Scrabble

Friday 2nd September 2016

I love Scrabble, but I've always thought that the letter distribution was wrong. Kat and I normally play a (perfectly legal) version where there are two bags of letters: vowels and consonants. You can choose how many of each type when you pick new tiles, I find this helps with the letters, otherwise I end up with a rack full of vowels and have to waste a turn changing them. Playing two bags reduces the randomness a little and makes the game based more on skill than chance.

Show us your Butts

The story goes that Alfred Butts, who invented Scrabble, used the front page of the New York Times in 1938 to get the frequencies of the different letters and used that to calculate how many tiles of each letter to use for 100 tiles in total. Sadly I've been unable to find out exactly which edition of the newspaper he used, but I can only imagine that the stories were all about India initialising institutions, because I've always found there are way too many i tiles in the game.

First I did a letter frequency analysis on the front page of the New York Times and BBC News websites, averaged the letter counts of both websites and graphed them against the Scrabble letter tiles. There were 34,980 characters in total, twice the number of letters that Alfred Butts used.

 

So far so good, there's not a huge difference between them. The most obvious difference is that J, Q, X and Z all appear with a frequency of less than 1% on the two news websites, so none of those tiles should be in the game at all, but that's going to kill a lot of the fun.

Looking at these news websites more closely there are lots of words that aren't in the Scrabble dictionary, and a lot of small words like the, of and is which skew the results. I don't think this is a good sample. A much better sample of words would be the complete 267,751-word Official Scrabble Words (OSW) dictionary, which I downloaded and analysed.

There were 2,250,566 characters in total, a hundred and fifty times as many characters as Alfred Butts analysed and all of them legal Scrabble words. Alfred must have spent many hours doing his analysis; my PC completed it in about five seconds. 

The distribution of the OSW diverges much more than a sample of news text does from a Scrabble set. It is also different from normal letter frequencies in written English, where the first top five letters are E, T, A, O and I in that order. But the Scrabble dictionary is pretty different to written English!

The OSW analysis has more R's and T's, way more S's and fewer E's, but there are still no J, Q or X letters. Let's be charitable and add in one of each of these letters and we come up with a new distribution:

Luckily we have several Scrabble sets in the house, so we can make a new set with the adjusted number of tiles.

Here is the original Scrabble set on the left, with my amended set on the right. You can see the additional letters are a lighter colour because they're from a different edition of Scrabble. The removed letters from the original set are at the bottom on the right.

To be fair to the inventor, he didn't have the OSW or the computing power to work this out. 

The next step is to test it out!

Here are the results of the first game that Kat and I played using the new set. We didn't play the two-bag rule, and I felt that the letter distribution was definitely better.

The most obvious change was that the seven extra S tiles meant that there were many more instances of making an already-played word into the plural and scoring more points. It needs more games to find out if it's a real improvement though.

Want to give it a go? You'll need an additional A, C, L, M, P, R, seven S's and two T's. You can buy individual tiles on eBay.  

From now on, new posts are going to be every other week.

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WTF is Pokemon Go?

Friday 22nd July 2016

In the three weeks since release, Pokémon Go has acquired more users than Twitter, and it's made owner Nintendo's stock price jump through the roof. But WTF is it and why should you care? I've been playing it for hours so you don't have to.

 

What's it all about?

The point of the game is to collect little cartoon creatures, grow them and battle them against other people's creatures. If like me you've never been exposed to the Pokémon (short for 'Pocket Monsters') universe before then there's quite a lot to take in, but let's concentrate on the basics. 

The game is only for smartphones and needs to have an internet connection and GPS active at all times. You wander around the real world and the game shows your actual location in a simplified map with your character in the middle, like this:

 

Where do they appear?

The game drops Pokémon randomly at locations around the planet and your first task is to collect them. There are more of them dropped into busier parts of the world. In Lostwithiel you can expect to find one every 4-5 minutes wandering around the town, but out on a friend's farm in the middle of nowhere we didn't find any in twenty minutes. 

Once you've found a Pokémon it's drawn on top of your camera's view - this is augmented reality. You have to throw balls at the Pokémon to catch it, and when you do it becomes part of your little zoo. As you can see in the image below right, dogs are able to see Pokémon in real life.

 

Why are there loads of kids outside my house all night?

There are two locations dotted around the real world: Pokéstops and Gyms. Pokéstops are refuelling stations that give you more items like balls to catch Pokémon with, and Gyms allow you to battle with other people's Pokémon and take control of areas.

