words from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar were a fitting title for a chapter about early British gambling, since hazard was, for a time, England’s most popular game.

7: Star-Spangled Gamblers

Native Americans gambled long before European contact; this chapter talks about American gambling roughly from Columbus to Jefferson. I hope the title captures the pyrotechnics of early American gambling.

8: Baiting John Bull

John Bull was the personification of England, and bull-baiting was a common animal sport of the time. If you want to find out what bull-baiting involved, please read the book.

9: Seeking the Cure

During the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy (and merely opportunistic) Europeans enjoyed gambling at health spas, where they were ostensibly “seeking the cure.”

10: Flight of the Sparrow

The sparrow in question is mahjong, which spread from China throughout the world in the 1920s. But the chapter more broadly takes in gambling throughout the British empire and Asia.

11: Wild Cards

Riverboats, wild west saloons, and hardy mining camps: this is the history mythology of American gambling.

12: Fools of Fortune

This was the title of a book by reformed gambler John Philip Quinn. I thought it reflected the increasingly urban character of gambling in the 19th century. Americans certainly proved willing to bet on nearly anything. The subtitle, “American gambling becomes urban,” is a not-so-subtle reference to Eric Monkonnen’s America Becomes Urban.

13: A Sunny Place for Shady People

Somerset Maugham’s famous quip about Monaco becomes the title for my chapter about the casino haven.

14: Wise Guys and One-Armed Bandits

The chapter considers gambling syndicates, organized crime, and slot machines. “Wise Guys and One-Armed Bandits” just sounds snappier.

15: Hard to Resist

Nevada’s territorial governor James Nye warned his legislature against gambling, saying that it “holds out allurements hard to resist.” The next century and a half of Nevada history would prove him prophetic.

16: The Salvation of Sin

This is the birth of public interest gambling: betting on the horses or the numbers is no longer so bad, just as long as it’s done at a state-sanctioned–and taxed–location.

17: A Place in the Sun

The legendary Sands casino used this as their motto, and I thought it a good description of the early years of the Las Vegas Strip.

18: Runaway American Dream

Being born in New Jersey, I might be genetically predisposed towards swiping a chapter title from Bruce Springsteen lyrics. And it nicely summarizes the late 20th century American casino boom.

19: All In

This chapter summarizes the global spread of lotteries, sports betting, and casinos. With the current poker boom, I couldn’t find a more apt metaphor.

20: A Clockwork Volcano

Blatantly borrowed and reworked from Anthony Burgess, but you won’t find Alex and his droogs in these pages. Instead, this is about how the reborn Las Vegas Strip of the 1990s–and Internet gambling–have tranformed gambling into a technological spectacle. If I was in more of a Black Sabbath mood, it might have been called “Technical Ecstasy.”

21: The Dream

I was close to finishing Roll the Bones when Wynn Las Vegas opened on April 28, 2005. Walking through the property, I surmised that the entire history of gambling could be told right there, just by drawing on the surroundings. The dream in question is both a reference to Picasso’s Le Reve, the centerpiece of Steve Wynn’s art collection, and to the eternal desire to gamble.


About “The Dream”

After 20 chapters that take the reader from gambling monkeys to the 2005 Party Poker IPO (that last chapter would have ended differently if I’d have written it a year later), I thought that the book needed a little epilogue to help the reader digest everything they’d read over the past 500 pages.

While I was writing the book, the biggest gaming news in Las Vegas was the impending opening of Wynn Las Vegas. After trying for weeks to get a media invite to the opening, I hadn’t had any luck. So I was resigned to just heading down there around midnight to get a look when, around 4 PM on the day of the opening, I got a call that told me to show up that night and pick up my credentials for the press tour. Seeing the casino open around me, I thought that this was a historic moment that I was lucky enough to see first-hand, and one that might make a good hook for the book’s closing thoughts.

Walking around the casino, it occured to me that I could much of the story of the book just by walking around the building and talking about my surroundings. For example, the guardian lions that sit in the porte cochere suggest the extensive legacy of Asian gambling cultures, including specific games like pai gow and the whole idea of playing cards, more generally.

In the final draft, I combined the opening with the walk-through to tie up some of the book’s major themes. Here’s a fun idea for your next trip to Las Vegas: walk through Wynn (with your copy of RTB in hand) and read relevant passages at each stop on the “tour” I describe. Or not–check page 454 to learn why this is a bad idea in a Chinese casino. My point in writing this was to give readers a touchstone, something that they could tangibly experience, that might give a little more meaning to the book’s sweep.

Of course, I’m maganamously assuming that the average reader, as a matter of course, spends time in Las Vegas in general and the Wynn resort in particular. But I don’t think I’m far off the mark in assuming that the average reader will identify more with Wynn Las Vegas than, say, the machine shop where Charles Fay first built the Liberty Bell slot machine in 1899.

The key to the last chapter is in the final paragraph, where I write that, Wynn is “at this moment, the culmination” of the gambling story. I wasn’t suggesting that the opening of Wynn was the most historic event in gambling history, but only that it was, when I wrote the book, the most recent major event. If I’d have written the book a few years later, I might have set the end piece at the opening of Project City Center or Echelon Place. Two years earlier, and I might have chosen the Borgata opening in my hometown. But, with the book coming together when it did, Wynn Las Vegas was the right choice.

I had other options for my last chapter. I could have closed with some musings on current policy. That’s what I did in Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond, where I sounded a few cautionary notes about the collapse of the containment paradigm. Or I could have peered into the future, to imagine a casino opening on the Luna colony in 2106. Or I might have returned to the unlucky gamblers of Pompeii, or Foxwoods casino, where the book’s preface is set. I could even have imagined what some of the standout personalities of gambling, like Girolamo Cardano or Nick the Greek Dandalos, would say about the current gambling scene. The Wynn ending, though, felt right to me.

Since I wrote most of the book while watching the casino go up, it seemed like the best way to end it. Starting the book with a massacre, I figured that I should finish up with something a tad more upbeat.