Backgammon: Mastering Superfun Chaos of Board Game War [20-year Tale of Lessons on Strategy and Luck]

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November 25th, 2019
Back Backgammon: Mastering Superfun Chaos of Board Game War [20-year Tale of Lessons on Strategy and Luck]

Imagine for a moment gambling party unbounded by any conventional limit. The host can invite anyone, from any period in time; property is irrelevant, the gathering can happen anywhere while the food, amenities, and music are of your choice. Indeed, everything is open except for guests.

They include Amenhotep I, Tutankhamun, Darius the Great, King of Kings Anushirvan, Homer, Plato, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Caligula, Claudius, then Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare, Caravaggio, Brueghel the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, Jan Steen, and Thomas Jefferson, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Lewis Carroll, Cary Grant, J. Edgar Hoover, Aretha Franklin, Hugh Heffner, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Liberace, Muhammad Ali, Chris Everet, Jimmy Connors, Ted Turner, Peter Pocklington, Nelson Skalbania, Danish Queen Margrethe II, Yul Brynner, Paul Newman, John Huston, Omar Sharif, Diana Ross, Madonna, Simon Le Bon, Glenn Close, George and Barbara Bush, Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kylie Minogue, Pamela Anderson, Taylor Swift, Nicole Kidman, Vladimir Putin.

Let’s envision that, at some point, our host offers these guests to gamble. Do you know what would be the only game in their minds? And, it’s not like they haven’t had chances to visit brick-and-mortar casinos.

Backgammon.

Aficionados to the bone, most guests were or still are very fine or supreme players that indulged backgammon for fun or money, or to promote it by raising funds to charity; others explored the game’s phenomena throughout their lives. A few artistic outliers have either wrote about backgammon in their literary explorations or put the game into their painting masterpieces, while several rulers, being frantic players, went to great lengths to establish the game throughout history.

The variety of backgammon players is astonishing just as the game itself — a simple dice-based board game between two opponents that is easy to learn, difficult to master, and exhilaratingly seductive.

The closest comparison to other board games would be something in-between Parcheesi and Chess.

As such…

It’s the ultimate mix of strategy, skills, luck, and fun on par with no other pastime — or, as Raffi Khatchadourian described it, “backgammon is a game of nano-distinctions.”

So, what could be so magnetically engaging to entice such celebrity connoisseurs, millions of amateur players around the world, and thousands of professionals?

The Game Settings

Backgammon is played on the board with 24 numbered fields called points shaped in long triangles which interchange in two colors. Points are clustered in four areas named home board (starting point) and three outer boards. Each player uses 15 checkers, also known as chips, and moves them across the board in the opposite direction of its opponent.

At the beginning of a game, all checkers are positioned at predetermined positions that mirror each other. Players alternately roll two dice from a leather cup and play either one or two checkers based on the outcome of two dies.

The objective of the game is to be the first one to remove (bear off) all chips from the board.

The whole fun, excitement, and strategic part come through advancing towards the goal while simultaneously blocking the opponent from doing the same, which also includes hitting — removing his or her checkers from the play and forcing re-entry into the game at the home board.

When re-entry points are blocked — which is defined by rolls of dice and opponent’s skills — one cannot move, has to remain idle, and leaves the board to the impunity of another player.

There are three different variants of backgammon.

The most popular one is Western Backgammon with fairly simple rules which require no more than a couple of games to get a baseline grip.

That’s the variant professionals use in championships or tournaments, while amateurs play at homes, backgammon clubs, online, or at any place for that matter — and that’s the one you may find in iGaming hubs.

Backgammon is an extremely rapid game.

The match played for fun or dinner or money or whatever you may think of — lovers use it to bet in things to explore in bed later that evening — usually consists of several games until a certain amount of points is accumulated.

The most often match lengths are 3, 5, 7, 11, and 21 points, although some players also prefer one-pointers (quickies are fun, indeed).

By default, each game is worth one point.

The Gambling and Betting Aspect

However, when a player wins and the opponent has not commenced bear off, the single point counts as a double stake win called gammon, worth two points.

