2021 Goal: Not Lose To A Kid

Happy New Years all. Even those of you, who like us, celebrate Lunar New Year which is still 6 weeks away. Nobody should feel like they are still left behind in whatever the heck you want to call that last revolution around the sun.

The last few weeks have been a nice break including a week off from work. Our kids spent 2 straight weeks with their cousins and we had a lot of downtime with family. We played lots of games (thanks to my sister for sending Zak Ticket To Ride which was a big hit). Max played chess with an NJ cousin over Zoom…we point the cameras at the board and use the chess grid to announce moves, ie “rook to D4”. We chose not to simply play online because Max is 4 and I think this is a better format for that age.

One fun way to play online is if you use lichess.org (free) and cast your browser tab to your TV. Then everyone in the room can participate. We did this with some puzzles and all the kids could chime in. It’s  much more social than bending your crooked neck over a small screen. On chrome, just mouse over here:

Yinh is a big goals person. She gets won-the-lotto-level excited from planning her next 13 weeks in the SELF journal. It’s on a technology most of you remember called “paper”. Pronounced with a long “a” sound. (I don’t operate this way, I’m much more of a habit tracker, which might sound similar but is spiritually different and a topic for another time. Or not, I don’t know). Anyway, Yinh led all the older kids in goal-setting exercises and one of Zak’s goals is to beat me in chess in 3 consecutive matches. This of course scared me into adding 15 min a day of chess into my habits to at least delay the inevitable.

So I started by putting myself into the mind of my hunter. I started reading How To Beat Your Dad in Chess (as I searched for the title of that book in Amazon to fetch the hyperlink it auto-completed “how to beat your wife”. Maybe it’s better to just wait for malls to open and buy it at Waldenbooks. Screw you, Amazon). In the intro of the book, I came across a great demonstration of what pattern-recognition skills can look like. They are exceedingly context-dependent. If you are trying to assess how effective a new hire can be or how well your own skills translate to different domains than it’s one of those meta concepts to be aware of.

I wrote a thread about it here including screenshots from the book. (Twitter thread)


Finally, I’ll point you to a little discovery I in Google Sheets.

If you use the following function =CHAR(key) you can generate chess pieces!

For example, =CHAR(9818) will generate a black king.

I discovered this as I take notes in Google Sheets from the book. I got stave Zak off as long as possible. (I actually used this against him last night and yes I’m proud of beating a 7-yr-old. Judge me all you want.)

Let Chess Help Kids

Two years ago my wife Yinh started her podcast Growth From Failure. Her second guest was Berkeley Chess School founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy. It is one of my favorite interviews ever. We have referenced wisdom from it on many occasions since. Yinh texts with her from time to time and always comes away so invigorated. This past week I was stoked to meet the 83-years-young chess whiz. My expectations were high.

It turns out I still underestimated how special she is.

We went to lunch at Cafenated Coffee in Berkeley and 5 minutes into the conversation I immediately regretted not having a notebook. Elizabeth is bursting with passion for her mission and practical insights for teaching, life, and of course chess.

I did a full write-up that I’d love for you to check out: Lunch With The Amazing Founder Of Berkeley Chess: Elizabeth Shaughnessy (Link)

Here I’ll give a brief version of why it’s so special but the full article gets into ideas you can literally apply today in your life.

The Mission of Berkeley Chess School

BCS is a true Robinhood organization. As a non-profit, they are funded by donations and fees they receive for after-school programs around the Bay Area and private lessons (our son and his friends do group private lessons with BCS instructors). This supports their mission to provide free or low-cost chess instruction to students at poorly sourced Title 1 schools. In the past 40 years, BCS has taught over 250,000 kids.

But when you sit with Elizabeth you realize this is about far more than a game. Today, with Covid decimating enrollment, the school has re-purposed its building to teach disadvantaged kids. These are kids from low-income sections of Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley who are struggling with distance learning. These kids have no internet or computers at home. Without intervention, these kids, already struggling academically before the pandemic hit, may suffer an irreparable learning loss that could affect their health and financial well-being far into their adult lives.

From her experience, Elizabeth is convinced there is hope.

How Does Chess Help?

As a fan of games and games in learning, I like to believe that the skills acquired in play “transfer” to other domains. This is something I’ve wondered aloud about on Twitter. It is rooted in causality. I specifically asked Elizabeth if she thought a joy of chess was simply a symptom of a more general aptitude or if chess was imparting a more generalized skill that could be applied to other fields.

Elizabeth is a big believer that there is transference.

  • Chess asks kids to slow down and be methodical.

    Count how many pieces are threatening your pieces. Do this for every piece, on every turn, to find the strengths and weaknesses on the board.  Then look at all the checks you can deliver, then the captures, then the attacks. When all this is done, then make your move.

