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Yankee Grab was a dice game that became popular in New Zealand and Australia during the 19th-century goldrushes.
It is documented in 1868 in The Modern Pocket Hoyle (p. 311), under the name “Going to Boston”.These games wouldn’t appear in the non-“pocket” version of the American Hoyle until 1874.B[p. 479] By 1894 it was also called “Newmarket”,C[p. 250] and in the 1930s it was also called “Rolling Down to Rio Rita” in New York.D
The game is played with three dice. Each player has one turn which consists of three attempts at rolling the dice. After each roll, the player must set one die aside and continue rolling the remainder. The goal is to roll the highest total sum showing on the dice after all attempts have been completed. A player can stop early if they are satisfied with their score.
A later development in the “colonies” was that showing on the die was counted as 7 points, so that the highest roll was for 21 points.C[p. 250]
The game was commonly used to decide the outcome of some question, such as who should pay for a round of beer, or who would get the better bed, much as rock-paper-scissors is used nowadays. One author describes how it was used in this way in Foxton in the 1870s:E[p. 300]
At times when the coach was crowded the hotels would be so full that after every bed, stretcher, and table was occupied by tired and weary travellers, the landlord and waiter would sit down and play “Yankee grab” to decide who was to have the privilege of sleeping on the hearth-rug.
In Milton, 1868, one correspondent reported that the game could even be played with the landlord to avoid paying for drinks:F
It has lately been a habit in this neighborhood, instead of the old-fashioned way of tossing for drinks, to play “Yankee Grab” for them. I for one see no great evil in it. For instance, I myself could not avoid asking two friends to have a glass of something with me (God knows I could ill enough spare the 1s. 6d.), so to avoid that I attempt to get out of it as honorably as I can. At the entrance of the hotel we meet the landlord, and I propose “Yankee Grab” for three drinks. The landlord (a jolly good fellow) says “alright;” so he and I play “Yankee Grab” and the result is, I win, and save my 1s. 6d. It is what I call a genteel way of shouting for friends; therefore, I think that we all should have a kindly feeling for the hotelkeepers, considering the many annoyances they have to put up with.
A contributor to The Bulletin describes playing the game with Hōne Wētere (d. 1889) during a stay in Mōkau:G
I played [Euchre] fair and owed Wetere three sacks of potatoes and a pig.
Then we tried Yankee grab.
“Kia kaha,” said the chief, as he set a main of eighteen for the fourth time running.
“What’s that in English, Wetere?” I asked.
“Oh! It mean ‘Be plenty strong all the time,’” said he.
“Well, Wetere, you’re too jolly strong for me!” said I, picking up a “tat” all fives and sixes that he had rung in.Wētere has been using a modified die that is only marked with 5s and 6s. “Where you get him?”
“Kimball Bent make him for me. You no tell Mitchelson?”
“No, Wetere, I won’t tell Mitchelson.”
“Kapai; then you no pay me potatoes and pigs?”
“No, Wetere! Bet your life I won’t.”
And that’s the last time I gambled with a gentleman who played with a greenstone club within arm’s length.
A variation in scoring leads to the game called “Multiplication”: a player’s score is the sum of the first two dice set aside, multiplied by the value of the third.A[p. 311]
Dick, William Brisbane (). The Modern Pocket Hoyle (4th edition). Dick & Fitzgerald: New York, NY, USA.
Dick, William Brisbane (). The American Hoyle (8th edition). Dick & Fitzgerald: New York, NY, USA.
Maskelyne, John Nevil (). Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. Longmans, Green, and Co.: London & New York.
Longstreth, Edward (). ‘With skull and bones’. Vanity Fair vol. 37 (4), : page 78.
Buick, Thomas Lindsay (). Old Manawatu: or, The Wild Days of the West. Buick & Young: Palmerston North, New Zealand.
Anonymous (). ‘Tokomairiro’. Tuapeka Times vol. 1 (18), : page 3.
Philp, J. A. (). ‘A Game of Euchre’. The Bulletin vol. 12 (673), : page 19.