How to Gamble On (And Win At) Yahtzee

by Jeff Harris
on December 27, 2017

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways to gamble on activities that aren’t normally considered gambling activities. One of my favorite things to gamble on is the traditional family board game. I’ve put money down on Monopoly, Risk, and Scrabble.

But today I want to write about how to gamble on and win at Yahtzee.

My mom taught me to play Yahtzee when I was young. I was so young, in fact, that I didn’t really understand how the game we were playing worked. I didn’t mind, though. I just thought it was fun to put those dice in the cup and roll them, even if I didn’t know the right strategy or even how to fill out the score card.

Mom always won, too.

My mom also taught me to play blackjack, which is one of the reasons I thought it would be fun to combine my love of gambling with my love of Yahtzee.

This post explains how to gamble on Yahtzee. It also explains how to win more often at Yahtzee.

What Is Yahtzee?

Besides craps, I can’t think of a more classic dice game than Yahtzee. Edwin S. Lowe originally published the game in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, Edwin S. Lowe was the driving force behind the popularization of the game. He’s probably better known for introducing the United States to another popular gambling game though—bingo.

Yahtzee resembles several earlier dice games:

  • Generalia
  • Poker Dice
  • Yacht
  • Yatzy

Game-play is simplicity itself. You have 5 dice which you roll. You also have a scoresheet. Your goal is to create certain combinations, most of which are based on poker hands.

You play Yahtzee in rounds, 13 in total. During each round, you roll the dice. You decide which dice to keep and which to discard. Then you roll again. You get another chance to discard dice and try to improve your results again.

The possibilities are divided into 2 broad categories, which are subdivided into 13 different “hands” total. Once you’ve put a score into a hand, you can’t use that hand again. Some of these hands have an arbitrary point value. Others score points based on the total of the dice.

The best possible hand in the game is called a Yahtzee, and it’s worth 50 points.

You win by having more points than your opponent (or opponents) after the 13 rounds.

Milton Bradley bought the rights to the game from Lowe in 1973. Hasbro has since bought Milton Bradley. According to Hasbro, they sell 50 million copies of Yahtzee annually.

How to Play Yahtzee

To play Yahtzee, you first buy the game, although if you have 5 dice, you could just print up some scoresheets and make your own version. Each player starts with a scoresheet.

The scoresheet is divided into 2 sections:

  • The Upper Section
  • The Lower Section

The upper section is divided into 6 possible hands:

  • Aces
  • Twos
  • Threes
  • Fours
  • Fives
  • Sixes

Each of those hands is scored based on the total of the dice showing that number. Any dice in your hand that aren’t of that number don’t count toward that score.

Here’s an example:

You roll the dice, and you get the following results: 6 6 6 2 1

You keep the 6s and discard the 2 and the 1 and re-roll those 2 dice.

You get a 6 and a 5, so you keep the 6, re-rolling the 5.

The re-roll is a 4, so your final hand is 6 6 6 6 4.

You decide to put this in your Sixes in the upper section, and your total for that hand is 6 + 6 + 6 + 6, or 24.

If you score 63 points or more in the upper section, you get a 35-point bonus at the end of the game.

The hands in the lower section are different:

  • 3 of a kind
  • 4 of a kind
  • Full house
  • Small straight
  • Large straight
  • Yahtzee
  • Chance

If these remind you of poker hands, that’s intentional on the part of the game’s designers. Here’s how each of those hands are formed and how many points they’re worth:

3 of a kind consists of 3 dice of the same number along with 2 dice of another number. But if you’ve already filled in your 4 of a kind, you can count a 2nd 4 of a kind as a 3 of a kind, too. This one scores as the total of all 5 dice.

4 of a kind consists of 4 dice of the same number along with one die of another number. This one also scores as the total of all 5 dice.

Full house consists of 3 dice of one number and 2 dice of another number. It’s worth a flat 25 points.