Pokéstops are usually local areas of interest, for example in Lostwithiel the Duchy Palace is a Pokéstop as as well as the Earl of Chatham pub.

Gyms are also local areas of interest, but for some reason these seem to be mostly churches. This is so widespread that the Church of England has issued official guidance on how to deal with the influx of young people.

A number of people who live near these locations are justifiably upset. A friend who lives near one of the Pokéstops in Lostwithiel said:

 "My sleep is being blighted by a relentless horde of gamers into the night. They are arriving by foot, car and motorbike.

I am interested (*murderous) at how a huge corporation can implement a game with seemingly little consideration of its social impact."

 

I really don't care

You should, for three reasons. Firstly, this is the future of gaming. Pokémon Go is rather repetitive, extremely buggy and pretty basic, but it's the beginning of a completely new kind of game, and there are going to be hundreds more like this very soon. Hopefully some of them will be better. 

The second reason is much more important: if you don't understand at least the basics then you're taking the first step to becoming your grandparents. 

 

We didn't have games like this in my day

Exactly.

Watch someone twenty years older than you trying to use the internet, can be really frustrating. They will likely have significantly worse hand/eye co-ordination than you, because they have been gradually slipping away from current technology. 

This is the same thing.

Augmented reality has arrived, and its first real use is a silly game played by kids. But in ten years time it's going to be everywhere, and if you don't understand it then people are going to tut you at the supermarket while you desperately try to scan a coupon that's hovering above the Coco Pops shelf.

You really need to learn how to walk around concentrating on your phone without being run over because you're either going to get squashed or become increasingly frustrated and angry at technology. 

 

I'm already frustrated with technology!

Then you really need to start learning how it works, because it's getting exponentially more complex. Futurist Ray Kurzweil stated in 2001 that we made as much technological progress between 2000 and 2010 as the whole of the 20th century, and we'll make the equivalent of 20,000 years' worth of progress in the 21st century. 

If you don't keep up now you're going to look like a caveman by the time you're sixty. 

 

You said there were three reasons

Well spotted. The third is my favourite: it's a secret conspiracy by Nintendo to make young people do more exercise. Apart from having to physically walk around your town/city to collect items and visit Gyms, players also receive Pokémon eggs that eventually hatch into new Pokémon.

Each egg has a kilometre value attached to it, e.g. a 2km egg or a 10km egg. Longer distances give you more powerful Pokémon, and you have to walk that distance before the egg hatches.

In my first five days I walked 38 miles to get my eggs to hatch. This is taking the gamification of exercise to a whole new level.

 

So should I play it?

If you like, to be honest I'm pretty bored of it after a week. It's really frustrating to play because the game crashes at least once every ten minutes. It's very repetitive: walk around, catch some Pokémon, level up, battle, repeat. 

I think the hype is going to die down soon and hopefully a better AR game will be along shortly.

 

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Casino trip

Friday 6th May 2016

One of the things I love most in the world is looking through the window into other people's worlds. Earlier this week three of us from my local poker club went to the Genting Casino in Plymouth for my first ever real life poker tournament.



We arrived at 6:15pm, and were almost the first in the door. The hostess was extremely welcoming, in a way that I found a little disconcerting - it's not normal in the UK and feels quite false. Kind of like how friendly strippers are.

 

Dark and warm

The casino is a strange place, dark and warm with soothing flashing lights encouraging you to spend your money. I was expecting the continual clatter of coins but all the money is electronic now, you put your casino card in the slot machine and it spits back the winnings onto the card.

I can't imagine ever feeling comfortable in this space, but the majority of people were obviously regulars who were completely at home.

 

He's a maniac

The game started at 7pm with 18 players over two tables. Over the next hour another nine joined us, almost all of whom were regulars who knew each other. I took this to be a bad sign. The guy to my right turned out to be a maniac, going all-in with pretty much anything, which is handy because that's where you want that kind of player to be seated. He saved me a lot of chips by making huge bets, allowing me to comfortably fold.

The thing that surprised me most was the hyper-male environment. Playing online you don't know anyone's gender, and I'd kind of assumed that there were some females players. I realise now that I was probably wrong about that. The only two women at the tables were dealers, and I only saw a couple of no-tails all night in the whole casino.

 

Getting it in with nines

The next thing that surprised me was how aggressively everyone was playing. I hardly got to play a hand in the first two hours because people were making bets for most of my stack. It made me play very tight, and the only hand I got involved in early on was my pocket nines all-in against AK - I was a 55% favourite and won. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Slowly I grew to realise that most of the players on my table weren't serious poker players - they were just gambling for the sake of it. Some of them were £40 down within an hour. They kept buying back in as quickly as they could, then going all-in on the very next hand. This is really different to our little Losty Poker Club where everyone plays quite sensibly in comparison.

