How to win your White Elephant gift exchange or Yankee Swap

Gaming a Yankee Swap (a.k.a. White Elephant gift exchange) is not easy to do, unless you employ some Ocean’s Eleven tactics. Here’s how it works: Everybody brings a wrapped gift under a certain price and draws a number to determine their order in the gift picking lineup. The first person opens a gift, and every subsequent person picks out a gift and can either swap it for an existing gift or open it. In many variations, only three swaps are allowed.

There’s not much room here to game the system; the only advantage you can really have is going last, because nearly everything is up for grabs, unless a gift has been swapped three times already.

But as FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman noted last year, applying a bit of game theory can help inform your one decision: trade or hold.

Like a card counter noting a card’s value as it’s overturned, a White Elephant gift exchanger gets information as a gift is opened. Though there’s no true benchmark to evaluate a gift (an electric wine bottle opener might be your thing, wasabi-flavored lip balm might not), you can mentally score it to your preferences—say 1 to 10. The idea here is to get an average “expected value”—what your average gift is worth. If there’s a gift that’s worth more to you than the others that is eligible for trade, swap it.

This isn’t much information if the game is small or if most gifts are up for grabs. But there are a few other things to consider.

If there’s a dollar-value recommendation, you could conceivably use it to benchmark expected value. With a $20 value for gifts recommended, seeing five gifts open that are worth $10 would tell you there’s probably a better option wrapped. Similarly, seeing a bunch of spectacular options should tell you the unopened stuff is less likely to be valuable, given a normal distribution around $20.

There’s a few other important things to keep in mind, however. If you have unique or unconventional taste, people may not want to trade with you, leaving the very “you” item you swap for safely yours. And to complicate matters further, even if everyone had the same wants and desires, not everyone will use a system of logic when it comes to determining gifts (almost no one will). And it’s a good thing, too. What fun would that be?

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumerism, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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