Hanukkah Math – Playing the Dreidel Game

The traditional spinning-top dreidel game is fun and has math! Up until a couple of years ago, the dreidel for me was just a random Jewish symbol. I asked my office mate at the time, “So what’s up with the dreidel?”

“Really?” she replied, looking at me in disbelief.

“Um, yeah. Remember I was raised in the country in the Bible belt. I’m pretty clueless on these things.”

“It’s a game.”

GASP!

I’d been missing out on this game for decades!

I immediately went online to get some dreidels of my own. I took them to my family’s annual Christmas Tree Hunt and we had a blast!

Get Ready to Play

Get the supplies:

  • A dreidel to share or one for each player – preferably a “fair dreidel” but the cheap ones tend to not be so fair. Make sure you test your dreidel to find out if you’re going to be on the winning end or losing end (especially if you’re betting real money).
  • Something to bet with – each person should get equal amounts if you’re using marshmallows. If you use hard cash, then they can bring their own. 😉 We used some plastic connector toys one of the kids had.

Decide who goes first. Typically this is with a spin. But you can also use the old winner-goes-first or youngest-goes-first routine. Here are the names and ranks of the characters on the dreidel:

  1. Nun (נ) – highest
  2. Gimmel (ג)
  3. Hey (ה)
  4. Shin (ש) – lowest

Ante up – throw in the agreed ante. If using tokens, like marshmallows or buttons, use one. If using real money, decide what the ante is before starting. Nobody wants to be in the news for getting shot over a misunderstood dreidel ante.

Play, Win and Have Fun!

The first player spins. What happens next depends on the land of the dreidel:

  1. Nun (נ) – Do nothing. Yup. How much do you take? none (NUN) How much do you put in? none (NUN)
  2. Gimmel (ג) – Take the pot. All of it. The only thing you give is smug looks to your competitors.
  3. Hey (ה) – Take half the pot. Not all, but HEY – half isn’t bad!
  4. Shin (ש) – Well, it sucks to be you. In fact, this roll is like a kick in the SHIN. You have to re-ante. So if you’re playing buttons, you throw in another button. Real money? Throw in the agreed amount of the ante.

Play continues to the left in a clockwise direction (the “normal” way play goes in most games).

The game ends when you say it does. If you’re playing with new players, wait until you’re winning. Then create the “end of game rule” so that you can stop the game right then.

If you’ve been caught in this ploy before, decide on when to end the game before starting.

The Math

Yup – you knew it. Probability, statistics and fractions are all over this.

Using a “fair dreidel” there’s a 1 in 4 probability of getting a Gimel (or any other side).

You can work the statistics by using what’s called a random variable (which isn’t so random, so it’s weird they call it that). But we won’t get too deep here.

When you spin, 1/4 of the time, you’ll have to throw in more. And 3/4 of the time you’re safe (do nothing or get something).

Now go play.

There aren’t any rules about having to be Jewish to play. I’m mostly Christian, which explains why it took me so long to discover it!

Dreidels are cheap and fun. And if you want to learn a bit more about the real reason the game started, make sure to check out the history and description on Chabad.org.

 

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