‘Backgammon is like life. It’s a series of boring, innocuous days just like the day before, weddings and deaths and all that, and then there’s 40 or 50 days out of the year where some really weird shit happens.’ – Anonymous
These words will ring true to anyone who has ever played the board game backgammon, and they’ll ring ever truer to anyone who has played the game for money.
Forget poker – backgammon is the new black (or red, depending what colour your pieces are) and is growing in popularity faster than a cocked dice is thrown again. Innovations such as the Backgammon Million and endorsements by celebrity players such as Omar Sharif, Tim Henman, Robbie Williams and Sam Torrance mean the addictive qualities of the game are reaching a wider audience than ever before.
Backgammon is the oldest game on the planet. It was first played about 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (today known as Iraq) at the centre of the Sumerian empire. Not content with giving us the best game in the world, those crafty Sumerians are also credited with inventing the wheel, the first algebra and geometry, and the world’s first written language. No doubt they also used to use an ancient version of Tic-Tac.
Another version of the game is more than 1,600 years old. It was known in Persia and the Near East as Takhteh Nard, meaning ‘Battle on Wood’, and was introduced to Europe by the Arabs. The board had 24 points, 30 playing pieces and a pair of dice, which is the exact same format as today’s game.
The ancient Egyptians and Romans also played versions of the game. In the time of Henry VIII, it was banned by that sanctimonious spoilsport Cardinal Wolsely, who ordered the burning of all boards. The name backgammon was coined in the 7th century, when the Saxons called it the ‘bac’ (back) ‘gamen’ (game) because of the nature of the game.
Ah, the rules of the game. In essence, players must move their 15 pieces around the board until they all arrive in the final quarter, when they can begin to take them off. If a piece is taken, it has to go all the way back to the start. The first player to bear off all their pieces (that is, get them off the board) wins. Naturally, there’s much more to it than that, and you can find out more about the rules at the bottom of this article.
The rules of play have transmuted over the centuries, but, in 1931, Wheaton Vaughan, chairman of the New York Tennis and Racquet Club, formed a committee to define the rules that are widely accepted today. There was a need for clarification because of the introduction of the doubling cube in the 1920s by an unknown New York gambler.
Sheer bloody madness
The doubling cube is the reason gamblers love the game. Basically, it brings an element of insanity to proceedings. If players think they’re on top during the game, they can double the points on offer. If the other player accepts the double, the game carries on; if they decline, they lose the game. The same player can’t redouble, but if the game ebbs and flows, both players can double each other up to 64 times the original points (or dollars/pounds/euros) value. If the variants of a double game and a gammon are added, it’s easy to understand the gambling mania that can ensue.
So far so good, but who are the world’s top players and how much money are they pulling in? The ’32 Giants of Backgammon’ is a list of the best players in the world and they’re voted for by their peers. The poll takes place every two years and, while it has a US bias, this year’s list is expected to feature more European players than ever before. The top players can earn a reasonable living from the game – just don’t expect to see anyone from the UK in the list.
According to Chris Bray, the backgammon columnist for The Independent, the UK gambling laws are to blame for the dearth of professional players on these islands.
He says: ‘The gaming laws in this country defi ne backgammon as a game of skill and luck. This means organisers need to acquire a gaming licence to put on tournaments.
‘In Germany and Scandinavia, the game is defined as a game of skill and so isn’t subject to gambling laws there. I don’t think there are any professional players in the UK. If there are, they have to travel abroad to make a living. Even this year’s Gambling Act hasn’t addressed the problem. While bridge has been reclassified as a game of skill, backgammon is still stigmatised by laws written nearly 40 years ago. The sooner we have a backgammon lobby group, the better,’ he said.
Scandinavia would seem to be an odd place for backgammon prodigies, but Danish brewer Carlsberg has always supported the game at roots level. In this country, UK Betting has decided to carry Carlsberg’s baton to encourage British players and gamblers to take more interest in the game.
Move over, poker
Mark Irvine is director of marketing at UK Betting and is determined to promote backgammon as a game that can really share the same bed as poker – and take a significant part of the duvet too.
He explains: ‘Across our websites, we have a potential audience of 8.5 million people who we’re informing about backgammon because we’re determined to be the catalyst for the game. The beauty of backgammon is that it’s a perfect peer-to-peer product.
‘Either offl ine or online, people love chatting while they play, and those who know the game love to share their wisdom with new players. This isn’t something you see as much with poker, where people are extremely protective of their knowledge.
‘The community-focused aspect of offline play has tipped over into the online arena and the increased use of broadband means players can play as quickly as they can around a board.’
Irvine is correct when he pinpoints the rise of broadband technology as the reason backgammon has come back into vogue. There are a fair few websites that offer both money and fun matches. Some even allow site visitors to watch games in action. While this may seem an insignificant feature, other entertainment sectors such as the video-games industry attract enormous attendances for watching online tournaments.
Although the doubling cube revolutionised the game in the 1920s and the internet is making backgammon the hottest thing since poker, it was software programs in the 1990s that took the game to a new level. Gerald Tesauro at IBM used neural networking to write software that could teach itself how to play and created a world-class player in the process. This technology was taken further when Andreas Schneider created FIBS (First Internet Backgammon Server), which meant more than 100 players could play each other, watch matches and compare skill levels. Schneider must be delighted when he now sees hundreds of thousands playing each other daily, thanks to servers such as his.
Further innovations such as Jellyfish software and the more commercial Snowie software can analyse matches and number-crunch to such a degree that there are now hundreds of backgammon players who are infinitely better than those of a generation ago.
It’s all in the mind
However, these programs can only go so far in helping players to win games, and they do absolutely nothing to help players win money. Backgammon, more than any other game, is a psychological minefield. A run of luck from any opponent can undermine any gameplan because the world’s worst player can always win the odd game against the world’s best player. That’s the attraction and is the reason why this fantastic game does resemble life, where ‘really weird shit’ really does happen.