Use Game Theory To ‘Win’ A White Elephant Gift Exchange

Use Game Theory To ‘Win’ A White Elephant Gift Exchange

The holidays are about getting the most awesome presents possible — and giving them too, I guess. But if you want to snatch up the best item at a white elephant gift exchange, use this strategy.

Image via NBC Universal.

White elephant, or Yankee swap as it’s known by some and in that one episode of The Office, is a gift-giving game that people play around the holidays. Everyone brings a gift that’s usually held to a certain dollar limit, and each person draws a number at random to determine the playing order. Whoever is first opens a gift of their choice. Then each subsequent player may either open a new gift or steal one that’s already been opened. If your gift gets stolen, you can once again open a gift or steal a different gift. Using game theory, Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight found the best method for “winning” a white elephant in three steps:

  1. As each gift is opened, mentally assign it a value (perhaps a dollar value or a 1-to-5 ranking);
  2. When it’s your turn, average the value of all the opened gifts (whether or not they’re available for stealing);
  3. If there is a stealable gift “worth” at least as much as the average, steal it! Otherwise, open a gift. (Depending on the rules you’re playing by, not every gift might be available for stealing.)

Of course, the catch here is that nobody truly wins at white elephant because all the presents are usually gag gifts or things people brought from home. That said, this scrooge-ish strategy can help you get the least terrible thing there. Happy holidays.

The Ultimate Guide To Winning Your White Elephant Gift Exchange Using Game Theory [FiveThirtyEight]

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