The Septuagenarian Speaks – Published November 3, 2021, Siskiyou Daily News
In May 1972, I moved to Yreka with my wife Ann, our one-year-old son Bobby, and two Labrador Retrievers. I went to work at the Correia and Bacon law office, on the corner of Fourth and Center Streets, across the street from the Siskiyou County Title company. The morning of my first day of work, one of my bosses, Larry Bacon, came into my office and said, “Let’s get some coffee.” We walked to Miner Street, turned left, and went to a place called Don’s Sporting Goods, less than two blocks from our office building. It had a coffee bar. All the stools were occupied, and there was another row of people standing behind. In addition to noisy conversations and war stories, I could hear the sounds of dice cups and dice being slammed onto the countertop. Fascinated, I watched a ritual that became a part of my daily life for several decades. With one exception, all the participants were men. The lone exception was Rene Davis, the woman behind the counter who served the coffee, bantered with the patrons, and rolled the dice with the unlucky loser of the day, double or nothing. If she lost, everyone got free coffee that morning. If she won, the unlucky loser paid double for everyone’s coffee.
I was thirty years old, fresh out of the Air Force, and this was my first civilian job as a lawyer after years of school and four years in the military. It was an exciting time for me, but scary, as I wondered if I had what it took to be a lawyer in private practice. I also wondered, as I watched the men at the counter passing dice cups back and forth, what the hell were they doing? I knew a little about dice, but not much. I knew of some traditional bar dice games probably existing for centuries, such as Liar’s Dice and Ship, Captain, and Crew. But I didn’t have a clue what these folks at Don’s Sporting Goods were doing.
Rene and Don Davis had purchased the old “Siskiyou Sporting Goods” business and opened it in 1966 as “Don’s Sporting Goods.” It was at 313 West Miner Street. Not too long after my first visit in 1972, Don’s moved to a new location, still on Miner Street, but a few doors to the west, at 321 West Miner Street. Don and Rene had purchased the building that had been Penny’s Grocery Store. After their move, I could see the back door of their shop from my office window, making it tempting to sneak away from work for a cup of coffee and the challenge of the dice.
It took a long time for me to figure out those damned dice games. I even bought books on dice, which helped a little, but not much. I discovered that the only real way to learn was to jump in, get my ass kicked, and be humiliated.
Don’s closed about three years ago, and with it a unique Yreka institution ended. Don and Rene Davis had retired and transferred the business to their son Drake on July 31, 1984. Drake operated it exactly thirty-four more years, until he retired and closed it July 31. 2018. To my knowledge, the rules of dice – Don’s Sporting Goods-style – were never written down anywhere. The rules were something a person just learned and remembered, and passed on the same way I learned them. When or where it began is a mystery. Drake told me that dice were played at the old Siskiyou Sporting Goods store before his parents purchased it, and occasionally Rene would consult with George Davis when she had a question about the rules. George Davis was the proprietor of the Rex Club on Main Street, and apparently considered the expert. So, we know that Don’s Sporting Goods wasn’t the only place in our area where dice were played. In nearly fifty years of living in Yreka, I’ve seen dice played in many locations, some still around and some long gone. Among the long gone: The Log Cabin, the Buckhorn (which became the Stoplight), Wah Lee’s, the Empire Room, the Shamrock, the Fort Club in Fort Jones, the Sportsman’s Hotel in Tulelake, and the Corner Club in Montague. At the Corner Club, if I remember correctly, there was a large round table under a hanging tiffany-style lamp, and it was a lunch gathering place for some of Yreka’s prominent citizens. Back then, it was customary to have a martini or three with lunch, so the collective lunch tab for those at the table could be hefty. If you were the unlucky loser that day, you had better be prepared to shell out quite a bit of cash.
Bar dice has been around a long time. In the traditional bar dice game, a dice cup with five dice is passed from player to player. Each will flop the dice cup one time, and the player with the best hand will be “out,” and therefore no longer responsible to pay. This will continue until only two players are left, who will duke it out playing more extensive games until the unlucky loser ends up with the total tab. That person will then shake the bartender, and will either pay double or all participants will get a free drink. What made the Don’s Sporting Goods version unique was the nature of the more extensive games played when it was down to two players. The games were numerous and complicated. The two players would each “pinkie,” meaning each would roll one die. The one with the highest number got the right to call which game he wanted to play. He could choose from at least fifteen games: Boss, Razzle-Dazzle, Big Red, Little Red, 3’s Away, 4’s Away, 6-5-4 Low, 6-5-4 High, 1-2-3 Low, 1-2-3 High, Low Ball, Three Ten High, Three Ten Low, Four Ten High, and Four Ten Low.
The list of games that could be played wasn’t static; it evolved and changed as time passed. There was no rule book that established the rules or determined which games were allowed. It was the collective consciousness of the players. For example, in the seventies, the game “Little Red” didn’t exist, or at least it wasn’t played at Don’s Sporting Goods. Somehow it was introduced, and for a time, etiquette required a player to politely ask the other, “Do you play Little Red?” before starting to shake the dice. At first “Little Red” was scoffed at and treated with disdain by the old-timers, but it gradually gained acceptance and became part of the accepted routine. No referee made that call, it just happened. It’s not written down in any rule book. Another feature of the game that evolved was the right to “reject” the pinkie winner’s first choice of which game would be played. This added a new dimension, creating the ability to bluff, similar to poker. For example, a player who won the pinkie might not call his best hand first, hoping to sucker the other player into rejecting it, and then call Boss as his second choice and clobber the other player with his five 6’s.
Although bar dice has been around a long time, I believe that the particular set of rules and the games played at Don’s Sporting Goods were unique to that establishment, although maybe also at one time to the Rex Club. And now they exist only in the memories of some of us old-timers. Some great stories persist. Here are a couple:
Back in the seventies, the price of a cup of coffee at Don’s was ten cents. My law partner Larry Bacon had an ongoing argument with Rene, telling her she needed to increase the price, which she resisted. Besides coffee, they sold sandwiches, chips, and other food items. There was a sign on the wall with the prices of the items on the menu, including 10-cent coffee. One morning, without consulting Rene, Larry brought in a new sign, which he created himself, listing coffee at 25 cents a cup, and replaced the old sign. That day, the price for coffee was raised to 25 cents, no further discussion necessary. Over the years, the price of coffee gradually increased. When it closed in 2018 the price at Don’s was one dollar. Compare that to the price of a “Grande” coffee today at Starbucks of over two dollars. At Don’s there were unlimited refills. The coffee was straightforward: black coffee, no fu-fu coffee like Starbucks, although you could get sugar and cream.
One tradition at Don’s got squelched by the unhappy wife of a patron. Each day the name of the unlucky dice loser would be posted on the wall, with the amount he had to pay. Also posted was the name of the overall unlucky loser, which would be updated occasionally as the previous dollar amount was surpassed. One day the wife of an unlucky loser happened to come into the store and saw her husband’s name on the wall, and how much he paid. Well, that apparently wasn’t good for their domestic tranquility, and that’s when the tradition ended.
I am writing this article from my memory, which sometimes can be suspect, but also, I’ve had great input from Drake Davis, far more accurate. Thank you, Drake. But you, the reader, may have other information to add. If so, for posterity’s sake please pass it on to me. This is important historical information worth preserving, don’t you think?