Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Jesse James (as in gambling)

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 30, 2015

Perhaps you’re at a casino or watching a movie about players in a casino, and they’re playing a game of craps.  When someone rolls a four and a five, others call it a Jesse James.  You’re confused.  After all, wasn’t Jesse James a noted outlaw from the late 1800s?

Most of us know the stories about the juvenile delinquent Jesse Woodson James aka Jesse James (5 September 1847 – 3 April 1882) who robbed his bank in 1869 and his first train in 1873 (the same year that Russian thistle seeds were accidentally scattered to the wind somewhere in South Dakota) and made life impossibly difficult for the law who chased after him and his gang across Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.  Not only did he rob trains, he robbed banks, and was a murderer.

SIDE NOTE:  Gamblers use amusing terms when gambling.  This LINK shares some of the most popular ones.

Some gamblers will tell you that the Jesse James got its name because the outlaw was shot dead with a bullet to the back of his head from a 45 held by Bob Ford, a new recruit to the Jesse James gang.

In a column written by gaming guru, Mark Pilarski for the Casino City Times on December 10, 1999, the writer refers to the Jesse James.

NINE: “Center field,” “center of the garden,” “ocean liner niner,” “Nina from Pasadena,” “What shot Jesse James? A forty-five.”

There’s a website that offers to share the author’s method for winning at craps.  The website was set up on April 15, 1999 and it was recently updated so readers can only guess that this gamble paid off for Johnny Craps.  The page in question where the idiom is found is titled, “An Old Timer’s Guide To Beating The Craps Table” and the first paragraph promises readers that they, too, can learn to play craps just like renowned gambler Johnny Craps.

Snakes eyes, Little Joe, Jesse James, Boxcars: All part of the craps lingo. If you’re a shooter, you already know that this game can be a cruel, relentless mistress in any happy marriage. Somewhere in the world, there’s a guy pulling his hair out at a casino due to a bad run. But not every player need fall victim to the unremitting nature of this world famous dice game. Taking a lesson from the renowned Johnny, average players can elevate their craps game to a new level.

According to Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, co-authors of the book “Vice Slang” published by Routledge in 2007, the idiom was first used by Steve Kuriscak in 1985 in his book “Casino Talk.”  They also make mention that in Thomas L. Clark’s book, “The Dictionary of Gambling and Gaming” published in 1987, he puts the use of Jesse James in gambling to 1981.

In William M. Reddig’s book “Tom’s Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend” published in 1947 by J.B. Lippincott Company, the following was shared with readers about Jesse James.

Jesse James found relaxation in the gambling halls during periods when he lived incognito in Kansas City, and was not molested.  When they were not figuring on deals in lots, grain, hogs and cattle and other matters of commerce, the citizens exercised their financial genius at chuck-a-luck, faro, three-card monte, roulette, high five, keno, poker and, occasionally, craps.

Now while the game of craps was originally invented by Sir William of Tyre back in 1125 AD during the Crusades and was known as Hazard (after the castle where the game began), the renamed French version known as Le Crapaud was introduced to New Orleans in the early 1800s by French-Creole American nobleman, Bernard de Marigny (28 October 1785 – 3 February 1868) — his full name and title was Marquis Antoine Xavier Bernard Phillippe de Marigny de Mandeville — whose family owned a large plantation.

SIDE NOTE:  Le Crapaud translates in English to the frog.  The game was named thusly because of the stance players took while playing the game.

From there, the modern game of craps was developed thanks to the efforts of American dice maker, John H. Winn, back in 1865 … just four years before Jesse James began his career as an outlaw.

However, it’s not until 1981 that the craps term Jesse James begins to appear in print and therefore, it’s reasonable to believe that the term is a relatively recent one that dates back to sometime in the 1970s.

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One Response to “Jesse James (as in gambling)”

  1. Interesting information. I’ve never played craps, but my dad told me he was so good at “playing the margins” (whatever that means) when he was a young man in the army during WWII that he won a car … which he and his buddies used to drive down to LA from Lompoc on weekends … getting into all kinds of trouble no doubt. As for Jesse James. My oldest child is named Jessy, and my middle child is named James. When they were little kids I’d stick my head out the kitchen door and call for Jessy James to come in for lunch, or whatever. Had no idea I’d done the name thing until the first time I called out for them that way.

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