If the player wins while one or more opponent’s checkers remain at the winner’s home board, the single point counts as triple stake known as backgammon, worth three points.

Then, there’s a doubling cube — a die that is not used for a roll but betting.

On each side, doubling cube is inscribed with numbers in geometric progression — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64 — which denotes the current stake. Naturally, each game starts with doubling cube inactive.

Whenever a player feels that it has an advantageous position during the game, it may double the stake. If the opponent accepts the doubling cube — known as take — the game continues; if the opponent declines the cube, it concedes the game on the spot with points at stake before the double.

So, if you take the initial double, you raise wager on two points; if you refuse, you lose one.

But…

At any time, the player who took the doubling cube can redouble. Again, if the opponent decline, it loses the game at the value of the current bet. Thus, when a player declines the cube at 8, it loses 4 points momentarily.

The limit of the doubling cube is 64, although if the player loses the 64-point game with gammon, the winner takes 128 points; in the case of backgammon, the winner takes 192 points.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

It is the doubling cube that puts backgammon on the gambling and betting map: without it, backgammon would be similar to Parcheesi, but with doubling cube, backgammon can inflict insurmountable losses to uninitiated.

The crucial part of doubling cube is timing — one should double when the opponent cannot quite comprehend the potential consequences.

If you happen to observe the backgammon match and see that neither player takes the double, you instantly know they’re highly skilled: one can lose 5-pointer in a single game with the gambling cube at 4 and gammon — not uncommon at all.

The Strategic Disposition

This is exactly where knowledge, tactics, rationality, discipline, probabilities, and training come into the story. Surely, in backgammon — just like in any other gambling game — luck has the major say in what possibilities might be, but a player has the final call in what the best move is.

Consequently, a well-learned and properly executed strategy, in conjunction with the right mindset, will suppress the luck in the majority of backgammon matches. The point in case: the Top-5 backgammon players in the world are always the same people.

In fact…

The longer the match lasts, it’s less about luck. The player can have crazy dices and win 1- or 3-pointer, but anything above 5-pointer he or she simply does not stand a chance against a well-educated opponent.

There are two reasons for this.

First off, backgammon is one of the oldest board games in the world, hand in hand with chess and Go, played in many variations and under different names for almost five thousand years.

It originated in Mesopotamia — named Takhte Nard (War on Woods) — then moved into Egypt and came to the Roman Empire as Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum.

Romans brought it to England; from there it spread across the world and came to the United States. During the 1920s, someone in America invented the doubling cube and the country was swept by a new national pastime.

To write a detailed history of this game would require another article, but the simple fact is — backgammon had time for a proper strategy to develop, just as is the case with blackjack, for instance.

One of the first books ever to elaborate on the strategic approach to backgammon was written in 1930 by Georges Mabardi: Vanity Fair's Backgammon to Win.

He was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. (Egyptians are killer players on par with Greeks, Turks, and Iranians; don’t ever miss the opportunity to play against any of them: you’ll lose but you’ll learn a lot.)

During the Roaring Twenties, Mabardi came to New York and worked as backgammon columnist for Vanity Fair in time when Clare Boothe Luce — future Congresswoman from Connecticut — was the Managing Editor. So much about the popularity of the game and the testimony of the era: can you imagine the baccarat column in mainstream media today?

Mabardi has “played, taught, and studied backgammon all his life.” To this day, his book is one of the most authoritative sources on the game.

Compounded with explorations of others, backgammon strategy is nowadays fully developed — to be successful, all you need is to master it.

To cover all strategic approaches to this game would take another article as well, so let’s just say that if you look online for running game, blitz, backgame, holding game, or priming you’ll find myriad sources to learn from.

The Mindset

The second reason why strategy will beat luck in the majority of matches is intrinsic one — to be victorious in the long run, backgammon requires a proper mindset diligently enforced in the manner of a true Stoic.

What does this mean?

