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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pair of Dice Lost and Found

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Went to Amazon (the site, not the river) and somebody there asked me if I needed help, and I told them I was just browsing. I tend to use that for any occasion, but it’s never actually fit until then. When I call a customer service number for my phone service and they ask how they may help me, I say I’m just browsing. How can somebody effectively respond to that? Someone who’s browsing carries the utmost respect. It’s like saying you’re taking the fifth. Indeed, the very purpose of browsing is to not incriminate yourself. I’m gonna try it the next time I get pulled over. “Do you realize how fast you were going?” “No thanks, officer, I’m just browsing.” It might just work. In a parallel universe. During a rainstorm. On a movie set with Chevy Chase.

So how can I concentrate when there are all these competing ads on websites? It’s like they’re taking over my mouse and making me gravitate toward them. Everything has people’s faces on it, as if facial recognition is going to get them a sale. “Hey, for this yacht insurance company ad, the lady looks like she’s excited about something, so I want to go with them. And I don’t even own a yacht. But then you can never be too sure.” “Hey look, there’s a face… let’s buy that.” It’s an ad for bark dust. “Yeah, that’s the kind of bark dust I need… It’s endorsed by a face.”

Ads — you can’t live with ‘em, but they ain’t going away. Some ads pose as games. Hit the moving target and then give us all your money. I think the object of the game is a stick-up. OK, sounds like a fair arrangement. But I nailed the target. I’m willing to bet I’m the only one in the history of the Internet who ever hit that target, because it was moving at least 4 miles an hour, plus I know I have a high-speed connection on top of that. They’ll probably put me in the banner ad hall of fame for this one. Wow, let me buy some more stuff. I can really get used to this. Single iteration games that morph into payment opportunities. Such innovators!

That’s not to say there aren’t real games on the net. One service I saw says you can play online games against live opponents. Well, I suppose that’s a good selling point in a way. But if you think about it, that also seems rather discriminatory against Ouija board players. I can understand if they want to do that with the game of Life, or Parcheesi, or possibly even Chutes and Ladders (parlor style), because I’ve played those games before against players who weren’t alive, and the games admittedly weren’t nearly as competitive. You have to roll the dice for them, and basically do pretty much everything else. While there’s a certain novelty to it, the entire experience results in eventual tedium.

To be truthful, I haven’t quite caught on with the whole dice mentality for deciding the winner of a contest. Where’s the glory in that? As a kid, it didn’t faze me that I was basically only shaking shiny rocks that had no connection to any skill I might have possessed, but then ever since algebra came into the equation, I had an epiphany of sorts, and the kingdom of probability was suddenly manifested everywhere. It was inescapable. And they say you’ll never use that stuff in real life!

There was a statistical likelihood attached to where the raindrops would fall, and if they’d collide with each other on the way down and form a drop merger. I suddenly started writing down equations, and before long I had the world quantifiably pegged. It was outcome-based, it was predictable, it was performing as scheduled, and it was all playing out before me.

From that time forward, I realized the only legitimate usage for dice was in dice baseball, dice basketball, dice football, and all their derivatives, because those disciplines use probability charts that simulate actual occurrences, so they truly represent something. Never mind the whole agent-subject relationship — it’s all good. But meanwhile in Monopoly, you just roll and you’re at the mercy for your ultimate destiny of these two nondescript dotted cubes that may be in a bad mood and have a vendetta against you. This phenomenon lets you happily go however many mother-may-I paces ahead you’re permitted by the movers and the shakers (providing, of course, you haven’t perfected cheating with the pseudo-roll yet*). A rhododendron plant that’s been malnourished since birth and flakes when somebody merely glances at it could have just as good of dice rolls as you, and it never learnt at school. So don’t start thumping your chest when you roll boxcars. That grand occurrence would eventuate just as often if the dice were falling off a log. In a rainforest. On Andrew Dice Clay’s birthday.

And while Yahtzee has a modicum of strategy to it (should I go for my large straight or keep trying for a Yahtzee on every turn?), you can’t exactly will the dice to do anything substantive. Unless maybe you make them start quivering on their own and then from out of nowhere Blackbeard’s Ghost appears to congratulate you on getting your extra 35 points in the upper section. That feature alone would make it worth playing.

