Hand Game

Updated 4/24/08

Investigating the Vagaries of Uncertainty

We live in a world which has as its most dominant feature the uncertainty of future events. Uncertainty is the basis for all neurotic behavior as fear stems from the unpredictably of the future. The point of the game we're going to teach you is to learn something about how to manage yourself in the face of uncertainty. How to intuit some of the structure of uncertainty and influence your future.

The notions of causality and predictability have historically been linked in the concept of cause-and-effect. However, recent advances in the physics of chaos have made it clear that certain types of events are causal AND unpredictable. Further, Chaos Theory is coming to understand that a seemingly tiny change in a chaotic system can have dramatic results in the future direction the system will take. NavaChing has discovered that certain types of 'Games of Chance' native to the Southwest embody this understanding. Gaming reached it highest development among the Indians of North America. It became transcendent and spiritual, figuring prominently in kiva shrines of the Zuni and Hopi, for example. We believe that Hand Game and games like it serve as an excellent device for learning grace in the face of uncertainty. And that success is dependent on the employment of peripheral mental abilities.

Hand Games are a special branch of Indian gaming and are the most widely distributed, having been found among 81 tribes belonging to 28 different linguistic stocks. This extensive distribution may be partially accounted for by the fact that, as they are played entirely by gesture, games can be carried on between individuals who have no common language other than signing.

Indian gaming differs from what we think of as traditional gambling in several respects. First and foremost Indian gaming is an exercise in ongoing perception instead of analysis. Games like chess, where moves can be analyzed and pondered, are rare among Indians. Contests are usually carried out between teams rather than individuals. Contests are much longer in duration, ranging from hours to days, as opposed to, say, Black Jack where a game may be over in seconds. Precise strictures apply as to where, when and how these contests are carried out. The Navaho Shoe Game, for instance, may be played only on a winter night and only in an enclosed space. Contests are complex rather than simple.

We played Shoe Game once in a hogan in Arizona for several hours before we had any inkling of what was going on. The Navahos themselves were hard pressed to explain the rules and scoring. Before the night was over it became apparent than many of the Navahos in attendance didn't fully comprehend all of the subtleties of the game, either. Teams play against each other instead of playing against "odds" as in casino gambling which is designed to eliminate any influence a player may have over the outcome. Indian gaming is just the opposite.

During computer simulations consisting of hundreds of thousands of games, we discovered a remarkable fact about Indian gambling contests. They are scored in such a way as to amplify any ability which can move the contest's outcome away from being random. To explain further: When the odds of a game are 1 to 1 (as in flipping a coin), they are said to be even; or to say it another way, the outcome will be determined randomly. If the odds are 2 to 1 you can expect to win 1/3 of the time. 4 to 1 and you'll win 20 percent of the time, and so on. In Indian gaming the odds are amplified in an amazing way. If you can shift your advantage from 1-1 to 1-1.1 you will win virtually every time. Moving the odds from 1 to 1.02 will make you a successful player. In these contests the tiniest edge translates into concrete results. These Indian games then serve as a dramatic feedback mechanism to demonstrate how small observations and actions can effect and determine the outcome in uncertain situations.

At the hogan in Arizona, after a couple of hours trying to understand the game, we shifted into peripheral awareness and in short order were actively involved in the play. This is also how we realized, twenty-four hours later, that the opposing team had been cheating. Further, we were able to figure out how and when they had done it. Just after we got a good streak going, a spoon and an extra ball appeared out of nowhere, the odds shifted slightly, and they took us to the cleaners. There were also heated arguments in Navaho between competing grandmothers over supposedly inadvertent errors in score keeping. We survived, learned something very valuable about the game, and ourselves, got a deeper look into the subject of peripheral mental abilities, and made it home on twenty bucks.


