There are few perfect things in this world. A pair of dice is one of them. They’re the perfect size. They’re the perfect shape. They’re the perfect weight. They’re the perfect texture. You can run your fingertips over the thermoset plastic, which gives dice a sheen similar to tooth enamel, and feel the series of perfectly round depressions that mark each number. The satisfaction is palpable. Hold a pair of dice—or five of them, for that matter—in your hand and you know you’re holding something which cannot be improved upon.
Unless your roll is dogshit.
I never meant to become obsessed with Yahtzee, but all of the early signs were there. When I was young, my dad taught my brother and sister and me the game of Balut: an antecedent to Yahtzee that, according to a legend that’s more fun when accepted as straight history, was invented by bored American soldiers stationed in the Philippines during World War II. We sat around a table in the family room and passed around a weighty cup with a thick, embossed leather hide wrapped around its outside. Inside the cup were five dice. My dad explained the rules to us—they were similar to poker, which we all already knew how to play—but I only cared about shaking the dice around in that cup, hearing them jangle as they banged into one another before I threw those bad boys down. I liked Balut. Balut was a solid after-dinner treat.
A couple of decades later, I was dating the woman whom I would later marry. We spent a weekend in coastal Delaware with her parents—my first time on vacation with them. I had been warned by my wife that her father didn’t like it when people cursed, which was a pretty fucking hilarious bit of irony given my everyday vocabulary. But I kept my mouth disciplined throughout the bulk of the trip, until we all played Yahtzee the final night. I had never played Yahtzee before, and I had forgotten the rules of Balut. I don’t remember if I won or lost that night, but I do remember blurting out a casual F-bomb while the action was going on.
“Oh my God, so sorry,” I told my soon-to-be father-in-law.
“Well I don’t like it, Drew.”
That moment counts as the only time my wife’s old man would ever be visibly pissed at me. We get along famously now and I love that man to death. But at the time, I cut the tension by keeping my head down and focused on my dice, rolling my way back to comfortable ground.
Here is another legend that you’re better off taking as fact. Yahtzee as we know it was invented by a wealthy Canadian couple who wanted a game to play with their bestest, richest friends while aboard their luxury yacht. So they concocted one and christened it The Yacht Game, presumably while asking their butler for more Sevruga caviar. Eventually, Milton Bradley adapted the game and renamed it Yahtzee. The Canadians earned nothing for it. They didn’t really need to.
If you haven’t played Yahtzee, I’m gonna take you through the rules right now. Refer to this score sheet to keep track:
You start with a cup that has five dice inside of it. You roll your dice three times per turn, keeping whichever dice you want and re-rolling the others. You log your score, and then you pass the cup. There are two sections to a Yahtzee score sheet. The upper section is pure numbers. You roll as many ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, and sixes as you can. If your upper section 63 points or higher, you get an additional 35-point bonus. I am VERY horny for the bonus, but we’ll get to that lust in just a moment. That 63 number is carefully calibrated. You have to roll exactly three of each number to reach it. Fail to roll three of one number, and you’re gonna have to roll four of a higher one. That’s where the pressure comes in.
The lower section of the sheet has all the fun shit: three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, a small straight, a large straight, and the fabled Yahtzee, which awards you 50 points for rolling five of the same number. There’s also a Chance hand, which can bail you out in a pinch or let you score all of what I consider to be the devil’s hand—two fives, two sixes, one four—when it won’t work anywhere else. If you roll more than one Yahtzee during a round, you get to add a gorgeous check mark in one of the little boxes at the very bottom of the sheet, with a 100-point bonus for each check. Add the top and bottom sections at the end of your game, and you’ve got your final score. Roll a Yahtzee below and hit the bonus above, and you’re probably gonna win.
But that’s not so easy. You must fill in one of the boxes after every turn. If you don’t have anything that qualifies for any box, you gotta put a zero somewhere. Explain this part to someone playing Yahtzee for the first time and their reaction is always, without fail, a blend of both confusion and disappointment. Really? I have to put a zero somewhere? Oh. You can tell they don’t like that part of the game. I know I didn’t. But that’s where Yahtzee stops being funtime and turns into a strategic death match. How I only dropped ONE F-bomb during my first time playing eludes me. I have dropped many since.
We now own a Yahtzee set ourselves. After Scrabble, it’s my favorite board game in the universe. On nights and weekends, I’ll beg my wife to play, but she’ll only agree when she has the energy for it, which isn’t terribly often. I’ve roped the kids into games as well, but they tend to argue a lot. You will never avoid petty arguments during Family Game Night. Also, my 9-year-old is as infatuated with physical dice as I am, and will therefore milk each of his turns by doing all kind of dramatic shakes and rolls that leaves his siblings exasperated. One time, he rolled four Yahtzees in a single game; a family record. He taped his score sheet for that one to a cabinet door. It’s still there. But when he loses, he’s not terribly pleasant about it.
