Recently my attention was drawn to an ingenious deviant of Christmas party game, known as a White Elephant Gift Exchange. In a similar vein to a Secret Santa format (party variant), all guests bring a gift to the party, and then each guest individually (by way of assigning numbers and drawing lots) gets to open one gift that he/she can choose from the pile of other gifts.  The guests agree beforehand to respect certain budgetary (and sometimes thematic) criteria. The novelty arises in that when it is a guests turn to open a present, he or she also has the option to simply take a present that has already been opened instead. Yes, you get to steal presents from people who have already opened theirs. If you like the look of something that has been opened, you can simply bide your time and wait for your turn in order to steal it. Once you steal someone’s gift, they have the option of either opening another package or stealing someone else’s (they cannot immediately steal back ‘their’ gift that you have just stolen, but this can occur later). Thus this chain of treachery, jealousy and confusion continues until the last gift is opened and no more stealing is possible. In ending up with the best gift of all, a White Elephant Gift Exchange offers the distinct possibility of fulfilling the childhood dream of actually winning Christmas. This post will go some way to explaining my thoughts on how to achieve this. As always, I assume the worst in human nature.

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From a theoretical perspective, there are two considerations, ranked as follows:

1)      The quality of the gift you leave the party with.

2)      Your enjoyment in watching other guests steal each other’s presents.

Since it is a game, a lot of the fun is in taking part, yet really the most important part of any game will be in the winning. In this case, winning would involve getting a present that you really like, or (if you are a particularly spiteful person), getting the best present available, regardless of whether you actually wanted it or not. In any case, the behaviour of other guests is also a consideration and it would be preferable from an entertainment point of view for there to be as much skulduggery as possible, and preferably without affecting your pursuit of your desired Christmas gift.

So, with these two goals in mind, a strategy is needed in order to maximise the potential to achieve both. Again, looking at the game from a theoretical view, there are two ways in which an individual can affect the game from the outset:

  • Before the game: Choice of present you bring.
  • During the game when your number is drawn: whether to unwrap, or steal.

An overlooked strategy for success in winning Christmas during a white elephant game is our personal choice of present brought to the table. Remember this can occur long before the game, and therefore there are no excuses for overlooking the importance. The obvious strategy here would be to buy something shite or embarrassing, wrap it up, and bring it along. Someone opens it on the night, wow they are embarrassed, there is laughter for 30 seconds, the game moves on to the next person. No one will steal your shite present from the person who opened it, and you have not really added to the game. Nor will you have furthered your aim of winning Christmas.

I would argue here that an optimal strategy is buying (within the specified game rules) an exceptional present, one that takes into account the preferences of those in attendance, with the knowledge that most would want it. This scenario would guarantee multiple steals, and ensure tension throughout the remainder of the game. Not only that, but if done well, it could distract the majority of guests from following and possibly curbing your pursuit of a desired present. Let them fight over your trinket, while you covertly manoeuvre your way to glory. Therefore it is apparent that plenty can be done before the game begins to ensure a rich bounty come the end of a  white elephant exchange.

This manoeuvring is easier said than done however. The game can be won and lost through poor decision making when it comes to your turn. Choosing to unwrap a gift will yield one of two outcomes: a good gift, or a bad one. If it is a good one, it will be stolen almost immediately. If it is a bad one, you will be stuck with it forever. My recommendation here would be to steal the best available unwrapped present at the time, even if you do not want it. The rationale would be that even if you do not want it, someone will, and will steal it from you eventually. When this occurs you will get to choose again, possibly from a greater selection of unwrapped presents, and just possibly there will be something available that you really want. The point here is that if you steal, people are more likely to steal from you, and if this occurs, you will get to choose more often. With patience, you will get to the gift that your heart desires.

Luck does enter the game at various points. The order in which guests take their turn to receive a present is completely random, and it really does not pay to be drawn early, as there will not be many stealable gifts to choose from, and the eyes of the guests will be around you, resolving to steal anything of even remote quality. Of course, this will just lead to more opportunities or you to observe the possessions of all around you, and plunder the best. The strategy I have laid out here will not win you friends, nor earn you invites for next year’s party. All it can give you is the chance for victory, on this most holy of occasions.  Only with such a strategy can one hope to tame the white elephant. Only with such a strategy can one have the chance to win Christmas, once and for all.

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