Backgammon Then and Now – Gambling With An Edge

Author’s Note:  I played backgammon professionally for almost 20 years, then gave it up completely. I reached the high intermediate level, but most of the players that were interested in gambling with me were better. That was a prescription for disaster. I needed to get a job because I was not a winning player anymore. Today’s blog has nothing to do with video poker, but it does have to do with gambling.

I played most of my backgammon at the Cavendish West, which was in the West Hollywood section of Los Angeles, from about 1974 to 1993. Some of the regulars back then who are still active in tournament backgammon are Bob Glass, Jim Pasko, Steve Sax, Joe Russell, and Bob Wachtel. (There are likely others I don’t know are still playing.) They were all better than me back then, and they’ve kept studying the game while I’ve devoted my attention to other things.

Some of our guests on Gambling with an Edge have been gambling experts who have written books and whose books we’ve reviewed. Bill Robertie, Bob Wachtel, and Kit Woolsey come to mind. There may have been others. Reading these books took me back into a world I knew and loved decades ago.

I’m still fascinated by the game, but at age 74 I do not kid myself that I could possibly catch up to the best players today. I couldn’t keep up 45 years ago. My mental skills have deteriorated somewhat, and with computers, so much of the what was a guess decades ago is accepted as fact today. And virtually all of the best players have been using computer aids to study extensively.

So, yes, I could get the latest version of eXtreme gammon and improve immensely in the next however many years I have, but I would never be able to challenge those who have lived and breathed backgammon for a long time.

On YouTube, however, there are many hundreds of backgammon tournament games archived. Some are commentated. Most are not. Since the rankings of the best backgammon players are listed online, it’s relatively easy to find matches between excellent players. I find this interesting and instructive. I receive more pleasure watching old backgammon matches than new Netflix shows! Your mileage may vary!

I’ve learned the game is very different today. In tournaments, players normally use the same two dice. One player hits the clock to end his move and start his opponent’s move, and the opponent then picks up the box and rolls them. When I played, there were two sets of dice used, one for each player, and there were many arguments as to whose dice were luckier and there were intricate rules as to when and how many times you could change dice during a match.

I never played with a clock. A backgammon clock today is somewhat like a chess clock, except there is a built-in timer (usually 10 to 12 seconds) where time off your clock doesn’t begin until you go through that built-in time. There have been matches where players let their time go down to 20 seconds or less, but still manage to play “speed backgammon” without any time coming off of their clock and don’t get eliminated because of time.

When I played, there were some players known for being cheaters. Possibly there still are, but I don’t see them on the YouTube videos I watch. Every 30 games or so, one of the players makes a misplay and almost always it’s mentioned by the other player and corrected immediately.

There are always players who are bad losers. When they roll several particularly bad numbers in a row, or their opponent rolls particularly good numbers, the players bitterly rail about how unfair this game is. On the videos, I don’t see this — possibly because the players know they are being videotaped and are on their good behavior.

If they’re down to one roll and only double sixes will win the game for one of the sides, and double sixes come out, both players seem to accept it stoically. This is very much NOT what I remember from when I played.

Today, tournament players are rated by how close their plays agree with what the latest version of eXtreme gammon says. (I think the most current is XG++). Low scores (say 1.0 or 2.0) are considered excellent. Higher scores aren’t. When I played, we never knew for sure how good a player was. Probably the best players in the world played at about a 5.0 back then. Now, playing between 2.0 and 3.0 for years is possible. But if I had, say, a rating of 12.0, hopefully I’d be smart enough to avoid playing for money with someone whose rating was 3.0. I’d get creamed! These ratings have reduced playing backgammon for money.

Way back then, when a position arose and players had strong disagreements about the best play, propositions would be played numerous times, betting on the outcome.  Over time, observant players would learn which play was better. Some players had dozens of propositions at their fingertips where they’d be willing to play either side. Today however, players just plug these positions into XG++ and almost instantly the plays are ranked and given numerical scores (similar to EV). 

In backgammon, once you roll your dice and get, say, a 4-3, there might be three or four different plays that are at least reasonable. You are allowed to move your checkers, look at them, put them back into the starting position and try another, look at that, and go back and forth as often as you wanted subject to the fact that you only have so many minutes to play an entire match. Back when I played, players would often play the 4, leave it, and then try the various ways a 3 could be played. They would not put the checkers back into the starting positions before trying another move. Often, they would move the checkers back and forth so many times that everybody got confused about what the starting position was — and they were able to play 5-3 instead of 4-3 in the cases where 5-3 was much more advantageous. That doesn’t seem to happen as much anymore.

Since most of the matches on YouTube were created pre-pandemic, each match starts with a handshake. They don’t wish each other good luck. They wish each other “good match.” It’s far more honest.
I don’t regret that I moved away from backgammon and eventually settled on video poker. Video poker has been good to me. But I still miss playing backgammon.

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