Teeko is a wonderful game, although today is almost forgotten. Too bad. Not only the game is interesting, but also its creator – John Scarne. He was a prominent expert on gaming, gambling, and card manipulations. He knew both the techniques of cheating on mathematical issues related to games. He was earning money as a magician, but because of his extensive knowledge we can call him “The Wizard of Games”.
John Scarne was born Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia (in 1903). He early started to learn sleight of hand, but his devout mother did not want her son to be a typical sharp. She convinced him to practice magic tricks.
Scarne became someone more interesting than a magician or sharp. He wrote guides about gambling and games. He was a hero of numerous articles and interviews. He wrote several books and co-authored many others. He was employed as a consultant for the US military to warn soldiers about the dangers of frauds. In the movie “The Sting” his hands were showed as a Paul Newman’s hands during scenes that involved card manipulations. Scarne was also a technical advisor hired for this movie.
John Scarne and Teeko
John Scarne passion was coming up with new games, which were sold by his company (John Scarne Games, Inc.). The most successful of these games is called Teeko. It was invented in 1945 and improved later. John Scarne was surely very proud of this game. He even named his son as John Teeko Scarne.
Teeko deserves to be called an excellent game. Its rules are simple, and you need only simple board and 8 pieces to play. Despite this, the game has a complex strategy. So complex you can write books about it (John Scarne wrote one book titled Scarne on Teeko, released in 1955).
Teeko gained some popularity in the 50s and 60s. Scarne was quite good in promoting this new mental entertainment by encouraging celebrities to play. Apparently, Orson Welles played this game. Teeko was known in the US and in Latin American countries. Several players associations arose and some tournaments were organized. Scarne even promised $1,000 to the person who will be able to win with him. Several well-known players have tried, like draught-player Tommy Wiswell or chess grandmaster Larry Evans. But no one was able to defeat John Scarne.
Today this game is almost forgotten. Perhaps it’s a result of water damage in the warehouse used by John Scarne Games, which eliminated many Teeko sets before going on sale. From time to time in books or newspapers, some authors write about Teeko and John Scarne. Maybe this game will revive one day? If we want this to happen, we need to remember the rules of the game :-).
Teeko – rules of the game
Board and pieces
To play Teeko you need a board like this in the image below. It consists of 25 circular fields connected with horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The image below shows the traditional version of the board as designed by John Scarne.
In addition, you need 4 black pieces and 4 red pieces to play. In Teeko pieces are called markers.
Phase I of the play – placing pieces
At the beginning of the game, there are no pieces on the board. Players draw lots to determine who plays the opening move (this player usually plays with black pieces). After the opening move, players take turns alternately.
In the first phase of the game players only put pieces (markers) on the board. One marker can stand on one field. When this phase comes to an end, there are 8 pieces on the board – 4 black and 4 red.
It’s possible to win a game in this phase but usually, this does not occur. If no player wins, the game moves on to the second phase.
The image below shows one possible position after completion of the first phase.
Phase II of the play – moving pieces
When all the pieces are on the board, players make moves. In one turn, you can move one piece (Marker) to the adjacent free field. The move can be made vertically, horizontally or diagonally (over one of the lines connecting fields).
The image below shows possible moves.
Note: the picture above shows only two pieces as examples, but during the second phase of a normal game there are always 8 markers on the board (there is no capturing in Teeko).
There is no possibility to pass a move.
The aim of the game
The aim of the game is to arrange markers to form a winning position (so-called Teeko). There are 44 possible winning positions divided into 4 groups – vertical lines, horizontal lines, diagonal lines, and squares.
A vertical line is formed by 4 markers of the same color arranged in a row running up or down. Below you can see two examples of vertical lines. On the left image the line is formed by red markers and on the right image, the line is formed with black pieces. In Teeko there are 10 possible vertical lines.
A horizontal line is formed by 4 markers of the same color arranged in a row running from left to right. Below you can see two examples of horizontal lines. On the left image the horizontal line is formed with red markers and on the right image horizontal line is formed with black pieces. In Teeko there are 10 possible horizontal lines.
A diagonal line is formed by 4 pieces of the same color arranged in a row running diagonally right to left or diagonally left to right. Below you can see two examples of diagonal lines. On the left image the diagonal line is formed with red markers and on the right picture diagonal line is formed with black markers. In Teeko there are 8 possible diagonal lines.
Square is formed by 4 markers of the same color located on the 4 adjacent fields forming a square. Two examples are shown below. On the left image, the square is formed with red markers and on the right image with black markers. In Teeko there are 16 possible squares.
You can win the game in phase I or in phase II.
I described only one basic variant of Teeko, but John Scarne developed 16 variants of the game. Teeko Advanced is especially interesting. I wrote a separate article on it.
Teeko as a perfect game
American computer scientist Guy Lewis Steele “solved” the game of Teeko via computer. He showed that if both players will play wisely the game will end in a draw. Unfortunately, when it comes to Teeko Advanced, a player who plays first has a slight advantage. Most of 16 variants of Teeko leads to a draw if players play perfectly.
John Scarne had ambitions to make Teeko a serious mind sport like chess or checkers. For this reason, he developed a set of rules that can be used to play the game in tournaments. These rules were described in a booklet attached to original game sets. Here are the rules.
- Touching a marker (a piece) causes an obligation to play with this marker.
- It is not allowed to take a piece back if it was once moved to a circle.
- If players or a player are moving their pieces in such manner as to indicate a deadlock, either player may call for a 30 move limit to be counted from the point at which notice was given. If no one wins a game at the end of 30 moves, the game ends in a draw.
- The player has 5 minutes to make a move.
- The match should consist of even number of games so that each player have opening move the same number of times.
Classic Teeko board is quite complicated. In practice, you can use any board with 25 fields arranged in a 5×5 square.
Note that simplified Teeko board is similar to the Seega board. So if you have a set to play Seega you can also play in Teeko (using only 8 pieces as markers).
This simplified board may be even chequered. Some people play Teeko using draughts (checkers) sets, previously covering part of the board to expose only 5×5 square. This cheap and simple solution is presented in the image below. I used a set for international draughts (with 10×10 board). The board is folded in half and some fields were covered with a sheet of paper.
Believe me! Teeko is a fascinating game. It should be revived, and to achieve this there must be people who love to play Teeko.
Read my articles on similar games:
2 thoughts on “Teeko – a game and a masterpiece of John Scarne, the Wizard of Games”
Nice article and photos. I ordered two custom made Teeko boards from Coloradowoodworker on Etsy, one with a 5×5 grid, and one with a 4×4 grid for playing Teeko Junior with my 5 year old daughter, who loves playing. I use original Teeko markers, which give the play a vintage, fun feel. I agree that the game is underappreciated. I actually get a kick out of Scarne’s self-promotion of the game. Thanks again.
Wow! I’m glad to hear this!
I persuaded one teacher to introduce 4×4 Teeko to primary school. But I have no Idea that someone from other part of the world tried this with his daughter. Cool! 🙂