When 22-year-old Nate Danziger booted up Cordial Minuet, he wasn't sure what to expect. Cordial Minuet, a psychological puzzler from designer Jason Rohrer, asks people to use their own money. You only need a few dollars to start, but it's still real money! Danziger discovered Cordial Minuet because he loved The Castle Doctrine, Rohrer's last game.
"I've never gambled in my life," he told me. "I just saw it as putting $5 into a game that will probably be fun. Didn't really think about it."
Slowly, Danziger turned $5 into $100. Then, over the course of five roller coaster days, he turned $100 into $6,000, thanks to a player who, despite losing over and over, wouldn't stop.
Cordial Minuet is a deceptively simple game. Stephen previously wrote about Cordial Minuet, and I recommend his post for an intimate breakdown. For this story, though, you only need to grasp the basic concepts. In Cordial Minuet, there are six rows and six columns on a creepy board. The numbers add up to 111 in every direction. You choose two columns of numbers, one for yourself and one for your opponent. The other player does the same thing. Where the two columns eventually overlap determines the player's score for that round. Here's an example:
Players go back-and-forth, and you places bets along the way. It's a mind game. You're trying to predict what column the other player is assigning, and vice versa. Individual games last a few minutes, and every bet is coming out of your wallet. Win or lose, it raises the stakes. With the click of a button, players can cash out, and a check arrives in the mail a little while later.
After spending a little time with the game, Danziger picked up the basics. Against skilled players, he won some rounds and lost others. But he quickly picked up on mistakes made by Cordial Minuet newcomers. This sparked an idea. In normal games of skill, such as Dota 2, there are bragging rights for beating the best. That's the incentive. Outside of tournaments, there's no money involved. In every game of Cordial Minuet, however, money is present.
"If I was in a game with a skilled player, I would leave," he said. "There's no penalty for leaving, except for maybe one coin, which is 1/100th of the pot. I could match up with an unskilled player and probably predict a lot of their moves. From there, make a buck or two off them. That's how I made my $100."
Cordial Minuet involves betting, but Danziger doesn't consider it gambling. To someone who doesn't know how to play, though, it might seem that way. The outcome can feel very random.
"The unskilled players seem to inherently think this game is a gambling game, and I totally get why they're confused by that," he said. "They felt like they were making a risk for money, but I felt like I wasn't gambling. I was gaming the system. What happens when you take someone who's not gambling and put them in a game with someone who is gambling? I win every time, basically."
Danziger admitted this felt "kind of evil," but he was making less than minimum wage at the time. Penny by penny, dollar by dollar, he turned $5 into $100. This took time, though, and ultimately really wasn't much money. It was an innocent hobby, even if he felt a little guilty.
Then, he met Judge Doorman. Everything changed.
A New Challenger Approaches
It was early in the morning on New Years Day when he appeared. Danziger was programming for his in-development music game. A bit bored, he had Cordial Minuet running.
"I can't remember how much it was at first," said Danzigerd. "At the time, it was very uncommon to see a $5 game. So I think I saw a $5 game, or I started one, and someone joined. I won."
Most of Danziger's time was spent with unskilled players, but he would occasionally stay with a good one to better understand strategies. This helped him gauge the range of skill in Cordial Minuet. In only a few rounds, he could grasp Judge Doorman was a really bad player. One tell? Like clockwork, Judge Doorman would make the same bet every time, no matter what.
"That just means that 90% of the time, in this game, you're bluffing," he said.
Nothing about Judge Doorman's strategy shifted, and Danziger picked apart his opponent. Soon enough, Danziger was able to reliably predict his next move, which ensured he was coming away the victor nearly every time. What did quickly change, however, was the money.
"We would play a game for $5, I would win," he said. "We would play a game for $10, I would win. He kept doubling it. He kept going back in and doubling the price. This was all right in a row. We just played game after game after game, probably 15 in a row. I won every single one of them."
This lasted an hour. By the end, Danziger had made $400. Judge Doorman ran out of money, and players cannot put more than $500 into their account without proving they're good for it.
"The concern was the potential for stolen credit cards and charge-backs," said Rohrer, the game's creator. "A stranger coming into the game with an unknown card can put money into the game and perhaps withdraw it right away or lose it quickly to other players who could then withdraw it. At that point, the money is gone. If the charges weren't authorized, we'd be stuck with that loss. $500 was the amount of risk that we were willing to accept on behalf of an unknown person with an unknown card. If they want to put more into the game, they have to prove their identity and card validity to us manually by email. $500 may seem like a lot, but we're talking about an extremely rare, hypothetical occurrence here. We're not worried about hundreds of people doing this, but more about how much damage one person could possibly do."
Judge Doorman got in touch with Rohrer, but he had to wait two days. In the meantime, Danziger headed to Cordial Minuet's message boards to relay his experience. He theorized someone had gotten drunk at a New Year's Eve party, came online, and made a big mistake.
"The lesson here is that when you start playing this game, gamble $100's of dollars right away without practicing. That's the kind of high level strategic advice that players like Creature Expression [Editor's Note: He's another really good player.] would never tell your because it's TOO PRO. I made $400 in this game today, which is quite a living wage, meaning that Cordial Minuet is officially an e-sport! Happy New Year!"
