Cheating at Yahtzee
May 7, 2021
Yahtzee is a game that upholds ideals of fairness, equality, and gameswomanship. Coupled with the pure logic of mathematics, Yahtzee would seem to be impregnable to cheaters or ne'er-do-wells. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security – those of ill-will can learn how to cheat at Yahtzee. Defend your game against classic cons like sleight-of-hand and misdirection and learn how to spot loaded dice or a fake rolling technique. After all, cheaters never win.
There are plenty of reasons to love Yahtzee, but for many people it is the game’s predictable orderliness that keeps them coming back for more. You always know what to expect - five dice, thirteen turns, 36 rolls per game, and doing math when it’s all over.
But like many competitive endeavors, the structured format of Yahtzee can invite dishonest manipulators to ply their devious trade. Despite it’s wholesome reputation, Yahtzee is not immune to bad actors who try to gain an advantage by breaking the rules.
It is a part of human nature to deceive so Yahtzee cheats should come as no surprise to tournament organizers, league regulators, or even players at the dining room table game. But dice-rollers of all levels are well advised to maintain a vigilant guard against cheating, lest the integrity of the game itself becomes sullied. In order to safeguard against attempted deception, it is important to be aware of the various methods used to cheat at Yahtzee and how to identify your own personal blindspots.
Don't Be Like Mike
It is a challenge to protect the sanctity of the Yahtzee rules when even some of the world’s greatest competitors turn to illicit tactics all for the sake of winning. Basketball icon Michael Jordan is noted for a win-at-all-costs attitude that helped power his team to six NBA championships. But his competitive nature was not confined to the court. Jordan was recently outed as a rabid Yahtzee enthusiast, and a cheater.
During his short-lived stint in professional baseball, His Airness was seduced by the dice when he observed his teammates engaged in a rousing game. Jordan was playing minor league ball with the Birmingham Barons when, according to then-manager Terry Francona, Mike seemed oddly unfamiliar with Yahtzee. Francona correctly gave him the only possible response: “Fuck, man, weren’t you ever a kid? We’re playing Yahtzee.”
In hindsight, Jordan’s professed ignorance may be the first clue of his true intentions. His well-known fondness for gambling suggests that he would be quite familiar with all variety of dice games. Rather, it is a strong possibility that Jordan was using a feigned inexperience with the game to gain the trust and confidence of his opponents. The Yahtzee hustle was underway.
Francona’s account indicates that MJ was instantly hooked and all future bus rides to away games involved marathon Yahtzee sessions. His teammates and coaches were thrilled to have been able to introduce the game to their new star player. Yahtzee featured prominently throughout the rest of the season as a relaxation and team-building tool.
But Air Jordan’s love of Yahtzee came with a dark side, as Francona was soon to learn. He went on to implicate Jordan in some rather unsportsmanlike behavior:
"We'd play Yahtzee on every road trip on the bus. He's the richest man in America, the best basketball player ever, and I'm making $29,000 a year. And he's cheating at Yahtzee to take my money because he just can't bear to lose.''
The titillating revelation that Michael Jordan had a penchant for cheating at Yahtzee shook him to his core.
Say it ain't so, Mike! But this begs the question, just how exactly did Michael Jordan cheat at Yahtzee? And what can you do to protect yourself?
How to Cheat at Yahtzee
Terry Francona has never publicly disclosed the actual methods that Jordan used to cheat at Yahtzee. But from the multitude of underhanded options at this disposal, Jordan may have employed one or more of the following Yahtzee cheats:
Con Job: As he hustled his way into the game posing as a no-nothing bumpkin, Jordan put his opponents off their guard. A simpleminded demeanor and friendly countenance can lull players into a false sense of security. In fact, the Yahtzee predator is preparing to pounce. The con artist uses this ruse to gain a psychological advantage before the first dice are ever rolled, resulting in a relaxed atmosphere where additional cheats stand a greater chance of success.
What's That?: One of the most basic cheating methods is the time-tested attempt at getting your opponent to look away from the gaming table so you can tamper with the game state or equipment. This is typically deployed with a sudden exclamation to the effect of, "Holy cow, what's that behind you!?" While your opponent's back is turned, a cheater could alter the outcome of their roll or even swap in substitute dice to misalign their balance. While it may not seem reasonable that Jordan would resort to such childish behavior, a cheating mind is liable to plumb such depths in their desperation.
Dice Manipulation: The ideal set of dice exist in a state of equilibrium where each face has a perfectly equal chance of coming up on any given roll. But outside of a casino or a professional Yahtzee tournament, such a high level of craftsmanship is rare. The standard Yahtzee set from the local toy store includes a lower quality dice where the balance is not exact. This surely works against the notion of random number generation but its effects tend to equal out as all players use the same dice for every turn.
A cheater who is skilled in the art of distraction is able to insert and remove crooked dice from play at will. This so-called “dice mechanic” can slip in a loaded die to guarantee the six they need for their next Yahtzee but then extract it before the next player rolls. Techniques such as the “Mouth Switch”, where a player uses a pretend cough or sneeze to mask a die swap, or the “Casino Thumb Palm Dice Switch”, an adept illustration of sleight of hand, have been perfected by craps players in casinos worldwide. These routines, therefore, are at the ready for a would-be Yahtzee fraudster.
