I hear that a lot when I play games. I have one friend who more often than not when we play games calls me “the luckiest bastard ever”. Putting modesty aside for a moment, while luck is definitely a factor in nearly all games, no one is fortunate enough to win consistently via luck. I do win more than my share of games, not through luck (well, not always!), but because games are my thang. The more games you play, and the more variety of games you play, the better you get at them. Some of that is just through repetition and practice, but I think the bigger part of it is because games have common elements, and the more you play the more you figure out. I’d like to talk about some of these common elements that apply to games in general and how they can help you become a lucky bastard as well. Note that none of these apply to every single game you’ll ever play, but any one of them will apply to a great variety of games and contribute to a higher winning percentage.
Anytime you’re dealing with cards, dice, or a common stack that is drawn from (like Scrabble tiles), in other words, the vast majority of games, probability comes into play. No game I know of will teach you about the odds more quickly than backgammon will. In fact, backgammon is probably the best example of the whole idea behind this post: what looks like the result of “luck” isn’t at all. A novice backgammon player might be under the impression that the winner is whoever rolls the best dice. That might be true between two players of equal skill, but a highly skilled player will beat a beginner nearly every time, regardless of the dice. Usually what looks like a lucky roll by a player who knows how to play is actually the result of good play that allows him to take advantage of good rolls.
But back to strict probability. Knowing things like the most common number to roll (once you factor in doubles and combos) in backgammon is a 6 will help you when you have to leave a direct shot (e.g. leave it as far away from 6 as you can). I’m not much of a poker player, but anyone who is or has watched it on T.V. knows how important the odds of hitting a certain card are and how that affects the betting. A very important part of Bridge is knowing what the odds are of opponents’ cards splitting a certain way; i.e. if the opponents have 5 Spades, what are the odds they’re divided a certain way such as 4-1 or 5-0?
None of this means you need to be a math genius or memorize lots of tables. Just having a general awareness of odds and how likely or unlikely things are will help you in many games. For example, understanding that if you roll two 6-sided dice there are 36 possible combinations, and that the odds of rolling any non-double such as 1-5 are one in 18 (because you can roll a 1 on one die and a 5 on the other or the other way around) and the odds or rolling any particular double are 1 in 36 is sufficient in a lot of cases and will give you a leg up on a lot of people. You don’t have to ponder every move like you’re Deep Blue, but just being aware of probability will help your gaming skillz.
You can learn a lot about what’s going on in a game by watching your opponents and what they’re doing. A lot of this is “tells”, which are famous in poker but come up in all kinds of games. An unnamed person I play games with has the worst poker face ever and when we’re playing cards I can always tell if he/she got a good hand. This especially comes up in Cassino. In Cassino you go through the whole deck each round, and there are a few cards (each Ace, the Two of Spades, and the 10 of Diamonds) that are worth extra points. If he/she has one of those cards and can’t play it right away I can always tell because of the hesitation that ensues. You can see the gears turning: “Oh, how am I going to play this card so I can keep it…?” In fact one of the things that makes Cassino a really good game is the level of psyches and fakes you can pull off.
Speaking of psyches, that reminds me of one of the best fake-outs I’ve ever seen at the game table. My extended family was playing 31, also known sometimes as Skat. The basics are you have 3 cards, Aces are worth 11, facecards are 10, and others are spot value. You try to collect three cards of the same suit worth as much as possible, and the best hand is 31 (an Ace and two facecards or a 10 of the same suit). One game my grandpa (“Pa”) took a Jack of Diamonds and threw away the 9 of Diamonds. Well obviously if you’re throwing away a 9 you’ve got three high cards, totaling either 30 or 31 (oh, if someone has 31 that’s really bad because everyone else at the table has to pay up), so normally that would set off the alarms and someone would be sure to go out first (31 only counts if you go out with it). But Pa, who had a brain tumor removed years before and would occasionally have a brief memory lapse, kind of shook his head and grrred at himself, making it seem like he had made the wrong play. Well we all underestimated him and believed his little act, and when it got back to his turn Whap! he hit us with the 31. He had played us beautifully, not overacting or making too big of a scene, just enough to convince us he’d screwed up. It was perfect.
Another good ploy is the deliberate hesitation. Pretend that you’ve got a tough decision to make (like the Cassino example) and if your opponent is paying attention they might get off on the wrong track. The opposite tack is to make a play very confidently like you’ve got a sure thing. Both of these are of course (over)used in poker, but they can be utilized in a variety of other games, such as Magic: The Gathering. I don’t play that anymore, but I used to make all kinds of plays strictly to make the opponent think I held a particular card or was getting ready to make a particular move.
Paying attention to how your opponents play can be just as important as paying attention to the plays themselves. And of course, always be on the lookout for your own tells! Think about how you’re playing and not just the plays you’re making.
This is getting pretty long so I think I’ll break it up into a couple parts. Part II coming soon!