A small straight consists of 4 dice with consecutive numbers. 1 2 3 4 6 would be a small straight. So would 2 2 3 4 5. A small straight is worth a flat 30 points.

A large straight consists of 5 dice with consecutive numbers: 1 2 3 4 5 6. It’s worth 40 points.

Yahtzee is just a 5 of a kind. It’s worth 50 points. But there’s also a Yahtzee bonus, which I’ll cover shortly.

Chance can consist of any 5 dice. It’s scored as the total of the 5 dice. It’s used when you’re trying for a hand and fail to get what you were hoping for.

At any point, if you don’t like your final hand, you can put a 0 in any of the hand categories instead of taking a score. Toward the end of the game, this is often your only option.

If you get a 2nd Yahtzee during a round, you get a 100-point bonus. In fact, you get a 100-point bonus for every extra Yahtzee you roll.

But if you’ve already put a 0 in the Yahtzee box, you don’t get the 100-point bonus.

Besides getting the 100-point bonus, you also get to count your total toward the appropriate upper section category. If that category is full, you get to count the hand as a full house, small straight, or large straight—even though the hand doesn’t fit the requirements for those.

After the 13 rounds, you total your upper section score (including the 35-point bonus if you got it) and your lower section score to get an overall score for the game. The player with the highest score wins the game.

How to Gamble on Yahtzee

The official game doesn’t include rules for betting.

But you can easily come up with your own ways to bet on Yahtzee. Here are some suggestions:

The easiest way to bet on a game of Yahtzee is to just wager a flat amount on who’s going to win the game. For example, you might be playing heads-up with someone and decide that the winner gets $50. With 3 or more players, everyone might put $50 into a pot, winner take all.

If you had 6 players, you could do this tournament style and have a price for 1st place and 2nd place. The amounts are up to you and the other players, but I’d suggest $200 for 1st place and $100 for 2nd place.

You could also do best 2 out of 3. Or you could play out an entire scorecard (which has room to score 6 games). The player with the biggest score combined would be the winner.

Another way to gamble on Yahtzee heads-up is to assign a dollar amount to each point. The loser pays the winner based on the dollar value of the difference in points.

Here’s an example:You’re playing heads-up for $20 a point. You score 300 points, and your opponent scores 250 points. That’s a 20-point difference. At $20 a point, that’s $400 that the loser has to pay the winner. Low rollers might prefer to play for less per point.

You can just as easily play for a dollar a point, a quarter a point, or even a penny a point.

Having a little money in action always makes any game more interesting, and Yahtzee is no exception.

The most important thing to remember is that you and your opponent both understand the rules clearly before getting started. My mom used to play according to her own Yahtzee rules. If you’d already 0’ed out your Yahtzee, she’d allow you to change that 0 to a 50. You then 0’ed out another hand.

Those aren’t the official rules, but I suppose other people might play that way.

I’ve also played with people who would take the 100-point Yahtzee bonus, but instead of filling in one of their other hands, they’d 0 out another hand.

With lots of traditional games, house rules vary from family to family. Monopoly is a good example of this, too, where lots of people give bonus money to players who land on “free parking”. But the official rules are clear—you don’t win or lose money when you land on “free parking”. You just sit there until it’s your turn again.

When you have money on the line, any rules are okay, but you need to be playing by the same rules as your opponent. Otherwise, hard feelings are inevitable.

How Yahtzee Resembles Video Poker

Perceptive readers who are familiar with video poker will see an immediate resemblance. In video poker, you get 5 cards (instead of 5 dice), but you’re still trying to achieve certain combinations which have certain values.

Also, if you’re familiar with video poker, you know that strategy matters. You also get to decide which cards to keep and which cards to discard in video poker—just like in Yahtzee. Each possible decision has an expected value. Only in video poker, the expected value is a matter of coins, while in Yahtzee, the expected value is in terms of points.

Here’s an example from video poker:

You get 4 cards to a royal flush, but you also have a pair of jacks. You could keep the pair of jacks and get a guaranteed payout of 1 coin. But if you discard that jack and try to get a royal flush, you’ll get an 800-coin payoff.

