History of Sic Bo

Before the Chinese invented paper and playing cards some 1,900 years ago, they enjoyed games of chance that made use of painted stones, tiles, and dice. Many of these have survived intact to this very day, their rules virtually unchanged for centuries. Among them is the dice game known as Sic Bo. It also goes by the name Tai Sai or Dai Siu, meaning “Big Small.”

Although the words “Sic Bo” literally translate as “dice pair,” indicating that it may have once been played with two dice, the game originally involved tossing bricks with numbered sides. Gradually, those unwieldy implements were replaced with three six-sided dice. What has never changed is the object of the game: To wager correctly on what combinations of numbers will be rolled.

The Migration of Sic Bo

When manual laborers traveled from China to the United States in the 19th century to build the transcontinental railroad, they brought with them many ancient traditions, including their ways of gambling. Sic Bo was played in railroad and mining camps, but almost exclusively among the immigrant population. It was only after two more waves of Chinese immigration, in the 1920s and 1940s, that Sic Bo was “discovered” by non-Oriental gamblers.

Americans initially adopted Sic Bo as a carnival game. They made some changes to the payouts and called it “Chuck-a-Luck.” Because a “cage” is used to mix up the dice before they are rolled, in many places the game became known as “Birdcage.” Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, another variation of Sic Bo developed by marrying it to an old British army pastime played with two dice called “Hazard.” The result was a three-dice version known as “Grand Hazard.”

Still, the Chinese stuck to their heritage, and the original form of Sic Bo survived. It became extremely popular not only in the gambling halls that appeared in Chinatowns around the world, but also in the Portuguese colony of Macau, where Fan Tan gambling houses had existed since 1867.

The government of Macau monopolized all commercial gambling in 1937 and awarded the operating concession to Companhia Tai Heng. But in 1960, Stanley Ho and his enterprise STDM won the contract when the monopoly was opened for tender. Ten years later, Ho opened a truly grand Monte Carlo-style casino called the Hotel Lisboa. It featured Sic Bo on the main casino floor right next to the Roulette and Baccarat tables.

The “Sic Bo Boom”

News of Ho’s success in Macau reached casinos in Nevada. Some of them began introducing Sic Bo in their back rooms for visiting Chinese guests, but the game did not appear in their main pit areas until the 1990s, when China’s economic growth enabled droves of wealthy tourists to begin exploring the Las Vegas Strip.

Sic Bo was such a hit, that non-Chinese visitors began playing it, too. By 1995, even casinos as far afield as Biloxi, Mississippi had added tables—although not without mishaps. An error in stating the odds caused one casino to lose big before discovering the correct payout rates.

Mainstream Sic Bo got off to a somewhat slower start across the pond. Casinos in the United Kingdom were not cleared for Sic Bo until it was legalized in 2002. Owing to its late start, the game has only recently begun gaining a following among U.K. casino goers.

Meanwhile, Sic Bo is still enormously popular in Macau. In fact, at many of the casinos there, it is the number two game in terms of gross revenue generated, surpassed only by Baccarat. Some casinos have modified the payout rates, so players should always be sure to check the House Rules before wagering. Otherwise, Sic Bo is now played pretty much the same way the word over.