When the Maccabees’ oil, which was only expected to last for one day, instead lasted for eight, it was declared a miracle. When you sit down for a game that involves little more than staring at a spinning top, and expect the game to last about 10 minutes but instead it lasts for 80, that’s not a miracle. It is dreidel, and it is dreadful.
I have two problems with dreidel, the popular Hannukah–season game immortalized in a fittingly annoying song. First, it takes too long.
People often complain that games like Monopoly take all night to play. This can be true. But Monopoly is also a complex game. In a standard Monopoly kit there are 106 game pieces, and that’s not including the money. The Hasbro rules sheet for Monopoly has 20 separate sections. In order to win, you might need to have at least a remedial understanding of what a mortgage is.
Here’s how the game works, for the goyim: Each player begins with the same number of pieces (often gelt or coins) and puts one piece in the pot as an ante. Players then each take a turn spinning a four-sided top. Each side has a letter from the Hebrew alphabet, which corresponds to an action. They are:
- If a player spins a gimel, he takes all the pieces from the pot and everyone must put one more piece in the middle. (Antes are only made when the pot is empty.)
- If a player spins a hei he takes half the pieces in the pot.
- If a player spins a nun, nothing happens.
- If a player spins a shin, he must put one piece in the pot.
- Players are eliminated when they would be required to put a piece in the pot but have no pieces left to spare. Play ends when there is only one player left.
So how long can you expect a game to take? To answer that question, I had to make some assumptions. In order to determine the average length of a dreidel spin, I spun two dreidels (one wooden and one plastic) 100 times each. The average spin for the wooden top was 8.2 seconds; for the plastic one it was 8.5 seconds. I decided to be generous to dreidel and for the purposes of my experiment to say the average spin takes eight seconds. Then I had to decide how many pieces each player should start with. I consulted various sources: Most lists of rules recommended each player start with 10-15 pieces.
Ultimately, I ran 50,000 simulations of 171 different starting conditions, for a grand total of 8.5 million simulated dreidel games. Here’s what I mean by starting conditions: one starting condition was a game of six players with 10 tokens each. Another was a game of three people with 15 pieces each. All assumed eight seconds per spin, and, again out of generosity to dreidel, I assumed there was no delay between player turns.
Based on my calculations, if four players start with 10 pieces each, the game will last more than 1 hour and 54 minutes to complete. Perhaps if you were waiting out a siege by the Seleucid Empire this would be ideal, but two hours is excessive if you’re just trying to kill 30 minutes before the latkes are ready.
And two hours is an optimistic scenario. Let’s say you start with the full 15 tokens each and that your bubbe decides she wants to join in the “fun,” so now you have a fifth player. We’ll keep eight seconds a spin but now we’ll acknowledge that passing the dreidel and divvying up the coins from the middle must take at least some time—we’ll say a conservative three seconds to bring our total time per turn to 11 seconds. Under these conditions, the game would last an average of nine hours and 23 minutes. And because the variance is high, depending on how the dreidel falls you could get really unlucky. More than 10 percent of all games under the same rules would take longer than 18 hours to complete.
Below I constructed a dreidel calculator, based on 50,000 simulations of each set of rules, which will help you budget how much time you should commit to playing dreidel.
If you find a dreidel that falls down after just a second, or only have one friend to play with, then perhaps your dreidel game may be manageable. But perhaps the unmanageable length of the random dreidel walk explains why so many people I talked to remembered dreidel games in which someone threw up their hands and said, “whoever has more tokens after the next round wins.” No one ever protests. When dreidel is over, everyone wins.
My second complaint with dreidel is that there is no strategy, no way to hasten the end of this dull exercise in top spinning. Once the game starts there is nothing a player can do to increase her odds. Some might see this as the game’s charm—a 4 year old has an equal chance against a 40 year old. But while dreidel is not a game of skill, it’s not really a pure game of chance either. There is one choice you can make to improve your odds. If you want to win dreidel, be sure you spin first. If you can’t go first, go second. Do not go last.
There are more positive outcomes of a dreidel spin than negative ones so it is advantageous to go first, especially in games played with small numbers of tokens, where a few lucky spins could win you the game before another player gets a chance to take his turn. In a game of four people, in which each starts with two tokens, the first player to spin has a 31.3 percent chance of winning while the last player will only win 18 percent of the time.
The one way to combat the advantage conferred by spinning first is to increase the number of tokens you start with. If you play with four players and each player starts with 15 tokens, the discrepancy in odds between the first and last player is reduced to 25.5 percent versus 24.3 percent. But upping the token count means you’ll be at the table for hours.
The interactive below will show you, based on 50,000 simulations, the chance of winning under various starting conditions.
So, like I said, dreidel is an awful game. But, in keeping with the resourceful spirit of the Maccabees, I’ve set about revising the rules rather than suggesting we just scrap it altogether. I call my version of the game Speed Dreidel™. My version is 1) much faster 2) completely fair 3) not wholly dissimilar to dreidel’s current rules and 4) more fun.
The basic premise of Speed Dreidel™ is that instead of taking turns spinning, everyone spins his own separate dreidel at the same time.
Here are the complete rules of Speed Dreidel™:
- Everyone starts with the same number of tokens. Since this is a Hannukah game, we’ll peg this number at eight.
- Everyone gets a dreidel.
- Before the first round, and each subsequent round, each player puts one of his tokens in the middle.
- To start the game, everyone spins his dreidel at the same time.
- Everyone whose dreidel landed on a shin must put one token in.
- Everyone whose dreidel landed on nun does nothing.
- Everyone whose dreidel landed on hei gets to take one token out. If there are fewer tokens in the middle than there are people who spun a hei, no one who spun a hei gets a token.
- Everyone whose dreidel landed on gimel splits the remaining tokens evenly. If the number of tokens in the middle is not divisible by the number of people who spun a gimel, the remainder is left in the middle. For instance, if there are seven tokens in the middle and five players spin a gimel then every player should take one piece leaving two pieces in the middle. If there were seven tokens and 10 players spin a gimel, no one would take a token.
- Everyone spins his dreidel again, repeating the above process.
- A player is eliminated when he is forced to put a token in but has none left. The game continues until all but one player has been eliminated. If a situation arises when all remaining players would be forced to lose because they have no tokens left, that’s called a Menorah Mishpucka and everyone has to sing the Dreidel song in harmony. It also means they ignore that spin and keep spinning until there is a sole winner.
Doesn’t this sound like more fun? Because of the symmetry of the rules, no player has an unfair advantage. Everyone gets to spin the dreidel on every turn (which is much more fun than just watching someone else’s dreidel spin). The game is much shorter. Even if we assume 15 seconds per round (more than the 11 we assumed per spin earlier) a game with four people would last 15 minutes—one-sixth the time a game with four people and eight tokens would normally take.
Admittedly, one big winner of Speed Dreidel™ will be dreidel manufacturers, since the game requires more tops. But think of all the time you’ll be saving. Also, you can get a decent, functioning dreidel for as little 25 cents. Or you can make one yourself, out of clay.