Games of Chance

An assortment of Indian stick and cubic dice
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An assortment of Indian stick and cubic dice
Various materials, including ivory, bone, brass, stone, plastic
Dimensions variable
Private collection, London
Photo courtesy Irving Finkel

Dice, the prerequisite for all flat-surface competitions, are quite remarkable things, although they are usually taken entirely for granted. They can be seen to be very ancient indeed, despite the total obscurity of their origins. Perhaps the earliest “random generators” that appeared were two-sided, but the oldest die so far identified for certain as such is a cubic die from late-fifth-millennium-B.C.E. Syria. Remarkably, this exhibits the characteristic that has everywhere almost invariably been followed since, namely that opposite faces will add up to seven, and deviant arrangements are as seldom seen in India as in any part of the world, although why this should be is likewise unexplained. In some parts of the world, oblong dice rivaled cubic dice, and in others the knucklebone or astragal with four scoring faces was preferred. A multitude of innovations and developments came later, culminating in an extraordinary range of devices and mechanisms across the world.

Dice in India come in a rich and bewildering variety. The miscellany of traditional forms shows six-sided or cubic dice of the type familiar to Western players of board games as well as oblong or stick dice, where only four sides carry numerals, while in between come all manner of shapes and sizes that veer to one or other of these extremes. Early stick dice are variously numbered with dot-and-ring numerals, linear devices and even the mysterious Indus Valley signs. Such abundant early dice were used for games of which we know virtually nothing. Cowrie shells are widely used as an alternative form of dice for a great range of games throughout India. They have the advantage of being relatively cheaply available and easily replaced, and function by being thrown into the air, with the score being counted from the number which show the “teeth” face uppermost upon landing.

The earliest known Chinese dice are complex multifaceted dice that were used for liubo, and perhaps for other games, but these have not apparently persisted in use. Much more familiar are cubic dice of ivory or bone, which are characterized by the 1’s and 4’s being in red as opposed to the black used for the four other combinations of pips. In addition, the 1 is always much larger and deeper than the other numerals.

In early times the Chinese threw their dice into porcelain bowls as a method of obviating cheating. The same principle has continued into contemporary times with the use of dice cups, equipped with lids, which are shaken in the air before being brought down on the table. The lids are removed to disclose the score.

Japanese dice are essentially comparable to those of China, with the difference that it is only the 4 which is given in red. Covered dice cups are similarly used. In Korea, a particular kind of two-sided dice has been used for the traditional race game of nyout, namely short blocks of wood with one flat white face and one black convex face. Four such dice are thrown through a ring attached to a stick planted in the ground, and the scores reckoned from the number of white faces showing. Tibetans likewise have two traditional dice forms, the first being Chinese-style cubic dice, used for the mountain-pass race game sho, and the second being cubic dice engraved with Tibetan characters. The latter are used both to play a Buddhist variation on Chinese promotion games and, with different characters, for fortune telling.