“Should I go for 3-of-a-kind or the full-house?” I thought aloud.
I was home from college for Christmas break. Between semesters. Final exams behind me.
Eight family members gathered around the kitchen table to play Yahtzee (the dice game) at my grandparents’ house. I sat on the end of the table, closest to the door.1
To me, Yahtzee was an exercise in statistical probabilities mixed with pure chance. Yet, I was alone in this sentiment and at odds with my competitors, a multi-generational mix of extended family members over the holiday gathering.
Games like Yahtzee provide a reason to gather in one place and visit while keeping your hands occupied, without fully engaging your brain. It’s not chess, even less strategic than checkers, but still not as mind numbing as Go-Fish.
Poker. Spades. 42 (dominos). Hearts (to a lesser extent). These games are more strategic than Yahtzee and require more thinking to play properly.
Strategy games do not elicit as much outward social interaction while playing. In fact, they often stunt it. And yet, somehow, over the course of multiple games, you feel like you know your partner and opponents better, even through the silence, largely because you spend much time, logic and imagination trying to envision and decipher what they might be thinking and scheming, and how they might react to your own brand of scheming against them. In doing so, you attempt to approximate their thoughts (paired with a guess of the condition of the hand they were dealt). You then get near-instant feedback based on their subsequent plays. Conversely, they perform a similar dance in their mind about you, with similar feedback to better their models of your game play and thinking.
This silent exchange of ideas, a parade of predictions and outcomes, pairs you with someone, even when you are playing against them. This gaming entanglement provides a purview into their thinking, or lack thereof sometimes. Repeated games add color to the type of person you are playing with or against and some insight into the silent world of their minds.
Back to Our Yahtzee Game
When it was my turn, I rolled the dice.
With Yahtzee, there’s a certain probability of getting the combination of six dice that you need to score points… maybe 3-of-a-kind, a small straight, a large straight, a full-house, etc.
You start by rolling all the dice. This places the initial conditions on your turn by the randomness of chance and establishes the starting point for your decision tree of how to proceed. Whatever that first roll is, that’s what you have to work with – much like life.
Based on the combination of numbers on the first roll, you then choose which dice to set aside and keep at their current value and which dice to roll again. You get three rolls to (hopefully) make the desired pattern needed to populate your scorecard and thus score points.
Based on the initial conditions set by the first roll, an analytical person might try to approximate the probability of rolling the desired outcome on subsequent rolls (to populate the remaining blanks on the scorecard). I normally just opted for the path with the highest probability of success, balanced against a consideration for the payoff. In doing so, I sometimes thought out loud.
“I have about a 17% chance of rolling the straight and a 32% chance of rolling the 3-of-a-kind…”
“But the straight is worth more points.”
“I only have 5 turns remaining, and the odds of starting at these initial conditions (ripe for a possible straight) on the first roll of my 5 remaining turns seems low.”
“And I don’t have a ‘Chance’ left. So, if I miss the straight, I’ll have to take a zero somewhere.”
Zeros are bad.
You get the idea.
Logic. Statistics. Optimization. Luck. Mostly luck.
I mean, the subtext on the 1980’s version of the box itself says a “game of luck and strategy”. Apparently, in that order.
It also says, “Your favorite game”, so maybe everything on the box isn’t entirely true.
Although we often employ the figurative phrase “a roll of the dice”, this is literally a roll of the dice game. Going with the best probability of success seems rational and consequently, reasonable – to me.
“You think too much,” my cousin said.
“I’m just considering which option makes the most sense statistically. How do you decide, based on how it feels?”
I meant this as a joke, because, to me, that would seem completely ridiculous.2
“Uhh, yeah. That’s pretty much exactly how I decide.”
I started to smile, but then realized my cousin wasn’t making a self-deprecating joke.
Others around the table nodded in agreement. They too decided based on how it felt, and if they felt lucky in that moment or not.
This insight was fascinating and reshaped my thinking, about how others think.
That evening, I learned most people were making their decisions based on emotion or some superstition about what might be rolled next.3
I was, in fact, in the minority. It had never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t logic through the available choices, approximate the odds of the most favorable outcome, and move in that direction.
Aren’t they playing to win? I thought to myself.
They were, for sure, but with a different strategy.
This was a complete revelation.
It struck me for the first time that people navigate decision-making with approaches distinct from my own, and, by logical extension, conceivably differ from each other.