Hand Game is a simple game--or apparently so--played by two teams and a minimum of equipment:

A) Two sets of 'bones'. Traditionally, 'bones' are made from the shin bone of deer. You can use 1/2" dowels 2" long. AA cell batteries are about ideal size. Each set has one 'marked' bone and one unmarked. Wrap an 1" wide section with string around the middle of the marked bone. Look at the graphic at the top of this page to get an idea of how things should look. Traditionally the bones are white and the string black. What you're trying to achieve is a marking system which allows instant visual identification of the difference between bones.

B) 23 counters or markers of some sort. We usually use short (6-10 inch) sections of willow sticks.

The game, which is really a social and even ceremonial event, begins with the forming of two teams of approximately equal numbers. Teams can be formed:

A) By lot.
B) choose team leaders and have them choose sides.
C) mill around, back and forth, until the teams seem about right.
Teams then assume positions facing one another, the team to the north is designated Night and the other Day.

Each player on each team will then determine what and how much he or she wishes to bet. Bets are made by placing an object (money, food, clothes, anything of value, personal or otherwise) on the ground between the teams. Once a bet has been made, it must be matched by someone on the opposing team before play can commence. When all bets have been made and matched, they are collected and placed in a sack.

Betting is a important part of the game. It means that the player has a stake in the outcome and will be interested and committed. This is the motivational step. It should be understood as a general principle that motivation of any type cannot exist without risk. Find your risk threshold and bet accordingly; the closer to your threshold, the greater your motivation. The greater your motivation the more you'll learn during this experience. A thin but distinct line exists between excitement and anxiety. One of the benefits of the game is finding and respecting this line and noticing how during play you move back and forth across it.

Which team will be the first to "Hold" and which will "Guess" is determined by lot. At this point, before play has begun, the Guessing team will receive two Sticks (counters) from a bundle of 23. Each team will designate a "Banker", someone to hold and manage the team's Sticks.

The Holding team then selects two of its members to be Holders, and the Guessers select one of their teammates to be Guesser. The selection process is up to the respective teams.

The Holders seat themselves side-by-side, facing the opposing Guesser. Each Holder is given two Bones, one marked and the other unmarked, which are concealed, one in each hand. Often the holders have a blanket or cloth across their laps so they can slip their hands underneath to hide the bones. Then both holders remove their hands from under the cover and offer them, knuckles up, for the guesser to contemplate. The bones can be arranged in only one of four patterns; the Guesser indicates by hand gesture the location of the marked bones:

A) Marked bones left. Both marked bones are to the Guesser's left: that is, in the right hands of the Holders. Guesser will point to the left.

B) Marked bones right. Guesser will point to the right.

C) Marked bones inside. Marked bones are in the middle two hands of the Holders. Guesser will hold palm flat and vertical, slicing downward.

D) Marked bones outside. Marked bones are in the outermost hands of the Holders. Guesser will hold palm flat and horizontal.

Once the Guesser 'decides', he/she indicates his/her choice by swiftly extending the arm and hand, making the appropriate gesture. If it gets too confusing, the guesser just touches the hands he/she thinks holds the marked bones.

As play begins, the Holders conceal their bones and then "present" their fists, extended but resting comfortably on their thighs or knees. The Guesser then guesses and the Holders open their fists so the outcome can be seen.

A) If he or she is correct the Holding team relinquishes the bones and the other team becomes Holders.
B) If the Guesser is incorrect the Holding team receives one counter from the bundle and hides the bones for a new guess.

Sticks are distributed from the bundle until they are gone, then teams receive sticks from each other. The team which collects all 23 sticks wins and the contents of the sack are theirs.

A couple other things you should know:

Any Guesser or Holder may be replaced at any point in the game as he/she or the team sees fit.

The Holding team usually sings and sways their hands and bodies. The singing has been described as "well-nigh indescribable." Some of what we heard in the hogan sounded strangely "Hawaiian".

Play is accompanied by high spirits and concentration. Distraction is actively pursued with jokes, ridicule, sudden changes of state and feints.

Hand game can be played with just two players and one set of bones, but a group is much more fun and instructive.

