Yahtzee Strategy: The Joker's Gambit
February 25, 2021
The Yahtzee scoring category is the game's namesake and the only path to sky-high scores. The 100-point Yahtzee Bonus and potential Jokers are jet fuel for your grand totals. But does it ever make sense to roll a Yahtzee and pass it up? The Joker's Gambit is the most famous dilemma in Yahtzee strategy, tempting a player to sacrifice the Yahtzee and end up increasing their total score.
Yahtzee is oftentimes a game of tough decisions with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each whispering sweet temptations directly into your cerebral cortex. Decision making needs to be precise so interpreting those competing strategic voices should be a top priority during any Yahtzee match. A solid understanding of the game’s underlying mathematics principles, including probabilities and Yahtzee odds, is a necessity in developing a sound strategy. But the advanced player will also probe deeper into the tactical advantages that can flow from a properly executed gambit.
A gambit in Yahtzee involves sacrificing a clear scoring opportunity in order to make greater gains elsewhere on the scorecard. The strategy is typically one of delayed gratification – a player forgoes immediate points to put herself in a stronger position later in the game. This gameplay mechanic is also found in other tactics-based strategic games, such as the Queen’s Gambit in chess and tenuki in Go.
The most common Yahtzee gambit is played after a poor roll when deciding where to score a zero or other worthless combination. The safe player will opt to cross out the most difficult scoring category first in the hopes of rolling successfully for a lower score on a future turn. Known as “playing the odds”, this strategy seeks to maximize returns on high likelihood outcomes, while minimizing the risks associated with going for big points. It’s a reliable plan that is backed up by statistics but one that does not generally yield really high scores.
When the player chooses to focus her energies on rolling Yahtzees, a sharper strategy is required as low scoring areas will be sacrificed to keep hope alive for future success. Sometimes the gambit moves beyond the scope of a single scoring category and will involve giving up on the Upper Section in its entirety, along with its 35-point Bonus, to give the Yahtzee a chance to make an appearance.
The Joker's Gambit
The Joker's Gambit is widely considered to be the ultimate gambit in Yahtzee strategy. The name refers to the Joker Rule, which governs the scoring of multiple Yahtzees, and invokes the trickster nature of the Joker character all the way from playing cards through Batman.
Consider the following situation and decide for yourself. Only two turns are left in your game, with the Yahtzee and Fives boxes still open. The 35-point Upper Section bonus appears to be out of reach as you would need to roll five Fives* to surpass the 63-point threshold. Things aren't looking too great but being a serious Yahtzeeist you never give up hope. On your next to last turn you roll a couple of Fives, then a couple more - and, yes, it's a Yahtzee in Fives! The Joker's Gambit is now on the table.
the Joker's Gambit
Instinctively, your pencil is drawn to the Lower Section of your Yahtzee scorecard to mark 50 big ones in the open Yahtzee box. But after a moment's reflection you realize that scoring 25 points for your Fives, thereby securing the 35-point bonus, will result in a total of 60 points for the turn and a 10-point advantage over scoring a Yahtzee. The math indeed adds up, but does it ever make sense to dis the game's namesake?
The decision over whether or not to lock up the Upper Section bonus boils down to your level of risk tolerance. It is a unique and paradoxical situation in Yahtzee where a player is able to score more points by passing up the game's highest scoring category. So counter-intuitively, the safe money says to play the odds and take the 25 points for your Fives to obtain the bonus, pat yourself on the back, and then try to roll the elusive second Yahtzee on your final turn. But if you're more of a high flying daredevil looking to maximize your total score, the best move would be to take the Yahtzee downstairs and set yourself up to finish the game with back-to-back Yahtzees. In this dream scenario, of course, the 100-point Yahtzee Bonus will more than make up for the missed Upper Section bonus should you not roll the second Yahtzee in Fives.
A successful Joker's Gambit requires a deep knowledge of the official Yahtzee rules and continually proves to be a fascinating study in a Yahtzee player's willingness to forgo guaranteed extra points in the hopes of achieving a spectacular finish to the game. Only the most audacious dice roller can pull off such an inspired feat. But gambits themselves are baked into the gameplay mechanics, presenting unique strategic dilemmas in every game.
* The Joker's Gambit also applies when Fours or Sixes are the empty Upper Section box. Threes will break even at 50 points assuming a second Yahtzee is not rolled.