Toy Story: Catching Up with Howard Wexler, Inventor of the Classic Game Connect 4 (2023)

By Ryan Stellabotte onFeatures, Fordham Magazine

In the summer of 1969, Howard Wexler called a time-out. He was in his early 30s, living in a high-rise Manhattan apartment near Lincoln Center. He’d been a social worker, a teacher, and a school psychologist in New York City and on Long Island for nearly a decade. And for the past year, he’d been taking courses in a doctoral program at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education. But he was dissatisfied at work and unsure of his next move.

He had come a long way from his early days as a self-described “street kid” and “shop student” on the Lower East Side, where he struggled with learning difficulties and unsympathetic teachers. “I thought I was just dumb,” he says. But he persevered. He made the Seward Park High School basketball team, which boosted his confidence. And he started to hang out with “a bunch of smart kids who were on their way to college. I made up my mind I wanted to stay with them, compete with them.”

He did, and it was in a psychology course in a City College evening program that he first learned of the mysterious condition that made spelling and reading so difficult for him. He began to understand that his struggles had nothing to do with the quality of his mind.

“There it was in the textbook,” he says, “and I thought, jeez, if that’s the definition of dyslexia, that’s me.”

In his career as a teacher and school psychologist, he sought to give students the kind of support he wished he had received as a kid. “I loved the children,” he wrote recently in a privately published memoir, “but disliked many of the teachers and administrators. Worst of all were the politics,” which made him want to leave his job in the school system. But what to do? Where else would he find worthwhile work?

“When you feel you are worthy of love you are invincible.”

Wexler wasn’t sure where he would go next, but he felt a Ph.D. would help him get there. So he continued working on his dissertation at Fordham, a study to determine the effectiveness of “a particular method of positive reinforcement” on students at nearby Haaren High School, where he was teaching.

“My theory was that if you love them, they’re going to do better in school,” he says. “They were all delinquent-type kids—didn’t come to school, their grades were poor. I would write them what was in essence a love note every day they came to school. Maybe I wrote a joke or some words of encouragement. Would their grades improve because of this encouragement that I was giving them? It turned out very positive.”

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While he was completing his dissertation for a doctorate in educational psychology, which he earned in 1971, Wexler happened to read an article about the psychology that goes into making toys.

Something clicked. “I thought, I’ve always loved toys, and as a kid, I was always inquisitive about how things work. I would come up with different ways of doing things,” he says, citing model airplane kits, for example. Instead of following the instructions, which he found difficult to read, he would use the pieces of balsa wood to build a house or boat or some other contraption that pleased him.

“So I set out during the summer to see if I could invent,” he says. He conceived and built about a dozen working toys and prototypes for games—some educational, some just fun—and licensed three of them to Pressman Toys. He felt he’d found a new calling, though it didn’t carry with it the job security he had as a school psychologist.

“Everybody said to me, ‘Howard, if you want to invent, why not open up an office as a psychologist and invent on the side.’ I said, ‘No. If you really want to do something, you’ve got to do it with a full heart or else you’re never going to be successful.’”

He worked at Pressman Toys for a few months, during which time he went to his first Toy Fair, the annual industry event in New York City, and realized he needed to be at a bigger company. “I was alone” on Pressman’s creative team, he says, “and I wasn’t really learning anything.” So he pitched himself to Hasbro, leveraging his Ph.D. in educational psychology to land a job as a product manager in the company’s marketing department.

“When you think about it, that’s the time to do it.”

A 1971 Hasbro newsletter touted him as “the only child psychologist in the country associated with a major toy manufacturer.” During a two-year stint with the company, he invented and helped market a line of toys endorsed by Bob Keeshan, UGE ’51, the creator and host of the long-running CBS children’s show Captain Kangaroo.

“The thing that was interesting about Bob Keeshan,” Wexler says, is that “he rarely endorsed toys, because he felt it was a child’s imagination that was important. He hated automatic-running toys. I convinced him to license an old-fashioned wooden toy line I had created.”

Captain Kangaroo Wooden Toys (Illustration by Adele Schnapp courtesy of Howard Wexler)

Wexler has posted a 10-minute video on his website showing the two Fordham grads (Keeshan had attended Fordham’s Undergraduate School of Education) describing the new product line and the process of working together.

It’s clear in the video that Keeshan and Wexler were simpatico. In character as Captain Kangaroo, wearing his signature red blazer with white piping, Keeshan introduces Wexler as an educational psychologist who brings “tremendous formal background” and “a great understanding and a great compassion to his work,” adding that he “not only understands young people but he really feels very strongly about what should be given to young people to play with.”

