How Bar Dice Became a Wisconsin Institution

In the Badger State, a lucky roll can still win you a free, ice-cold PBR.

I first became aware of bar dice a number of years back when I stopped into a bar in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, for a quick lunch and a beer. While I was eating my hamburger, a rangy-looking man walked in and, without so much as a how-dee-doo, asked the bartender, “Can I have the dice?” She handed them to him a leather cup and he began shaking.

Gaming and barrooms are a marriage that stretches back to the beginning of public houses. But how Wisconsin came to collect and build its specific traditions is less clear. Jim Draeger, a Wisconsin bar historian, dates the popularity of bar dice in the state to at least the end of Prohibition, but has not discovered the game’s origins. Today, however, bar dice is as unavoidable a fact of saloon life in Wisconsin as over-the-top Bloody Mary garnishes and Brandy Old-Fashioneds.

“Any bar around here, you walk in and they’ll have them,” says Bob MacDonald, whose family has owned the Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, for more than 40 years.

The dice are five in number and they invariably dwell in a soft, round cup dressed in leather or faux leather. The fancy material isn’t about the bar putting on airs; it’s to prevent wear and tear. There’s a showy body language that goes along with playing bar dice: when a player shakes the cup, they bring it down with a loud smack, an action that’s rough on both the cup and the bar surface.

“Banging the cup on the bar with manly force produces a violent sound,” reported Copley News Service in 1973, “like a cowboy boot striking the side of a stalled pickup, and can be one of life’s worst shocks to the nervous system.” The soft cup helps mute the impact. “I think it’s meant to be a cushion,” says Draeger, co-author of Bottoms Up, a study of Wisconsin saloons.

The general goal of any session is to see who buys the next round, and you either play your fellow barflies or the bartender. There are many different games, most consisting of three shakes of the cup per player. There is Ship, Captain, Crew, in which you try to gather a ship (a roll of a “six”), captain (“five”) and crew (“four”), in that order, your score being what’s left on the two remaining dice. Popular in Green Bay, according to Draeger, is Threes, where a roll of a “three” counts as zero and the lowest score wins. Then there’s the hardcore 7-14-21. Only dice that come up as “one” are counted. The player who rolls the seventh “one” names the drink; the player who rolls the 14th downs the drink; and the 21st buys the drink.

The most common game played against the bar is the Shake of the Day, which is either played for a pot of dollar bills that has accrued over the day, or the drink being ordered. During a recent visit to Sister Bay Bowl in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, a bartender called Sam gave me a quick tutorial. “There are general things that people abide by,” she explained. “One is you never put the dice in the cup to give to the next guy. You always pass the dice outside of the cup. It’s etiquette.”

The goal of the game is to get the highest score in three shakes or less. To start the game you must roll a “one,” called an “ace.” An ace is also considered wild. Ideally you want five “sixes”, the highest possible roll, which is known as “56” (five “sixes,” see?). Which brings us to another matter: Bar dice has its own language. Three “fours” is a “34”; four “fives” is a “45”; and so on. A loss is a “horse on you” or “horse on me,” depending on the case. A tie to be decided by a third round is “a horse a piece.”

Sam and I had a horse apiece, so our game went on to a third round, which I won with a “46,” securing my free, ice-cold PBR. But, then again, I didn’t exactly have stiff competition. As Sam explained, bartenders tend to “play nice,” so as not to alienate customers.

It can all be a bit much to keep track of. As a chagrined Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist observed back in 1976, “Unfortunately, bar dice is not a game that can be taught. You must observe closely and learn to adopt the mannerisms of the pros.”

Though usually a wellspring of conviviality and companionship, bar dice can breed trouble. When the game makes the news, it’s typically in connection with a fight, with a sore loser throwing a punch or drawing a shotgun. In 1976, an Appleton man struck another citizen because the latter refused to play bar dice with him.

There have even been periodic attempts to ban the practice, including recent laws passed in Minnesota and Montana. In Wisconsin, that sort of crusading doesn’t go over well. When, one Monday in 2016, the owners of three Milwaukee bars decided to eliminate bar dice in their joints, there was such hue and cry from the patrons that the ban was rescinded by Wednesday.

As to why bar dice has such a grip on Cheeseheads, as opposed to Hoosiers or Buckeyes, Draeger points to an obvious cause. “We have more bars than any other state,” he points out, adding, “and it gets cold here.” You have to pass the time somehow.

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