After 90 minutes we went on break, and immediately most of the players took to the roulette wheel, blackjack or the slots - another thing that marked them out as gamblers because of the poor odds of winning.

 

After the break

As soon as we came back from the break I was dealt a pair of queens, and played them very aggressively only to get called by AK. I was a 56% favourite, but he flopped an ace (making me a 10% underdog) to win, and my first live poker tournament was over.

I was very relieved!

I went outside for a walk around to get rid of the adrenaline, then returned to have some food and wait for my mates to get knocked out. I had to regularly fend off the hostesses who were rather pushy in trying to get me to play the other games, which I politely declined.

 

A third of nothing is nothing

One of my friends went out half an hour later, and the other finished 45 minutes after that. On the drive into Plymouth we'd made a rather optimistic agreement that we'd split our winnings three ways, but a third of nothing is still nothing. The only thing I came away with was my complimentary soft drink token.

All in all it was a really fascinating experience, but not one I want to repeat.

 

Play it safe

I picked up a copy of the casino's Play It Safe leaflet, giving help and advice on gambling responsibly. The first thing I noticed was the photo on the cover: there were as many female players in that photo as in the entire building. Maybe that's just Plymouth, but I doubt it.

The leaflet starts:

For most people, a night out at a casino is a leisure activity to be enjoyed in the same way as a trip to the football or an evening at the cinema [... ] However, for a very small number of people the temptation to push their luck or re-experience the elation of an early win can be compelling and sometimes irresistible.

From what I saw, the large majority of people there fell into their 'very small number' category. It felt like a lot of people had gambling problem, and it made me feel very uncomfortable to realise that the casino obviously know this too. They're taking advantage of these people's addictions, like a 19th century Opium den or probably quite a lot of pubs.

 

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Long live the queen

Friday 29th April 2016

I've always been amazed that the most powerful piece on the chess board is the only female piece, it's a surprising bit of historical feminism. But where does it come from? I thought I'd try to find out.

 

Origins

Chess began life as an Indian game called Chaturanga around 600CE. The board, shown here, looks pretty similar with the exception of elephants in place of the bishops - not a lot of bishops in India at that time, especially ones that only move diagonally. Click the board to see more details on the game and play it online.

In this game the piece next to the king was called mantri (counsellor) and was a male piece. It could move one square diagonally in any direction, and its role was to protect the king.

So when did mantri have a sex change and gain superpowers?

 

Gender re-assignment

From India the game moved to Persia, was renamed to Shatranj and became popular with nobility. The counsellor piece became farzin, which is a still male piece which translates as counsellor.

The Persian word shah (king) became the English words Chess and check. The Persian phrase shah mat (the King was exhausted), gave us check mate. We also still use the Persian word rukh (chariot) for a piece although the meaning has changed.

It's thought the Sunni Persians, who interpreted the Quran as requiring a ban on all representations of humans and animals, were the first to make chess pieces into their abstract shapes, shown here.

As the game evolved into chess and entered Europe via Muslim-dominated Spain the queen piece became known as vizier, still meaning counsellor and still a male piece.

Historian Marilyn Yalom suggests that it was one of two European queens of the late tenth century, Adelaide or Theophano, who were the inspiration for the change of the vizier to the queen. Either way, a Swiss Latin manuscript from 990AD has the first mention of the piece as regina (queen), which could still only move one square diagonally.
 
For a long time in the Christian chess rules, a pawn could only become a queen after the original queen had been taken, since real kings could only have one queen at a time.

 

Madwoman's chess

The change of the queen from being a weak piece, moving only one square diagonally, to being the strongest piece on the board, came around the same time as Isabella of Castile (1451 - 1504, shown here) ruled Spain.

Marilyn Yalom suggests that it was Isabella's power and influence that prompted the rule change. It may also have been a desire to make a slow game, that could take a whole day to play, a lot faster.

By 1497 chess rules in Spain stated that the queen could move straight or diagonally any number of squares, in a new faster version of the game called Lady's Chess or Queen's Chess.

Some nicknamed the new rules Madwoman's Chess. There was a degree of misogyny, with men decrying her new power in the game and stating that a queen had no place in the battle of chess, let alone as the most powerful piece.