  • Consequences matter and compound.

    Chess teaches you that consequences matter. Make a rash move and you get penalized by your opponent.  Mistakes are expensive in chess and life. What scenarios can unfold if you always skip math class? How will this serve your long term objective of being a Wall Street wizard if you’re unable to calculate risk or odds?

  • Chess sharpens your focus.

    She has repeatedly seen firsthand the power of chess to harness kids’ attention. It’s an effective tool to settle kids so they can get into a better headspace for learning. Kids who start out resistant often do not want to go home after school.

Chess can show kids they are smart. It teaches them to believe in their own abilities. Many of the kids BCS teaches face long odds in life but chess can offer lessons in foresight, creativity, problem solving, and self-control.

Helping BCS

Children heatseek that which provides immediate benefit or stimulation. BCS has figured out how to stimulate children that have been written off. Any witness to that transformation will see one thing — the longest lever we have as a society to improve a child’s well-being today and into adulthood. When I listen to Elizabeth, I can feel what she has seen.

If you are looking for high impact ways to give back I encourage you to check out my full post or if you prefer you can simply head over to BCS site to learn more. (Berkeley Chess School)

Tips and Insights

Elizabeth cannot help but spill insights all over the place when talking. Check out the full post to get:

  • practical tips for learning chess today
  • how to play chess with children and why
  • insights into teaching girls specifically
  • the role of genius
  • the pros and cons of being a good loser

And if you are wondering her view on Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit — she thought it was too long but the beginning and end were fantastic. Ultimately, she thought it deserved high marks for making chess so compelling.

Wrapping Up

My 7-yr-old has been taking lessons with BCS intermittently since he was 5. Even our copycat 4-yr-old is into it. It took him all week of multiple games per night to learn how the knight (he’ll correct you if you call it a “horse”) moves. I better start learning more, they are hot on my heels. I’m MoontowerMeta on Lichess.org if you want to add me. I’m a beginner. I’m still beating the 7-yr-old but it’s getting tougher.

This is one of Elizabeth’s sons teaching chess at our pod a few weeks ago.

Lunch With The Amazing Founder Of Berkeley Chess: Elizabeth Shaughnessy

I’m going to tell you about Elizabeth Shaughnessy. Exactly 2 years ago, Yinh contacted to Elizabeth to be one of the first guests on her podcast Growth From Failure. Elizabeth has been an inspiration to our family since that first conversation.  I have been telling anyone interested in chess, children, education, or simply hope to listen to that interview.

This past weekend I was privileged to meet Elizabeth for lunch in Berkeley.

About Elizabeth

Nearly 40 years ago, Elizabeth, 83-years-young, volunteered to teach an after-school chess enrichment class at her children’s school. She expected a handful of people to take interest. Instead a diverse group of 72 children showed up. She was stunned. In the eighties, chess was the underground world of nerds. And if you think back to 80s movies, nerds were people jocks stuffed in lockers. (It probably didn’t help that we were in the Cold War — think about it — if Drago was a Grandmaster and Stallone a genius orphan from Brooklyn, Rocky IV would have swept the Oscars).

How times have changed. Today, Elizabeth oversees a chess school that teaches nearly 7,000 kids per year. She estimates the school has provided instruction and community for nearly 250,000 people in the past 40 years!

Her illustrious history can be found here.

The Berkeley Chess School

The chess school is a true Robinhood organization. As a non-profit, they are funded by donations and fees they receive for after-school programs around the Bay Area and private lessons (our son and his friends do group private lessons with BCS instructors). This supports their mission to provide free or low-cost chess instruction to students at poorly sourced Title 1 schools. While they are in over 120 local schools, Covid-19 has been devastating to enrollment as in-person instruction has cratered.

Always the optimist, Elizabeth has pivoted resources. With generous support from philanthropists and organizations working through the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, the Chess School now administers a program to help our most vulnerable neighbors. Her son, Stephen Shaughnessy, a former California State Scholastic Chess Champion and a teacher with more than twenty years of experience, guides cohorts of students struggling with remote learning in a safe setting in the School’s spacious tournament hall. Steven’s gifts and calling has always been to teach children, but this year this mission has been extra special. And challenging.

Coming from low-income neighborhoods in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond, his 5th graders are from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds. Not one to mince words, Elizabeth says that without intervention, these kids, already struggling academically before the pandemic hit, may suffer an irreparable learning loss that could affect their health and financial well-being far into their adult lives. They are at a critical age, steps from a dark a road without an offramp.

