Games: Push-Your-Luck

Anyone who has ever played Blackjack knows the dilemma at the heart of every push-you-luck game. Do I stay with this crummy 15, or do I request another card and possibly bust? Every game has some element of risk-reward, but push-you-luck games are often nothing but, the agonizing do-I-or-don’t-I decision distilled to its essence.

Because of their simplicity, push-you-luck games rarely afford opportunities for strategic play. But what they lack in depth, they make up for in accessibility (most can be taught in moments) and excitement. Where other games might be a 10k, push-your-luck games are more akin to a 100m dash–and are likely to give you the same cardiovascular workout.

Here are some of the best:

Can’t Stop: The epitome of the push-your-luck genre, Can’t Stop was unavailable for quite a while, but was reprinted by Face 2 Face Games earlier this year. Roll four dice and group them into scoring combinations. Every time you succeed, you advance your markers on the board–and are given the opportunity to roll again. You can call it quits at any time and “bank” your progress, but if a roll produces no combinations, everything you earned during the turn is lost. You can find a slick computer implementation of the game at, but goading on other players is half the fun, and it should really be played against real people. Can’t Stop is one of those classics that I recommend unreservedly to anyone who enjoys games.

Incan Gold: The newest entry in the push-you-luck category is also one of the most popular. Players are Indiana Jones-eque explorers, infiltrating forgotten ruins in search of treasure. Everyone enters the temple as a group and, on each turn, the top card of the deck is turned over, revealing either treasure or a hazard (rock slide, poison gas, snakes, etc.) Afterwards, each player has the option to take the money and run, or venture yet deeper in search of greater riches. Those who flee get to keep all the treasure they collected; those who are still in the temple when the second of a particular hazard is revealed get nothing. The group dynamic of Incan Gold makes it even more fun than Can’t Stop in my opinion, and it plays in half the time.

Exxtra: I like the stripped down, almost austere design of Can’t Stop, but Exxtra is perfect for those looking for a little more meat. Here again you are rolling dice, hoping to improve your position and avoid busts. But in Exxtra, you must compare your rolls to those of the other players, and this added interaction makes the game feel a little deeper. One indisputable advantage of Exxtra over Can’t Stop: it can accommodate up to six players, while the latter only works for 2-4.

Cloud 9: Very similar to Incan Gold, though Cloud 9 puts the players in a hot air balloon rather than in an Incan temple. On a turn, the current pilot of the balloon (it rotates every round) must play a specific combination of cards from his hand. If he succeeds, the balloon rises, and everyone aboard has the potential to score more points; if he fails, the balloon crashes to the ground, and those who hadn’t yet bailed get nothing for the round. Simple and engaging, Cloud 9 has been a favorite of my game group for years.

Circus Flohcati: Take a card from those face up, or, if you don’t like any of the ones available, turn over more cards. But if you ever turn over a card identical to one already face-up, you lose your turn and get no card at all. As just a deck of cards, Circus Flohcati is compact enough to fit in a pocket–perfect for bringing to your local tavern.

Viva Topo!: You know, for kids! This strays a bit from the cash-in-or-keep-rolling formula at the heart of the other games on this list, but the push-you-luck element is definitely in there. Send you mice to get cheese; the more mice you send, the greater the possibility of reward–but the harder it will be to get anything at all. This game has great bits, and is playable by kids as young as 4.

Lastly, the push-your-luck game I have probably played more than any other is simply called “10,000,” and is playable with nothing more than five dice and a scorepad. We played this incessantly when I was in the Peace Corps. Full rules are here.

The Hoax


An earlier version of this article quoted from a blog entry purportedly by the Rev. Al Sharpton. has determined that the blog is a hoax ...

No. No. No, no, stop it. I swear, “hoax” is rapidly becoming the most intentionally misused word in currency.

The above was taken from an MSNBC article about Michael Vick that included a lengthy quotation taken from Newsgroper is devoted to “Fake Parody Blogs, Political Humor, [and] Celebrity Satire,” a fact stated right in the titlebar. It makes no attempt to pawn its stories off as real.

Which is, of course, a key component of a hoax: intent. Merriam-Webster: “hoax, noun. 1: an act intended to trick or dupe; 2: something accepted or established by fraud or fabrication.”

