The Dice Man Cometh

The exploits of Luke Rhinehart, eponymous antihero of The Dice Man, have seduced generations of readers into subverting their lives on the throw of a die. Matt Meiner meets the man who started it all

To use chance to affect the outcome of your life is the ultimate form of gambling

Most interviews start with a shake of the hand but, in the bizarre world of Luke Rhinehart, they begin with a shake of a die. Such mores may seem eccentric, but not for this 71-year-old New Yorker. After all, he is the high chief of chance, the wizard of whim… the Dice Man himself.

In this instance, Luke announces that the result of the throw will determine how much I have to pay him for our pow-wow. If the number is between two and five, I fork out from £50 to £200 for the interview; but a one means Luke pays me £10 for the privilege. Intriguingly, if a six is cast, we take £200 to the casino and put it all on black. A win, and we split the proceeds down the middle while a loss is… well, my loss. Once we agree terms, Luke tosses the die and a two comes up. I reach for my wallet.

Some people gamble on cards, others on horses or the roulette wheel. US author Luke Rhinehart gambles with his life. Since his teenage years, through the completion of his famous novel The Dice Man in 1971 and beyond, Rhinehart has insisted on making key decisions in his life on the throw of the dice. His book – about a New York psychotherapist, also called Luke Rhinehart, who submits his free will to the roll of the dice – remains an underground classic and, mysteriously, sells more today than ever.

The legend on The Dice Man’s jacket claims: ‘This book will change your life’, and that is no trite comment. Since it appeared 33 years ago, the cult novel has successfully persuaded a number of its readers to convert to the dice life. So, should you be considering reading the book – and are already of a gambling bent – consider this to be the publisher’s equivalent of a government health warning.

‘To use chance to affect the outcome of your life is the ultimate form of gambling,’ explains the real Luke. ‘You can make the stakes high or low. You can use the dice to choose what film you’re going to see or what restaurant you’re going to eat at. That’s a $2 bet. Or you can use it to decide which woman you’re going to go out with. That’s a $5 bet. Then again, you can roll the dice to see if you’re going to quit your job or not. Maybe that’s a trifecta bet.’

Keep on rolling

Letting chance affect the outcome of your life may be the ultimate form of gambling, but it can also take you down some unusual paths. When I was an impressionable 21-year-old, a friend recommended the book to me – the same friend, in fact, who then suggested we list six options for our holidays and let the dice choose.

Six weeks later, I found myself in Cartagena, spread-eagled against a taxi with a Colombian cop’s Uzi nestling uncomfortably between my shoulder blades. As I said, the dice can take you down some unusual paths.

Nobody knows this better than Luke, who began playing with his cubes when he was a teenager and his name was still George Cockcroft (he changed his name to Luke Rhinehart to confuse readers into thinking the book was autobiographical). ‘It all started when I created a baseball game using a pair of dice,’ he says in a gravelly, laid-back drawl.

‘Pretty soon, I started making lists of things I wanted to do on a given day and let the die choose from among them. I was indecisive as a teenager, and wasn’t able to make up my mind, so I let chance make it up for me.’

Luke continued dicing off and on through the years, but turns a little coy when asked to reveal any details. ‘I don’t answer questions about my personal life,’ he says firmly. ‘I like to keep the dicing that I may have done in the past a secret and let the dicing that I create in my fiction do my talking.’

Reading The Dice Man, however, you can’t help wondering how much of this incredible story is informed by Luke’s real life exploits. The fictional Luke Rhinehart ‘rapes’ his neighbour, plays mind games with his patients and hooks his kids on the dice. The real Luke Rhinehart also worked in a mental hospital, but insists he never went to such extremes. ‘I kept it at a very primitive, simple level,’ he says. However, he admits the dice helped him find a wife. ‘I was driving out of the hospital grounds when I spotted two attractive nurses,’ he remembers, ‘but being an inhibited chap at that stage, I drove right past them.’

Half a mile up the road, Luke resolved to stop the car and consult the dice. ‘If the die fell on an odd number, I decided I would go back and try and pick the girls up.’ The die fell odd and so he drove back and offered them a ride. ‘They were on their way to confession, but the church was closed so I invited them to play tennis the next day. All throughout the game, I couldn’t help noticing that one of the women was tall, long-legged and fullbosomed. Eventually, I married her.’

By 1966 Luke – now a young, hip, dope-smoking professor of American literature – decided that perhaps his dice games were more significant than he had thought. He felt the dice could free people from the constraints of their own boring personalities.

One morning, while teaching a seminar on freedom to some college students, he took the chance to share his unorthodox views. The impact was astounding. ‘I told them the ultimate freedom was casting dice to determine what you did with your life. They were so appalled by the idea – or so fascinated – that I realised maybe I was on to something more important than I’d first thought,’ Rhinehart says. ‘That’s when I began writing the book.’

Live and let die

He finally finished the manuscript four years later but, due to an ill-fated dice decision to buy a yacht and sail across the Mediterranean with his wife and three kids, he very nearly perished before it was published. The boat’s motor broke down half-way between the South of France and Majorca and they were then hit by a terrifying mistral. Rudder broken and sails slashed, all hope of salvation was practically sunk. ‘I said goodbye to my wife and apologised for dragging her off on this ridiculous journey,’ he says. ‘We assumed we were going to die.’

They would have – probably dashed on the treacherously rocky coast off North Africa. But Lady Luck was smiling on the Dice Man that day. A Scottish freighter, which had been thrown 150 miles off its own course, miraculously turned up to rescue them. Rhinehart’s yacht sank, and with it went his whole life’s savings.

Even without an untimely death to boost his legendary status, Luke Rhinehart today is a truly cult figure. He confesses to receiving a constant stream of emails from fans keen to share their own dicing experiences, but claims no responsibility for their actions. ‘Insane people will make insane decisions, whether they use dice or not,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel responsible for the stupid things people might do with dice, any more than I feel responsible for the stupid things they do without the dice.’

In one case, however, he did feel inclined to intervene when a extremely disturbed fan wrote to him. ‘He was listing options most of which were very dark and likely to reinforce the worst tendencies in him,’ he says. ‘Although I didn’t feel responsible for him, I advised him very strongly against the options he was considering.’

Over the three decades since it was first published, The Dice Man has fascinated new generations of readers, leaving each one with a taste for the anarchic dice life. Its success has not only motivated Rhinehart to write two other Dice Man novels (The Search for The Dice Man and The Book of The Die) but it has inspired others too – the most recent instance being a couple of months ago when a play called The Dice House took to a West End stage.

Hollywood wants a slice of dice action as well. Paramount, which had optioned the book immediately, is now closer than ever to making the much anticipated film; Nicholas Cage, Jack Nicholson and Richard Gere are all said to be desperate to play the lead. Bruce Willis apparently asked if he could send in a tape of himself shaking dice.

Meanwhile, the book that was once named ‘novel of the century’ by Loaded magazine is now selling in greater quantities and in more countries than ever, which completely mystifies its author. ‘It’s ridiculous!’ says Rhinehart. ‘Perhaps it just shows that if you worship chance, it will give you a break now and then.’

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