Games Soldiers Play: Chuck-a-luck

Leisure time in camp

Last year at Brownell Middle School we had a combined Math-Science Expo sort of thing instead of a traditional Science Fair. Like everyone in the education business, we were trying to find a sweet spot for a combination of Common Core, STEAM, and parents. Add this to the fact that I had several students who were not even remotely interested in any of those three things, nor in math, which was what I was trying to teach them. One of my young charges challenged me by asking, “What fun is there in Math, anyway?”

Driving home that evening, I went to my personal happy place, the Civil War. Suddenly it dawned on me . . . Chuck-a-luck! We were working on a unit involving chance and fair games, and it seemed a perfect fit. I never doubt that the answers for most things can be found somewhere between 1859 and 1865.

Chuck-a-luck is mentioned in countless soldier memoirs as a game played in camp and at which often-extraordinary sums of money were lost, but rarely is it mentioned in letters written to the folks back home. Few soldiers wished to let their families know that they were engaged in gambling in any form. Most chose to decry the negative influence of games of chance:

It is a bad thing for an army to remain too long at one place.  The men soon  become discontented and unhappy, and we had no diversion or pastime except  playing poker and chuck-a-luck. (Chuck won and luck always lost.)[1]

Letters home most often described personal efforts of young officers to squelch such odious practices among the men in their charge:

Gambling has prevailed to some extent but I have finaly succeed to put a stop to it and evry man I find gambling I order him to the guard house. The Williamstown boys do finely and are respected for it.[2]

Nevertheless, there was plenty of gambling going on in camps on both sides, some of it

Governor Morton of Wisconsin

semi-supported by state governors:

While the regiment lay in Camp Madison a financial crisis came upon us. The stringency of the money market was perceptible felt by all. No money to bet at the “chuck-a-luck” bank, which was closed. Something had to be done to relieve us,  or we could not see through. Gov. Morton was notified of our condition, and he there inaugurated the best plan for relief yet brought to light. The Governor simply went to the Indianapolis bankers and told them he wanted to borrow some money for the boys. They shelled out to him, and the Governor sent us all five dollars apiece, which amount was deducted from our pay at the final settlement. “Business” revived immediately, and all day long and until “taps, lights out,” the rattle of the dice in the “chuck-a-luck” box was heard in the land.[3]

So just how is it possible to make a form of gambling from the nineteenth century interesting to a 7th-grade student in 2016? Let them play! That’s how.

Playing Chuck-a-luck

Chuck-a-luck is a game of chance and as such, favors the dealer rather than the players. No skill is necessary. The person hosting the game (dealer) has a cloth marked into six spaces numbered 1-6. This “playing board” can be traced into the dirt if one did not have a cloth. Players would select their number by placing their money on the appropriate square. The dealer then rolls three dice. If the player’s number comes up on one of the dice, (s)he wins and gets his/her money back. If that number comes up on two dice, the player doubled his/her money; if the number comes up three times, one’s winnings are tripled. The odds, however, are in the dealer’s favor, because (s)he got all the money left that did not come up on the dice.[4] There are more complicated versions of the game, but this is basic Chuck-a-luck. Modern versions involve a birdcage or a wheel and are played in casinos and at fundraisers. Players are no more successful now than they were in the 1860s.

My students enjoyed their afternoon of “gambling,” using jelly beans for currency, and the student who challenged me ended up doing his project on “Civil War Games of Chance.” He won a third place, and I gave him an “A,” which is probably the best outcome ever for a Chuck-a-luck player then or now.

Here is a YouTube video on the topic:

. . . and now you know.

[1] Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War, 44.

[2] Carleton Young, Voices from the Attic: The Williamstown Boys in the Civil War, 25

[3] A. J. Grayson, The Spirit of 1861: History of the Sixth Indiana Regiment in the Three Months’ Campaign in Western Virginia, 28.


5 Responses to Games Soldiers Play: Chuck-a-luck

  1. Howdy! I am interested in doing something similar with my students. Did you make a chuck-a-luck cloth or just scratch one out in the dirt?

    1. I got a length of osnaburg and folded it into thirds, then sixths. I painted it up to look like the one on the video, but I am sure you could just use a marker and draw the numbers and their boxes. It can be much smaller as well. Good luck, have fun, and let me know how it goes.

  2. The picture of Governor Morton states he was the Governor of Wisconsin; in fact that is a picture of Governor Morton of Indiana. Thanks for the interesting trivia on the Civil War about this game..

    1. I tried to fix it & it went away. We purge files regularly here, so no big deal–thanks for the catch!

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