Friday 5 July 2013

A Story about Backgammon

The old version of backgammon was radically revised in about 1920 with the introduction of the doubling cube. There are no clear answers about who introduced this change, but it totally transformed the game.

I learned the game, well no, I knew the basics, but played Vladimir Dobrich for 40 hours straight and after that read every available book about the game. A summer later Vlad and I attended a World backgammon championship in Nassau. For the unacquainted, even though the first prize was then $50k, that's not where the money is: it's on tables beside the swimming pool. And there is a variation of championship backgammon called chouette, which involves several people playing on a team, against a person who is called The Man In The Box. So if we're playing for $10 a point, if TMITB loses, he loses $10 a point to each player, e.g. if the cube was passed (e.g. doubled), then it's $20 not ten, and if passed backed (redoubled) it's now $40 per game. In other words, this can get expensive very quickly.

Anyway, I was in Nassau, attending the Nassau Championship ($50K prize), playing in a game by the swimming pool, approximately two hours after arriving on the island. There was a chouette game underway at the pool. I knew all the opponents on sight because all but one at that point had written books. How are you going to learn except by playing your superiors? There is no other path. The opponents were:

1. Paul Magriel, who wrote perhaps the definitive book about the game, simply called Backgammon, and resulted from his extensive analysis of the game on a PDP-11 while teaching math at Princeton.

2. Bruce Becker, who wrote Backgammon for Blood

3. Kent Goulding, a Floridian and absolutely cool and expert player. I don't know if he's written a book on the subject, but if anyone is qualified to add to the literature, I would most certainly recommend him.

4. Vlad Dobrich, seven times the Canadian chess champion and twice the world champion of backgammon, and my principal instructor in the game.

5. Ozzie Jacoby, most known for his skills in Bridge, but also the author of a book on backgammon, and one of the greatest players in the world.

I was The Man in The Box (which means that I'm fighting all of these world-greats). There had already been a couple of doubles, and they redoubled me, taking the cube to 16, which meant if I accepted and lost the game, I would owe five players 16 * $10, which would have bankrupted me and left me with only the vague hope that I might win the tournament. I looked at the stats (for those readers unacquainted with backgammon, the secret to success is your ability to do rapid stats on any given position). I looked at the position and calculated the stats and eventually concluded that they had doubled prematurely, which is to say, ignoring the amount of money at stake, I had no alternative but to accept the double.

Bruce was the Captain  of the team, and rolled the dice, and got his worst possible roll. I followed up with one of my several excellent possible rolls. They took another roll, which turned out ugly. I redoubled and they all declined, and I won more money in half an hour than I ever done in my life.

Don't get this story wrong. I am most definitely not saying that my backgammon game is superior to theirs, not even close. I think of these people as the most gifted people in the game. But that, ironically, is the point of the story. There I was, playing five of the best backgammon players in the world, and I just kind of closed my eyes and said, "It's not about the money; it's about the math." And I looked at the math and decided that I must accept this double. Emotion and drama and fear did not enter into the equation. Only one thing did: the math,

There may not be a moral in this story, but if there is, it’s “Stick to the math, and damn the torpedoes.” That’s what I did and continue to do.  Now and then, forecasting does not correspond to outcomes. That is to be expected. But more often than not, cold, cool calculation wins.

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