You could argue that the articles on Newsgroper are fabrications. But how do you justify “SUBSTANCE FOUND AT IKEA PROVES TO BE A HOAX,” the headline on a New Haven city webpage, describing the incident in which a running club sprinkled flour in an IKEA parking lot to guide joggers, only to have local authorities react like it was the season finale of 24? The substance itself was a hoax? Someone somewhere had to fabricate the flour, I suppose–wheat doesn’t grow on trees, you know–but where, exactly, is the trick, dupe, or fraud?

Hoax’s reign as the scapegoat du jour dates back to the Boston “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” debacle in February of this year. “Two plead not guilty to Boston hoax charges” the CNN headline read, and the Boston authorities used the word “hoax” to describe the incident as often as they could. The advantages of labeling something like this a hoax are obvious: you didn’t massively overreact to a situation that the average person recognized as harmless, you were tricked into doing so! You didn’t just take a quotation from a clearly phony article on a random webpage and build a story around in, you were duped! You’re not an idiot, you’re just easily gulled! (This argument reminds me of the Democrats claiming that they voted in favor of the Iraq war because the White House tricked them into doing so … not that getting outwitted by Bush is any less embarrassing than getting outwitted by flour.)

If you want some example of legitimate hoaxes, you need look no farther than those bandying around the term. These are the people who intend to trick or dupe, to hide their own culpability behind a malapropism. Whenever I hear the word “hoax” leave the mouth of someone in power, I like to imagine it wearing a little t-shirt reading “I’m With Stupid.”

Update: The City of New Haven updated their page about an hour ago, changing the headline. The original is cached here.

Movies: Rocky Balboa

When it was released to theaters last year, Rocky Balboa received generally favorable reviews, but even the kindest critic said it was pretty much a film for completists. If you’ve seen Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky V (yes, there was a Rocky V), they said, you may as well go whole hog and see this one too.

Up until two years ago, I’d never seen any of the Rocky films. But I’d always been perplexed by the fact that the first had won the “Best Picture” academy award. Seriously? Rocky? It’s just a dumb guy boxing, right? As far as I knew, it was the stereotypical (or perhaps prototypical) “sports film”–lovable underdog with a lot of heart works really hard, experiences setbacks, overcomes obstacles, and, against all odds, wins in the end. Plus, it was written by Sylvester Stallone–how good could it possibly be?

The answer, I discovered when my curiosity got the better of me and I finally rented the thing, was: pretty goddamned good! It was not the slick and generic sports films I’d expected, based on what little I’d seen of Rocky III and IV. Instead, it was melancholy, gritty, and authentic through and through, as much about the means streets of Philadelphia as about the titular character.

Enjoying Rocky did not increase my desire to see the sequels. If anything, it encouraged me to steer clear. I had no desire to see the Hollywood Blockbuster I’d expected the first to be.

Flash-forward to last week when, for some inexplicable reason, I added Rocky Balboa to my Netflix queue and sent it to position #1. Frankly, I was just interested to see what convoluted rationale they’d use to justify a 60-year-old Stallone re-entry to the ring.

Imagine my incredulity when, for the second time, the Rocky film I’d been prepared to mock turned out to be not bad.

Rocky Balboa is written like a direct sequel to the original film, not as the sixth in a series. The events of Rocky II-V happened, but are mentioned only in passing. All you know (or need to know) is that, at some point after the events of the first film, Rocky won the title of Heavyweight Champion, held it for some time, and has long since retired from the ring. Though Rocky’s home is much larger than the amazingly tiny apartment he lived in for the first film, he is still a humble and modest guy, still resides in Philly, and still has Paulie as a best friend. Furthermore, the cinematography of the film is much closer to the rough-hewn Rocky than that of its polished predecessors.

Which isn’t to say that Balboa clears the high bar set by Rocky. There’s a lot of speechifying in this film, which mainly consists of characters shoring up one another’s sagging morale with rousing motivational speeches. The film occasional wanders over the line separating “paying homage to” and “just remaking” scenes from the original film–and routinely barrels across the line between “sentimental” and “schmaltz”. And Rocky’s son simply doesn’t work: the actor’s not that great, the character is ill-defined, and he comes across as little more than a plot element Stallone felt obliged to include since he’d existed in some of the prior movies. (Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Rocky essentially adopts a new son a third of the way into the film. And a dog.)