The correct play is to draw to the royal flush. The payoff is so high relative to the odds of achieving your hand that it makes discarding the sure thing a lower expected value move.

Here’s an example from Yahtzee:

You get the following dice on your 1st roll: 1 1 2 6 6

You could re-roll the 2, keeping the 1s and the 6s. In this case, you’re hoping to get a full house. Any 1 or any 6 will succeed in this. The probability of achieving your goal is good, too—roughly 2/3 of the time you’ll succeed and get 25 points.

You could also just hold on to the 1s, hoping to get a Yahtzee, a 3 of a kind, a 4 of a kind, or a big score in the ones category in the upper section. The probabilities of achieving each of these possible results vary, but you can probably see why holding on to the 1s is the wrong strategy.

That’s because for most of the potential final hands, your score is based on the total of the dice. If you went after the 6s, if you succeed, you get more points for your potential 3 of a kind, 4 of a kind, or the sixes in the upper section.

Early in the game, it probably makes sense to go for the Yahtzee instead of the full house. The Yahtzee is worth twice as many points, and you’ll probably get other opportunities for that full house later. Also, even if you miss the Yahtzee, you have several other high-scoring options available to you when you miss.

The important thing to understand about the similarity between video poker and Yahtzee is that these aren’t games of pure chance.

Deciding between diverse options with various payoffs is how the strategies for both games are decided.

How to Win at Yahtzee: Strategy Advice

If you’re serious about getting an edge over your competitors, you need to buy a small book written by a professor. It’s called Advantage Yahtzee, and the author’s name is Olaf Vancura. He’s a gambling expert, and he’s “cracked the code” for playing Yahtzee with an optimal strategy.

I’ve written a lot of blog posts about being an advantage gambler, by the way. In none of them do I mention becoming a Yahtzee hustler. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an effective way to get an edge when gambling.

If you can find someone who’s willing to bet on a game of Yahtzee with you, chances are they haven’t read Advantage Yahtzee. If you have, you almost certainly have an edge over your opponent. In fact, if you hang out in a neighborhood bar, the chances of finding another patron who’s willing to play with you are pretty good.

I couldn’t hope to reproduce Vancura’s work in this blog post, but I can provide you with some observation about strategy for Yahtzee that might help you win more often:

Your goal during the first or second roll of the dice is simple:

You should always go for the Yahtzee.

This means regardless of the size of the dice, you always keep the dice that you have the most of.

For example, if you roll 5 5 5 2 1, you would keep the 5s. There’s no downside to this strategy on the first 2 rolls. At worst, you’ll get that part of the upper section filled in. At best, you’ll get an early Yahtzee, which will increase the chances of getting a bonus Yahtzee later in the game.

That’s an important point to remember, too. In most games, the player with the bonus Yahtzee beats the player without a bonus Yahtzee. That 100-point bonus is like a drum with a hole in it. It’s hard to beat.

After the 1st couple of rounds, though, your strategy depends largely on which boxes you’ve already filled in. Your strategy also varies based on what your opponent has so far, too.

For example, if you get 4 4 6 6 2 on your 2nd roll of the dice, and you filled in the sixes on your first roll, it’s appropriate to keep the 4s instead of the 6s.

Here’s another example:

If your opponent Yahtzees and gets a bonus Yahtzee early in the game, your goal has to favor Yahtzees over other combinations. Otherwise, you have no hope of catching up.

Yahtzee has an optimal strategy, just like video poker does, but because of the changing texture of the game as it’s played, your strategy has to adjust to the game conditions.

Conclusion

Now you know how to gamble on Yahtzee. You also have some idea of about how to win at Yahtzee more often.

Can you make a living playing Yahtzee with an advantage over other players?

Probably not.

But for action junkies like me, learning how to gamble on a family board game like Yahtzee is a fun and exciting thing to do.

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