Speed Dreidel for the digital age

Speed Dreidel for the digital age

It seems downright scrooge-ish to talk ill of the game of dreidel. Say what you want about the holiday of Chanukah, but at least it comes with its own game — which is more than you can say for any of the many other Jewish holidays, with the exception of Passover and its hide-the-afikomen game. (There’s no Shavuot Chutes-and-Ladders or Tisha B’Av Twister.)

And yet, and yet. The fact is that as games go, dreidel is not nearly as exciting or fast-paced as betting on which candle is going to go out first — a Chanukah pastime my mother grew up playing.

In part, there is the opacity of the rules that must be googled from year to year. We remember that the letters Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin stand for “nes gadol haya sham” — a great miracle happened there — but we forget the Yiddish words that they abbreviate, which spell out the rules: shin (=shtel arayn, put in a piece); nun (=nit, not, i.e., nothing); gimel (=gants, whole/everything, meaing you get the whole pot); and he (=halb, half). The letters served as a means to recalling the rules of the game, which turn out to have been directly translated from the German. Indeed, you can find German toys — they were called teetotums in their British incarnations — with the letters S, N, G, and H on them.

But it’s also the game itself that drags on. It’s fun enough when there’s nothing better to do, and indeed versions of teetotum were popular a century ago in the trenches of World War I. With all the entertainment options of the 21st century, however, we expect more from our games.

Which is where Speed Dreidel comes in.

Speed Dreidel was invented four years ago by Ben Blatt, then a writer for Slate. Mr. Blatt performed a double service for dreidel spinners.

First, he calculated just how boring a game dreidel is when played by the traditional rules. He ran computer simulations — more than 8 million of them — of dreidel games with a variety of starting situations. He found that a typical game — four players starting with 10 pieces, each spin lasting eight seconds — would take 1 hour and 54 minutes before someone won all the pieces and the game. “Perhaps if you were waiting out a siege by the Seleucid Empire this would be ideal,” he notes, “but two hours is excessive if you’re just trying to kill 30 minutes before the latkes are ready.”

For his second act of service to the community, he created a better game. So here, as per Ben Blatt, are the complete rules of Speed Dreidel:

Everyone starts with the same number of tokens. Since this is a Chanukah 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 Mishpucha 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.

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