Why Isn't Backgammon More Popular?

Levitt and I just recorded a Q&A session for the Freakonomics Radio podcast, using the questions that all of you recently submitted. You’ll hear the results soon, probably in January. Thanks for the good questions.

One question we didn’t get to, from Tg3:

I have heard Dubner casually mention that he is a backgammon player. Are there ever Levitt vs. Dubner battles? More importantly, why is such a great game not more popular in North America?

Sadly, Levitt and I have never played. But it’s the second part of the question that got me thinking. Why not indeed? Off the top of my head, I’d say:

  • Well, it’s not so unpopular, and there are those who say a renaissance is perhaps underway. My friend James Altucher and I have a running game (101-point matches) that we usually play in diners or restaurants, and almost inevitably a small crowd (or at least the server) will hang out to watch and talk about the game …
  • That said, yes, it’s a fringe game. Why? I’d say it’s because too many people play it without gambling, or at least without using the doubling cube. Without the cube, a game that is intricate and strategic – because the stakes are higher – becomes an often-boring dice race. Once you use the cube, especially with dollars attached to points, the game changes completely because the most exciting and most difficult decisions have to do more with cube play than with checker play.
  • Why is the game itself too often uninteresting? Don’t get me wrong: I love playing backgammon. But the fact is that the choice set of moves is in fact quite small. That is, for many rolls, there’s clearly one optimal move, or perhaps two that are nearly equal. So once you know those moves, the game is limited, and you need some stakes to make it interesting. Unlike, say, chess, where the options and strategies are far more diverse.

This last point, if arguable, got me to wondering: in what percent of backgammon turns would there seem to be clearly one optimal move – versus, for comparison, chess?

Since James is a superb chess player and also an excellent backgammon player (and a smart guy in general), I asked him. His answer is well worth sharing:

It’s an interesting question. Let’s define optimal first.

Let’s say a program has an evaluation function (EV). Given a position, the EV returns a number from 1 to 10 based on how good the position is for the person whose move it is. If it’s a 10, the person with the move wants to get to that position. The EV is a function of various heuristics added up (how many people are on the center, how many pips I’m ahead in the race, how many slots I control, how many loose pieces I have, etc). When it’s my turn, the computer looks at all my initial moves and finds the ones resulting in the best EV. It then looks at all my opponent’s responses to each move and finds the ones resulting in the lowest EV for me (this now propagates up to become the EV of my initial move). It then looks at all my responses to my opponent’s responses and finds the ones with the best EV (and does the propagation again). This is called min-max. Looking at all the best moves only is called alpha-beta search and is how most game programs work.

So the question is, what is “optimal?” On a scale of 1 to 10, if a move is 3 better than the next move, is that optimal? Let’s say it is.

In chess, it’s easy to see optimal moves. If someone does rook takes queen, then hopefully I can take his queen and it’s a fair trade. By far that will be the only optimal move. Other optimal moves lead to checkmate or great increases in material. Otherwise, its probably not optimal. In a typical chess game, maybe 5 percent of the moves have a value greater than “one pawn’s worth.”

In backgammon, I’d say its 10 percent. I’m saying this based on experience with Backgammon NJ [an excellent program, BTW], discussions with backgammon game programmers in the past, and I’m using 10 percent rather than 5 percent because backgammon is slightly less complex than chess. It’s not simple though. To be a backgammon master probably requires almost as much study but not quite.

Hope this was helpful.

Yes, James, helpful indeed – because I now know a bit better how you think about the game, which I desperately need to finally beat you in our 101-pt. matches. Thanks!

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  1. nottom says:

    I think one of the big reasons is that it is a game that has essentially been “solved” by programs you can download for free. This has really killed any sort of realistic attempt at a serious internet presence (like poker’s resurgence over the past decade), and relegated it to the status of a niche game.

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  2. DavidA says:

    I’ve always thought that min-max doesn’t really work with Backgammon, because of the dice. In chess, you know what your oponnent’s moves are after you move, but in Backgammon, it depends on the opponent’s roll. So the best you can do is compute the odds of your player making a certain move. The more moves you try to look ahead, the more uncertainty there is with the decision tree.

    If I leave a valuable piece exposed in chess, and the opponent can capture it with little or no risk, then I know he/she will. But if I leave a piece open in backgammon, the opponent can only hit me if they come up with the right roll.