From her experience, Elizabeth is convinced there is hope. BCS is determined to help kids believe in themselves and their own ability to be smart. Many of the kids BCS teaches face long odds in life but chess can offer lessons in foresight, creativity, problem solving, and self-control. It can give these youngsters a chance for better futures far from the disadvantages of their childhoods. The hope is they would have kids of their own one day for whom the sky is the limit. If the realism is off-putting, then you can imagine just how important the work is.

Lessons From A Lifetime Of Teaching Chess

While this lunch was supposed to be nothing more than friends catching up, I found her passion and enthusiasm for her work the only thread I wanted to pull on. She just oozes hard-won insights into children and learning. I immediately regretted not having a notebook. Here is what I can remember from the 90 easiest minutes I ever had of keeping my mouth shut as I tried to absorb the steady stream of wisdom.

Benefits of Chess

As a fan of games and games in learning, I like to believe that the skills acquired in play “transfer” to other domains. This is something I’ve wondered aloud about on Twitter. It is rooted in causality. I specifically asked Elizabeth if she thought a joy of chess was simply a symptom of a more general aptitude or if chess was imparting a more generalized skill that could be applied to other fields.

Elizabeth is a big believer that there is transference.

  • Chess asks kids to slow down and be methodical.

    Count how many pieces are threatening your pieces. Do this for every piece, on every turn, to find the strengths and weaknesses on the board.  Then look at all the checks you can deliver, then the captures, then the attacks. When all this is done, then make your move.

  • Consequences matter and compound

    Chess teaches you that consequences matter. Make a rash move and you get penalized by your opponent.  Mistakes are expensive in chess and life. What scenarios can unfold if you always skip math class? How will this serve your long term objective of being a Wall Street wizard if you’re unable to calculate risk or odds?

  • Chess sharpens your focus.

    She has repeatedly seen firsthand the power of chess to harness kids’ attention. It’s an effective tool to settle kids so they can get into a better headspace for learning. Kids who start out resistant often do not want to go home after school.

Tips For Learning Chess

Yinh and I are starting to learn chess alongside our 7-year-old who has been getting intermittent instruction since he was 5. Our 4-year-old recently learned how to set up the board and how the peices move (ok, he doesn’t really understand how the “horse” jumps). Learning chess can be a bit overwhelming for good reasons. There are tons of amazing resources out there from software, to YouTube, books, and communities. If you are like me, sometimes you just want to be told “Do this” and be handed a basic recipe from which you branch as you learn.

Here’s the simple recipe.

  • At first, focus on tactics.

    You can think of tactics as a series of maneuvers to gain an advantage over your opponent. They have cool names like “forks” and “pins”. They are the “fun” part of chess. Most major software and websites provide ample puzzles to teach and reinforce tactics.

  • There’s plenty of time to worry about openings later

    Don’t worry about studying openings until you have at least a 1200 rating. More has been written about openings than any other aspect of chess and it is a rabbit hole from which the beginning and intermediate chess player might never emerge.

In the meantime, take solace in the idea that beginners’ focus on tactics is not just the best use of time, but conveniently, fun. Strategy including openings and end games come much later (Elizabeth mentioned that endgame chess is especially fascinating to the mathematically inclined). Although I have just started, I find the puzzles extremely engaging. While it’s humbling, the feeling of “seeing” the move is addictingly rewarding.

Chess and Children

  • High standards

    With a good teacher, many kindergartners can visually play without looking at a board. It is not the realm of genius. In fact, one of the most inspiring feelings you get from spending time with Elizabeth is how bullish she is on children’s abilities. She believes we do not give them enough credit. They are capable of so much. We easily forget how we stunt a plant’s growth when it’s in a small pot.

  • Playing chess with children

    Do not let them undo bad moves. Remember, consequences matter. If they make a weak or ill-advised move (a blunder in chess parlance), turn the board around and play the weaker position. You can continue to do this and by the end there is a sense that nobody has truly lost which can be useful to keep kids encouraged.

  • Genius

    They exist. She has seen her share. There are children out there who can recite every move of the last games they have played. You cannot teach geniuses. They are smarter than the teachers. But you can guide them and help them explore the exponential facets of the game. BCS has had the privilege of coaching three Grandmasters, including Olympiad Gold Medalist and 2018 US Chess Champion GM Sam Shankland. BCS offers Master Classes so the best players can learn from and help one another even as they compete.

  • Not pushing too hard

    Other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the life of a grandmaster is hard. There are few things in the world in which you can be so close to the top and have so little to show for it. Most grandmasters are scraping by, writing books, and being paid to play in tourneys. She does not push the geniuses in that direction. The application of genius to real world problems results in easier, productive, and more prosperous lives.