 

Summary

A lot of the articles read in researching this post were theory and conjecture, but I was still surprised by how much is known, how long ago chess started, but how little the game has changed in that time. I played a few games of Chaturanga online and it's virtually the same, but much slower.

Chess is definitely taking over the spot that poker has occupied in my life recently, so if you want a game I'm on chess.com as matconnolley. You can play in a browser or on their excellent free mobile apps. 

 

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Lockpicking

Friday 11th March 2016

Lock picking has been on my list of skills to learn for years, but I just discovered how easy it is to buy picks on the web. Check out this short video that I made about it.

Here are some links to the picks and locks in the video:

It's really made me realise how poor padlocks are at security. The last lock in the video was used for several years to secure about £10,000 of film club equipment, but I can open it in under a minute without any fuss.

If you're interested in learning this I'll happily lend you my picks, but I'd be careful where you take them. Once forum post I read said that the police in the UK take a pretty dim view of people out on the street with a set of picks. You'd need a pretty good reason to have them, otherwise you're probably going to get arrested.

While learning to pick locks, I've seen a lot of information about locksport - competitive lock opening. There's a really big community in the UK, and their core message, which I've seen over and over is that you can only pick locks that you own, and never pick a lock that's in use. The second one is really important - a couple of times I've broken locks while picking them, and you wouldn't want to do that to your front door!

 

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Classified adverts

Friday 29th January 2016

Today I'm starting a new game to see who get the silliest classified advert printed in their local paper. You get double points if anyone actually rings up to buy it.

Here are a few I've placed to get you started.

 

 

 

 

 

Here's a link to the Cornish Guardian classifieds page. Go for it!

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How do casinos make money?

Friday 23rd October 2015

I've been obsessed with poker for about five months now. I've just this week completed my goal of turning an initial £10 stake into £100! There were two things that originally got me interested in it.

Firstly, unlike many other gambling games, it involves a degree of skill. I thought that if I learned the maths and probability behind it, maybe I could do well.

Secondly, playing it in a casino doesn't involve playing against the house. And as we all know, the house always wins. For example Blackjack and Roulette incorporate rules specifically designed to give the casino an edge of the players, and slot machines have a fixed percentage that they return over time.

I didn't really understand how it all worked, so I've done some reading and here's what I've learned. It turns out I was wrong!

 

Blackjack

The house edge in Blackjack comes mostly from the rule that if the player busts then they lose - it doesn't matter if the dealers subsequently busts too. This happens often enough to make a bit of money for the casino every time it does.

This means that even a good Blackjack player will lose on average 1% of the their stake over time, but 1% is pretty good compared to some other casino games.

 

Roulette

In the case of Roulette the house edge comes from the green 0 pocket on the wheel.

Using European Roulette as an example, there are 37 pockets that the ball can fall into. If you put £1 bets on all 37 numbers you'd be guaranteed to win £35 every time the ball rolled, losing you £2 per go. The house edge here is 2.7%.

Or let's say you place £1 on black and £1 on red, so you'll win £2 back most of the time. But every 1 in 37 times (on average) the ball will fall into the 0, so over time you're losing 2.7p each time the ball rolls. The house edge is still 2.7%.

American Roulette has a 0 and a 00 pocket, which increases their edge to 5.3%.

To be honest I don't know why anyone ever plays Roulette, but many people over the years have told me about a mathematically proven system that beats the house.

 

The Martingale System

The idea is simple - you place a bet on red (or black if you prefer) and each time you lose, you double your stake. This is formally named the Martingale System

As an example:

  • I bet £1 on red
  • If red comes up, I've won £1
  • If red doesn't come up, I bet £2 on red next time
  • If red comes up, I've won £1 (£4 in winnings minus £3 in stake)
  • If red doesn't come up, I bet £4 on red next time
  • If red comes up, I've won £1 (£8 in winnings minus £7 in stake)
  • If red doesn't come up, I bet £8 on red next time
  • If red comes up, I've won £1 (£16 in winnings minus £15 in stake)
  • and so on...

Eventually I'm bound to win, because red has to come up at least once!

The first reason this doesn't work is that no matter how much you bet, you only win back your original stake. So you'll need to make your original stake really large.

Say we started off with a £1,000 bet on red, eventually we're going to win back £1,000 when red comes up, even if it takes ten spins. But if it takes ten spins, then by spin ten we're betting £512,000 just to win £1,000! If you've got half a million quid lying around, are you really going to risk all of it to win a grand? And what happens if it takes twenty spins? Pretty unlikely, but you'll need just over £1bn in case it happens.

