The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Gotta Buck?

Dave Shapiro

July, 2003

Several years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the Milwaukee Chess Club. What I expected was a high ceiling cavern lit by torches, deep pile, red carpeting, Louis XIV chairs, a marble hearth reflecting a roaring fire and black oak walls. I presumed the average age of the players would be near 100 and that everyone would wear suits, smoke cigars and drink martinis. The games would be played across mahogany inlaid boards; the pieces, all ivory of course, would have been carved during the Ming dynasty.

Hello—what cave had I been living in? The Milwaukee Chess Club met at a local city rec center. The floors were tiled concrete with matching concrete block walls. Games were played across plastic mats resting on cafeteria tables. Gone were the suits, fireplace and martinis; all replaced with T-shirts, candy machines and Mountain Dew. Where I had presumed a noise level somewhere in the monastic range, I was wrong. There was plenty of banter, chatter and laughter; an obviously engaging situation. No discussion on the origins of World War I or the expected increase in Social Security benefits; the discussions ranged from Madonna's latest video to the battle between the original Play Station vs. the N64. (I am assuming that any comments about "pot" had little to do with poker or the size of one's belly.)

Having learned to play chess in the city parks (shortly after the invention of the electric light bulb) my expectation for stunning play was minimal and I was not disappointed. After roughly an hour, one of the members approached and asked: "Gotta buck? You can enter the Speed Chess tournament." Having never even seen Speed Chess required that I play. Speed Chess is played with the same rules as standard Chess but with a 5 minute per player time limit; that is 5 minutes per game, not per move. It's fun, fast and difficult. As a game may not finish in the allotted time, victory is determined by a point system. Everyone entering the weekly tournament must complete the same number of games with the winner each evening claiming the pot. Though I no longer play, this was a great experience and the playing for money was an unexpected, additional dimension that increased the enjoyment. (Note to the IRS: none of my "winnings" have been reported as there was nothing to report. However, I did consider this a contribution to a non-profit organization and therefore, completely deductible.)

Wanting to share this experience, I introduced a modified version to one of the gaming groups that I play with on a regular basis. We could never work out an acceptable "speed" method but the money concept became very popular. The Sunday group I play with is composed of gamblers. Every game has an ante with side bets being the accepted norm. Doubling
       cube (Some members firmly believe that the doubling cube (Backgammon) is the greatest gaming device ever invented and should be an integral part of every game.) Through the years the games have included the obvious Poker, Cribbage and Gin Rummy along with the not-so-obvious Scrabble, Trans America, Cosmic Wimp Out, Africa, Lost Cities, Black Spy, Carcassonne, Thor, Vampire, Where’s Bob’s Hat?, recently Gang of Four and the most popular in this group, Wizard (US Game Systems). The ante is 25 cents per game or a penny per point with side bets optional. (Two of the members play daily and have recorded all of their games. They have played in excess of 10,000 Cribbage games!) It may only be quarters but on occasion it has risen to the equivalent of an Olympic medal.

My Thursday group is more diverse favoring board over card games and the gaming sessions are significantly longer. For example, this past week I played Amun Re (twice), Web of Power (twice), Gang of Four (twice) and a single game of Taj Mahal. We have some members that will only play fillers and others that view such games with abject distain. Clans, Gang of Four and Trans America appear to be the only games that appeal to all segments of this group. Over the years these differing preferences have, on occasion, generated problems as the inevitable Thursday night snowstorm reduces the number of participants. The "serious" gamers, those wanting to play Puerto Rico, Euphrat & Tigris or Mare Nostrum do not want to spend an evening placing meeples on grass tiles, wondering aloud "why don't these cows have horns?". Our core group, those willing to brave 8-12 inches of falling snow just to play games, is strongly opinionated; they believe trash talking to be a natural component of gaming. Many of these players thrive on competition of any kind and anything that advances the competitive aspect of a game is considered an improvement. Unfortunately, snowstorms can have a particularly detrimental effect on the available competition.

On these occasions the solution has been to run a mini-tournament. Everyone contributes a dollar and at the end of the evening the winner takes home the pot. We use a simple scoring system that applies to all games whether deep or filler (see table below). Early on there was some grumbling that winning Euphrat & Tigris, Puerto Rico or El Grande should have greater value than winning Carcassonne, Africa or Trans America. The counter argument was that a one-inch putt in golf is worth the same number of strokes as a 270-yard drive; a win is a win. (For those stubborn few that remained unconvinced, I employed a religious approach. I explained that this was all laid out in the 12th commandment; one of the ten found on the third, little known, tablet.)

This system actually resolved another, unrelated problem; what to do in a game with a run away leader. As the "pot" is won by the player scoring the most points in the evening, second place may provide sufficient points for an evening win. Games with a run-away leader now are no longer "just played out"; final position is important.

Warning: some people are simply not comfortable with playing for money. If this occurs drop the idea immediately; don't try to convince someone; everyone gathered to play games, not gamble.

We now hold a tournament night once a month and it has become fairly popular. On these nights, every game is short to allow for the greatest number of winners. The last tournament night we played (in order) Thor, Paris Paris, a double elimination Battle Line, Clans, Ivanhoe and Trans America. Everyone scores according to the following table:

  POSITION
# of Players First Second Third Fourth Fifth
Two 5 3      
Three 5 3 1    
Four 5 4 3 2  
Five 5 4 3 2 1

There is no score for sixth place (or worse). The prize, of course, depends on the total number of players participating. Whenever possible, i.e. when we have enough participating, we try to break into two or three smaller groups with players rotating through the different groups. It has been a great experience and has brought new players just for these mini-tournaments which we hold on the last Thursday of each month (or when the snow triumphs). Try it... you may enjoy it.

- Dave Shapiro

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