Chess and Gender

  • Girls

    On average, girls in chess are more discouraged by losing than boys and this can lead them to giving up. They were not born like that. But if one child is encouraged towards cooperative play, while another child is encouraged to compete, losing will be a more emotionally significant event to the child who is unfamiliar with it. She has found that girls who play sports do not give up easily, reinforcing the idea that this is learned behavior.

    Losing is an important subject. There is a tension in being comfortable with losing. It’s necessary to be able to lose because it’s part of learning. However, Elizabeth has never seen a great player that was not deeply bothered by losing. So we must examine our own values and how they relate to losing. When daughters come off the floor after a chess tournament what does Elizabeth see? Fathers who ask their daughters “Did you have fun?”. To the boys they ask, “Did you win?”.

    Elizabeth has lots of views on women in society based on what she has seen at formative ages and observing thousands of families. She believes there is bias and while we were too short on time to get into the vast subject one thing was obvious. We carry tremendous responsibility for the scripts children grow up believing about themselves. It is the single most empowering lesson I grokked from taking in her wisdom.

    And by the way, BCS teaches girls to play chess aggressively. They are trying to balance out society’s conditioning.

    There are 65 active Grandmasters in the United States. One is female.

  • Women

    When women compete at tournaments they are extremely competitive with one another but away from the table they can become friends. Elizabeth told a story of a tournament she hosted with women coming from all over the world. After the fierce competition ended, the women organized a guided tour of SF Bay and got along like sisters. She noted this was a very different dynamic from the men. There is a balancing energy missing in our world if that story is any indication.

Why we care

Chess has exploded in popularity as nerdiness has become cool and the internet has spread access to high quality chess tools, matches, and education. Elizabeth’s life mission has coincided with a more secular phenomenon. The chess school boasts 3 of the United States’ 65 Grandmasters with the most recent one being just 17 years old (masters are getting younger thanks to online play).

If Elizabeth’s mission were simply to promote the empowering aspects of a beautiful game then she has the right to be satisfied. That baton is securely passed on to wider zeitgeist than she ever imagined. But as the recent pivot to share the school’s resources with our most neglected has shown, the Berkeley Chess School is not just a Kumon For Chess. It is a sustainable model for meaningful impact. It is a model for fostering local community. And through it’s alumni, a model for global community.

It is a place we feel lucky to have discovered and organization we are honored to give to. With enrollment down and the ongoing renovation of the School to improve ADA access, there is a lot of wood to chop. If you are interested in helping, they have several programs that you may make targeted donation to.

You can find the list here.

I’ll conclude by saying, when I met Elizabeth I had high expectations. Yinh talks about her a lot and her interview is one of my absolute favorite all-time pods, not just Yinh’s. When I met her, I was blown away. She is sharp as hell. She cares so much you can feel it. As I listened to her stories, it was clear I was in the the presence of a special individual who has spliced her DNA into the heart of an institution (this is not so figurative…her son Steven manages the day to day operations now).

We are excited for the future of the Berkeley Chess School!

(And if you want to learn she recommends starting with the tutorials on licchess.org. Hope to see you there!)

Fun Ways To Teach Your Kids Encryption

Here are 2 simple ways to introduce the idea of encryption to elementary school kids.

 

Ciphers

I had them try to decode the following code:

4 15 7

(with some prodding they eventually figured out it was a simple letter-number cipher spelling “dog”)

 

Mastermind

You might recognize this game from your own childhood.

 

 

You don’t need to buy it. You can play it with different color marbles, bingo chips, coins or almost any set of things lying around the house.

How to play:

    1. A codemaker constructs a hidden sequence of 4 different colored beads (out of a possible 6 colors).
    2. The codebreaker tries to guess the sequence by arranging 4 colors in order.
    3. The codemaker gives non-verbal feedback:

      a) Identifies how many of the colors used are correct
      b) Identifies how many beads are the right color AND in the right position

    4. Repeat until the code is cracked

      Enrichment questions:

      How can the game be made easier?
      How can the game be made harder?

      And if you have an older onlooker…how many possible codes can be created?

      And if you have an Excel fan in the vicinity, see how you can solve such problems using the hypergeometric distribution. (A Reddit thread targeting game designers)

A Slightly More Advanced Example: Using a “Mask”

Suppose a group of people are sitting around a table and you all want to know how much money everyone makes but of course nobody is willing to share their own salary.

Here’s a way to uncover the average pay at the table without anybody needing to disclose their pay.

Let’s pretend A, B, C, and D are having dinner together at this table.

