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!


Chiva Tafazzoli

My name is Chiva Tafazzoli and and I am the Founder and President of the World Backgammon Association, the leading promoter of the game.

Backgammon has seen ups and downs throughout its history. It?s the oldest game on the planet and extremely popular in its traditional and basic form in many countries: Millions play it regularly in the Easrern Mediterranean countries, the Middle-East and Central Asia.

The modern variation of the game with the introduction of the doubling cube has turned backgammon into a real game of skill, with some elements of luck. It has become a highly scientifical game and is applied in schools and universities to practice the aspects of risk management.

While Poker has taken over and backgammon had its glory days in the 70s and 80s of the 20th Century, there are a lot of efforts to revitalize the game. The US Backgammon Federation has been recently created (www.usbgf.org) and promotes the game in the USA. Also, in Turkey, ISTAVDER (www.istavder.com) has brought backgammon to the next and modern level. Croatia, Bosnia, Peru, South-Africa, Japan, etc. are taking up backgammon.

Expect the game to come back. It has been around for 6000 years and it?s nowhere close to die.

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Kent Geek

In the 70s, while I was in the Navy, I played a variation of Backgammon that was called "acey-deucey" that was quite popular among the swabs. The only changes were: 1) - you start with a clean board, and roll to put pieces ONTO the board in the same manner as taking them off, and 2) rolling a 1 & 2 (acey-deucey) let you have four of any number and a second roll.

These variations tended to make the game last longer and be much less predictable, I think. I don't know if the squids are still playing this game, but many, many idle hours were spent on it thirty to forty years ago.

Joe

Backgammon takes a surprising amount of time in which to become proficient. Perhaps, in an instant gratification culture, that is part of the explanation?

I always thought of backgammon as a near-perfect game, since there is apparent randomness and luck on any one given roll, yet an expert player over time definitely has patterns in his or her play that are quite predictable.

Totally agree that one must have the doubling cube in play to appreciate fully the subtleties of the game. I'm not sure if you could ever program a computer on the 'right time' to offer the cube, for example (although I suppose one could program the computer on whether to accept or decline once it is offered).

Sometimes I offer the cube hoping the other player will accept; sometimes I offer it as a way to shorten an otherwise boring 'race' when I am ahead yet not far enough ahead to win if my opponent rolls doubles three times in a row. If s/he wants to double the stakes on that off chance, I know in the long run I'll be ahead even if I do lose once in a while (it gets really intriguing when there are only a few blots left to bear off on each side; who will offer the cube and when?)

I also find that there is room for personal styles. I often do not mind leaving blots exposed; if I get hit, big deal I go back and come around again; sometimes in fact I WANT to get sent back so that I have more chances to hit the other guy on my way back around, after I have built up my innner board. In fact, sometimes I will deliberately leave blots exposed hoping my (lesser skilled) opponent will hit them!

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Tom

When I was going to bridge tournaments in the 70's and 80's, a great many players would pull out backgammon boards between sessions. I suspect there is a mind-set connection between the two games. Unlike chess where people can get mired down thinking about moves for minutes at a time, in the hands of a relatively skilled player backgammon is lightning fast. And because of the element of luck of the roll, you can win a game by making the "wrong" move - something that works out but was statistically improbable.

Bridge, BTW, in contrast to what Extinct Species has to say, is still quite popular - many people play it who don't play duplicate (because they don't like the competition of a high level game). Bridge, in comparison to chess, is also much faster with a new hand and new complexities every 5 minutes or so, but has the same complexity as chess. Hence, backgammon to calm down with a little quick fun, with or without the betting, between sessions makes some sense.

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Howard Brazee

Backgammon and poker are both games that are improved by liking to gamble. Backgammon is playable by people who don't like to gamble, but the doubling die doesn't work for non-gamblers.

I do *not* like to gamble. I only gamble in golf to avoid the demands of my buddies - it does not make the game any better for me.

I'm curious though on how many gamblers prefer games that they believe their skills give them an advantage over others. Certainly fantasy sports players believe that - some even pay "experts" to gain an edge. Since they play others who believe the same thing, at least half of the players are mistaken in their belief.

Rich Munitz

My name is Rich Munitz and I am currently the #21 ranked backgammon player in the world and former American Backgammon Tour champion.

Backgammon is alive and well in New York City. If you love backgammon, come play with the monthly Meetup group - see http://nycbg.com . It is casual, social and there are players of all levels.

The beauty of backgammon is that it is like driving. Everyone thinks they are above average. People of all levels look at their choices and will often say "this is the obvious play". Those people are frequently wrong. Those obvious plays are wrong. Backgammon is a rich, complex game of strategy that is far from solved. Top players like myself are constantly learning new things.

The beauty of backgammon is that it always can be blamed on the dice when you lose. Great players always seem to be getting lucky! They carefully choose plays that take reasonable risks in return for maximum reward. They choose plays that create good rolls for themselves and bad rolls for their opponent. Then when they get a good roll or their opponent gets a bad roll, it is easy for the opponent to blame the dice rather than credit their skilled adversary for creating the conditions to make their demise likely. Yes, any player can beat any other player in any single game. It is the illusion of hope and the occasional reinforcement of that hope that keep people wanting to play more.

