When I think about playing dreidel throughout my life, I can highlight three primary reasons why I’ve launched into the spinning game: it was a festivity my elementary school would schedule for students to play during Hanukkah, I was looking to kill some time with friends or family before dinner was ready or to get in the “holiday mood.”
While I have fond memories of playing dreidel, I can’t recall if I’ve ever said, “How about dreidel?” when my family was trying to pick what to play for game night. As a young adult, I have never played dreidel with my friends.
I do remember a time in college when we were bored, sitting around the kitchen table, and we all spun different dreidels at the same time to see whose would spin the longest and then we just cut open the bag of chocolate gelt at the end and everyone ate however much they wanted.
Nonetheless, dreidel is a principal part of Hanukkah, complete with its very own theme song.
Author and statistician Ben Blatt wrote,“When the Maccabees’ oil, which was only expected to last for one day, instead lasted for eight, it was declared a miracle. When you sit down for a game that involves little more than staring at a spinning top, and expect the game to last about 10 minutes but instead it lasts for 80, that’s not a miracle. It is dreidel, and it is dreadful.”
“I can remember many dreidel games as a kid and most of them involved someone leaving at some point,” Blatt told me. “Or maybe just declaring, ‘whoever is ahead after one more round wins.’”
Blatt graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Applied Mathematics,and used his background in mathematics to reexamine the game. “I have a background working for a professional sports team in analytics so not only do I like examining how best to play a game under rules, but what type of rules would lead to the most fun,” he said.
After running thousands of test simulations, Blatt concluded that a game of dreidel between four players with 10 pieces each would last roughly two hours. That’s why, in 2014, he created a new version of the famous game: Speed Dreidel™.
The main difference between the original dreidel and Blatt’s Speed Dreidel™ is essentially what my college friends and I tried; instead of having players take turns spinning one dreidel, each player gets their own dreidel and everyone spins them at the same time. Blatt concluded that a full game of Speed Dreidel™ with four players would last 15 minutes–significantly less than the 2 hours of a regular game. A crucial component of Speed Dreidel™ is that it’s just as simple as regular dreidel. “As someone who grew up with tons of board games, it seemed obvious that dreidel rules needed a bit of a redesign,” Blatt said. “I decided to make a version of the game that kept many of the same elements but was faster for our current lifestyle.”
Blatt created the rules for Speed Dreidel™ in one day, and he is happy that people are still playing it seven years later.
When asked about the most important part of dreidel (i.e. the chocolate), he said, “The best type of gelt is the gelt you get as an unexpected gift.” Blatt has written two books- -I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back and Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve–and has had articles published in The Wall Street Journal and NPR among others.
Now, Blatt says he has moved on from dreidel analytics and works in analytics for a professional sports team.
“I have only played Speed Dreidel™ a few times,” Blatt said about his game. “But that’s a few times more than I’ve played regular dreidel.”
Here are the complete rules of Speed Dreidel™ as published in Blatt’s 2014 Slate article:
• Everyone starts with the same number of tokens.
• Everyone gets a dreidel.
• Before the first round, and each subsequent round, each player puts one of their tokens in the middle.
• To start the game, everyone spins their dreidel at the same time.
• Everyone whose dreidel landed on a shin must put one token in.
• Everyone whose dreidel landed on nun does nothing.
• Everyone whose dreidel landed on hei gets to take one token out. If there are fewer tokens in
the middle than there are people who spun a hei, no one who spun a hei gets a token.
• Everyone whose dreidel landed on gimel splits the remaining tokens evenly. If the number of tokens in the middle is not divisible by the number of people who spun a gimel, the remainder is left in the middle.
• Everyone spins his dreidel again, repeating the previous process.
• A player is eliminated when he is forced to put a token in but has none left. The game continues until all but one player has been eliminated.