Just follow these steps:

Masking Phase

  1. Tell “A” to add an arbitrary number to their pay and write the sum on a piece of paper. It’s very important to write just the sum! So if A makes $100k per year and the arbitrary number is 5,000,000 then they would write: $5,100,000

  2. Pass the paper to “B”

  3. “B” notes the sum and adds it to their own salary plus their own arbitrary number. They write this sum on a fresh piece of paper and hand it to “C”. Important: use a new piece of paper, we don’t want anyone to see the history of how the sum was created. 

    Example:

    “B” receives paper with the sum $5,100, 000
    “B” add this to their own salary $50,000 plus an arbitrary number of $1,000,000
    “B” passes a piece of paper with the total $6,150,000 to “D”

  4. Repeat this process until the paper gets back to “A” 

Un-masking Phase

  1. “A” subtracts their arbitrary number only from the total and passes the new total to “B”.

    Example :

    “A” receives a piece of paper with the number $9,000,000 written on it
    “A” subtracts the $1,000,000 arbitrary number and passes the number $8,000,000 to “B”

  2. Repeat until everyone has subtracted their arbitrary number.

The remaining total is the sum of everyone’s pay. If we divide by 4 (the number of people) we have discovered the average pay at the table and nobody needed to reveal their own number!

You have learned a simple way to “mask” data with arbitrary numbers!

Try it yourself. You don’t even need paper — just explain the rules to some friends in your texting group and find out if you are actually under or overpaid! Just don’t kill the messenger.

(The mask example was inspired by this Twitter thread by @theemilyaccount)

Video Game Veto

Several family members wanted to get Zak a Nintendo Switch when he turned 7 a few weeks ago. I shot it down. I’m the bad guy. Sorry, not sorry. I’ll defend my stance and do you one better. I’ll explain why my stance even needs to be defended. Somehow in this battle over video games, I found myself on the low ground.

First, my defense is simple. Opportunity cost. Here’s an example. My 4-year-old Max recently lost his iPad for 10 days. For those of you who follow Yinh’s Insta (feel free to follow, her ‘stories’ are more amusing than anything I write), there was a period of this kid creating his own Marvel paper costumes and pumping out artwork like he was getting paid commission. Less screentime meant more creativity.

When the iPad resurfaced, it crowded out much of his ingenuity. It’s worse than that too. The iPad summons the devil. Every time Max is asked to turn off the screen we suffer a hell tantrum. All the phases of opiate withdrawal unfolding several times a day.

Zak, being 7 and having better emotional control, is not as dramatic but the video games are still crowding out his creativity.

You would think my no-Switch policy would be unanimously embraced. You’d be wrong. Here are the arguments and pro-video game propaganda I push back against.

  • “You played video games and look how you turned out”

    If you grew up in the era of “blowing dust” out of your NES cartridges and have managed to simply not blow your life to smithereens, people will say this to you. We have all seen the amusing correlation/causation pictures. Well, this fallacy is a specific strain of those spurious conclusions. The post-hoc fallacy. If Y came after X, then Y caused X.

    This fallacy is everywhere. Kid has hives. Sleeps in parents’ bed. Hives go away. Therefore, his bed caused the hives. (This just happened in our house). You have a cold so you drink soup. Cold goes away. Must have been the soup. These interventions are given credit for mean reversion’s work.

    The video game example is even worse in my mind because of opportunity cost. I might have a good job today in spite of, not because of, video games. How much didn’t I do because of video games? Maybe I would have been a better athlete, musician, or programmer. All activities that competed for time with video games. Hobbies that if cultivated would have been unambiguously more rewarding considering, today, I wish I was better in all 3 domains and could care less about my video game skills.

  • Video games have benefits

    When I was a kid, I was told video games “rot your brain”. Today, everything from critical thinking to reflexes are attributed to playing games. Scholarships, profits, and Ninja all lend games a legitimacy they didn’t enjoy in 1987. Nothing will make you seem stodgier, techno-fearing, and possibly stupid than being anti-video game.

    Consider Shopify founder Tobi Lutke. He is outspoken in his claims of games like Factorio and Starcraft contributing to his business savvy. Well, if you have ever heard Tobi speak, he’s really smart. A mind like his is going to deconstruct strategy and actively pull the insights from the game. Being analytical in the first place is what’s most important. If it wasn’t video games, he would have cracked something else.

    It’s not the game, it’s the approach to the game. Just like TV or movies or reading. Any passive activity can be intellectually enriching if your approach is active. When you read are you asking what the themes are? Why is the author framing things a certain way? How does it relate to other knowledge? Critically reading or watching can turn “brain-rotting” behaviors into brain-building ones.

Pushing Back Against The Modern Halo Around Gaming

You’d be forgiven for thinking I contribute to the gaming halo. The gaming section of my site is anchored by Let Your Kids Play Boardgames. Some nuance is in order. Our kids play some video games. Playing them is not especially bad or good. I put it in the same category as passively watching TV and it would count against that attention budget. (I reserve the right to modify my stance for games especially strategic or competitive).