Backgammon has suffered with the current generation of youth because they simply have too many other default activities to fall back on. When I was young and stuck home on a rainy day, I'd beg my parents or friends to play a board game. There was little else. Now kids play video games, sit on the computer, etc. So they are not learning backgammon. The US Backgammon Federation (USBGF) is looking to change this. http://usbgf.org . We seek help and volunteers to get backgammon programs and clubs formed in schools, colleges, etc. We have to work to actively expose this great game to the next generation, much like is done with Chess via the USCF. Please join the USBGF and support the growth of backgammon in the US.

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Cash McDollar

There is a new Bi-Athalon event called Chess-Boxing. You suit up as a boxer. Play a match of chess. During game breaks, you have a round of boxing.

Winner has the best combined score.

Perhaps BackGammon can be combined with a popular up and coming sport like Ultimate Fighting Championships--the No Rules hand-on -hand street combat. After one round, play some backgammon. Then back to the blood and guts. Then back to the dice roll.

The Ulitmate Brain and Body Challenge Sport. -- Please do not bleed on the gameboard.

H Gillis

Before you conclude that Chess is more cpmplex than Backgammon, plaese take a look at the following article,
http://usbgf.org/backgammon-decision-analysis-for-success/ . Please say hello to Steven who found my analysis of the statistics of steroids in baseball interesting a couple of years ago. thanks.

H

G Lazman

The analogy others have made to poker is a good one. In the US, at least, backgammon will never have more than a cult following unless it can be televised and played for big money. In addition, it takes thought and intelligence to be a good backgammon player. For the most part, in the US kids these days are being taught to pass standardized tests rather than to think, and much of the general public does not seem to think intelligence is a highly desirable commodity (based on their love for video games, reality TV, and Sarah Palin). Until intelligence and independent thought are again valued in this country, games like chess and backgammon will never be particularly popular here.

ed rosenblum

I am the Director of the New Mexico State Backgammon Championship and have played backgammon for 38 years.

Backgammon is an elegant amalgamation of probability, statistics, game theory, and psychology. It is a game of considerable long-term skill punctuated by short-term uncertainty. Over time, the experienced player will defeat the novice by reducing the uncertainty component through skillful play and will be known as "lucky".

For many people, the skills required to become a good backgammon player remain elusive but they simply boil down to visualization, planning, analytics, intuition, and psychology. They take considerable time to develop. I watch my student's eyes open wide as they embrace each new concept. In the United States, we have fallen into a society of instant gratification. Acquiring the skills that make one a great backgammon player requires time and dedication but rewards those who stick with it with wonderful insights into what leads to "luck". These concepts translate well into everyday life.

With the advent of the latest computer programs, the art of backgammon has truly evolved. The popularity of the game is on the rise and has led to the recent formation of the United States Backgammon Federation. It is now being taught as an accredited course at Georgia Southern University and is emerging as a wonderful way for students to learn probability and statistics.

The comparrisons of backgammon and chess in this article fail to appropriately address the bacgammon's complexities In the first 2 moves of a chess game there are 400 possible combinations. In the first two moves of a backgammon game, there are 100,000 possible combinations.

While it is true that backgammon is a combination of skill and uncertainty, a good player will know how to reduce the uncertainty component through his skillful play and will be known as "lucky".

I object to this article's reference to backgammon being boring. Come to any backgammon tournament and see and hear the excitement in the room. Watching two world-class players compete is often thrilling beyond belief.

I object to this article stating "once you know those moves, the game is limited". This is absurd. There are 696 "correct" opening and replies in the first two moves of a backgammon game. After another move or two, it is impossible to "know" the correct move. This is the beauty and challenge of the game. Is is a continuous trade-off balancing choices between competing principles and goals.

Backgammon's popularity is again on the upswing. The recent turnouts in Las Vegas and Las Angeles have grown more than 10% despite a significant downturn in the economy.

I appreciate the comments from the knowledgeable respondents to this article such as Mochy, Bob Haskell, Chiva, and Joe. They represent the informed minority. Let's hope for more like them.

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tungbo

I think the reason betting improves the fun of backgammon and poker is not that one likes gambling better, it is rather that one can express a view of the relative strength of one's position in a nuanced way. Consider 2 contrasting types of games. On the one hand, there is baccarat (same with black jack). The play and action is fast and furious. I would say it is almost pure gambling like flipping coins. That should be the prefered game for pure gamblers.

