Getting to Stanced

When I worked at Caesars, a group of us (usually 6-8 but sometimes up to 15) would play cards at lunch. Specifically, a game called Big Two.

Big Two

Big Two is a lot of fun – after teaching it to my family, it quickly became our defacto family card game. I won’t go too much into the rules and strategy here, but I thought this writeup did a pretty good job. If you don’t want to read through that right now, here’s a few of the rules and things to keep in mind:

  1. Mostly, Big Two is played with four players, each dealt 13 cards from the deck.
  2. The goal is to get rid of all your cards first.
  3. Each game is played in rounds, where one player declares the type of cards you can play. They’ll declare either singletons, pairs, or five-card poker hands. (Most people allow triples as well, but our house rules did not.) Until that round is over, you can only play the designated type, and it must be greater than what’s in play. For example, if we’re playing singletons and I play the 5 of clubs, you need to play higher than that (and not, say, a 4). Similarly, if I play the 5 of clubs, you cannot play a pair of kings, because it’s singletons. You can play one king if you’d like.
  4. A round ends when every player passes on what’s currently in play (either they choose to, or cannot beat it). The player who played whatever was highest gets to lead the next round and choose the designated type. Usually this is an advantage.
  5. Suits matter. Traditionally, from lowest-to-highest, it’s diamonds-clubs-hearts-spades. At Caesars, we used what’s apparently (according to Wikipedia) the Hawaiian rules: clubs-spades-hearts-diamonds. I’ll refer to the Caesars syntax here.
  6. Twos are high cards. Hence, the 2 of diamonds is the highest card in the game.
  7. With all 52 cards in play, it is a game of total information. You gain an advantage by remembering which cards have been played, in what combinations by which player, and in which scenarios players passed.

Defining Stanced

Due to the combination of a few of those concepts, there exist points in a Big Two game where a player, with 100% mathematical certainty, will win. No matter what specific cards are in the opponents’ hands, this player will win the game – at which point they reveal their cards and show how they will win with certainty. We called that “stanced” at Caesars. Others may have different names for it. I wouldn’t read too much into the name – for all I know it was randomly given by someone in the office (for example, we called the last game “sauce” matches, because before my time the loser used to carry a bottle of hot sauce back up to the office from the cafeteria). 

Not every game can be stanced. Many games will be down to the wire between a few players. Sometimes you catch a lucky break when the player preceding you plays exactly what you needed. It’s a nice dopamine hit. But having a game stanced is one of the most satisfying ways to win, in my opinion. There’s a few reasons why.

  1. Certainty: You have the state of the game secured and pinned down. There’s no need to rely on luck from what others have in their hand, and you’re immune to another player messing up your hand by playing suboptimally.
  2. Suddenness: In most card games, you generally know when the game will end – often there’s a set duration, or it becomes clear someone is about to win (think someone with one card in Uno). In Big Two, that’s not always the case. Stanced wins can come out of nowhere. They can also have a big surprise effect on the other players depending on how closely they were paying attention to others’ hands. It can be really fun to see the reactions from others who thought they were going to win, rendered wrong in an instant.
  3. Difficulty: It’s hard to have the game stanced. But there are levels to stances. You can be stanced with just a single card, and theoretically with all 13 still in your hand. It’s much harder to have the game stanced earlier in the game, with maybe 10 cards, than later with maybe two or three. Getting to stanced with several cards in your hand feels much more rewarding due to the challenge.

Stances outside of Big Two

Stances exist in other games, too. In Freecell, you can achieve a certain game state where a pop-up tells you you’ve won, and can auto-complete the rest of the actions. If you’re playing Hearts and try to shoot the moon (taking every trick with a heart-suited card and the queen of spades), you can achieve a game state where you are guaranteed to win every remaining trick. In Settlers of Catan, you might have 9 of the 10 points required to win and are sufficiently ahead of other players that you’ll be guaranteed to win on your turn regardless of the dice roll or development cards.

You can find stances in sports, too, but they’re not as common – mainly for the certainty and surprise factors. A team with a 99% win probability doesn’t have the game stanced, and usually when that 99% turns to 100% it lacks the surprise factor.

A good example of one that qualifies is in football. Let’s say there is 2:30 remaining in the 4th quarter and a team is leading by 3 points in their own territory and is trying to run down the clock so that their opponents (out of timeouts) won’t have a chance to get the ball back. Their odds of winning the game are pretty good. In these types of spots, the team usually needs one or two first downs to guarantee they can win, by putting themself in a scenario where they can kneel the ball (a riskless play). That’s stanced.

Stances outside of games

Identifying stances in business and life is trickier. In games and sports, you have a clear definition of scope (one game). The real world doesn’t always operate like that. Take Netflix’s stock price for example. Netflix hit a point with its streaming service a decade ago where it locked up dominance in the space. As a result, its stock performed well.

But because it won a previous “round”, it gets to live another day and play again (and again). Years later, there are several major streaming services. Fan favorites like Friends, The Office, and others aren’t actually on Netflix anymore. They’ve mostly been replaced by Netflix-produced items.

Netflix has a treasure trove of data (so they know what audiences like) and big budgets to execute, but it seems to me that those titles’ popularity is more ephemeral than box office hits or syndicated TV shows. That’s one of the reasons that their position is slipping. It’s a fair question whether Netflix will still be the market leader in five years.

Many outcomes in life will depend on other people and are not really eligible for stances. If you make an exceptional case to a landlord that you’re the best applicant for an apartment rental, it’s still out of your control whether you get the place or not. Remember, stances are immune to suboptimal decision-making by others.

Stances vs. Tipping Points

If you’re wondering, how is this different from a tipping point? Well, that’s a fair question. Because based on the first draft of this post, I asked myself why it wasn’t clearer.

Merriam-Webster defines tipping point as “the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place”.

I’ve defined stanced as the point in a game where a player knows with 100% certainty that they’ve won regardless of the contents of other players’ hands or their decision-making. I see two big differences.

  1. The tipping point and stance can be two different times. The tipping point implies that there is now serious momentum for future activity. The stance ends the game immediately. Sometimes they can be the same time. But usually, a tipping point sets up a stance later on.
  2. A tipping point doesn’t need to be known to exist. Stances do. There will often be points in games where the win probabilities of each player will change dramatically, but the players may not be aware. Just because they don’t know doesn’t change the fact that they’re there. Stances, on the other hand, are only effective when the player realizes what they have in front of them. I’ve seen friends play on not realize they have the game won, or worse, play suboptimally and lose what was a sure win.

Why are you telling me this?

I wanted to write about Big Two. I’ll probably reference it and stances in other posts, too.

Stances are fun. It’s not just that you’ve won, it’s how you won.