Beer, Friends, and Math Facts

Keystone Bar, San Francisco

…and then 100 divided by 2 is 50.

It’s not often that a statement like the one above results in “oohs” and “aahs” from a rowdy table in a downtown bar. But, its not often people stumble across the subtly addictive game called Albert’s Insomnia. Using the cards 3, 7, 8, and 10, it was my turn to create an answer for “50”. We had started at 1. In our adult version, we were playing with square/cube roots and factorial.

Three beers in I came up with: 10^sq. rt(7–3) divided by cube rt 8.

One of the ways to play Albert’s Insomnia is to play as a group with 4 cards dealt out. The yellow cards have numbers 1 to 4. The blue cards 5 to 8. The green cards 9 to 12. When I play, I deal out two yellows, one blue and one green. For younger children you would only deal out yellow cards and perhaps even six of them — to give children more option to construct their target numbers.

I stumbled upon this game a few years ago, and yes, I have suffered — thankfully — from bouts of number insomnia many, many times. The creator of the game is Rick Buchner from Georgia. Like all wonderful things in life that have a permanence and time less quality, Albert’s Insomnia is a simple pleasure. I have played Albert’s in various places and situations — at math conferences, at Family Math Nights, classrooms, kitchen tables and now bars.

Math Recess

There is an embedded philosophy in math education now — let mathematics serve the conversation; NOT the conversation serve mathematics. In Albert’s Insomnia, the critical mathematics underpins not only the peer-to-peer conversation, but it underlays the foundation of mathematics — number sense, recall, fluency, and automaticity.

However, Albert’s Insomnia goes right back to the roots of math foundation. The simple cobbling together of numbers and operations to create a question is really what is at the heart of Albert’s Insomnia.

Students are not so much giving answers, they are creating questions to an answer. Not only is this a richer task, but it is the historic foundation of all mathematical thinking.

For example, let’s say a target number is **unsuccessful** by a player. While they might not have gotten the answer, they will have used the cards in many other ways to create other answers. Even in **failure** there is success. This is a communal learning game, where listening to previous responses might help you.

Family Math Night, Toronto
Mac and Cheese + Albert’s Insomnia = Comfort Food…and Thinking

The game, because of its structural simplicity of just cards, lends itself to an intimate huddle of participants, who are teeming with energy and excitement with the addictive gameplay. At my Family Math Nights, it is easily one of the most popular table — parents are often standing and hovering over the cards, showcasing a happy restlessness.

In a previous blog, I wrote about Mathematics: Just Play. And that the deepest and most satisfying learning will happen through play — not through memorization or perfunctory tasks. And, with play comes a critical piece that is mostly absent with any other frameworks of learning.

Play involves socialization. Socialization is the gateway to richer human connections/friendships.

One of the participants at the Keystone bar was an art teacher. He was also attending the California STEAM 2017 Conference in San Francisco. He just came with his “math friends” to have some beers. After I made “50”, it was his turn to make “51”. He had been thinking about it for 15 minutes, glued to the cards, purposefully sipping his beer.(note: I do not think his number is possible. Is it??)

He also admitted to being math-phobic. 30 minutes into the game, he was glued. Not only was he giving correct answers to his target numbers, he was trying to be creative with his responses.

The power of the game is amplified when paired with elements that bring out positive association — snacks, drinks…laughter.

I have seen my own son spit out chunks of ice cream with excitement in getting an elusive target number. In fact, on a road trip to Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, we were all stumped with “79”. The numbers were 3, 4, 6, and 11. The 5 hour car trip from San Francisco flew by as all of us were trying to crack this mathematical nut. And then, 20 minutes outside of Los Angeles, my nephew said “I GOT IT!”.

The answer is…No. You try it. I will give you the gift of insomnia.

There is so much focus — and rightfully so — about children developing fluency with math facts at an early age. Through this game alone, my kids know their factorial numbers up to 6!, square roots, cube roots and primes(they bemoan getting them as target numbers…:)

They also have so many wonderful memories of eating popcorn, hanging with their cousins, and yes, spitting out rocky road ice cream.

Me? All of the above and fuzzy memories of numbers blurring out because of beer with a bunch of new friends.




Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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