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That concern is evident in Wexler’s other major project for Hasbro at the time, the groundbreaking Your Baby Growing to Meet the World, which he describes as the first comprehensive line of developmental toys for infants, and his proudest achievement.

“I had the idea to take two years of a baby’s life and divide it. The first three months, there were certain skills that the baby had, so I would invent toys based on the most current research findings to enhance those skills. Then, for the next three-month stage, I would invent toys, and so on,” he says. “I wrote a pamphlet that went inside each toy and that told about the stage of the baby’s development and how to use the toy.”

Congress had recently passed the Child Protection and Toy Safety Act, and Wexler was a stickler for safety in the construction of the toys. “I got the manufacturing team completely nuts at Hasbro because I was so safety conscious,” he says, citing Terry Teddy as an example. “Up until that time, teddy bears had little pieces of foam inside. I was concerned that if they ripped open, the baby would swallow one of those pieces,” he says. “This bear has one complete block of foam inside.”

Terry Teddy (center) was one of a series of developmental toys for infants that Wexler created for Hasbro during the early 1970s. (Illustration by Adele Schnapp courtesy of Howard Wexler)

While creating the Your Baby line, he had an insight that in a way prefigured how he’d eventually come to invent one of the world’s most enduringly popular games. It had to do with perspective.

“If you went into a nursery in 1970, you’d see a mobile above the baby’s crib—a flat picture of Dumbo or Pinocchio or whoever you want—and everybody says, ‘Oh, what a lovely mobile.’ But the baby looks up and sees the edge of a piece of cardboard,” he says. “I changed that [by designing three-dimensional mobiles]. To me it was just common sense.”

“Thinking can be fun … and it’s good for you.”

After two years at Hasbro, Wexler wanted to focus more on the process of inventing, so he struck out on his own, initially focusing on games. “Lots of people who become independent inventors come from a background of either drafting or engineering. I didn’t have any of that,” he says. But he had plenty of ideas—and moxie.

“I made up my mind that I wanted to invent the best strategy game ever. Weeks went by, nothing happened,” he says, explaining that the process of inventing is not about the proverbial light bulb going off but about hard work, trial and error. “Then one day I thought, all games play on a horizontal plane. What if I invented a game that played on a vertical plane? As soon as I made that connection, Connect 4 was born.”

He used a series of transparent tubes and two sets of ping pong balls to develop the idea, and eventually settled on what he calls “the magic number,” a seven-by-six grid, with each player taking turns in an attempt to connect four checkers in a row—either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally—while preventing their opponent from doing so.

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The original packaging for Connect Four, the “vertical checkers game,” signed by the game’s inventor, Howard Wexler. The name of the game was later changed to Connect 4. (Courtesy of Howard Wexler)

“The thing that intrigues me to this day, not being a mathematician, is that you would think a grid that has 42 spaces would stalemate often, but it doesn’t,” he says. “And that was my greatest fear. If it stalemated, I didn’t have a game, because you won’t want to play something and then say, ‘Oh, jeez, there’s no winner.’ How are you going to play a game that has no winner?”

He invented the game in 1973, and it hit the market the following year but didn’t take off until 1978 or so, he says. And initially it was a bit of a tough sell.

“I showed it to Dick Harris from Milton Bradley, and he passed,” Wexler recalls. “At least nine other companies passed on Connect 4. Dick Harris came by again, and I said, ‘Here’s Connect 4,’ and he says, ‘Howard, you showed me the damn thing before.’ I said, ‘You’re missing out on something here. It’s a good game.’ And he goes, ‘You know, you’re annoying me so much that since we make checkers, I’m going to take it and see if they’ll make it.’

“They put it in the back of their catalog as a ‘vertical checkers game,’” Wexler says, and “somehow, by word of mouth, people started to play the game and liked it. When [Milton Bradley] started advertising it on television, it really took off.”

“To be successful you have to be ready for success.”

Indeed, the late 1970s TV commercial helped make the game a pop-cultural icon. In it, a girl drops the winning piece and declares victory. “Where?” asks her brother. “Here, diagonally,” she shows him. Deflated, he concedes, “Pret-ty sneaky, sis,” then the checkers crash to the table.

Connect 4 continues to sell millions of units each year for Hasbro, which acquired Milton Bradley in 1984. Some things have changed—the color of the discs and grid, for example, and the spelling of the name
(it was originally Connect Four). The game has also been produced in various sizes and formats, including electronic versions, but Wexler’s favorite remains the original.