Arthur Schopenhauer, in his quote from the Roman playwright Terence — another backgammon explorer — put it best: “Life is a game of dice. Even if you don’t throw the number you like, you still have to play it and play it well.”

Thus…

The most advanced players use a combination of different strategies mashed up in the personal style of play which enables flexibility and perceptual adaptation. It’s not uncommon to see positions changed extensively during a single game; to have substantial knowledge is the paramount prerequisite in restraining the effects of luck.

Another thing is controlled aggression. You have to pick up the opponent’s checkers to hit carefully, with the right measure — not recklessly or greedy. Too much of opponent’s chips in your home board is never a good idea: the potential outcome can lead to gammon, and backgame strategy particularly addresses this.

Never forget the bigger picture. Your goal is to win the match, not every game. Sometimes it’s better to yield a single game, cut your losses and live to fight another day, that is the very next game.

Don’t strive for fancy moves — not every soccer player is from Brazil. Be practical, effective, swift, and yes, merciless when you need to be, but keep it smart and simple — it worked for Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals.

Always protect yourself. Backgammon is a great game but can be very, very cruel. Have the alternative whenever possible because if you don’t, the costs of losses might be much more than you can bear, particularly in the money game.

Backgammon is all about anticipation. It’s not about what you’ll do with options at hand but how you’ll position yourself for the unknown that comes next. If you can cover the worst possible scenario then make a move. Otherwise, don’t believe in luck — in backgammon, luck comes as a reward for skills, not the other way around.

Never lose hope or despair but be rational. It ain’t over till the fat dices sing: you can trail four checkers during bear off — including being locked down in closed home board of your opponent — and still win.

Good positioning is worth sacrificing a few checkers. Certain points on the backgammon board have strategic value. When you have a chance to take them, do it: checkers have another life, the right chances don’t.

If it ain’t broken don’t fix it. Some moves are always played the same way so don’t go outside the envelope. That said, every rule has its exception, just do it intelligently.

There is no middle ground in this game: you’re either in or out, you either play it full bore, to win, or you don’t play it at all. You always play against another person, there’s no dealer, no house edge, which is to say — backgammon is very personal.

Have balance. Be audacious, brave, ambitious, dare for more, have drive and tenacity, be self-confident, psychologically open, have the appetite for learning, but be wise and use those traits in a calculated and responsible manner. Simply put, in the war on woods, which backgammon is, be a true General.

Listen to yourself and be patient. This game offers a definitive connection with your intuition, just don’t ignore it. The first option you thought of is probably the best; the rest is your autosuggestion.

Eight out of ten losses are on you. Yes, it’s harsh but it’s true. Therefore, replay your matches and you’ll see all errors. Then, use them to grow your game. In time, you’ll be thankful for each one.

The Outcome of Backgammon Lessons

Such a mindset — and these are just a few thoughts — might not only help you become better in the game but might improve your life as well. It’s a rare occasion in gambling, but it happens.

By using all backgammon learnings, one can indeed self-improve in the way of behavioral thinking and approach to real-life situations.

Because you see…

The single greatest lesson backgammon teaches is — how to lose and win gracefully.

Yes, you’ll be a better player at the table and your opponent will win; after all, there’s luck involved here. And yes, you’ll play lousy and you’ll get a victory.

Regardless of the outcome — both the wins and losses are inevitabilities of life — a handshake, humble recognition, and smile after the match is the only appropriate ending of interaction with another human being, whether you do it in person or online.

Such grace sometimes does not come cheap but when it does it is a blessing not disguised. And, if that’s the only thing to take away from anything — it’s more than worthy of every effort.

In backgammon, though, it also comes garnered with immense fun, which is yet another reason to give it a shot.

[Author’s Note. This month marks twenty years since a friend bought me a backgammon table in Greece and introduced me to this game; it was a red pill. Thus, it seemed fitting to use such an occasion to share my findings with you. And if you lack playing partners, remember that Bob Dylan used to play backgammon against himself. Have a good one!]

“backgammon requires a proper mindset diligently enforced in the manner of a true Stoic”

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