I had just learned a huge lesson.
Not everyone thinks alike, nor should they.
Feeling Their Way
How something feels – the gut instinct – might not be as “feel-based” as we tend to think. How we feel might be based on unarticulated analytics deep within us. That is, our gut feel might not be just a feeling.
A gut instinct might be thinking, but where the internal processes simply did not surface in a step-by-step, fully articulated, logical manner. The calculations or general estimates might still be there, under the substrate of subconscious thought, calculated differently, maybe even more quickly.
Less cerebral, more guttural. But perhaps still thoughtful consideration, akin to “intuition”.
How Differently We Think
The classic Myers Briggs personality test presents a 4×4 matrix of personality types, 16 personalities. At first glance, we might expect 1/16th of the general population would fall into each personality bucket (6.25% each). But this is not the case.
Some personality types represent a larger swath of the general population (ISTJ, ISFJ, ESFJ represent 12% – 13% each) while other personality types are only found in ~2% of the population (INTJ, ENTJ, INFJ, ENFJ).
It turns out, based on the distribution of these personality types in broad populations, most people make decisions based on how something feels rather than a rational argument based on cogitated analytics.
Rather than me being baffled at how others made in their strategic Yahtzee decisions, my decision structure was confusing to them.
This revelation provided an instant and much needed, maybe-I’m-not-the-center-of-the-universe kind of moment. A good calibration reset and a key component to the continuum of growing up. All this playing Yahtzee!
I don’t recall if I won that game, some 30 years ago, but I did win a more important lesson – a better understanding of others.
What Game Are We Playing?
Zooming out further, and with the benefits of more years to reflect on the incident, I realized the “You think too much” comment wasn’t intended to imply I was being overly analytical, which is how I understood it literally at the time. I later realized my cousin likely meant,
“You are taking too long to play.”
Slowing the game isn’t fun, at least not for everyone else.
If my cousin wasn’t as polite, she might have said, “Just roll the dice, make your decision, and play the game.”
I was playing Yahtzee and trying my best to win, applying basic statistics coupled with some luck (because, let’s face it, we were rolling dice for random outcomes). I assumed everyone else at the table that evening was also playing to win.
They were, but we were optimizing for different games.
While I was calculating statistics and trying to win the dice game, they were having conversations, telling stories, laughing, visiting, and having a great time. I was having fun too, but less socially, because I enjoyed the competition of the game itself.
They, on the other hand, were using the game as an excuse to build relationships through conversation. The game was secondary, a mechanism to facilitate participation in a collective activity, to further the larger, top-level social game of life, played simultaneously as an overlay to the dice game.
It would be years before I realized I had not fully participated in the real-life meta game that day.
And therein lies a core function of memory, to resurface and replay events like this one within our minds until we extract sufficient meaning from them. There is a reason, after all, that we remember some events with such clarity… because there’s more to learn, more to extrapolate from the memory. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “You need to think about this some more. So, here’s this: What about the time when [memory flash]?”
This idea that participants optimized for different game levels took me a while and some churning on the recurring memory to uncover and extract. Why else would this memory survive the day and replay itself periodically within the theatre of my mind unless there was something to extrapolate from it that I had not yet learned?
Memories are like that. They resurface and nag us until we grasp the broader concept, contextualize it, and bank the more meaningful lesson.
The Broader Context
Hopefully, we are inclined to periodically ask, “What game are we playing?”
This is an important question and appropriate to ask, not just in card games and board games, but also in our careers, in business, in our relationships, and in life.
Sometimes, we focus so much on making the proper analytical decisions about how to drive our company (or project) forward that we miss the larger life-game being played out in real-time before us, with those around us, those who might benefit from our involvement in their lives, and from those who we might benefit from their involvement in our lives.
It is often easier and more expedient to optimize for profit or some short-term gain, than to optimize for the more impactful, longer-term, simultaneous game of humanity.
This is a good reminder that ultimately, relationships are more important than the board game, the sports game, the project, the product, the service, the resulting profit, the stuff, the prestige, or the argument we sometimes strive to win.
So, what game are we playing?
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- This point isn’t important to the story, but it does play into the broader narrative. If you know me well, you’ll understand this particular quirk.
- Saying ridiculous things is my favorite brand of humor.
- Extrapolating further, we might wonder if a lot of people make life decisions in a similar fashion. They do.