I Guess I'm Competitive? Or: Finding the Right Idea in a Sea of Good Ones

The first time I played Yahtzee! (here are the rules), I lost very, very badly. I literally didn't roll anything higher than a three the entire game. I did roll a Yahtzee!—of 2's—and still got crushed.

It was embarrassing, and things didn't get much better for me that vacation. My awfulness at the game became dinner conversation. The teasing was constant. I went along with it, I was a good sport. But inside...

Well, inside was different story.

So when I got home, I decided to get good.

I bought dice, obviously.

Then I set up a spreadsheet.

Yep. A Yahtzee! spreadsheet.

Over the next year, I tracked well over a thousand games—more than 15,000 turns and 35,000 throws—to see if I could systematically improve my score.

What I'd do is set a strategy for myself—say, always roll for the top scores first, or always roll for a large straight if I rolled a 2-3-4-5 on my first roll (even if the last die formed a pair with one of those)—things like that—and then I'd roll a few dozen games with ruthless adherence to that strategy.

Once I had numbers for a few different strategies, I'd run simple statistics to figure out which strategies were yielding higher average scores and—just as importantly—less variance. Then I'd change my strategy and repeat the process.

By our next vacation, I had gotten good.

If you're a financial type, you can think of what I had done as figuring out the efficient frontier for a portfolio of Yahtzee! throws. If you're more of a sports fan, then the analogy would be finding the dice equivalent of the triangle offense. But in the simplest terms, what I'd done was figure out how to crush anyone in a multi-game Yahtzee! tournament.

Unsurprisingly, there were a few years there after all that when my family didn't like playing Yahtzee! with me very much. 

Nowadays, I'm happy to report that I am no longer misdirecting my competitiveness. At least, not with quite as much vigor. But I do still use this approach on the regular at work to figure out patterns and how to compete—

The key to the whole spreadsheet and why it worked so well is that it let me sift amongst a bunch of good ideas to find the right idea that would work every time (or close to it). I had plenty of good ideas about how to improve at Yahtzee!—roll for 6's; protect my bonus; save my chance; prioritize getting a large straight; etc—and many of them did indeed turn out to be decent. They just weren't the right ideas if my goal was to win. Allowing myself to test these ideas as hypotheses, instead of allowing myself to get too attached to ideas that I liked, helped me sift through them all to figure out which ones were right

I like to figure out a way to experiment, challenge my assumptions, and recombine intuitive strategies in new ways to see what happens. 

It takes creativity to look at what you think you already know in a new way, and stay open to that new insight that almost always emerges. But creativity itself isn't enough; creativity will generate a number of good ideas, but it sort of stops there.

It takes competitiveness to get through all those good ideas to get to the right one. It takes competitiveness to muster the patience to sit through all the inevitable failures, to discard things that actually succeed when you find something else that succeeds more, and—most importantly—to start the journey. Being mad about losing, harnessed productively, is a great source of energy... and this journey definitely takes a lot of energy!


I know, I know: if you're a Yahtzee! player, you're dying to know what I learned. Honestly, I've forgotten most of it. Still, a tip: Don't roll for a large straight if your first roll is 1-2-3-4 or 3-4-5-6. Wait for a first roll of 2-3-4-5, as that effectively doubles the odds of completing the large straight (with 2-3-4-5, either a 1 or a 6 completes the large straight... whereas a first roll of either 1-2-3-4 or 3-4-5-6 means only a 5 or 2 completes it, respectively). Over two rolls, the odds are now slightly in your favor that you'll get your 40 points. Good luck!

Jason Seiden