Prime Lessons

(The ungammoned may want to have a look at this essay about backgammon in general and my first visit to the VA Backgammon Club.)

The clatter of precision dice. Stale smoke lingering in the air. Gorgeous hand-carved boards. Gamblers with steady hands and steadier eyes.
Alas, this isn’t Monte Carlo, just the lounge of the Doubletree Hotel. I was there last night for the fifth time to try my hand at backgammon

against some of the game’s best, accompanied by Sri and Bill, fellow members of the Common

Grounds Backgammon Addiction Recovery Network.

This is where I’m supposed to relay the suspenseful tale of how, through a series of tooth-and-nail matches, and with a hefty dose of luck, I

prevailed over the competition and won the evening’s tournament. Maybe next time. This time, I went down in two matches like a rank amateur

whose past experience with dice consisted of only bopping the plastic bubble up and down in Trouble.

Granted, my first match was against Good Bill, who was very affable even as he decimated me, game after game. He has a habit of carressing

the pieces as he studies the board before his move, while moving his mouth almost imperceptibly. I realized this time that what he was doing,

before every move, was math. Just about every turn, he does a pip count, or at the very

least reevaluates his relative position — whether he’s ahead, and should race, or behind, and should play to hit. His mind doesn’t stop. This

is, of course, the way to play backgammon properly. I’m still at the point where I make stupid mistakes, where a pip count is something I indulge

in once per match, and where I handle the doubling cube based on pure intuition without the benefit of underlying computation.

It would be nice if that was all I had to learn, but I have a long way to go when it comes to basic play, as well. Backgammon is a game of a

hundred minute decisions. Split your back men or push up another attacker? Run or hold back? Abandon the five-point or break your four-prime?

Often the right play is obvious, but most times it comes down to a handful of equally decent moves. Whether you pick the very best one won’t make

a big difference in a particular game, but consistently picking the best one will make all the difference in a long match or a tournament.

I asked Rainer, one of the better players there, what the path was to better play, expecting him to tell me to read Magriel’s Backgammon

backwards and forwards five or six times. He didn’t. He said to buy a decent backgammon program, like Jellyfish or Snowie, and play against it in tutor mode, where it’ll give

you a warning every time your move isn’t up to snuff. There an open-source backgammon program, GNU Backgammon, that does the same thing, though it’s still in development. That’s the

one I’ve been toodling with since then, and if its neural net is to be trusted, I’ve got a long, long way to go.


How does this idea sound for a local community television program? “The Arlington Backgammon Hour.” I’m envisioning a split-screen deal, where one camera is focusing top-down on the board, and the other is a regular old shot of the players and, of course, a commentator. Every fun-filled hour, we play a couple of games with colorful commentary, highlighting the wacky personalities of our in-house talent and their passionate internal rivalries. Maybe wrap up the hour with strategy lessons or, even better, interviews with backgammon greats like Good Bill. Give it a few months on the air, and the buzz will spread. Pretty soon network TV will pick us up. Prime time, even. Backgammon will sweep the nation!

Well, OK. We can dream.