Do we really want dice games to be like Ouija games, where the spirits somehow take over and grant us good karma and double sixes when we need them? That whole legend of rolling the bones makes you stop and ponder a bit. And then you’re done, and you go think about something else. But at least it made you stop.

Maybe the mysterious element of unknown fates has a certain allure to it. That’s a lot of power you hold in your palms. Treat it delicately and the bones will provide you with good fortune. Even so, I’ve found that blowing on them does no good. Talking to them just makes you look silly. Shaking them up by your ears? What are you listening for — the dice to break out in a KC & the Sunshine Band concert: “Shake-shake-shake… shake-shake-shake… shake your gluteus” — I swear to you growing up I thought they were talking about shaking a boot. That’s a pretty wild dance, getting those feet up into the air. But the moral here is: begging the dice to be kind to you works only as often as the regular odds the dice rolls themselves present. It ain’t addin’ nuthin’ to the equation. Anything plus zero is “ho-hum.”

This raises the inevitable question: where’s the overall skill in these games? Even if I win, there’s no genuine fulfillment because I realize there’s not any distinction in being the chosen one who got the dice to behave in the most forthright manner. It’s like slot machines. I’ve never played them, and if I do, just shoot me on the spot, no questions asked. I’m going to add that to my will just to bring home the point. “If you’re reading this hoping I’ll keel over soon and yet I’m still managing to be kicking around, you can use this special clause to put me out of my misery if you ever see me at a slot machine, and my entire estate will go to you for being so dedicated to the cause by reading the fine print.” I’ll just be a little leery should cousins start randomly inviting me out to Vegas for weekend jaunts. Uh, I hear Yosemite is very nice this time of year. Let’s look due north instead, hey cuz?

I haven’t knowingly participated in dice game fixing before, but I’ve seen it tried. Some people will inadvertently roll one die off the board or table or other playing surface (you might be using the skull of a rare mollusk for this, I don’t know), the trick is that if what they can see is favorable, they keep it and then reroll just the one die. But if they got a lousy roll, they just roll everything over. Watch for people who continually “accidentally” roll off the mollusk skull. Another variation of this is to pretend to drop one or two dice while in the hallowed process of shaking them (dice perform better when shaken, but not stirred… don’t know why that is), and then pick them up if they were bad outcomes, otherwise continue to roll the rest of the dice. This isn’t about the dice. The dice are merely a backdrop to distract everyone from noticing the rampant cheating that’s going on. It’s a dice magician performing his act, and he wants you to concentrate on everything but the dice.

Yet another trick is when a die lands slightly slanted on an unflat surface. The holy roller can sometimes pick between the slanted side of his choosing, or carefully shimmy it onto a flat surface, at which point you can say, “I’ll do that over” or just take it, or you can just grab it from the outset and say it is a redux.

Or when you’re tremendously desperate and down by 200 in Yahtzee with two turns left, you can roll all the dice completely off the table, and then when you pick them up exclaim, “A four… another four! Another four! Wow, four fours! Holy coincidences, Batman! A whopping five fours!” In short, lots of options to optimize the outcomes.

This is why I especially like the approach of the game Trouble, which works to alleviate the aforementioned difficulties by imprisoning its dice into a transparent dome, which you can push down and the dome quakes, resulting in a new roll. This is an ingenious move which I heartily applaud. Now, if somebody picks up the whole board and shakes it, that’s not considered a natural extension of the game, so I don’t know if the rules cover that situation.

OK, another thing… Why do they call dice in the singular a “die”? That’s a little too Ouija for me again. Lots of other better possibilities. They could be a little more subtle and call it an emergency room visit instead, or maybe a 24-hour illness. No need to be so violent about it. And particularly in conjunction with online versions, the mantra could easily be something along the lines of “roll the douse and move your mouse.” Huh, huh? Whatta ya think? All these capital ideas going for naught. It’s a dirty rotten shame when nobody can capitalize on a marketing opportunity and turn it into filthy rotten lucre.