“When I invented it, I did it for ages 7 and up,” he says. But he came to realize that the release mechanism appeals to younger kids, most of whom don’t think much about strategy. “They just enjoy putting down the checkers. It sounds nice and it pops a little, and at the end, they release all these checkers. In education, we would call that ‘fill and spill,’ the way little babies play, building up blocks and knocking them down. They love that.”

And it’s not just for kids, of course. In the late 1990s, Connect 4 was popular in the New York Yankees clubhouse, with both Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius each claiming to be the best at it. “You think this is a kids’ game?” Brosius told Yankees announcer Michael Kay, FCRH ’82. “Maybe for kids, but for us, this is the real thing.”

Wexler says people have told him stories about doctors advising elderly patients to play the game to stay sharp. “Now I have a game that begins at 3 years old and ends at 90-plus,” he says. “It’s an inventor’s dream.”

Wexler turned 80 last fall. He’s essentially retired after inventing and licensing more than 120 toys and games during the past five decades. He occasionally speaks to young people, sharing the story of his struggles with dyslexia and how he overcomes them. And his partner, Nancee Hwa, helped him build a website documenting his career and also designed his two self-published books, Welcome to My Life, a memoir, and Welcome to My Mind, a collection of his poetry, drawings, and epigrams (including the ones used as subheadings in this story). He’s also been working with his sons—Jonathan, an actor, and David, a filmmaker.

“He’s an endlessly creative person to this day,” David says. “We refocused him at 80 to get back in business because he has such a wealth of knowledge, and it’s really fun to be in the studio with him.”

Working with a Brooklyn-based company named Dovetail, David has brought six of his father’s earliest strategy games—including Switch, 3-Up, and Advance—back on the market. They were released last fall in coffee-table editions, with high-quality game pieces.

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“Where you are is where life is.”

For 45 years now, Wexler has been extolling the virtues of his most popular invention, but perhaps the one virtue he values above all is the game’s ability to bring people together.

“We lose something when we don’t allow kids to socialize,” he once told an interviewer. “When they played these board games, they really looked right across at their opponent and they had a personal feeling about them.”

Howard Wexler in his home studio, March 2018 (Photo by Bud Glick)

Three years ago, he and Hwa came across a story in The New York Times about a young man named Thomas C. Knox who had been trying to bring some of that spirit to his fellow New Yorkers. He put a small table on a busy subway platform, set a flower in an empty Coca-Cola bottle on top of the table, and invited strangers to join him in conversation while playing a game of Connect 4. He called it “Date While You Wait.”

“You would think that it’s a date that he’s after. It’s not,” Wexler says. “It just means, let’s talk about you, whatever’s on your mind. And let’s play Connect 4, but we could talk while we’re playing.” After reading the article, Wexler joined Knox for a game and conversation in the 34th Street subway station. “It was great,” Knox told the Huffington Post, “because if it wasn’t for him [and Connect 4], I don’t think ‘Date While You Wait’ would be as cool.”

Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Ph.D., who was Wexler’s mentor and dissertation adviser at Fordham nearly 50 years ago, says “the core of Howard was always so concerned about people caring for each other.” She remains impressed by his doctoral work.

“He really understood that just a little note from a teacher might make a huge difference in a student’s life, especially students who had come from backgrounds where they weren’t particularly valued or appreciated,” says Ballif-Spanvill, who taught at Fordham for more than 25 years and is now professor emerita of psychology at Brigham Young University. “And not only those students, but I think every student in America right now is in need of more appreciation and concern.”

Looking back on his career, Wexler says that as much as he enjoyed working with children as an educator and a school psychologist, he chose the right profession—and he’ll always remain a child at heart. “I don’t think you can invent toys and games without that spirit,” he says.

This late 1980s illustration depicts dozens of the toys and games Howard Wexler has invented and licensed. (Illustration by Adele Schnapp courtesy of Howard Wexler)

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AlumniBob KeeshanCaptain KangarooConnect 4DyslexiaentrepreneurshipGamesGraduate School of EducationLower East SideNYCPsychologySchool PsychologySpring | Summer 2018Toys


Who invented the game Connect 4? ›

Toy Story: Catching Up with Howard Wexler, Inventor of the Classic Game Connect 4. Above: Howard Wexler's home studio features some of the 120-plus toys and games he has invented and licensed during the past five decades.

When was the game Connect Four invented? ›

The game was first sold under the Connect Four trademark by Milton Bradley in February 1974.

Where did Connect 4 originated? ›

The name “Connect Four” was first coined by Milton Bradley Company in 1974. The company was founded by Milton Bradley in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1860.

When was Connect 4 solved? ›

who actually solved Connect 4? The game was officially solved by James on the 1st of October 1988. Of course, he found that the game can be won over and over if a player follows a perfect game strategy. That's not always possible with humans!