For Michael Jordan, switching out the dice with a set of loaded dice would require clear premeditation and advanced planning; a strategy perhaps not well suited while on the road away from home. Alternatively, MJ has been likened to a magician due to his skills on the basketball court so sleight of hand cannot be discounted.
Fake Roll: The fake roll is a discreet illusion, carefully play-acted by the roller to portray the appearance of randomized dice while they remain in a fixed position of their predetermined choosing. These types of trick rolls are often described by their perpetrators as “honest cheating”, in the sense that they require a high level of skill to pull off. But to even associate these techniques with the concept of honesty only accentuates the depths of their depravity.
Rhythm rolling is a popular concept amongst Yahtzee cheaters, but its reliability remains highly dubious. The technique involves the player taking advantage of precise, repeatable movements to control the movement of the rolled dice. In such a setup, the player ensures that the dice remain in a particular formation, whether in the hand or cup. Followed by a well-trained rolling movement, the idea is to exert absolute control over the dice’s trajectory and alignment to reliably convert the desired face.
Due to the lure of financial windfall that accompanies the perfection of dice manipulation, a booming cottage industry has sprouted up around educating the next generation of dice cheaters. Millions of dollars are made teaching the skills but the results are questionable. The success of a fake roller is oftentimes only in their own heads.
Extra Roll: It is not uncommon for a Yahtzee player’s focus to drift during an opponent’s turn. Perhaps they begin to add up their score, plan their strategy for their remaining rolls, or chat with the other players. Not only is this poor etiquette, it opens the door for a cheater to exploit their distraction. If their counterparts’ attention is wandering, a dishonest player can attempt to roll the dice for a fourth time during a single turn. More often than not, the subterfuge will pass unnoticed.
This tactic becomes even more likely to succeed if the players are under the influence of alcohol or other mind-altering substances, a common occurrence in casual games. If questioned, a drunken “Hey that was only my second roll, right?” can provide cover as an innocent mistake, or serve to legitimize the illicit fourth roll.
Math is Hard: One of the simplest ways to cheat at Yahtzee was most likely Jordan's modus operandi: creative addition when tallying his final score. Players who do not relish the task of calculating their total scores at the end of the game are typically not willing to do even more math to check an opponent’s tally. This lack of oversight leaves a wide latitude for Yahtzee cheaters to doctor their official scorecard. A player may choose to score Large Straights as 45 points, for example, as a way to pad his total. But if they truly believe no one is watching, the cheating may be even more egregious.
The most common method of unintentional Yahtzee cheating is bad math. So the scorecards of even well-intentioned and trusted players should be scrutinized for accuracy. Coincidentally, Yahtzee is a great way to teach math to children (or adults).
Safeguard Your Game
In professional Yahtzee tournaments where money is on the line, safeguards must be put in place to deter cheating. But for the casual player, cheating at Yahtzee may be a non-issue or even part of the fun. Of course, sometimes honest errors do occur and even well-intentioned players will mistakenly break the rules from time to time. The following prevention strategies can help players at all levels to maintain a clean game.
The simplest way to avoid cheating is to know who you are playing with. Friends, family, and reputable acquaintances bring familiarity to the table - you will have a good idea who is trustworthy and who to keep an eye on. Maintain a heightened sense of stranger danger to keep riff-raff and ne'er-do-wells away from your table. Even the most charming new player could well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Adhere to a strict interpretation of a legal dice roll. The standard Yahtzee set comes with a dice shaker for a good reason - it is the most effective way to guarantee that the dice are rolled fairly. Rolling without the cup or “finger play Yahtzee”, while considerate to nearby nappers, makes it easier to execute fake rolls. Likewise, use a backstop, such as the Yahtzee box itself, to roll the dice against whenever possible. Dice that carom off of another object are not nearly as susceptible to dirty rolling techniques.
Be proactive when it comes to math cheats and enforce the use of an electronic calculator to tabulate the final scores. For another layer of protection, assign a player to act as official scorekeeper who will add the total scores for all players. Like the banker in Monopoly, this player is tasked with an additional duty to preserve the flow and fairness of gameplay.
Above all, remain alert and focused on the game at hand. Be aware of your surroundings and monitor your fellow players as they roll the dice. Observe any patterns or quirks in their technique that could be acting to mask illegal play. If the honor system proves to be insufficient, include an independent arbiter to ensure fair play.
Cheaters Never Win
It is believed that Yahtzee’s ancient precursors were often used in a ritualistic fashion to spread ideas of equality and inclusivity throughout a society. The faces of the dice could be different but they were all still dice, united in a common purpose. The notion of cheating, therefore, is incompatible with the fundamental character of the game.
We may never know what motivated Michael Jordan to cheat. But even the casual player can be seduced into cheating their way to the top. Jordan’s legacy may not be too badly tarnished by the revelation of his Yahtzee misbehavior, but his story should serve as a warning to beginning players to always remain alert to deception at the Yahtzee table. Alas, even our heroes can turn villian.