Object lesson No 24

16th June 2000 at 01:00
I would put money on there being a gambling gene. And if there's one for gambling, there must be one for cheating. Proof that we are genetically programmed to fiddle and trick has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Four thousand years ago some pharaohs were buried with loaded dice among their treasure. Perhaps the plan was to cheat the gods or maybe to foretell events in the afterlife.

Certainly the pharaohs wouldn't have been the first to hope for magic from a random roll. Primitive people are thought to have thrown sheep knucklebones marked on four sides in an attempt to predict the future. The knucklebones evolved into dice. Some had five sides, some had eight and some were pyramid shaped - not the pharaohs' though. Their dodgy dice were cuboid and had markings similar to our own one to six dots.

The Mayans, whose culture was flourishing by ad 300, had dice, as did the early Inuit. The Hindu Mahabharata - the world's longest epic poem which dates back to 1000 bc - contains the first written references to dice.

Peach stones, caribou and moose bone, walnut shells and beaver teeth have all been used to make dice. The Greeks an later the Romans tended to make them out of bone and ivory although amber, porcelain, marble and bronze were also used. By the way, Sophocles insisted that dice were invented during the siege of Troy. Presumably he liked the idea of Paris and Helen dicing with death.

Nowadays dice are made out of plastic, often cellulose. There are two sorts - the round-cornered ones ordinary people play board games with, and the ones used in casinos. In the US the first are called "drug-store" dice, while the others are known as "perfect" and are handmade to an accuracy of 0.0013cm.

Dice which are not true cubes are called shapes. As professional cheats know, "crooked" dice have been shaved slightly to make them fall more often on their larger sides. "Loaded" dice have had extra weight inserted just below the surface on one side which makes the opposite side come up more often than chance would dictate.

So, anyone for a game of Hazard? Or maybe you prefer Craps? Or Chuck-a-luck, or Pig, or Drop Dead? Or perhaps we should take the advice of an English proverb: "The best throw of the dice is to throw them away."

Stephanie Northen

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