The second reason this doesn't work is because of the 0. One time in 37 (on average) the little ball is going to fall into the zero pocket and you've got to start all over again. It's pretty unlikely to happen once (2.7% likely in fact), but in our ten-spin example it's not looking good for you.

 

Slot machines

This, I discovered, is where the really big money comes from. Slot machines are programmed to return a fixed percentage back to gamblers over time.

This is typically around 80-90%, but that's over millions of spins, and you're not guaranteed to get anything like that back.

In this example photo that I snapped in a pub the other day, it's 74%. Those are pretty terrible odds.

Taking Nevada in 2009 as an example, poker brings in around 1.6% of the total gaming revenue for the state.

Compare this with 4.7% for Roulette, 13% for Blackjack, and a whopping 51% for slot machines!

So let's avoid those too.


 

Rake

So I started playing poker online, thinking that I was being clever by not having the compete against the house. But pretty quickly I started to wonder how websites like Pokerstars was making money out of all this. And that's when I discovered rake.

Rake is the commission taken by a poker room (real or online) from a game. It ranges from 2.5% to 5% depending on where you play, and is usually expressed in a tournament buy-in as £X + Y where X goes into the prize fund and Y is the rake that the poker room take for organising the tournament.

For example, I entered a 6-handed tournament on Pokerstars last week that was advertised as a $1.50 buy-in (I know, big spender!) which the details listed as $1.40 + $0.10 entry fee, with a prize pool of $8.40. So Pokerstars are making $0.60 each time one of these tournaments start.

To give you an idea of how much money they're making out of this, they recently celebrated their 100 billionth hand, and most of their tournaments cost more than $0.50 to enter. Last year Pokerstars was sold for $4.9 billion in cash.

It turns out that rake is the major factor stopping the average player from winning money at poker. One poker forum post said "rake isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing".

Although it looks like they're giving you free drinks and food, in a live casino you're actually paying something like $15 an hour to play.

Of course you are, and I can't believe I ever thought differently.

Learning this has really changed my opinion of poker - I'd much rather play a home game with some friends, because I know that no-one's taking my money apart from my mates!

 

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Poker Scrabble

Friday 11th September 2015

I'm still obsessed with poker and a bit sad that Kat doesn't enjoy the game at all. It's all about maths and she loves maths! So in an effort to make the game more friendly I've invented Poker Scrabble, hope you like it.

Essentially it's the rules of Texas Hold 'Em but using Scrabble tiles instead of cards. The aim of the game is to make the highest scoring word using your two letter tiles plus five community letters.

To play, you'll need a set of poker chips and a set of Scrabble tiles. Depending on your house rules, you may allow players to look up words in a dictionary before they play, or afterwards.

Structure

The structure of the game follows Texas Hold 'Em exactly.

 

1. Blinds

The player to the left of dealer puts in the small blind, and the next player to the left puts in the big blind.

 

2. Hole tiles

Each player is dealt two letter tiles face down, moving clockwise from the player to the left of the dealer.

Good hole tiles are high value letters. Kat was dealt QI in a match a while ago, which netted her a big pot.

 

3. Pre-flop

The hand begins with a "pre-flop" betting round, beginning with the player to the left of the big blind and continuing clockwise. Betting continues until every player has folded, put in all of their chips, or matched the amount put in by the other active players.

 

4. The Flop

The dealer deals three face-up community letter tiles. The flop is followed by a second betting round. This and all subsequent betting rounds begin with the player to the dealer's left and continue clockwise.

 

5. The Turn

After the flop betting round ends, a single community letter tile is dealt, followed by a third betting round.

 

6. The River

A final single community letter tile is then dealt, followed by a fourth betting round.

 

7. The Showdown

On the showdown, each player plays the highest value valid Scrabble word they can make from the seven tiles comprising his two hole letter tiles and the five community letter tiles.

A player can use both of their two letter tiles, one, or none at all, to form their word. Players who use all seven tiles to make a word get a 50 point bonus.

The player with the highest value word wins the chips and play continues with the dealer moving round one position clockwise.

Kat is annoyingly good at this game.

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Drink driving

Friday 28th August 2015

Having previously said I don't drink, I'm going to see how drunk I can get and still be under the UK alcohol limit. I decided it was a teeny bit unethical to get behind the wheel, so I'm going to test myself on GTA V instead.

I created a simple course that mimics my everyday life. So I'm going to drive from my luxury penthouse apartment to the clothes shop for a new dress, then go for a haircut before driving to the golf course.