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  3. David Howorth says:

    Many are too young to remember, but backgammon enjoyed a big upswing in popularity in the 1970s. The Times had a regular backgammon column, written by Paul Magriel, although I can’t remember how often the column appeared — it may have been just weekly. As you point out, backgammon must be played for a stake. Like poker, it is dull and pointless without a stake, exciting with one.

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  4. VB in NV says:

    This sort of seems like an apples/oranges comparison. In chess you are CERTAIN of your opponent’s options for the next move, In backgammon, you only know probabilities (based on the 36 possible dice rolls).

    I would estimate (not having played backgammon competitively for years, and then it was for drinks or small amounts of cash) that ninety-nine percent of the rolls have an optimal move given that there are so many sub-optimal options but, as you say, ten percent of the moves are optimal compared to the next best option.

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  5. Stigant says:

    David A – while the randomness of the dice certainly complicates the process, it doesn’t prevent min/max from working. In fact, all min/max programs for chess are, in the end, just making educated guesses as to what the bets position is likely to be. In other words, if you’re up a queen, that’s _probably_ a good position for you. But there are many many positions in which one side is up a queen but is doomed to lose the match. Given the choice between one position where the material is even and another where I’m up a queen, and no ability to calculate any other differences between the positions, I’m choosing the up-a-queen position. Will I always win with that strategy? No, but I’ll come out ahead in the long run.

    In backgammon, the choices often come down to: should I leave an exposed piece here, or there? I can’t predict exactly what options my opponent will have, but I can put probabilities on them and, based on those probabilities, favor one position over another. Will you always win with that strategy? No, but you’ll come out ahead in the long run.

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  6. Steve in Austin says:

    My family and friends used to play backgammon lots in the mid-1980s. I recall that there was a high ‘luck factor’ that gave a skilled player something like a 10% edge over a novice. Perhaps that is part of the problem. But I think that is one of the reasons it is a fun game to play.

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    • David Klausa says:

      Percent of skill is directly related to length of a match. A novice may have a decent chance against me in a single game, but to win a 7-point match that chance plummets, and continues to fall as the match length increases, because luck is not going to get you through many games in a row. But even in a single game (not match play), I’d say an good player has more than a 10% edge over a novice.

      That’s partly down to the game being so vastly misunderstood. Unlike chess, where mistakes are quickly punished and learned from, if a backgammon player does not study with books/programs, he may keep making the same mistakes. So we have hoards of players who have been playing for decades and still play poorly. Read one book on strategy and you can beat them.

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  7. Masayuki Mochizuki says:

    Hello, My name is Masayuki Mochizuki, currently #1 ranked backgammon player and 2009 world champion.

    If backgammon is not so popular as you say, then lack of effort to do so is to be blamed, not game itself.
    The game itself attracts people for more than 5000 years ago, much earlier before doubling cube was invented (which is about 100 years ago).

    However, nowadays we have too many hobbys and leisures in the life than few dacades ago. So even oldest game like backgammon should be promoted and advertised as great game, otherwise it will be dead.
    We don’t have world wide federation and even US federation is just started this year.
    http://usbgf.org/
    I hope they will increase popularity of backgammon in the near future in the north america.

    - I strongly agreed that game with doubling cube is much more interesting than that without.

    - Once you become serious and start paying attention to minor details, checker plays become also very interesting, but it is not easy to recognize that.

    - computer programs are strong, some of them are stronger than me (perhaps), but the game is FAR away from solved.
    Backgammon is not as complex as chess, but it is still far away from solved.

    - I recommend you to play sets of shorter matches than playing 101 point matches. It is more fun and you will finish the match in same day. Also skill will be more rewarded with same amounts of time and length. (playing 20 sets of 5 point match reflects much more skill than playing single 101 point match)
    5 – 7 point match is common length for casual play (takes about 30min-45min).

    Thank you for interesting post.

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  8. Rose says:

    I’ve watched my parents play backgammon my whole life. I never really enjoyed playing it myself until recently. I think that backgammon has more of a learning curve than you’d expect. Beginners have to count out spaces which can be very frustrating. Once you are able to play without counting, the game becomes far more enjoyable. Then you start to see strategies and can play intuitively.

    One of my favorite aspects of the game is way it mixes the strategy of the moves and the randomness of the dice. You can’t say the same thing about chess.

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