Trying to Go Back Again

From 1974 to 1980, I was involved full-time in backgammon — to the tune of 3,000 hours a year, including playing, studying, and for a brief while running a tournament. I went broke. While I had done well against new players, the backgammon craze waned, and the remaining players were superior to me. Playing against superior players is a prescription for bankruptcy.

Over the next decade, I played or studied perhaps 1,000 hours a year because I had to maintain a full-time job to support myself. And I managed to play for smaller stakes against weaker players. At the end, I was a fairly strong intermediate player, by the standards of the day. There were a number of much stronger players around. Try as I might, I just didn’t have the ability to evenly compete with them. And so I avoided playing them.

The major place my backgammon play occurred was at the Cavendish West club, which was on Sunset Boulevard in greater Los Angeles, right where West Hollywood and Beverly Hills met. That club went out of business around 1991, and so did my backgammon career. 

When I moved to Las Vegas in 1993 to make my fortune in gambling, I did drop by the Las Vegas Backgammon Club once for a weekly tournament. It was okay, but I had studied more than 15 years on this game and proved to myself I couldn’t be a long-term winner at it.  So I decided to give it up completely and concentrate on blackjack, which was the game I had moved to Las Vegas to play.

I haven’t played backgammon since — up until the week in mid-November of this year when they held the Las Vegas Open. They had an intermediate division, it wasn’t too expensive, and I had the time. So, why not?

Backgammon hasn’t been totally out of my consciousness. We have interviewed, alphabetically, Kent Goulding, Bill Robertie, Bob Wachtel, and Kit Woolsey on our podcast over the years. They each had come out with a new book they were promoting which I read before the interview. And I did give a few backgammon lessons to some honorary grandchildren along the way. But basically, I hadn’t played for 30 years.

And the game has changed considerably. Now computer apps correct you when you’re wrong and show you the mathematically correct play for any of the zillions of possible positions. A serious student can get as good in about three or four months of study as I was in more than 15 years of play. I had purchased a phone app called Extreme Gammon (XG) and practiced for 10-15 hours before the tournament; however, this was a very small amount of practice.  And I was surprised at how much some of the basic concepts of the game had changed.

I entered the Intermediate Main Event starting on Thursday. It took place at the Golden Nugget downtown, which was very convenient for me. That casino is immediately adjacent to the Four Queens, which has a small promotion in November and December (through the 29th) that was worth playing. (Play $4,800 coin-in through some decent dollar machines and earn $30 free play and a $10 food voucher. Plus, the more coin-in you play each month leads to bigger mailers down the road.) 

I live 15 miles away from these casinos and the promotion is not worth driving that far. But since it provides free parking and a lunch adjacent to the tournament, the promotion was very worthwhile.

Thursday at noon, I played in the Intermediate Main Event and won a close match. After that, I was free for the day. There were other events going on that I could have entered, but they were open to all-comers. I was reasonably competitive against intermediate players. To play in a match against open division players, I would have been a big underdog. No thanks.

On Friday, I won a few more matches and got up to the money match. The winner gets at least $800 and a chance to play for more. So we did a $250 “save” where the loser gets his entry fee back. I got my entry fee back.

Over the next two days, there were additional rounds of the same event, called “consolation” and “last chance.” Both had their own prize pools that were paid out of the original entry fee. I played in both. I won at least one match in each, but I didn’t cash in either.

The procedures of play were considerably different from what I played before. At the Cavendish West, each player used two dice — meaning four for the game. Here, we shared two dice. When one player was finished, he/she tapped the board twice to signify the turn was over, and then the other player picked up the same dice and rolled them.

Using only two dice is a far better system. In the past, players complained because the other guy got the lucky dice, and there were rules as to how many times the dice could be mixed during a game. Players still complain when they lose or don’t get good numbers to play at crucial times, of course, but it’s much less than it used to be.

Also, for the first time I played with a clock. Although I had seen them used on YouTube videos and was familiar with the concept, it takes a while to get used to them. But now I’m a pro at that!

Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I’m not going to frequent the weekly local tournaments, at least not regularly, and am not going to be studying this game a lot. But maybe I’ll play in next year’s Las Vegas Open if it doesn’t conflict with anything else. Given the house rake, I’m pretty sure that in this tournament I wasn’t gambling with an edge. And that’s okay. The amount of money I risked was fairly small and I did enjoy myself. 

It’s okay with me to only be an Intermediate player at this game for the rest of my life. It’s still fun on occasion. Studying hard to get good would be probably futile anyway, and I have enough other things to do with my life. 

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