One day a few months ago, I decided to take the Family out of Family Game Night and I downloaded a knockoff version of the game called “Yazy” to my phone. This was because the official Yahtzee app is fucking terrible. It has all of the miserable accoutrements that come with most every iPhone game now: mascots, dumb prize boxes, in-app purchases and, worst of all, a loose adherence to the rules of the original game. Yazy, by contrast, does everything by the book. That was what I wanted. I wanted the game and nothing else. I am a Yahtzee purist.
I began to play obsessively: in my chair, on the toilet, while walking the dog … everywhere. I have deleted the app many times, only to reinstall it over and over again. I had an easier time quitting alcohol. One time my wife saw me playing and asked me, “What are those charts you keep staring at?” assuming I was looking at something important. When I told her what I was really doing, she was both disappointed and unsurprised. Yahtzee affords me that specific gamer high where the rest of the world falls away and only you and the game are left within it. When I play fake Yahtzee on my phone, I don’t have to care about anything else, and I don’t. Unlike Scrabble, there is no greater meaning to Yahtzee for me. This isn’t a story about how Yahtzee is actually jazz. It’s an inherently stupid pastime.
But it’s one that I care about. Ugh, do I ever care. Playing fake Yahtzee on my phone robs me of the tactile pleasure of holding dice, and the communal pleasure of being in good company. But I guess neither of those things mattered to me as much as playing the game as often as I can. Oh, the bonus! I crave the bonus. I NEED the bonus. I need to roll four of something early in the game to give myself a cushion, and even then I’ve ended up stymied. One time I rolled five sixes against the bot—YAHTZEE!—and logged it in the SIX row specifically to get the bonus instead of the full 50 the Yahtzee slot would have afforded me. When I don’t get the bonus, I am pissed. Even if I have defeated the bot. I get especially pissed if I only need some basic roll to reach the 63-mark and the dice refuse to give them to me. One time, I only had to roll a single four to get the bonus. I rolled three times and a four didn’t show itself once. Mother. Fucker.
That is but one facet of the game that angers me in seductive ways. The straights are miserable beasts. You get 30 points for rolling four consecutive numbers for the small (two-three-four-five, etc.) and a whopping 40 points, nearly the same as a Yahtzee, for rolling five consecutive numbers for the large. These are the easiest things to roll when you don’t need them. When you do need them, they become harder to traverse than the Boulder Problem on El Capitan. The small straight can prove elusive even when you have three numbers in a row staring at you after your first roll of the dice. Despite knowing better, I have an expectation in my head of what SHOULD appear on the next roll. When those expectations are quashed, I curse out the game, the world, and God. It’s just a game and these rolls are based on luck, but why shouldn’t you be angry at bad luck when it befalls you? I hate bad luck. Fuck bad luck. Straights also go against the number-hoarding the rest of Yahtzee encourages, which means that if you fail to get one, you’re usually left with a hand that fits nowhere else. Truly awful shit.
The full house, like the straights, invites you to go chasing after it when you shouldn’t. It’s worth 25 points, which is a fair amount but right on the edge of being Not Worth The Effort. I have rolled a zillion full houses only to pick up the spare pair and push my luck further. Then the end of the game approaches and suddenly I have nothing to put in the full house box. One zero begets another. Meanwhile, the goddamn bot rolls large straights and Yahtzees with frustrating ease. The bot is a demon. I despise him (in my mind, it’s a him) when he gets all the rolls that I, a good and honest man, deserve. I will never close down the Fake Yahtzee app after losing to the bot. I have to go out on a high note. Even if I’m at a funeral.
This is my brain on Yahtzee. Every game, my internal analysis shifts. Okay I have 24 points for my sixes. That gives me six to play with in the upper section. Oooh, I just rolled four ones. Do I dare log that in the four-of-a-kind box? Where should I put this zero? If I put it in the Yahtzee row, I can’t roll a Yahtzee after that! Did the bot just roll a straight on his first goddamn turn? That pile of SHIT. Yahtzee makes being self-involved both easy and monumental. The perfect game for someone with my specific brand of vanity. The app tallies your final score as you go, which means I always know if I’m winning or losing. I don’t like knowing that I’m losing, because I don’t like losing. I feel smart when I defeat the bot and cheated when I lose. And when I do win, I just wanna win more. One time I hit a personal best of over 600 for a final score. That would have been a good way to end my Yahtzee career. I kept on playing anyway. This is what makes Yahtzee sports. That is what makes it perfect.
It’s also what makes me a worse person. This is especially true now that I play the game against an algorithm, without the camaraderie or the playfully competitive spirit of in-person games with my wife, or my father-in-law, or my own father. I don’t even get to hold the dice in my hand. I just stare at a row of virtual dice spinning, spinning, spinning … hoping they bring me gifts that will either never come or will prove as fleeting as a sugar high. I love to do nothing, but I clearly need a better kind of nothing to do. Maybe I should buy a yacht.