Gaming, video or tabletop, can be an amazing way to learn. Fun is a renewable form of fuel to burn. Yet in the wrong personality, it can be horribly inefficient. Like learning about basketball from watching the Kardashians. How many people playing poker on their phones mindlessly are internalizing probability lessons? And parents, you know zombie-mode when you see it.

The halo of gaming stems from its strategic and competitive aspects. Still, strategy and planning can be acquired in many ways. Just this week I was thinking about how much Zak could learn if I asked him to break down the steps to catch a trout. He’d need to find out where to go when to go, what bait to use, and what technique to employ. Taking a big problem and breaking it into smaller steps.

Gaming has fast feedback cycles. Great for learning. But also convenient to get a mouse to push a dopamine lever. Then there’s the whole issue of transference. Does becoming a grandmaster make you better at other strategic endeavors or does it just make you good at chess? And here’s the diabolical question — if the grandmaster excelled in other domains how much credit should we give to chess? Again the fallacy rears its head, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Our minds are so easily tricked. The literature on transference is mixed, but it’s such a believable grift that most people won’t bother to check.

Overall I think the benefits of games are conveniently oversold. Just like TV, if accompanied by parental prompts and guidance they can be an enriching tool to practice critical thinking. Some kids, like young Tobi Lutke, will be inclined that way on their own. Many will just stare with dead eyes, unfazed if the house was burning down. Maybe I’m just an old crank who wishes he had that time back. I’d rather see what kids come up with when they aren’t sitting in front of a screen.

Codenames Telepathy

In a week, I will have known Yinh for 17 years. We don’t complete each other’s sentences. We still have plenty of stories to tell each other, although CoVid lockdown is burning that fuse a bit faster. (I always think of the Chris Rock joke about a wife telling her spouse to “get kidnapped and come back with new stories”). We have thus far deferred marital mind-meld.

But you would not know this by watching us play the 21st-century version of the Newlywed game…Codenames.

The Joy Of Codenames

If you play any party games you know Codenames so I won’t re-hash it. If you don’t play party games then you should know that blacking out right after dinner at family functions is anti-social. You should play Codenames instead.

Being in sync with a Codenames teammate is successfully web-crawling their brain. You hop from the axon of one idea to the dendrites of another as you stretch to find how they linked words on the Codenames’ grid to the clue that launched the brain scan in the first place.

We tend to work best when she gives the clues because in our relationship I tend to be the one filled with more random nonsense. This is a bug in times when being distracted is a penalty, since I can bike-shed with the best of them. But in Codenames, being a central repository for mutual references that unlocks with a single word is a decided advantage.

Here’s an example from Friday night. Yinh gave the clue “Empire, 2”. This clue was supposed to unlock:

  • “strike”

    Easy enough. Empire was a reference to “Empire Strikes Back”.

  • “chair”

    Ok, so why did she think “empire” would lead me to “chair”?

    I had a theory as to why she connected these words, so to test it I asked her what her logic was. She stumbled. She had forgotten why these words went together, which made me think my theory was even more correct.

    I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t an “empire” -> “throne” -> “chair” pathway.

    Here’s the actual pathway:

    “empire” –> what empire comes to mind? –> Roman or Ottoman –> Ottoman = “chair”

    Here’s the best part. Her logic was both not original thinking or explicit. It was a subconscious reference to Eddie Izzard’s Dressed to Kill stand-up special that we’ve seen together. When I reminded her of Izzard’s joke that linked the Ottoman Empire to furniture she immediately realized what she had done.

I always get a kick out of her screwing up a reference but still understanding what she means. Just this week, she asked me what the latest on the Skrillex vs NY Times drama was going to which I responded, “You mean Slatestarcodex?”. She laughed at how she butchered it and I was happy to know she listens to me when I talk about the random crap I find interesting.

Check out Codenames. Read your partner’s mind to crush your in-laws at your next family game night.

You Can Mock Trade With A Deck Of Cards

Here’s a mock trading game I learned as a trainee to simulate futures and options market making. This game was commonly used as a day 1 exercise in trading class or when interviewing cohorts of college grads during recruiting “combines”.


The Futures Game

What you need:

  1. A deck of cards
  2. Nerdy friends (the more the better)
  3. A paper and pen per person to use as a tradelog

Setup:

You want to deal out enough cards to players (these are the market makers) so that there is about 25 remaining in the deck. There’s some leeway here.