But first, Science™. Or if science isn't your thing, just skip to the heading marked Sober.

 

Blood alcohol concentration

When a bottle says that it's 5% or 40% alcohol, that's the amount of the liquid in the bottle which is pure ethanol, the stuff that gets you drunk. So a pint (568mL) of Carlsberg Export at 5% is 28.4mL of ethanol (568 * 5 / 100).

In the UK we use a system called units to make it easier to keep track of what you've drunk. One unit is 10mL of ethanol. So a pint of Carlsberg Export is 2.84 units (28.4 / 10), although it just says 2.8 on the can to avoid confusing drunk people.

Still with me?

Drink drive limits are expressed as the amount of ethanol in a certain amount of blood, or breath. The UK drink drive limit is currently 80mg of ethanol per 100mL of blood (or 35 μg per 100mL of breath). 80mg/100mL is more commonly expressed as 0.08 BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration).

But how much do I need to drink to stay below that?

 

The Widmark method

The generally accepted method for calculating blood alcohol is the Widmark method, which is gives the blood alcohol concentration in g%:

BAC = (0.8 * ethanol in mL * 100) / (weight in Kg * 1000 * gender constant)

The gender constant is 0.68 for men and 0.55 for women and relates to the different amounts of water in the bodies of men and women. Re-arranging this to give me the most I can drink and still be below the UK drink drive limit gives me a wonderfully simple formula:

Ethanol in mL = weight in Kg * gender constant

For me, this is 47.6mL ethanol, which is 4.76 UK units. This is just over a pint and half of Export, or four shots of gin, which is what I'm going to drink.

I know before I even open the bottle that I'm going to be utterly incapable of driving anywhere.

 

Sober

First, I need a benchmark, so I drove the course sober in 5 minutes and 39 seconds.

 

Drunk in the game

If you've played GTA V, you'll know that there are all sorts of ways to get high in the game. As an extra benchmark I wanted to get plastered in the game (still sober in real life) and then drive the same course to see what time I get. The vehicle swerves all over the road after you've had a few and is very hard to control.

The main problem here is that you can't shop or get a haircut while the police are after you, and drink-driving catches their attention pretty quickly.

It didn't end well and no matter how many times I tried, I couldn't get to the golf club without dying. Here's an example.

 

Drunk in real life

To be honest I wasn't looking forward to this, it's definitely one of the worse ideas I've had lately. But here goes.

I drank four shots of gin and a pint of tonic water in ten minutes and then tried to play the game. I got round the course in 7 minutes 12 seconds, but I found it hard to navigate the menus and failed to buy a dress or get a haircut.

There's no way I should be driving in real life. My driving wasn't that bad, I could control the car much easier than being drunk in the game, but I found it very hard to concentrate on playing and keeping the truck on the road. I guess this is why we have drink-drive laws! Apologies for the mumbly, slurred commentary in the video.

 

Want to give it a go?

 

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Playing cards

Friday 7th August 2015

One of my favourite questions is 'how did it come to be like this?'. My recent obsession with playing poker has led me to wonder why the standard 52-card deck looks the way it does, specifically the face cards. Here's what I've discovered.

 

Ante up

Being British I've got a tendency to think that everything was invented here, but playing cards originated in China. As early as the 9th century there are references to a "leaf game", which is about the same time that China invented printing on sheets of paper instead of rolls. Sadly the rules for this game were lost by 1067. Card game enthusiast and sinologist William Henry Wilkinson suggested that the first playing cards may have been paper currency, being the game and the stakes combined. By the 15 century there were four suits to a pack of 38 cards.

These cards made their way to Mamluk in Egypt by the 11th century. The Mamluk deck was 52 cards in four suits (polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups) of 13 cards with three male face cards: king, viceroy and under-deputy. Possibly because of Sunni Islam aniconism, the cards used the words of the titles but didn't include their pictures.

Here is an example of the Mamluk deck, remember these are the front of the cards not the back!

 

Pre-flop

From Egypt, playing cards made their way to southern Europe by the 14th century, and traditional Latin decks still use the same four suits. These were originally made by hand, with the earliest playing card print woodcut dated to 1418. Once print became widespread in Europe there was an increase in variety of different card types created by different manufacturers.

The earliest card game to which the rules are still known is Karnöffel, from what is now Germany in early 15th century, using 48 cards but can be played with a standard 52-card pack with the aces removed. These are some example cards.

It is about this time that the Tarot deck came into existence, with the oldest examples from Italy. I didn't realise that the decks were related, but Tarot cards are based around five suits numbered 1-10 with King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave cards.

