Zen, Dice, and the Tao of Craps

A few years ago I wrote an article called “The Twelvefold Tao of Craps.” You’ll find it posted in several places around the Internet if you feel like Googling it. While it is essentially a humor piece, I have received many comments from readers who were struck by the underlying truths highlighted in the article. They’re really not exotic mysteries of the East. They’re simply common sense observations on casino craps and the people who play the game. Yet there is a lot of “Zen” in the article as well.

For most of us, exposure to Zen and Buddhist philosophy is limited to Hollywood’s version or an advertisement for Tony Robbins’ Fire Walk Seminar. Of course, Buddha didn’t attend a class that changed his life over the course of a weekend, and you shouldn’t expect to either. And that includes craps classes. Even so, ancient wisdom is just as useful today as it was two, three, or even five thousand years ago.

For those of you who don’t know – Buddha had a name. He was born Siddhartha Gautama in the foothills of the Himalayas at around 560 B.C. The son of a king, Siddhartha grew up in a pleasure-palace that shielded him from human misery and suffering. But one day the young prince saw four things that filled him with sorrow. He saw a sick man, a poor man, a beggar, and a corpse. Siddhartha was so stricken by these images that he abandoned his pampered lifestyle and dedicated himself to a life of extreme personal denial. He fasted until he was so thin that he could stretch his hands around his waist, yet he could not find the inner peace he sought. Then one day he overheard a music teacher telling his students, “If the instrument’s strings are too tight then it will not play harmoniously. If the strings are too loose, it will not produce music at all. Only the middle way, not too tight and not too loose, will produce music.”

This overheard conversation changed the young prince and led to his “awakening,” or Zen. That in turn led him to “The Middle Way” and the Eightfold Noble Path. Its eight tenets are right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Those eight tenets – plus a little fortune cookie humor – were the launch pad for the Twelvefold Tao of Craps article.

In a sense, many precision shooters are practicing a sort of Zen. We often talk about right understanding (knowledge of the game), right thought (approaching the game with a positive mental attitude), right speech (the language of the game), right action (take me down), right livelihood (don’t quit the day job), right effort (give it a fair shot before saying it won’t work), right mindfulness (play when you’re fresh – not when you’re tired or distracted) and right concentration (shooting from the “zone”). In truth, though, the casino is not a holy place. Tobacco smoke is far removed from the sweet incense of the East, and those skimpy-costumed cocktail servers are anything but saffron-robed monks.

In Hollywood’s version of Zen we hear “See the ball, be the ball” – Caddyshack. Or “Use the Force, Luke” – Star Wars. In addition, we have all heard the old lines about being “at one with the universe.” The idea behind this philosophy is simple: that all things are inter-connected, and that the only boundaries are those we create in our minds. Those boundaries – which we will call limitations – are significant.

The human brain continuously labels, categorizes, and prejudges everything it perceives into constructs that are acceptable to its belief system. However, what if you could set those belief systems aside and accept the undivided wholeness of things and their fluid nature. Then suddenly you would be onto something. You take on a Ying and Yang approach to life. You accept the good with the bad. You start to “mellow out.” And that ain’t all bad.

Let’s take this Ying and Yang thing to the craps table. You have right way players and wrong way players. Both will win about half the time. However, there is an ebb and flow to the game. The universe is fluid. Sometimes the wrong way players will win more often than the right way players, and vice versa. But if the universe is fluid for the players it must also be fluid for the casinos. That means sometimes the players win more than the table, and vice versa. Occasionally you will hear casino personnel refer to a table that’s going through a negative cycle as a “dumping” table. The house is continually dumping chips onto the table – and the table is dumping them in the players’ pockets. The table is writing checks on sevens that won’t be cashed for another week or so, when the universe flows the other way.

Take this concept out one step further and you’ll find cases where the entire casino is going through a negative cycle. On those occasions, virtually every game in the house is paying out more than it’s taking in. The casino is dumping. Some players I know even go so far as to call casino personnel they know before making a trip to Vegas – looking for information on which casino is currently dumping. You can bet there’s one out there that is – and the Zen thing to do in times like those is to “go with the flow.” The real key, though, is not getting swept away by the current.

Craps is a great game. It can provide a thrill a minute. But the thrills are worth little if the rest of your life is in ruins. The best craps players know there’s another world out there – beyond the casino. A world where white cranes stand in water and bob for fish, where old men stare at the sunlight on the snow, where children marvel at the touch of a feather, and where the only music you hear is water, wind, and the birds.