Festive spins

Spin the dreidel to win!

Is there anything more closely associated with gambling than spinning? From online casino video slots to roulette, nothing gets a person in a betting mood like a spinning wheel, reel – or dreidel! We just passed that time of year when not only Christmas but also Hanukkah has come and gone, and Jewish families enjoyed festive games. This includes the obligatory gambling game called dreidel – a game so simple you might think you’d get bored after a few spins, but there are some jazzed up versions to add a little interest. 

Holy legend

So what is a dreidel? It’s is a four-sided teetotum, or spinning top, with a different Hebrew letter marked on each side. The letters are nun, gimel, hay and shin. According to legend, the tradition of playing dreidel on Hanukkah arose during the time of the Maccabees. The Maccabees were freedom fighters against the Greek occupiers of the time. Because of the conflict, Jewish children were forbidden from studying the Torah. Of course, they defied the decree and went on studying no matter what.

The letters on the dreidel stand for a phrase in Hebrew meaning “A Great Miracle Happened There”, with “There” meaning the land of Israel. The miracle took place after the Temple in Jerusalem was liberated by the Maccabees. There was only enough pure oil to light the temple lamp for one day – but the oil lasted eight days. In Israel, the dreidel spells out “A Great Miracle Happened Here” instead.

Pot of gold

Gelt to gamble with at Hanukkah

To play, first all the items in the “ante” — from small objects like chocolate gold coins to real money – are divided among the players. Then everyone takes turns to spin the dreidel. Highest spin goes first (the symbols score from Nun, highest value, to Gimel, Heh and Shin). Then everyone puts one token into the pot and play proceeds clockwise. What happens depends on what letter comes up on the dreidel:

Nun – nada, pass to the left. is facing up, the player does nothing. The person to the left spins.

Gimel – the player takes the whole pot and everyone puts another token in the pot.

Hay – the player gets half the pot, rounded up.

Shin – the player has to put another token in the pot.

Play stops at either sunrise, when the tokens run out, or the players have had enough – whichever comes first!

From poker to the Major League

Let’s face it, there’s only so many times you can spin a dreidel before you admit that you’re bored. To put a new spin on the game, entrepreneur Jennie Rivlin Roberts invented No Limit Texas Dreidel, a combination of the traditional dreidel game with no limit Texas Hold’em poker. Players spin the dreidel twice in their shaker and don’t show anyone the results. Then they take the letters on the dreidels and combine them with three “community spins” to form a poker hand. Betting takes place in rounds according to regular poker betting rules. Chocolate coins called “gelt” are the traditional wager but there’s no law against using real money!

Another twist happened when Eric Pavony came up with Major League Dreidel, a revampled version of the game where dreidel spinners compete against each other to see who can spin that teetotum the longest. He also developed a special stadium for the dreidel called a Spinagogue. It’s shaped like a Star of David and gives players the chance to show off their spinning chops.

“Spinning a dreidel takes skill,” Pavony is quoted as saying in an article by Civilized Life. “It’s harder than it seems. If you hit the walls of the spin zone, then it’ll drastically reduce your momentum and therefore reduce your spin time, so it becomes as much a game of precision and finesse as it is about power.”

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