What we find is that games are always an apt metaphor for life. We’re essentially role-playing (or roll-playing with dice, if you will). And as such, some people seem to think that cheating is an integral part of any game, and the only challenge in their mind is for a person to see if he can do it without getting caught. I think that may be stretching the spirit of the rules just a tad too far for my tastes. Do they explicitly have to place a disclaimer that says “Cheating not permitted” in order for cheaters to see the light? Wouldn’t that just be a given? The anti-rule is not a rule. Who would’ve thought?

Someday I’d actually like to make a game which allows for such improvising, as it were, through means of cheating. The object of the game will then be to see who can cheat the most. After all, this is what lawyers do. Not all of them… There are a few that are probably handcuffed somewhere against their will who are currently unable to practice. Ostensibly, in that game no one will be able to cheat at that game, because I’ll have already beaten the cheaters to the proverbial punch. They’ll be out-cheated at their own game, which is my game. (In some strange way, is this akin to making unlawful behavior lawful in order to overturn the underground movement? I don’t know — is there an underground movement in Monopoly?) Anyway, my cheat-filled game will have a disclaimer on the box that says “Cheating encouraged, rewarded, celebrated, and ballyhooed most vigorously.”

Maybe I’ll pattern my game after the legal profession. They’ve got this all down to an art form, after all. What lawyers do to tilt the odds in their favor is jury-rig the system to fit their desired template. I wonder where the term “jury-rig” ever came from… Hmm. No clue. Ah, well. But anyway, the good news is that in a court case both sides are cheating in equal measures, so neither one has a natural advantage. If everybody’s doing it, then all bets are off. Kind of ruins the prospects of the gambling industry cashing in here. And where’s the sport in that?

Jerry Seinfeld once adroitly observed that lawyers are the only ones in real life who have read under the lid to know what the rules of the game are. Uncite. And we know they’re not biased, so they wouldn’t adjust the rules to fit their own devious purposes. If there’s anything we know, that’s the thing we know. Because lawyers told us so. We can say that without getting sued.

I have nothing specifically against lawyers. I mean… where would you start? And besides, some of my favorite people have fallen into that profession. I’m guessing as a punishment one of my children will someday grow up to be a lawyer, and will represent me in some famous court case where I was wrongly accused of suing somebody, for which I immediately countersued. It would no doubt come in handy to have a close relative who can defend me. So I guess I can only diss the litigious so far.

Can you imagine if you got to play games the way lawyers do? Throw out Ventnor Avenue, because it’s never served me well. Anybody who lands on that space will get to go around the board 23 times, collecting the obligatory $200 on each of them (from which half goes to all the lawyers in the game). And next game, we’ll modify those rules for good measure, as this is a living document that can move with the trends.

Remember the clause “…but not limited to…”? One herculean lot of clout in a statement like that. It’s basically saying that they have all these rights, and then when they think of more, they’ll have those too! You know what that leaves for you? Something you can get a donut with if you also have a dollar.

And hey, what’s this? All the lawyers who are playing are printing new “Get out of Jail Free” cards for themselves while the game is going on. And after they got tired of printing those, they’re producing “Not Liable for Damages” cards, along with “We Reserve the Right to Do Whatever We Want” cards. It’s a clever ploy, though I’m not sure what their end game is. As far as I can tell, I think they’re just playing with us.

And then halfway through the game, the lawyers decide that every time they roll an even number, they get an extra $1000 and a lifetime guarantee that says they can’t lose the game, and if they roll an odd number, they get to keep rolling until they get an even number, plus you agree to give them your car if it’s newer than a 2007 or has at least three decent tires. And then they can sue the other players for their properties if they can come up with a good reason. The definition of “good” will be further subject to their own interpretation and become legally binding, and if you appeal you have to pay a stipend along with a fee. Wherewith and hereunto, so let it be written, so let it be signed and sealed, pro bono habeas corpus a la mode. You’ve been summarily thereundered into oblivion. At the very core, you’ve been unmercifully gamed, set, and matched. (Disclaimer: This game is legally binding. Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental, we swear. Likewise, absolutely no lawyers were emotionally harmed in the making of this blog post.)

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