As cards spread to Germany the suits changed to Leaves, Hearts, Bells, and Acorns, and included a Queen card for a while. As they spread into France the suits evolved to Clovers (clubs), Tiles (diamonds), Hearts, and Pikes (spades), the Queen was permanently included and the Knight was dropped.

It's the French set that evolved into the standard pack used in most card games today, but there are still different sets which are widely used in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.

 

Post-flop

In France, a number of variants appeared, with the card manufacturers in Paris and Rouen dominating.

The Parisian pattern became predominant in France by 1780, and is known as the portrait officiel. It most commonly has 32 cards (the 2-6 cards are removed) with a 1 instead of an ace. The most interesting feature of this pack is that all the face cards are named: the King and Queen of Hearts are called Charles and Judith, which is nice.

However it was the Rouennais pattern that was exported to Britain starting around 1480. English manufacturers started making their own, and a ban on the import of playing cards in 1628 isolated the designs from the rest of Europe.

James I passed a law requiring a company logo on the Ace of Spades to prove that cards were made in England and tax had been paid. Similar taxes were introduced in other countries, with the ace of clubs being the most elaborate in France, and the ace of diamonds in Russia.

 

Turn

The English cards were of a poor print quality, and so the Rouennais cards lost their detail to become the more familiar stylised representations until Charles Goodall and Son fixed the designs in their current form in the late 19th century.

Reversible cards were patented in the late 18th century. Before then card players had to flip their cards the right way up, which can give a clue to your hand, but it meant losing more detail on the face cards.

Here's Charles growing up:

Indices (the numeric value) on the corners of the cards were introduced in 1874, and it was around this time that the Knave changed to a Jack in English language packs - early indices used Kn for knave but this was too similar to K for king. Similar problems occurred in Latin languages (the words for King and Queen both start R) and  Germanic languages (where they start K).

Rounded corners were introduced to help reduce wear on the edges of the cards, and designs were added to the back of the cards to help discourage writing on the backs and giving away information.

Jokers were introduced by the USA around 1860 as a third trump card to play the game Euchre, and were standardised into the English-language packs.

 

River

Finally, the face cards in a standard pack are facing specific directions and feature specific items. These are great for pub quiz questions:

  • There are 42 eyes shown in a standard pack. The Jack of Spades, the Jack of Hearts and the King of Diamonds are drawn in profile, with only one eye showing.
  • The King of Diamonds (the only king with an axe) and the King of Hearts have their weapons behind their heads and are sometimes called suicide kings
  • The King of Hearts is the only king with both hands showing and without a moustache
  • All three Spades and the Jack of clubs are facing right, the others all face left
  • Jacks have coloured (usually yellow) hair whereas queens and kings have white hair

 

Showdown

The advent of online poker has seriously changed the appearance of cards for the first time in maybe 100 years. There's no longer a requirement for them to be reversible since the computer always deals them the right way up. The indices are generally larger, especially on mobile apps, to make it easier to identify your hand.

But old traditions die hard, and the King of Hearts from Zynga Poker is still a suicide king, although he doesn't have both hands showing.

The most important change is that the players don't need to use the same pack as each other. Sites like PokerStars, below, allow you to optionally use four-colour decks that make it easier to differentiate suits. You can buy these decks for real-life play, but some players find them distracting.

Shame this hand was only for play money:

 

Fancy a game of poker?

 

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Ice cream vans in games

Friday 12th June 2015

Ice cream vans and video games are inseparable. Here's a quick run-down of the history, thanks to YouTube:

 

Twisted Metal - Playstation 1 (1995)   

I believe this is the earliest use of an ice cream van in a game. As far as I can tell, the van had no music. It was driven by a killer clown called Sweet Tooth.

 

Micro Machines 3 - Playstation 1 (1997)   

The ice cream van featured in the track Breakfast at Cherry's, great game but sadly no music.

 

Carmageddon 2 (1998)   

Finally, some music! Another appearance of Sweet Tooth.

    

Grand Theft Auto 2 - Playstation 1 (1999)   

For me, this was the one that started it all. It's the first use of an ice cream van in the GTA series, with a short but catchy tune.

 

GTA 3 - Playstation 2 (2001)   

This is a classic. The van is called Mr. Whoopee and features a single ice cream swirl and a chocolate bar on the roof. The van is slow with bad steering, but that's not why you're driving it. In the mission "I Scream, You Scream" you use the van to lure your opponents to their doom.   