A philosophical introduction to Hand Game:

All religions and belief structures have at their foundation a couple of concepts: retribution and reciprocity. Whichever guides your actions has a tremendous impact on the nature of your life. To believe in retribution is to believe that personal success or failure, reward or loss, is determined by some external power or entity that is pleased or disappointed by your behavior and actions. Central to retributive beliefs are the notions of good and bad, worthy and unworthy. A retributive universe is one which is arbitrary and fickle, and in such a universe the path to fulfillment is to be GOOD. To believe in reciprocity is to believe that the universe simply responds, that it has no choice in the matter. Central to reciprocal beliefs are the notions of understanding and correct action. The path to fulfillment in a reciprocal universe is to be WISE.

It doesn't take much thinking to realize that retributive ideas first appear in childhood, where a child's welfare is determined by what seems to him or her as entirely capricious circumstances. Should this child fail to mature he will carry these magical ideas the rest of his life, be forever dependant and fill the role of a victim. To retain retributive beliefs is to retain the need for a strong parent. As a child matures out of the beliefs of retribution, he encounters a universe which seems to respond to him in peculiar ways. While at first these seem mysterious, his task is to learn the ways of the universe and master the actions necessary to make it respond in a desired manner.

Judeo-Christian religions believe very strongly in retribution. You might think about the Lord's Prayer with the above in mind if you have any doubt. Surprisingly, Indian religions of the Southwest are strongly based in the belief of reciprocity. And so gaming is approached with the idea of skill instead of luck. Gaming gives Native Americans a unique opportunity to practise and expand these skills.

What this all boils down to is the realization that with Retribution supreme power resides external to ones self, while with Reciprocity this power is created internally. During your Hand Game play you will have an opportunity to examine which of these two basic beliefs structures you operate with. Do you believe in luck (being rewarded or punished for your virtue), or do you believe in knowledge and skill? During the Hand Game you'll find out.

The point of Hand Game isn't to win, it's to become proficient at "winning", it's to acquire and demonstrate grace in the face of adversity. One who has achieved such results can enjoy the world and its uncertainty, perceiving it from a state of delight. Competition recently has come to mean being adversarial. Understand that in Hand Game your opponent is really your partner in a dramatic dance of learning. And this learning is very paradoxical. You must care a great deal about the outcome and at the same time not care at all.

Extend no mercy or empathy to your opponents, expect them to be strong and valiant. Push them as hard as you can and hope they will do the same for you. The night of the Shoe Game in Arizona we weren't "cut any slack". They didn't even explain how to play the game. And it wasn't because they were heartless. They understood that for us to learn to play we'd have to PLAY. Jump in with both feet and struggle. It is often out of desperation that we transcend our own stupidity and limitations. Hand Game is a context for all participants to get really "High". There can be moments when you become so clear, centered and certain that you feel as if you are "walking with the gods", touched by divinity and divine yourself. Moments when you can stare into the smokey eyes of uncertainty, discern its structure and order it to your liking. In that instant anxiety is replaced by delight.

Study and practice Stereoscopic Mandalas before gaming to help prepare your mind for play. During the game put into practice everything we've presented in Hawkeen Training. Go for broke!

If the forgoing seemed a little wordy just then adopt Coyote Tactics.

Your task it to create a Hand Game set (bones and markers), round up some friends and learn the game. Begin to master your states of attention, both internal and external states are important in Hand Game. The trick is not to get stuck in either but to continually and fluidly flow back and forth. Begin to think strategically and perceive subtle but telling patterns. The magical power of group cohesion becomes very apparent in Hand Game. Hand Game is best played in the peripheral state.

A good video on contemporary Hand Game:

HAND GAME : The Native North American Game of Power and Chance

For more:

Turbulent Mirror --An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory, by Briggs/Peat, Harper and Row.
Games of the North American Indians, by Stewart Culin, Dover. This is an unabridged reproduction of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, 1902-1903.
Navaho History, edited by Ethelou Yazzie, Navaho Curriculum Center.
"For some players luck itself is an art." from the movie The Color of Money.

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