Catan, Backgammon, Calligraphy, and Basketball

Learning how to play Catan made me a better Backgammon player. I realized that last night when I was playing Backgammon with Lauren. I had a roll of the dice that gave me no choice but to leave one of my pieces exposed. The only choice I had was where to leave it. I could either leave it 8 spots away from the closest threatening piece of hers, or 4. That’s when I thought of the numbers on the Catan board.

Catan board

The numbers on the Catan board are presented as larger or smaller (font size) with a higher or lower number of dots underneath them (between 1 and 5) representing the frequency with which they are expected to be rolled (as the total of two dice). As you can see in the image above, the 6 and the 8 are presented as the largest numbers, each with 5 dots underneath them. That means they are the most common totals to be rolled. To highlight that fact, the 6 and the 8 are further distinguished from all of the other numbers from 2 to 12 in that they are presented in a red font instead of a black font (more on fonts later).

I remembered the red 8 when I had my choice to make in Backgammon, and I remembered the small 4. I didn’t remember how many dots the 4 had, but I knew it was not red, and I knew it was smaller than the 8. So I knew that the odds that Lauren would roll a 4 on her next turn were lower than the odds that she would roll an 8. I left the exposed piece 4 spots away. She rolled. I was safe. I went on to win the game.

Now you might say that I could have made the same move even if I had no familiarity with Catan. You could argue that I should have thought of the probabilities anyway, and that I should have been able to figure out that an 8 is a more likely roll than a 4. You could rightly recite that there are 5 different combinations that can make an 8 (2+6 or 3+5 or 4+4 or 5+3 or 6+2) but only 3 that can make a 4 (1+3 or 2+2 or 3+1). But that takes some time to think about. Moreover, I might not have thought about it at all if my brain hadn’t suddenly gone to Catan.

Catan didn’t just give me a shortcut to figure out which spot had a better probability of being safe. It prompted me to think about that probability in the first place. And yes, you could further argue that I should have been thinking about that regardless. But there is a huge difference between what we should do or could have done and what we actually do or would have done. And in a casual Sunday night game of Backgammon, when I’m just relaxing and not thinking too much about anything, frankly, I’m just not sure I would have thought of it.

Thanks to my limited experience playing Catan, I did think of it. And thanks to that, I thought to write this. It struck me as a simple example of how understanding different disciplines (in this case, different games) can be useful in unexpected ways. It never occurred to me that learning how to play Catan would make me a better Backgammon player, and yet it did. You could even argue it made me a slightly better writer, because it led me to write this, and most people agree the more you write the better you get. My learning how to play Catan even changed your life a little bit because if you're reading this then you're reading this and you would have otherwise been doing something else. Nonetheless, I digress.

The takeaway is that understanding different disciplines can be useful in unexpected ways. More generally, exposing yourself to different experiences can be useful in unexpected ways.

I'll end with this Steve Jobs quote from his famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.

"I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to [do calligraphy]. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful. Historical. Artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture. And I found it fascinating. None of this had any hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.

It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. 

If I had never dropped out [of college], I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs (2005 Stanford Commencement Address)

Oh, and as Steve liked to say, "one more thing" --

This winter, I’ll be coaching a high school basketball team (JV). I’ve never coached a sports team before, and I haven’t played organized ball since I was 17. It might seem random, off-track, and hard to justify. But I was interested. And my gut said go for it. Maybe that’s enough.

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