Soon, Judge Doorman showed up in the thread, and claimed this was all a wild experiment.
"Anyway, before you sprain your arm patting yourself on your back, I was intentionally playing as poorly as I could to see if I could get a player to play high stakes with me. This was of course before I realized that the $500 cap was not just on a per deposit basis, but total. Anyway, I am neither drunk nor an idiot, just a guy doing an experiment. I will be back on playing high stakes once I get my limit raised. To be clear, I am not claiming I am in anyway good at this game, but you were playing someone that was trying to lose in this instance."
Intrigued but confused, Danziger contacted Judge Doorman. The two exchanged numbers and agreed to keep playing. In Cordial Minuet, you can't join a specific game. In the lobby, tables are listed according to the total money being wagered. But over the phone, one could tell someone they're starting a $50 game, and the other person can hang in the lobby and find the table.
The matches continued. Danziger won, Judge Doorman lost. Some matches were for $500.
As the money added up, his conscience nagged. Danziger was winning fair and square and Judge Doorman was a willing partner, but Danziger was completely destroying him. It wasn't fair. The money Danziger was collecting wasn't simply a few dollars, it was now thousands.
"What I kind of feel a little bit bad about is that I could have told him at any time how to be better at the game," he said. "I could have very easily [helped] in, let's say, two sentences."
During one game, Cordial Minuet suddenly crashed on Judge Doorman, and he lost $40. Danziger offered to hand over the money, but he said no. Danziger proposed returning other sums of money over the course of their matches, and Judge Doorman refused every time.
"I was sitting there for an entire day," he said. "I never looked at this [as] gambling. I looked at it as a game of skill that I knew I was better than him at. I was sitting there telling my roommates 'I'm [playing]. Here's $20, bring me food.' It was weird."
It became too much. After collecting $6,000, he texted Judge Doorman, and told him what he was doing wrong. Pretty quickly, Judge Doorman became a real competitor. The matches were lasting longer, and Danziger wasn't winning nearly as often. He decided to cash out.
"It made me feel very empty at the end of playing—wasting five days of my life in this," he said. "Even though it wasn't wasting—I was getting paid a lot for it—I did feel empty."
Throughout the experience, Danziger puzzled over Judge Doorman's approach.
"I could think of a million explanations for why he was doing what he was doing," he said. "I guess you would have to ask him."
So I did.
The Man Behind The Curtain
Meet 42-year-old Cayce Ullman, a serial software entrepreneur who also goes by Judge Doorman online in Cordial Minuet. Ullman co-created PLEX, the popular media streaming service. He also sold an encrypted email company to Cisco. His career has taken him from startup-to-startup, and most of them have been a success.
He was actually reluctant to talk to me about this, fearing he'd come across as bragging.
"I was a dot com millionaire," he said, with notable tinge of embarrassment.
Ullman doesn't play many games, but like Danziger, he loved Rohrer's The Castle Doctrine, and clocked hundreds of hours with it. He's hired programmers to build a more family-friendly version of the game for mobile, based on The Castle Doctrine's open source code. Besides The Castle Doctrine, the only game he's played in recent years are Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, and FTL. Ullman finds himself attracted to games with high stakes; those games all fit the bill.
"I was an online poker player, back when that was legal," said Ullman, "and I go to Vegas a couple times a year usually. I'm not a stranger to gambling."
As a fan of Rohrer, Ullman was ready for whatever the designer had next. He loaded Cordial Minute on his computer, and looked for games. When a match started, he began clicking.
"When I first started playing it, all the games were 50-cents or a dollar," he said. "The problem is, at that low of stakes, I didn't really care if I won or lost. So I was trying to bait somebody into playing for more. I intentionally lost 10 games in-a-row. I intentionally lost the first $500. To be fair, I didn't know how to play yet, either. I wasn't even interested in learning the game at that low of a number."
As we already know, Danziger took the bait. Matches quickly moved from $5 to $20, $40, $60, $100, and beyond. Ullman was suddenly riveted by the game. It was mutually beneficial.
He stuck to the story from the message boards, too, but it came with an interesting caveat.
"I was playing intentionally bad," he said. "The interesting thing is…when I started playing to win, I wasn't that much better than my intentionally bad self. [laughs]. I play poorly when there's not a reasonable amount of money on the line. I probably should have hung out and played at a lower level and learned how to play the game better. But I was curious to see what happened if I flooded a bunch of money into the game."
What happened was an escalation between Danziger and Ullman, and Danziger won $6,000.
"[Danziger's] been been very friendly," he said. "He's even offered to give me some of the money back, and I said 'oh, no, that's not necessary.' It's been a friendly rivalry. I don't want to sound like a rich jerk. [laughs] I didn't put anymore in than I could afford to lose. There was absolutely no hard feelings there at all. I also wanted to see what would happen to the game. I was curious."
It's ultimately a heartwarming story. Danziger and Ullman have become friends, and Ullman might help fund the music game Danziger's been building the last few years. They've continued to keep in touch. Danziger is going to invest some of his winnings into his game, pick up some shoes, and buy his sister a laptop or TV. She hasn't decided what she wants.
Though Danziger claims to have retired from Cordial Minuet, it's not exactly true.
"I told Judge Doorman I'd play a few more $100 games with him," he said.
Illustration by Jim Cooke