Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ricky Jay's Dice

Ricky Jay is an actor, con artist, sleight-of-hand artist, and a magician. He's been in a number of the playwright David Mamet's movies, as well as Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But he's also written some really weird books, including Cards as Weapons and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. I've had his book Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck for a couple years -- I bought it partly because of the author and partly because of the photos -- but I just today started reading the tiny essays that accompany the photos.

First, a word about the photos. photographer Rosamond Purcell documented Jay's collection of dice, some of which are decomposing. Jay explains in chapter twelve:
"These cellulose nitrate dice, the industry standard until the middle of the twentieth century (when they were replaced with less flammable cellulose acetate), typically remain stable for decades. Then, in a flash, they can dramatically decompose.The crystallization begins on the corners and then spreads to the edges. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode."
The whole book is illustrated with various crumbling dice, some of them loaded and weighted for cheating.

In another chapter, Jay tells the story of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway, the eleventh-century viking who converted to Christianity. King Olaf, a gambler, was rolling against the king of Sweden for claim over the island of Hising:
"The Swede rolled the highest possible score, two sixes, and arrogantly suggested that there was no need for Olaf to take his turn. 'Although these be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God to let them turn up again in my favor!' Olaf insisted, basking in the self-confidence of his recent conversion. He then cast two sixes. The Swede again threw two sixes, and so, again, did Olaf -- but at the end of this roll, one of the dice split in two, and both a six and an ace landed face up, yielding an unprecedented roll of thirteen."

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