I was probably seven when Grandma Anne taught me to play Yahtzee. I’d spend the night at her house with my cousin, Devin, and invariably, we’d be at her kitchen table, playing Yahtzee all afternoon.
It’s a simple game…on the surface.
Each player gets thirteen turns to complete their score card.
The top section of the score card consists of numbers 1 thru 6. You need to roll three ones, three twos, three threes, etc. to get your “minimums.” You could also roll four fives (or four of anything), which comes in handy if you were only able to roll two threes on a previous turn. The idea on the top section is to score at least 63 total points, so you can get the 35-point bonus.
Yahtzee! scores 50 points. That’s when you get all five dice to be the same during your turn. Some players focus solely on getting Yahtzee at the expense of everything else. The theory being that 50 points is huge, and if you get a second Yahtzee that one’s worth 100. Of course, the odds of getting a Yahtzee are against you, but the payoff is big when it happens.
Grandma was always clear that while a Yahtzee is nice, the most consistent winning strategy is to get your bonus on the top section. Rely on those 35 points as your foundation. A Yahtzee, or a big four-of-a-kind on the bottom section of the score card would be icing on the cake.
Relying on the foundational 35 and less on the Yahtzee probably explains many of the best decisions I’ve made in life.
Each turn, you roll five dice to start. You get two more rolls in your turn. Depending on what the dice show after your first roll, you may not need to take those additional rolls. Life is good when you roll a complete large straight or a Yahtzee on your first roll!
The bottom section of the score card has three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, full house, small straight, large straight, Yahtzee! and Chance.
Chance comes into play when you’re rolling for something that doesn’t happen. Like, you already have your small straight, and now you’re rolling to complete a large straight. Unfortunately, that last number doesn’t come up. You count-up the total of all the dice and enter that number into Chance.
Chance is a lot like a mulligan in golf. A do-over. In this case, you get to capture some points even though the rolls failed to produce. They say there are no do-over’s in life, but I disagree. There are plenty of second chances, if you’re willing to ask for forgiveness (mostly from yourself), learn from your mistake(s) (hopefully), and try again.
How often do three sixes come up in a roll? How likely is it that you’ll be able to roll that one specific number you need to complete your straight or full house? When you’ve used up your Chance spot, and your rolls have led to nothing, which slot are you willing to sacrifice to end this turn? Odds and decisions.
Yahtzee seems like a game of chance. It’s much more. It’s a game of decisions and imperfect trade-offs.
After a while, we graduated to playing Triple Yahtzee, which entails playing three games simultaneously. You get 39 turns. One column is worth triple points, one is double points, and the last column is regular points.
The decisions and trade-offs from the “Single Yahtzee” game are in play, but now you want to maximize the point values in your triple column and consider sacrificing some of the slots in the regular column.
Don’t be fooled. Mastering Triple Yahtzee isn’t just triple the challenge. As in real life, something that should be only triple the challenge is often exponentially more challenging than it first appears.
What is the answer to all this exponential chaos? Methodical effort and focused strategy. The priorities and the strategy are defined. The decisions that follow from these priorities become clear. Maybe even simple.
There’s a certain genius in showing a seven-year-old the game of Yahtzee. They haven’t fully formed their approach to decision making. Success, failure, decisions, and sacrifices are in play with every turn. Excellent practice for the real thing.
Yahtzee illustrates how something completely random and driven by chance can be managed within a solid set of priorities and strategies.
I didn’t just get to learn about rolling dice, counting numbers, and making decisions. Grandma gave me the gift of lasting memories that I cherish to this day, playing Yahtzee at her kitchen table.
Now that I have six (!) grandkids of my own, I can’t wait to teach them the game of Yahtzee…and then, Triple Yahtzee!