Almost half a century ago, a small town university professor wrote a strange and fascinating novel about a bored psychiatrist who begins making life decisions based on the roll of the dice. The Dice Man was well received and critically acclaimed and to date has sold over two million copies in over 26 countries and several languages. It quickly became a cult classic, leading the BBC to label it “one of the fifty most influential books of the last half of the twentieth century.” While not strictly a horror novel, The Dice Man is popular with readers of the genre as it constitutes a dark, often shocking piece of literature.
Professor George Cockcroft, who published under the pseudonym Luke Rhinehart, had begun experimenting with dice in is own life as he studied and taught psychology. He even delivered a lecture to his class exploring the possibilities of letting dice rule a person’s actions; the idea was met with both fascination and concern by his students. It was then that he knew he could turn this idea into a novel.
A Brief Plot Summary
The book is written in first person and feels rather personal to the author. The protagonist’s name, exactly like the writer’s pseudonym, is Luke Rhinehart – and he’s also a psychiatrist. He is stuck in a middle-age rut; he is bored with his work, feeling that the established methods of treating patients are ineffective at best. He believes current practices are not helping people move away from being unhappy, but rather encourages them to accept unhappiness.
In typical middle-age crisis fashion, the protagonist is also unfulfilled with daily his life and his marriage. Almost as a whim, he decides to liven it up by resorting to a roll of the dice to make all his life decisions. Decision making has always been a central focus of study for psychiatry and psychology. However, the choices he allows the dice to make for him are often morally ambiguous and antisocial – his very first one is to sleep with his colleague’s wife.
Of course the roll oblige him and off he goes, announcing his intentions to the unsuspecting woman. She, humorously enough, is quite willing to indulge his fantasy and off they go. From there, he continues to allow the dice to dictate first trivial decisions and then major ones, even allowing pure chance to dictate his personality on any given day. He eventually uses “dice therapy” on his patients as well.
The often horrifying decisions of the dice get him into quite a few scrapes, including “losing” some of his psychiatric patients at a theatre. Slowly, his actions begin to attract attention of his colleagues and the media and a “cult of the dice” forms. It only gets crazier and more fascinating from there.
An Interesting History of Dice
It is interesting that Rhinehart chose dice as the unbiased decision maker and catalyst of the story. Dice and dice games go a long way back in human history, providing not only entertainment but also helping decision making. They dated as far back as 2000 BC and were reportedly invented during the siege of Troy by the Ancient Greeks. Dice games and other regional games have always been an important part of many different cultures. From Greek tavli to Middle Eastern backgammon to the America Ship, Captain and Crew and craps, dice are an ingrained part of gaming, both as necessary accessories to board games and on their own – fitting then, that Cockcroft chooses to have a bored character play with them, in the most immersive game possible: life.
Originally, dice were two-sided and sculpted from sheep’s bones, giving the roller a 50/50 chance. Roman influence developed the cube die. Dice have been part of games, fortune telling and life or death decisions for thousands of years. Rhinehart was not the first to have his actions and destiny decided randomly by dice. Emperors of the Roman Empire and several Chinese dynasties often decided on the fate of a captive, a gladiator or a messenger bearing bad news by the roll of the dice. The Chinese further transitioned from dice to dominoes and Mahjong, the tiles of which are still called “bones” to this day.
While The Dice Man was released to critical acclaim, some of the subject matter was so subversive and controversial for the time that it was banned in several countries. On its initial publication, the cover displayed the confident quote of “Few novels will change your life. This one will.”
It certainly changed the life of the author, who was able to retire from teaching and write full time. Rhinehart/Cockcroft wrote several books, including 1986’s follow-up, Whim, and the third installment in the series, aptly named The Search For The Dice Man. The story picks up 20 years later, when the child of the Dice Man has grown up and become a major investor in the stock market. Absolutely refusing to follow his father’s methods, Larry Rhinehart is a symbol of strategy, analysis and stability.
Of course that would make for an uneventful plot, so when the FBI approaches him regarding his long lost father, he ends up searching for Luke himself. A book about his self discovery and embracing of chance, The Search For The Dice Man is a very fulfilling sequel.
The fourth book in the series is rather stand-alone, in that it’s non-fiction. The Book of the Die, is more of a set of instructions, if not a bible for those that live the dice life – there is even an app for it. It includes practical instruction for living by the die, daring readers to do things they never imagined they could.
While the book still remains controversial, that hasn’t stopped it from reaching six printed editions and continued sales. It also has continued to have a cult following, including several famous people full of praise for the book and the author.
Richard Branson of the Virgin enterprise followed Rhinehart’s teachings when he started Virgin Records. London’s Time Out called it “The most fashionable novel of the early 70s,” and LOADED MAGAZINE honored it in 1999 calling The Dice Man “The novel of the century.” The Dice Man still inspires today. Imagine deciding today you are going to act like a self-made millionaire. Imagine you are not going to listen to your boss criticize you or your spouse complain. Imagine making radical decisions that could change your life with the roll of the die. Imagine finding another you. Read the book.