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Backgammon: more than meets the eye

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Backgammon is my favorite game: it’s fun, it’s fast, it’s exciting, and it gives you a lot to think about. It has, in my opinion, an almost perfect balance between strategy and luck.

For those who don’t know much about the game, it’s a two-player game that takes about 10-15 minutes to play. It’s been around in roughly its current form since about 1700.

Players race in opposite directions around a horseshoe-shaped board, trying to get their 15 men to their home or inner board so they can bear off. The first player to bear off all their men is the winner.

Two dice are rolled, and the results can be used either to move one man twice or to move two different men. You can move to any unoccupied space, and you can also hit one of your opponent’s men if they’re alone on a space (thus moving them to the “bar” and forcing them to start over). You cannot, however, move to any space that’s occupied by two or more of your opponent’s men.

This last point is crucial, as it sets up the game’s most distinctive feature: the ability to block your opponent’s progress by setting up a wall of consecutive blocked points. This leads to some stunning come-from-behind victories and tends to make the game more about timing than about speed.

A couple things set the game apart: first, because players are racing in opposite directions, they are in contact with one another for most of the game. Second, though the game involves dice, there are plenty of ways to try to control your level of risk (there are times when you’ll want to play it safe and times to go for broke). And third, in a class all by itself, there’s the doubling cube.

The doubling cube was introduced by some anonymous genius in the first part of the twentieth century, and the game has never been the same since. Basically what you’re doing when you offer a double is saying that you want to double the stakes (or points, or whatever). If the double is accepted, then the game is worth twice what it was before; if it is declined, then the player declining the double loses the current stakes.

What’s so cool about the doubling cube is that it forces you to think long term, it forces you to evaluate the strength of your position as accurately as possible. Sure, you might be losing, but if you’re offered a double, you need to know not just that you’re behind, but by how much.

What you do is this: take the double if you think you’d lose from the current position 75% of the time or less, decline the double if you think you’d lose more often than that. Why? If you decline, you’re guaranteed to lose the current stakes. If you accept, you still have a chance of winning the game. The break-even point from a mathematical perspective is 75%.

For those who are averse to gambling, do it this way: play a match to 21 points, where each undoubled game is worth 1 point. It’ll teach you about the doubling cube and give you a much deeper appreciation of the game.

Note: portions of this were previously posted as a comment to IanTheCool’s “Backgammon: Famous Yet Unknown.”

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