Inside the world of Strat-O-Matic tournaments

In 1961, a college student named Hal Richman started selling a dice game that purported to simulate baseball. He called it Strat-O-Matic, and since then, through the personal computer revolution and the rise of video game consoles, it has persevered and survived.

The game’s structure is simple. Every player in Major League Baseball has a card with certain outcomes and attributes printed on it, based on his actual performance. Managers playing Strat have precise control of the simulation, from choosing pinch hitters to positioning infielders, to deciding when to send a runner for a critical extra base. To start, they set lineups. Then, for each at bat, they roll three six-sided dice and a 20-sided die, check the dice’s results with the outcomes on the cards, determine the situation in the baseball game, and roll again. Games can be over in fifteen minutes, or they can last an hour, and when they are completed, managers are apt to pore over their scorebooks to relive that clutch double or see where everything fell apart.

Gene Abood is a 44-year-old man wearing navy blue athletic shorts and a navy blue t-shirt with the word “COACH” on the back. As we shake hands, I notice his resemblance to the actor Mark Ruffalo. We’re standing in a Pittsburgh-area Marriott conference room at 8:00 on a Saturday morning in June. There are eleven other men, all of them white, most in shorts and t-shirts, most appearing to be between the ages of 30 and 60, milling about, exchanging pleasantries. They’re here for a Strat tournament that could consume the entire weekend, and Gene has graciously agreed to let me watch over his shoulder on this first day.

Over the phone, Gene told me that he’d first started playing Strat when he was 8 years old, which gives him roughly 36 years of experience. He also made a point of mentioning that the guys who would be at this tournament were a relatively close-knit group, and now that we’re all in the same room, I see it for myself. Richie Wain, a large man in a Pittsburgh Penguins championship t-shirt, has been waiting a long time to crow about the Pens’ recent championship to a Detroit Red Wings fan in the room. Not only has he worn the t-shirt, but he’s brought a homemade three-foot tall replica of the Stanley Cup that he sets on a table in the middle of the room.

This tournament is one of a series across the country run by a company called Star Tournaments. Gene says there are well over 100 regular tournament players. According to the company web site, in January 2010, Star will host the Strat-O-Matic Worlds in Las Vegas at a ranch resort. Here in Pittsburgh, though, there’s a problem: one guy has bailed on the tournament, leaving them with only eleven teams and the prospect of an uneven schedule. Bryan Lewis, the tournament director, has the unenviable task of laying out each of their options for proceeding. Gene stays out of the discussion. Finally, Bryan crosses his arms over his Nyjer Morgan jersey and puts it to a vote. They decide that someone will have a bye for every round they play. It’s less than ideal, but when you’re trying to guarantee every manager at least 21 games over the weekend, compromise is necessary.

Every Star Strat tournament begins with the draft. Instead of managing, say, the Detroit Tigers, each manager drafts a 26-player team and uses that roster for the weekend. The player cards are based on 2008 statistics, so Albert Pujols (.357/.462/.653) and Chipper Jones (.364/.470/.574) invariably go first and second. Gene is picking seventh, so he has no chance at either of them. Instead, he locks down his bullpen with his first two picks, choosing Mariano Rivera, then Grant Balfour. From there, he plucks up Jose Reyes, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Peña for the middle of his lineup.

In real life, the Padres dumped Jody Gerut earlier this season for Tony Gwynn, Jr., a replacement level outfielder. But last year, Gerut hit .296/.351/.494, so he’s Gene’s starting right fielder. The surprise is that he starts ahead of Magglio Ordoñez, who hit .317/.376/.494. Despite the surface statistics, Gerut is simply the better option in the Strat game: he plays better defense, he hits better, and he’s better on the basepaths. According to the Star web site, in five and a half months of tournament drafts, Gerut has been picked, on average, 94th overall, while Ordoñez has been picked, on average, 191st, so Gene is following conventional wisdom by starting the real-life journeyman over the real-life six-time All-Star. To understand why this is so, you need to understand the mechanics of a Strat-O-Matic game.

Say Ordoñez leads off an inning against Brad Lidge. To determine what happens in the at-bat, the player whose team is batting rolls one six-sided red die and two six-sided white dice. The players look at the red die first. If it rolls a 4, 5, or 6, the at-bat takes place on the pitcher’s card. Imagine the red die lands on a 4. The players then look at the 4 column on Lidge’s card, against a righty, because Ordonez bats right-handed. They see the white dice rolled a 10. The result of a 10 in the 4 column on Lidge’s card is a strikeout. If the white dice had rolled an 8, the players would have matched up that result on Lidge’s card and determined that Ordoñez walked.

Now, start the at-bat over and imagine that the red die lands on a 1, 2, or 3. In that case, the at-bat takes place on Ordonez’s card. If it’s a 1, the at bat follows outcomes in the 1 column against a right handed pitcher. So, if the white dice roll an 8, it’s a fly out to center field. If the white dice roll a 10, however, there are more steps to take because the 10 spot on Ordonez’s 1 column is a split result. The player then needs to roll a green twenty-sided die. According to the card, if the die lands on 1-15, it’s a home run, and if it rolls 16-20, it’s just a fly out.