On the other hand, consider MahJong. A complex game for 4 simliar to rummy, but extremely popular all across the East Asia. No bettings are involved, but depending on complexity of patterns formed in the winning hand, different sizes of payoff is given to the winner. (similar to winning $16 for four of a kind and only $2 for a pair) With the changing tile discards and tile draw, the probabilities shifts as with backgammon. The player must make choices on discards, tile acquistion, and how complex a pattern to shoot for. The more rare pattern brings greater reward, but could lenghten the game and decrease the chance of winning. Expert players only enjoy the game when complex combinations are allowed. They find the version with simple patterns not too much fun. They definitely don't like to play for no money as they feel naive or wild plays would disrupt their expectations.

I would suggest that MahJong is much more popular than bridge in Asia due to the fact that it's easier to learn and easier to express one's mastery.

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Joe Allen

My backgammon board has been signed by Steven Dubner. I'm reminded of Freakonomics whenever I play.

Chris Bray

My name is Chris Bray. I write the weekly backgammon column for The Independent in the UK which is the only national newspaper to publish a backgammon column (sixteen years and still going strong). I have also written six books including "Backgammon for Dummies".

A few points: there is always a best move in any backgammon position - the difference between two plays may be small but getting the right play more frequently separates the great from the merely good - backgammon is a game of small but subtle differences.

Poker became popular when TV worked out how to show the hole cards and because even for non players it is easy to understand quite quickly. BG on TV is great for experts but making it a mass market game is difficult because actually it is quite complex (which is why chess and bridge have the same problem). Incidentally the most difficult game in the world by a long way is the eastern game of Go.

The doubling cube is the very essence of backgammon. It originated in New York (and possibly Boston) circa 1925 but no-one knows eactly how. If you want to read about its histroy go here:

http://www.chicagopoint.com/bgdoubling.html

If any budding investigative journalists in New York thinks they can find out more then please let me know if you're succesful!

What the game needs is better media exposure and young players so please teach your children - much more fun than mindless computer games.

Finally if the NYT would like to syndicate my column then please feel free to contact me!

Kind Regards

Chris

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Erling Skorstad

As several of the comments have pointed out, backgammon is far more complex than is generally acknowledged.

One fact that has not been brought forward is that Chess programs are much better at winning consistently over humans than Backgammon programs. The reason is partly the inherent randomness from dice, but more due to the fact that there are more possible moves in Backgammon than in Chess, which is a surprise to most people. This means that the computer cannot in reasonable time calculate the "best" move, but has to rely on heuristic programming.

I disagree with the original statement that you need to have a gambling tilt. If you play match play the setup is comparable to a game of Chess, and for a 17 point match the duration will be comparable to a Chess match.

I believe that the major reason for the the game not being more popular is that the rules of match play including the doubling cube is generally not included in the instructions accompanying most of the boards sold, which means that the use of the doubling cube is neglected.

Denmark has a large backgammon community and is one of the strongest nations in Backgammon which is due to our internationally recognized 23 year old backgammon federation. We have a national league, a yearly team tournament, several local and national tournaments, a federation magazine, an active and lively internet forum and the flagship is the largest international yearly tournament "Nordic Open" with several hundreds of participants that spend their Easter Holidays "rolling the dice".

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McHarry

I'm not an expert, but I am good backgammon player.

The perception of the game, in my experience held by casual players, is a that it's a game of chance. 'Snakes and ladders gammon.' would be a better description of the game when these people get over a board. They have no idea what the cube is for and therefore gammons and backgammons are meaningless.

I've attempted to introduce the 'real Backgammon' to such people and it's ended in frustration, on more than one occasion.

The main obstacle to backgammon becoming more popular is good old fashioned ignorance.

Mark Mauer

"Why Isn't Backgammon More Popular?" This question has pestered me for years. I have a friend who lives across the country, but we play every time we are together - camping, vegas, at home, anywhere.

The stakes are never higher than a handful of dollars, but the idea of winning and losing something real makes all the difference.

It's a fantastic game and totally engrossing when played with the cube. I need to find some L.A. locals to play with.

Jesús Izquierdo Fourzan

Hello, causes of poor development of the game of backgammon:

A player will select a game that gives him the most wins with the least possible effort, chess, bridge and backgammon require too much study time to achieve acceptable performance, so backgammon will not be selected by most players as their base game.

Moreover, most backgammon software and online players have a high level, the novice player to play with them will consistently lose, nobody likes to lose, it's painful, therefore the backgammon will not be selected either.

Greetings from Mexico.

David

BluffGammon

Here is a suggestion to make backgammon more exciting. Use a bar style dice cup to make rolls, and the player on roll looks at the dice and announces what he has rolled -- or maybe lies if his roll sucked. His opponent now has the option of calling "BS" or "Play" and then the dice are displayed. If "BS" was not called then the player on roll moves his men based on the roll he called out. If "BS" was called and the player was lying then he loses his turn, but if he wasn't lying then the other player loses his turn (i.e. the player on roll moves his men then gets to roll again). This game is a lot of fun, and it addresses one of the problems of playing backgammon online -- you can't use GnuBG or Snowie to cheat.

David

Actually I started playing backgammon only recently. Got an app for iPad called "Backgammon Masters" and found the game to be quite complicated and challenging. I see why this thing has been around for 5000 years .