Example:

  • You have 6 players. So deal them each 4 cards leaving 28 cards undealt.
  • Market makers may look at their hands but don’t share info.
  • The undealt cards are known as the “public pile”. They should be evenly divided into 4 or 5 sub-piles ideally (again there’s leeway depending on how many cards there are).
  • The sub-piles are going to represent “trading days”.
  • The cards themselves are news flow which will move the futures prices.

Description of futures prices:

  • The futures are the 4 suits. There’s a club’s market, a spades market, etc.
  • The final settlement price of the futures will be the sum of the ranks of cards in the public pile. (Ace =1 thru King = 13). So the maximum any future can be worth is 911

    It’s best to define the tradeable universe to keep the liquidity centralized.

    So you could have a diamond market, a spades market, and a “reds” market (which would be an index settling to the sum of diamonds and hearts).


    How To Play


    The first trading day

    • Reveal the cards in the first public sub-pile.
    • Market makers make bids and offers for the various markets. Tight 2 sided markets should be encouraged/required. For example:John: “I’m 65 bid for Hearts and offered at 68”

      Jen: “I’ll pay 67 for 5 Hearts contracts” (perhaps Jen is holding no Hearts in her hand)

      John: “Sold you 5 at 67” (John is holding 16 points of Hearts in his hand)

    • Record all your trades on your own pad or paper:1. Which contract you bought/sold
      2. Quantity of contracts
      3. Price of contracts
      4. Counterparty

    So for example, if I paid 51 for 4 “clubs contracts” from Mary I would record that information on my paper. Mary would record her sale of the 4 contracts at 51 on her card with me as the counterparty.

    • The trading is open outcry. There are no turns.

    Settling the trading day

    1. When the trading peters out for that “day” everyone should check their trades against their counterparties to make sure there are no so-called breaks or “outtrades”.
    2. On a central eraseboard or paper the “closing price” of each market can be recorded. So if the King of clubs and 3 of clubs were revealed from the sub-pile, then clubs “settled at 15”. Clubs might have traded 53 last in the expectation that more clubs will be revealed on subsequent days.
    3. Repeat this process for all remaining tradings days

    The last settlement

    • Compute “P/L” for all trades.

    If I bought 4 clubs contracts for $51 and clubs final settlement was $63 then I made a profit of $12 x 4 or $48. Mary’s loss would match that amount for that trade.

    The total P/L of all traders should sum to zero at the end of the game.

    Options Variant

    • Either the same group or a different group of people could choose to trade calls and puts on the final settlement price of the futures.

    So if I paid 3 for Clubs 55 calls and the final settlement was $63 then I profit the difference between the $63 and the strike ($55) minus the premium I outlayed:

    $63-$55 – $3 = $5

    • You could even get fancy and trade “vol”. You could sell say 10 clubs calls and buy 5 clubs futures to hedge the delta.
    • This game is played the same way the futures game is played or in conjunction. Repeat the process for all trading days then compute P/Ls at the end. Again if there are no errors the game should be zero-sum.


Genius Square

We’ve been playing a game called Genius Square.

The concept is simple. 2 people will play, each with their own blank board.

  • Those wooden circles are randomly placed on the board (each player gets the same coordinates on the grid). The dice allow 62,208 combinations of wood placement. Every puzzle is solvable.
  • Then ready, set, go — the first person who can fill the board with the Tetris pieces wins.
Most games last less than a minute. We’ve seen some solved in 10 seconds. It’s a perfect game to play over Zoom and can appeal to almost any age.

(Btw, the reason there are 62,208 possibilities is that you roll 5 6-sided die, 1 die with 4 distinct values, and 1 die with 2 distinct values. 6^5 x 4 x 2 = 62,208…the instructions tell you that number but it seemed weird with 7 dice until I noticed the duplicates on 2 of the dice. The values they use for the dice ensure solvability according to an algorithm that a nerd reader will probably know).

Bohnanza Is A Great Trading & Business Game

Introduction

Bohnanza is a card game for 2 to 7 players. It was created by Uwe Rosenburg years before he published Agricola, an epic worker-placement game, enshrining him in the pantheon of boardgame design.

Bohnanza according to BoardgameGeek:

The cards are colorful depictions of beans in various descriptive poses, and the object is to make coins by planting fields (sets) of these beans and then harvesting them. To help players match their cards up, the game features extensive trading and deal-making.

Bohnanza according to the publisher:

Ever imagined you were a bean farmer. Sure, who hasn’t. You got your Red beans, your green beans, your black-eyed beans, your coffee beans. But where to plant them. In this card game, smart sowing lets you reap big rewards. Plant The beans you do want, and trade the beans you don’t want to the other players. Adding to the realism of the game, The one who ends up with the most money wins.

