remembering the overlooked and underrated

When Dice Die

In Art, Nonfiction on July 16, 2012 at 10:56 am

Dice: Deception, Fate, & Rotten Luck
by Ricky Jay and Rosamond Purcell
Quantuck Lane Press, 2003

I should hate this book. A 63-page quasi-history book with chapters averaging all of three paragraphs, a total of 21 photographs, and no bibliography whatsoever? Please; it’s not even oversized, and my coffee table demands oversized books. (Note: my coffee table is currently an empty printer box held aloft by a sneering Sin City Marv action figure, an empty IPA bottle, a stack of matchbooks held together by blue rubber bands, and an empty mason jar. Should you ever be in close physical proximity of my coffee table, please please please refrain from setting certain objects on it, i.e. objects with, y’know, mass.)

But what if the book is by actor and slight-of-hand guru Ricky Jay? And what if it’s about dice? And what if the photos are, well, kinda stunning? Could I, just this once, suppress my disdain and give the book a fair shake? Absolutely. And so should you.

In the first century, Tacitus writes that among the Germanic hordes men earned their destinies as slaves or free men by throwing the bones. An illustration in a fourteenth-century manuscript reveals two dicers, one reduced to his shirt and the other completely unclothed, in an early version of strip dice. In an example of rough justice from ancient Persia, a woman wagers against the king for the life of a subject. After a favorable roll she claims her prize and then has him put to death for having decapitated her son.

This is one example of what Ricky Jay offers in Dice: Deception, Fate, & Rotten Luck. Other fun facts, stories, and scuttlebutt abound.  The impetus for this thin-but-pretty volume are Mr. Jay’s dice. He has a collection of thousands. Most of them are made from celluloid. Celluloid, over time, decays.

They are of myriad size, shape and color and of daunting variety: birdseye, bullseye, doughnut, barbudi, poker, baseball, golf, crown and anchor, bell and hammer, drugstore, razor, brushed, feathered, juice, weight, hits, missouts, tops, shapes, polyhedrons, teetotums, and rough-cut unnumbered cubes.

Instead of just letting his little beauties deteriorate into nothing, Mr. Jay invited his friend Rosamond Purcell to photograph them. She’s good. In fact, her photos are what make the book worth picking up. I admit, Ricky Jay’s historical tidbits and meditations do make me want to scour the Web for arcane tomes like The English Rogue (1680),  A Notable Discovery of Coosnage (1591 —  possibly my new favorite word), The Compleat Gamester (1674), and The Whole Art and Mystery of Modern Gaming Fully Expos’d and Detected (1726). But what I remember most, days after setting down the book, are the images.

Purcell delights in stacking the fragile dice to catch light in different ways. (Then again, who doesn’t?) Her pictures capture unexpected fault lines and odd textures. One of my favorites is this:

One of Jeremy’s favorites

When I first saw it, I thought I was looking at Meredith Dairy’s Marinated Goat Cheese.

Addictive cubes of Australian feta

Ricky Jay is a man who specializes in the esoteric. He is a world-famous magician, a renowned curator, a passable historian, and one in a long line of distinguished oh-that-guy character actors (MagnoliaHeist, Boogie Nights). I have no doubt that he is capable of writing a more thorough (and even more entertaining) history of dice and craps than what this volume offers. Yet, if Dice is lacking in prose, at least much of the prose that is there is interesting, and sometimes exquisite, as when he describes the effect of Rosamond Purcell’s photography on his dice:

She has at once halted their disintegration and catalyzed their resurrection.

I have to remind myself that a full chronicle of dice through the centuries is not what Jay and Purcell have in mind here. They are merely recording the demise of some of history’s smallest and most persistent instruments. The authors are, with tenderness and affection, mining these spotted little cubes for poetry. In less skilled hands, such an attempt could be dull, pretentious, infuriating, or all the above. Thankfully, amateur hour this is not. (Unless, of course, we count the frustrating absence of a bibliography. Which we do. You can certainly draw a list of cabalistic titles from the book, but a list of Jay’s sources would be far more helpful and fun. Sadly, the official Ricky Jay website offers no additional material, although it does boast numerous other distractions.)

So yes, the book’s slim. Yes, more photos would make it stronger. Yes, there are probably other criticisms I’m forgetting. You know what? I don’t care. It’s brief, fun, and leave you smiling. How many other things can claim that? Well, several actually. But Dice, I promise, is a safer bet.

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