Repeat for every batter.

There are other attributes managers need to balance, including a player’s defensive abilities and baserunning, but the crux of the game is the hitter-pitcher matchup and those clattering dice. There’s an argument to be made that baseball is best understood as a series of probabilities playing themselves out and may as well be the results of cosmic dice throws. In real life, there are an infinite number of outcomes — Randy Johnson can’t hit a pigeon with a fastball in Strat — but only a few of them are common. Strat gives those outcomes concrete probabilities and eliminates the truly bizarre stuff on the outer edges of probability. Strat-O-Matic Jose Canseco won’t see a ball go off his head and over the wall, but he will commit plenty of errors in the field. The key thing to keep in mind when you compare Magglio Ordoñez’s and Jody Gerut’s cards is that they are contextless and must be divorced from what you know about them in real life. Neither player has an All-Star pedigree. Neither has been cast off by the Indians and Pirates. Neither is 30 years old or 33 years old. Neither will get better or worse over time. Their true talent levels are actually knowable because they’re laid out in neat columns on the cards. Whether or not Gerut was truly better than Ordoñez in real life, what matters are the cards. With a little simple math, one can quantify the odds that Gerut or Ordoñez will provide positive outcomes, and Ordoñez has been found wanting.

The draft has all the common trappings of fantasy baseball drafts, from people teasing others about never having heard of a player just chosen, to managers asking for the group to repeat the last few picks, to a leader reminding managers on the clock how much time they have left to choose someone. However, there’s an odd dynamic in the room. These guys know each other, but they’re not all close friends, so the jocular jabs are soft and cautious. They’re going through the rituals of male bonding through the fantasy sports medium, but they’re also sensitive to the different attitudes and humor in the room. The draft takes three hours to complete.

After a short lunch break, Gene’s first series is against Matt Crowley, a younger guy wearing an Indiana University t-shirt and cap. The two men shake hands, then go about arranging their cards and score sheets on the table. In tournament play, players use a dice roller, a small wooden tower through which they drop the dice. Gene and Matt place it directly between them.

Gene is the visitor, so his team bats first. Matt chooses Roy Halladay to be his starting pitcher. Jose Reyes leads off for Gene and singles. At this point, the players pause. Jamey Carroll is coming up to hit, so Matt considers whether or not to play his corners in, but he decides to play them at normal depth. Gene decides he won’t try to hit and run, steal, or bunt. Carroll flies out, then Carlos Peña strikes out. Matt Holliday comes up and doubles to right field. Reyes is such a good runner that, essentially, if Matt wants to throw him out at the plate on a roll of the 20-sided die, he has only a 15 percent chance of getting him out. He declines to throw home, and Reyes scores the first run of the game.

In the bottom half of the first inning, with Matt rolling, Jacoby Ellsbury leads off with a fly out to left field. Brendan Harris then comes up and lands on a number requiring an additional roll from the 20-sided die. If Matt rolls a 1-5, it’s a home run, and if he rolls a 6-20, it’s a double. Matt rolls a three and grins as he marks down Harris’s homer.

Matt pulls away to a 4-2 lead, and in the top of the sixth inning, Gene decides to turn the game over to his bullpen, pinch-hitting for his pitcher with Magglio. I’m sitting directly to his left, watching and taking notes. Gene gets a mischievous smirk on his face, then hands me the dice.

"You roll for me," he says, then leans back to watch. There’s one out, a runner on first, and Maggs is Gene’s best pinch hitter. My palms start sweating instantly. I shouldn’t be feeling this anxious, since none of us has any control over the dice or their outcomes, but I can’t help it. I drop the dice through the roller. The white dice slam against the wood and settle on 10. The red die bounces around and, momentarily, sits on an edge. It looks like it will land on 1. Against a righty, rolling a 1/10 means Magglio has a shot at a home run. Instead, the die rolls over to a 5, which puts the roll on the pitcher’s card. Gene glances at it and sighs.

"That’s a ground ball to second, which is a double play. Inning over," he says.

The next inning, still down 4-2, Jose Reyes leads off. Gene leans forward and drops the dice. It comes up 4-9. With Halladay on the mound, facing the switch-hitting Reyes, that requires Gene to roll the 20-sided die. If he rolls 1-3, it’s a home run. If he rolls 4-20, it’s an easy fly out to right. Gene looks at the green die.

"It’s just a 15 percent chance, right?" I say. "We know exactly what the odds are. You have no control over this."

He drops the die through the roller and it comes out a 3 for a home run to close Matt’s lead to 4-3 in the seventh inning. Gene raises his arms in triumph and laughs.

Gene Abood went on to finish 17-4 in round-robin play. In the elimination round, he was swept by eventual tournament champion Bryan Lewis.

(Originally published July 1, 2009 on The Sporting Blog,