What is the secret of Connect 4? ›

Never Play Directly Below the Game-Ending Space

This will allow your opponent to play into the space and claim victory. Conversely, you should attempt to force your opponent to play just below the game-ending space, perhaps by setting up a connect-four that forces your opponent to block in the critical space.

Is Connect 4 based on luck? ›

In contrast, 21 percent of respondents believed that Connect Four was a game of luck.
Public opinion on whether Connect Four is a game of luck in the United States as of May 2020.
CharacteristicShare of respondents
3 more rows
Sep 1, 2020

Can humans play Connect 4 perfectly? ›

It really isn't possible for two reasons. First, yes, it is theoretically possible to construct the whole tree. You could then trim the tree to just show the "good" moves. But the tree would be enormous and much too large for a human to memorize (except for some trivially small version).

What is the longest game of Connect Four? ›

The fastest Connect Four win is 7 total moves, and the longest is 42 (using up the whole board). Some quick algebra shows that if n is the actual game length, then the expression 1.18–(9*n/350) will yield a value in [0.1, 1] for a win.

Why is Connect 4 appropriate for children? ›

Connect 4 is such an awesome game for older kids, but it's also a super toy for toddlers. Great for fine motor skills, learning colors and cause and effect. Alexander thought it was hilarious when the release was triggered and all the pieces fell out!

What is the concept of Connect 4? ›

Both players begin with 21 identical pieces, and the first player to achieve a line of four connected pieces wins the game. If all 42 men are played and no player has places four pieces in a row, the game is drawn.

Why is there an orange ball in Connect 4? ›

No worries! The included orange ball is the tiebreaker ball. Players take turns to throw the orange ball, and whoever sinks it in the grid first, wins. Because of the versatility of the game play, you can add your own rules to make it more challenging.

How do you win a Connect 4 every time? ›

Winning Strategies for Connect 4
  1. Predict your opponent's moves.
  2. Keep your positions in the middle.
  3. Keep an eye out for game-ending spaces.
  4. Do not play directly below the game-ending space.
  5. Use fork threats whenever possible.
  6. Create a '7' formation.

Is there a connect 5 game? ›

To score Connect 5, a player must have 5 of his tokens placed on 5 consecutive dots on the game board, without any obstacle. Connect 5 game board has 2 sides, one for basic games, one for advanced games! The side labeled as “B” is the Basic game board.

What is the best first move in Connect 4? ›

If you are player one, put your first disk in the very bottom center slot. If you're player one or two, try to get as many disks into the center column as possible. Plan multiple moves in advance. Just like in chess, moves in Connect 4 can force you or your opponent to make a reactionary move to block a win.

How many possibilities are there in Connect 4? ›

Re: How many possible connect 4 games are there? The number of possible Connect-Four game situations after n plies (n turns) is tabulated at OEISA212693. The total is 4531985219092.

What is the oldest board game? ›

The Royal Game of Ur

Wood and shell, found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, south Iraq, 2600–2400 BC. The Royal Game of Ur is the oldest playable boardgame in the world, originating around 4,600 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. The game's rules were written on a cuneiform tablet by a Babylonian astronomer in 177 BC.

What do blue blockers do in Connect 4? ›

It includes 4 blue Blocker discs that players can use to block an opponent space or to lift a player checkers to quickly get 4-in-a-row to win. Players can choose to start in the middle or at the edge; to stack discs upwards, horizontally, or diagonally then drop in a blue disc for an unexpected strategy move.

Can you win Connect 4 with a square? ›

Connect Four Rules

Each player may drop only one checker into the grid per turn. A winner is declared when one player gets four of their colored checkers in a row vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Other configurations, such as squares, don't count as winning combinations.

Is there an algorithm for Connect 4? ›

The connect 4 playing program uses a minmax algorithm. Every time the computer decides what move to make next, it considers all of its possible moves: The computer then pretends that each of the moves it has considered has actually taken place.

What age group is Connect Four game for? ›

Hasbro Gaming CONNECT 4 - Classic four in a row - Board Games and Toys for Kids, boys, girls - Ages 6+

Who is the best Connect 4 player? ›


What math is in Connect 4? ›

Fundamental mathematics can be found in Connect 4 as the principles of probability and prescription are apparent. A player must attempt to predict where their opponent will place their next move.

Can 4 people play 30 seconds? ›

30 Seconds is a fast-paced general knowledge game. Players generally play in teams of two or four. One player must guess a word from their teammate's explanation, much like Charades, with the aim to guess as many possible answers in 30 seconds.

