By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Feb 12, 2009 at 8:27 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

"Bar Month" at is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun bars and club articles -- including guides, unique features, drink recipes and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

Bar games, it seems, are as long-standing a tradition as taverns themselves. Draughts (what we know as checkers) paved the way for pinball, which transitioned into electronic quiz machines. But a few games -- billiards, darts and dice -- have stood the test of time and remain popular pub pastimes.

Milwaukee is a bar dice kind of town. Walk into places like Steny's, Tracks or Slim's during happy hour and you're greeted with the sounds of dice clacking and leather cups slamming onto the bar.

"I'd never seen it until I started working here in Milwaukee and it was something that carried over from the old regulars," says Kari Weiss, a four-year bartender at the 5th Ward Pub & Grille, 814 S. 2nd St.

Here, she says, the bar dice crowd is a later one.

"Usually the happy hour crowd is just here to hang out, but the night crowd after 7 p.m. gets it going. We have three dice cups on hand and we get multiple games going at once."

The regulars play against each other -- and against the bartender -- for shots. In "regular" bar dice you have three shakes to get the most points with five dice, but you must open with an ace.

This game can get pricey. The loser has to buy a round of shots for everyone playing, and if any player gets five aces, they're buying a round for the bar. Them's the rules.

Of course, the rules tend to shift slightly from bar to bar. But one thing remains consistent -- when the bartender loses, the bar buys all.

It's a big part of why people play; the odds of scoring a free drink are pretty high.

But is it a form of gambling?

"It's really no different from an NCAA pool," says Bill Rouleau, who bartends at the Palomino. "It's so insignificant."

He doesn't think the ritual particular to Wisconsin, although with how strong the state's bar culture is it's easy to see why dice games are so prevalent in these parts. Unless it's a posh club, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Milwaukee bar that doesn't have a dice cup or two for when the nights are slow.

"It's just a sidelight," says Rouleau. " Something to pass the time."

Here is a look at a few popular bar dice games:

Ship, Captain, Crew

1. Each player takes a turn rolling a set of five dice. Each turn consists of three shakes to accrue points.

2. The dice are rolled. You are looking for your ship (6), your captain (5) and your crew (4). You must get each before you can accumulate any points, and they must be rolled in order-you'll need a ship before you can have a captain and a captain before you can get a crew. Points are only tallied from the last two dice. Highest score possible is 12.

3. If you get all three (captain, ship and crew) in your first roll, you have two more shakes to get points. If you get only the ship, you need to find the captain and the crew before you can rack up any points. In turn, if you get only the captain or the crew, all five dice need to be rolled again; you need to secure a ship first.

4. If you are unable to get the ship, captain and crew in your three rolls, the dice are turned over to the next player and you are awarded no points for the round. Highest total points win.


1. Each player again takes turns rolling a set of five dice. Each turn consists of one roll and the values of this roll are assigned based on poker.

2. The dice are rolled and ranked from high to low. You are looking for combinations (in ranking order): Five of a kind, four of a kind, full house, three of a kind, two pair, one pair.

3. Dice are passed to the next player, and he or she is tasked with beating the first roll. If the first player rolls two pair -- a set of 5s and a set of 3s -- the next player can still beat this shake with two pair, but must be a higher dice value -- two 5s and two 4s or two 6s and any other pair. If player doesn't beat first hand, the dice are then passed to the next player and game continues until all players have rolled.

4. Some variations include two shakes per turn. Play is exactly the same.


1. Each player takes a turn rolling a set of five dice. Each turn consists of three shakes to accrue points.

2. The dice are rolled. You are looking to tally the most points within your three shakes. Set aside any die (or dice) you want to keep and re-roll the remaining. Those dice kept aside are locked and cannot be rolled again during your turn. After all three rolls, points are tallied.

3. All five dice are passed to the next player. This player is tasked with beating the first opponent's score. If they do not, they are out of the game. If they accumulate more points in their three shakes, the first player is out and the dice are passed.

4. After all players have rolled, highest score wins.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”