Still, watching Rocky and Rocky Balboa as I did, with a few years separating the screenings, was very satisfying. I bet it would be even more so if you saw Rocky back in the 70’s or 80’s, and didn’t bother with any of the sequels. It reminded me of the Before Sunrise / Before Sunset duology, with thirty years elapsing between the two films instead of 10, and the romance between a boxer and the Heavyweight championship title. (Cinephiles who bristle at the comparison are probably forgetting that the original Rocky had at least as much indie cred as Linklater’s film–perhaps more, as at least Ethan Hawke was a bankable star at the time of Sunrise’s release).

I wouldn’t recommend Rocky Balboa to everyone. But if you enjoyed the first, and were always more interested in the Rocky the character than in Rocky the franchise, you’ll probably be as pleasantly surprised by the final chapter as I was.


Just to clarify, that last post was wholly invented. I still do not have a cellphone.

I have, however, been thinking a about ringtones a lot in the last two days, trapped, as I am, in a jury holding area with 200-odd other Seattlites. When you take a random sampling of the population these days, you also get a random sampling of ringtones, and I’ve been treated to snippets from everything from rock to pop to classical to Star Trek sound effects.

I find it funny that people don’t change their ringtones for certain occasions. The same guy who gets all dressed up in a suit and tie to jury duty thinks nothing of arriving with a cellphone set to “Quacking Duck.”

So I Called Up The Captain

I just set my cellphone’s ringtone to Hotel California. Man, I love that song. My favorite part is the fadeout at the very end. So awesome. I could listen to it a million times and not get tired of it.

Anyway, if you call and it takes me six minutes and eight seconds to pick up, that’s what’s going on.

A Little R&R

Second day in the jury pool. So far I, and the some 200 other folks here, have done absolutely nothing. No juries have been empaneled, not a one. We’ve all just been sitting around, reading books, surfing the web, making small talk, drinking Cokes from the vending machines, dozing off.

A moment ago, the jury coordinator said we could take a 20 minute “break.” The guy next to me, in all sincerity, pumped his fist in the air and said “YES!”

Shivic Duty

I am on jury duty today. Again. Third time in five years. Random selection my ass.

As I walked through the metal detectors at the King County Superior Courthouse this morning, a security guard beckoned me over.

Guard: Is that a keycard on your waist?

Me: Wha-? Oh, yeah. It’s from my work. I just kind of habitually clipped it on this morning.

Guard: May I see it?

Me: Sure.

{I hand him the keycard. He examines it for a moment.}

Guard: Is there a knife in here?

Me: A what? A knife?

Guard: Yeah.

Me: No, it’s just a keycard.

{He hands it back to me.}

Guard: You can buy these keycards now that have little concealed knives in them.

Me: Oh. Well, uh, thanks for the tip.

Nebraska Moves 2008 Presidental Primary to 1:30 This Afternoon

Nebraska became the latest in a series of states "frontloading" the 2008 campaign season, rescheduling their presidential primary from its previous date of Feb. 26, 2008 to 1:30 this afternoon.

"Nebraska has been all but ignored by the campaigns for too long," said Governor Dave Heineman, after making the announcement this morning. "Well, you can bet they're talking about us now."

Indeed, in the two hours since the announcement, candidates have been scrambling to find the midwestern state on the map, secure air passage to Omaha International Airport, and glad-hand local residents before the polls open this afternoon.

"This only underscores what my campaign has been saying all along," said a disheveled and unshaven Mitt Romney, the first to arrive, at a hastily assembled press conference given moments after he staggered from his plane. "That the Cornholer State ought to receive way more federal funds than whatever we give to you now."

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, aboard her jet and en route to Lincoln, announced that her campaign had just adopted "Beautiful Nebraska" as its new official song.

Chelsea Clinton did not accompany her mother, as she is currently campaigning in Utah in advance of their 2016 presidential primary, due to be held in April of next year.