What is pop 10 in Connect 4? ›

Pop Out: Get 4 in a row by popping a checker out instead of dropping one in! Pop 10: Pop checkers out of the grid. If your checker is part of a 4-in-a-row, you get to keep it. The first player to get 10 checkers wins.

Is there a connect 6 game? ›

Connect6 (Chinese: 六子棋; Pinyin: liùzǐqí; Chinese: 連六棋;Japanese: 六目並べ; Korean: 육목) introduced in 2003 by Professor I-Chen Wu at Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering, National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, is a two-player strategy game similar to Gomoku.

Is Connect 4 for adults? ›

Ages 6 and up. For 2 players. Adult assembly required. Connect 4 and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro.

How tall is the giant Connect 4? ›

Giant 4 in a Row Connect Game + Storage Carry Bag - 4"-Feet Wide X 3.5"-Feet Tall - Oversized Jumbo Sized Entertainment for Outdoor/Indoor Play for Kids & Adults - Durable Waterproof - 2022 Version.

What skills does Connect 4 teach? ›

Connect 4
  • Fine motor skills.
  • Visual/perceptual motor skills.
  • Upper extremity strengthening.
  • Crossing midline.
  • Using an involved extremity.
  • Upper extremity range of motion.

Is Connect 4 an educational game? ›

Connect 4 is actually an abstract strategy game that is both entertaining and educational.

Can you get Connect 5 in Connect 4? ›

Whoever does it first is the winner. There are three ways to get four checkers in a row in Connect Four: horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Some versions of Connect Four have an additional game where you attach an extra column to the grid and attempt to get five checkers in row.

Does Connect 4 always end in a draw? ›

Finally, if red drops the first disk in the two columns adjacent to the center (C or E), then the game will always end in a draw.

What are the odds of drawing in Connect 4? ›

There are 69 locations on the board to get 4-in-a-row (counting horizontal, vertical, and diagonal runs of 4 cells). For each, the probability of all 4 the same color is 18 since the first piece can be either color, and the remaining 3 each have probability 12 to match the first.

Why are some people good at Connect 4? ›

In order to be good at Connect 4, players need to be able to look at the rack and quickly recognize patterns. When you are so focused on creating a 4 in a row pattern of your own discs, while constantly watching out for possible opportunities; recognizing patterns makes dominating the rack a lot easier.

Does the first player always win Connect 4? ›

Connect Four is what mathematicians call a "solved game," meaning you can play it perfectly every time, no matter what your opponent does. You will need to get the first move, but as long as you do so, you can always win within 41 moves.

What happens if no one wins Connect 4? ›

What if neither of the players is able to achieve a 4-in-a-row? Once most of the slots are filled and it's impossible for any player to get 4-in-a-row, the game is considered over because of a stalemate. Unfortunately, there is no winner in this instance, and re-match can be played.

Is Connect 4 good for your brain? ›

Exercise your brain during this time through this great activity as your child will build skills such as problem solving and basic math. Connect 4 has proven benefits to increase math skills by encouraging players to plan ahead, and provides opportunity to detect patterns.

What is the world record for Connect 4? ›

The fastest time to complete a giant connect four board by a team of two is 57.27 sec and was achieved by Ruby Fothergill (UK) & Taya Frearson (UK) at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, in Blackpool, UK, on 25 July 2019. The attempt was achieved at a week of record breaking at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Is Connect 4 mathematically solved? ›

Unfortunately, players might have little incentive to be the second player, as connect four is a “perfectly solved” game. In fact, it is mathematically impossible for the red player to lose at any game of connect four.

Can a 3 year old play Connect 4? ›

Connect 4 is such an awesome game for older kids, but it's also a super toy for toddlers. Great for fine motor skills, learning […]

Can a Connect 4 have 5? ›

Playing the Game

Whoever does it first is the winner. There are three ways to get four checkers in a row in Connect Four: horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Some versions of Connect Four have an additional game where you attach an extra column to the grid and attempt to get five checkers in row.

How do you beat everyone in Connect 4? ›

Winning Strategies for Connect 4
  1. Predict your opponent's moves.
  2. Keep your positions in the middle.
  3. Keep an eye out for game-ending spaces.
  4. Do not play directly below the game-ending space.
  5. Use fork threats whenever possible.
  6. Create a '7' formation.

Is there a connect 6? ›

Connect Six, An elegant and subtle game of shape and strategy where the goal is to be the first to form, one of four winning shapes with your pieces. Plan ahead your winning moves while keeping a keen eye on your opponent as defeat is often dealt by surprise.


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