 

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3 - Playstation 2 (2001)   

A bit of a weird, snub-nosed ice cream van, but it features good strong tune so we'll let it go.

 

GTA Vice City - Playstation 2 (2002)   

The return of the Mr Whoopee van, but with ice cream breasts and cherry nips! It features the same tune as in GTA 3, which is slightly disappointing. The "Distribution" mission has you selling drugs to pedestrians.

 

GTA San Andreas - Playstation 2 (2004)   

GTA rules when it comes to ice cream vans. San Andreas saw the return of the truck, named Mr Whoopee sporting a giant willy and new tunes.

 

GTA 4 - Playstation 3 (2008)   

GTA 4 marked a new, more serious era for the series. Gone are the genitals, although it has several different tunes and the faster you drive, the faster the tempo of the music. It still has terrible acceleration and top speed.

 

GTA V - PS3 / PS4 (2014)   

Sadly, GTA V doesn't feature an ice cream van at all! It's been replaced by a Taco van which doesn't have a jingle. It's a sad day for ice cream lovers in Los Santos.

 

WatchDogs - PS4 (2014)   

It looks like Watchdogs has taken the ice cream crown from the GTA series, with a lovely van and nice music.

Today I'm starting an official campaign to make Rockstar Games include ice cream vans in the next version of GTA. I hope I can count on your support.

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Our puzzle room

Friday 27th February 2015

A couple of years ago in Budapest we discovered puzzle rooms. The image above is from Trap which was the first one we did. They're really big in Hungary, and there are now some appearing in London, but we think we've got the only one in the South West Cornwall (I've since discovered one in Bristol).

The idea is pretty simple - lock people in a room with a bunch of puzzles that they have to solve in order to escape. Typically we've had groups of two in the room at a time, but a couple of threes have had a go.

We've made three rooms now, and it's been great fun creating them: past puzzles have included using a telescope to search for a coded message, finding a murderer with Guess Who and defusing a bomb! Below is the fake bomb we created:

It's fascinating to see how people explore the room. Some people try to force open padlocks without even trying to find the combination, some work beautifully as a team, some refuse to ask for any help whatsoever, others obsess over tiny details or red herrings.

Everyone who's had a go at one of our rooms has really enjoyed themselves!

The current room is only available until the end of March and it needs to be dark when you start. There is no time limit, but we'll announce the team with the fastest time after it ends.

To book your turn check out our Facebook page or leave a comment below.

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Custom Monopoly Board

Friday 9th January 2015

When I was 18 I made a custom Monopoly set for my best friend, Jon, called Jonopoly. I butchered an existing Monopoly set from a car boot sale, and printed out new properties out on a cheap black and white dot matrix printer and stuck them onto the board.

I spent hours painstakingly making the game, and I was thrilled when he recently posted some photos of the board, along with a message that I forgot that I'd written on the inside of the lid:

"There's a piece of my soul in this game, so even after I die, I'll still be alive. Please don't throw it away, even if you've forgotten all about me or hate my guts. If we can't keep the good memories what's the point of living? If it's past the 21st October 2014 and you haven't seen me for a while (even if it is because I ran off with your wife) find out where I am and call me - if you read this out I'll forgive anything you've done. See you in the future whatever may be happening. Love from Mat x"

Needless to say we are still in touch, and I haven't run off with his wife (yet).

As is the way of life, these things come full circle.

Some friends gave me a game called Make Your Own Opoly. Remembering Jonopoly, I was excited by the idea of making a version for the sleepy Cornish town where we now live.

However after reading the instructions I was utterly horrified at how much they'd massacred the game. A quick look at TDC Games' website will show you the kind of thing I'm talking about. So I decided I could do it better.

First of all, I bought a 2002 edition Monopoly set from eBay (I love eBay) and discovered that someone had created a Monopoly board template using Adobe Illustrator. I downloaded that, updated the board to the stardard UK format, changed the property names and got the board printed as a 20" square poster by Asda Photo of all places, which cost about £10.

Actually it cost me £20 because I messed up the first one after gluing it to the board. Then I re-created the property cards, community chest and chance cards in Illustrator, and printed them at home.

Finally I designed a new box and had it printed by Asda Photo again (co-incidentally the box template is also 20" wide), cut it out and glued it to the existing box.

Ta da!

Let me know if you'd like me to email you the files you'll need to make your own custom Monopoly board. You'll need Adobe Illustrator to edit them. My guess is that you'll need 5-10 hours spread over a week or so in order to make your own.

What board game would you customise?

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