Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why does it happen? Because it happens.

When I lived in Michigan, a friend of mine hosted Monday Night Football parties. I expect he still hosts them, I just don't live there anymore. Anyway, a bunch of guys would show up, and we'd spend the evening drinking beer and sort-of watching the game. Since we usually only had a passing interest in the game, we would turn quickly to other distractions, usually games. It was at these parties that I was introduced to a dice game my friends called "Scat." Scat is a variation of poker dice. The rules are as follows:

  • The goal for each player is to make the best "hand" (actually, it's to avoid making the worst hand, but I'll get to that in a second). A hand is the best possible set of any one rank. Sets are ranked first by cardinality (the size of the set) and then by ordinality (the rank of the dice in the set); for example, three sixes is better than three fours, but four twos is better than three sixes. Only the set itself counts, the "kickers" are irrelevant, e.g. four twos and a six is the same as four twos and a three). Ones are wild, so a one and two sixes is really three sixes. However, a hand must have a one to be valid; a hand with no ones is "scat," and is worth nothing.
  • Each player has three rolls to make a hand. After each of the first two rolls, the player may choose to stop rolling any or all of the dice. However, the player must roll a one before setting aside any dice, i.e., if the player has scat, he must re-roll all five dice. If a die is set aside after the first roll, it may not be re-rolled after the second roll.
  • Play passes clockwise around the table. After each player has rolled, the lowest hand is eliminated, and the remaining players begin a new round. The honor of starting each round passes counter-clockwise: the last player to roll in the previous round rolls first in this round, the first player in the previous round now rolls second, and so on. When only two players are left, the game becomes best-of-three (the first player to have the low roll twice loses).
  • If, at any time, a player's dice "stack" (i.e., one die lands on top of another), that player is immediately eliminated, and the round ends.
  • If, at any time, a player rolls five ones, that player wins the game, regardless of how many players are remaining.

Obviously, this is largely a game of chance, so its main purpose was to shift small sums of money around a table. However, I noticed the occasional opportunity for skillful play. For example, a player who rolled two ones, two threes, and a six would usually keep the threes, thus keeping four threes instead of three sixes. However, if the low roll was four fours, that player would need to roll a one or three on the fifth die to avoid elimination. A player who kept the six in the same situation would still need to roll a one or six, but would have two dice, thus improving his odds.

This round of math lessons will focus on this game. I'll first point out some basic probabilities related to the game, and then delve a little into strategies in specific situations. Finally, I'll look at the game theory aspects, in an attempt to come up with a basic strategy.

1 comment:

bill said...

Looking forward to this. Here's a couple more you might be interested in.

Cosmic Wimpout -- simple and entertaining dice game

Hey! That's My Fish! -- goofy concept hides some intriguing theory and mathematics