I recommend the Dice Tower tutorial to get familiar with the game. (Link)

 

Re-skinning Bohnanza

 

I think the business mechanics behind this game warrant mentally re-imagining it to make the lessons easier to map to microeconomics. When you stare at the down-to-Earth bean farming theme hard enough you ironically start seeing the game more abstractly. Like tacked on symbolism to computer code.

Instead give me a chance to re-skin it to see if the game’s appeal moves you more than the bean-based descriptions.

 

The Concession Stand Theme

You are operating a concession stand at a professional sports game. You can only serve 2 items at any point in time. Say beer and pretzels. Or nachos and hot dogs. There are many different kinds of refreshments, but you can only serve 2 types. If you decide to sell something else, you must close down one of your product lines, although you may always re-open it later.

The order of cards you are dealt cannot be modified. This looks like a queue as opposed to a typical hand. You can think of this as the line of customers at your concession stand with the bean on the card representing the type of refreshment the person demands. Here’s the catch, if a customer wants beer and you only serve nachos and pretzels you must shut down one of those lines and start serving beer.

This is where trading comes in. You can basically offer to send your customers to other concession stands in exchange for your competitors directing customers you’d like to your stand. In the phase of a turn where 2 cards are dealt face-up, you can imagine that 2 brand new customers showed up and you can tell them to come to your stand and skip the line or you can send them to other stands. Likewise, you can send customers queued at your stand to competitors as well if they are willing to accept them. Why would you do this?

The economics of the game imply that as you sell more of an item your unit economics improve. This creates tension. As you serve more people hot dogs you saturate the demand for people who want hot dogs. So you need to balance when you shut down your profitable hot dog operation to serve the wave of nacho customers you see either queueing in your hand or, if you are doing a good job tracking the deck, can anticipate showing up. Adding another wrinkle is that some refreshments are also higher margin (there are fewer customers but they offer higher profit margins…think of the cocoa beans in the game as the craft IPA at Yankee Stadium).

 

Why Bohnanza is great

Too much randomness makes a game pointless and too little makes it deterministic. If you prefer that there are many games (ie chess) to scratch that itch.

Bohnanza balances this well. There is randomness. The customers that show up in your queue. The customers that show up to the arena on your turn. But the primary engine of this game is trading customers. Every individual trade is fairly low stakes but the game is long (about an hour) and demands many trades. This creates a very satisfying experience. Being adept at deal-making and surfing the waves of demand maps well to the final scores.

I’ve written about why I think Monopoly is not a great trading game. If you want a fun, satisfying trading experience scoop up Bohnanza. If the bean theme was a turn-off, hopefully I’ve convinced you to reconsider.

 

 

 

Thoughts About Monopoly As A Teaching Tool

We have been playing Monopoly with my 1st grader.

A hierarchy of useful lessons

  • Arithmetic

I make Zak be the banker so he gets lots of practice making change. It’s harder than 1st-grade math worksheets so you can have fun AND cross an item off your homeschool list.

  • Probability

Dice frequencies. The first-grader knows considers stretching to build houses when you are 6,7, or 8 spaces away from his property.

  • Ownership and investment returns

Ask your child how many times a property needs to be landed on to breakeven on the purchase. For older kids, discuss investment returns as a percentage.

  • Borrowing, collateral, and interest

The whole mortgage and interest mechanism. Borrowing against incomplete property sets to improve completed sets.

  • Operational leverage

Do you stretch to buy houses? If so, your small cash cushion can get wiped out by a mistimed Chance card forcing you to fire sale your houses for half price. Throw in some dice probability discussion and the game fosters a rich learning environment.

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What about trading?

I actually think Monopoly falls flat here. Deals are sporadic but highly impactful. Since the luck of the dice creates large disparities in what properties players are naturally endowed with, the prevailing logic behind too many deals is “well, if I don’t do anything I have zero chance”. The prospect of raising your odds from zero to 5% does not make for inspired dealings.

If a deal is fairly priced there’s a lot of variance around its outcome.  A dice game has too much of that already. That means the returns to skill are not only low but low resolution. Awful for learning.

In the case when deals are lopsided the game is brutal for everyone else. Worse yet, if the potential to exploit a weak player exists the game devolves into politics of “like” and may even import baggage from real life. Surely these are useful lessons but not quite what I have in mind when I want to use a game as a teaching tool.

(Monopoly would be more interesting with a side betting market on who was going to win the game. That market would suddenly spring to life when two people were negotiating a trade as the rest of the players would basically be casting their bids in the side market. The result would be a realtime “fair value” meter presiding as judge over the trade. As you tweak the cash and property sweeteners in the deal, see if everybody thinks you are overshooting fair value. For advanced players, a whole meta strategy would unlock since the side market influences the real game.)