Where and when to play

Where and when to play Backgammon

When & where?


No other game generates as much adrenaline.

Chris Bray

Playing tournaments, both live and online… …you do meet some fantastic characters. Most people are very friendly in the backgammon community, but some keep themselves to themselves and don’t really get involved in conversation. I always try to make small talk, asking my opponents where they are based and which tournaments they’ve played in before. I congratulate them on a good play and so on. Most players will come out of their shells and engage in conversation as long as you don’t bother them when they are trying to concentrate. I was once playing a long online match against an experienced player based in Florida and half way through the match he asked to take a time out. When he returned he explained that he had an argument with his girlfriend and they’d split up. He’d locked her out of his apartment and while he’d been playing me, she’d been banging on the door. He’d paused the match to let her back in and they’d kissed and made up, all in the time it took me to have a cup of tea whilst waiting to resume the match. Live tournaments are not only fun, they are also great practice grounds. There’s no better way to sharpen your skills than to play under pressure. There are tournaments almost everywhere and you’ll find plenty at local clubs; whether they are dedicated backgammon clubs or other sports clubs holding occasional backgammon tournaments. Then there are the more serious annual and professional tournaments. At the top end, there is the World Series of Backgammon, the World Championships in Monaco and many major tournaments in the U.S., such as the Chicago Open, which is the most famous and also offers excellent lectures by professional players. Other famous international tournaments include the Japan Open and the Nordic Open too.

If you are lucky enough to live in a big city, you will probably have many choices of tournaments. There are clubs all over London, including Crystal Palace, Ealing, Clapton and Fulham. There are also the traditional West End clubs like the RAC in Pall Mall, which, together with outliers such as the MCC (the home of cricket) and the Hurlingham club, form a league. There is also a London Backgammon League of Individual Players. There is fantastic calendar of backgammon tournaments around the world. A lot of news of tournaments everywhere is available on the USBGF  website and in the UK at UKBGF and BIBA.

How does a tournament work?

 Tournaments are almost always knockouts, ‘round robins,’ or a combination of both. A round robin usually happens in the early stages of the tournament where a group will play each other for the right to get into the later rounds such as the quarter-final. Tournaments sometimes have different categories for beginners, intermediates and experts. Don’t let pride get in the way of you joining the right group; you will have more fun and learn more by playing well-matched opponents.

Having said that, I can’t see the point of having an intermediate tournament at the world championship. Who wants to say, ‘I’m world champion at the intermediate level, making me the champ of mediocre players!’ I also can’t see the point of having a lady’s world championship tournament when the current overall world champion is female, not the first female winner, and will most definitely not be the last!

As Walter Trice says, ‘In a backgammon match, anybody has a reasonable chance to beat anybody else. The player who doesn’t respect his opponent is likely to get greedy, take risks when he shouldn’t and to fail to take risks when he should.’

A couple of match play and tournament rules

Crawford and Jacoby were two giants of the game in the 60s and 70s. Together, they wrote a very useful book called The Backgammon Book. They dedicated it to ‘the genius who invented the doubling cube and made backgammon the game it is.’

thebackgammonbookThe Crawford Rule was invented by John Crawford in the 1960s and is now used by almost everyone when playing matches. It is used exclusively in match play, not money play.

Crawford ruled that in a match being played for points rather than money, when one player is one point away from winning, no doubles are allowed for the next game.

For example, if you are leading 4-1 in a match to five points, neither of you are able to double in the next game. This prevents the losing player from automatically doubling when there is no possible upside for the winning player in doing so. It protects the match leader from receiving a double when there is no value in doubling himself, so it makes the game fairer.

It’s worth remembering this rule before you get to the late stages of a match because it can put you in a position where it is a long haul back, because not only are you losing against an opponent who is one away from winning but you also cannot double.

The Jacoby Rule was created by Oswald Jacoby and is conversely only used in money play, not match play. The Jacoby Rule states that if no doubles have been offered in a game then gammons and backgammons do not apply.

Tournament dice

tornamentdiceMany tournament players bring their own precisely manufactured dice, making them less likely to be biased towards any number and therefore more likely to give random dice throws.

Precision dice from the World Championships in Monaco – a snip at $35.


A couple of match play and tournament rules

The early rounds of tournaments are often matches played to just 5 points. This is brutally short, but there are some ways you can turn this to your advantage. If you are playing someone better than you, you should make the match short by ramping up the doubles. Conversely, if you think you are the superior player, stretch the match out so that you end up playing as many games as possible, making it less likely that you will be obliterated by a series of flukes.

Later rounds in tournaments are often to 9, 11, 17 or even more points. The longer the match, the more your skills and experience will persevere. When you’re a novice it’s fun to enter a small tournament where everybody has a shot at getting to five points. As your skills improve, you can play in the longer events.

Some tournaments auction their players to raise the value of the winning prizes; the ‘owner’ of the player shares a portion of the auction pool. This is called a Calcutta Swiss auction.

Tournament auctions: as close as I’ll ever get to becoming Miss Universe.

Tournament auctions: as close as I’ll ever get to becoming Miss Universe.

Doubling in tournaments is allowed but most apply the Crawford rule. Don’t forget your automatic double and free drop in the game after a Crawford game.

A friend of mine played in a pro-am tournament at Crockford’s Casino in London’s Mayfair. He is a novice and was lucky enough to get paired with Falafel, the man many believe is one of the greatest players ever to pick up a pair of dice. Together they progressed as far as the semi-finals with my friend having only a passing understanding of what was going on. This seems like a fun way to learn about the game, a bit like learning how to drive with Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel!

What is a chouette and how do you play in one?

A chouette, which was invented soon after doubling was introduced, is a game where one player plays against a group of players who play together. The winner of the game becomes the ‘king of the mountain’ in the next game and faces everyone else. It’s great fun, generates an enormous amount of noise (the word chouette is French for ‘screeching owl’, which indeed describes the sounds that can be heard emanating from a chouette) and it is also a great way of learning the game at a more advanced level because the team members get to confer about their next move. Phil Simborg, who is considered one of the leading chouette competitive players said ‘It toughens you up and prepares you for marriage.’ when working as a team in a chouette. Phil put his kids through college with his chouette winnings!


Phil Simborg, ‘ a chouette toughens you up and prepares you for marriage.’

The game evolved from a sociable tournament known as a Swiss Tournament. This is a mini informal tournament between friends (maybe six to eight), a sociable occasion where everyone chucks a small amount of money into a pot and either everybody plays everybody, or there are a couple of rounds and then a final. The winner takes the pot.

In a game of chouette, the single player on one side is known as the box. His ‘opponent’ can be any number of team players ruled by a captain. This obviously generates a lot of (often loud) debate. To keep the game moving, the captain makes all the moves without contradiction until the doubling cube comes into the game. Once the doubling cube is on ‘2’, team members can chip in with their opinion, but the captain still has the final word if the team can’t agree.

However, here’s where it gets complicated:

Each member of the team has his own doubling cube and can use it whenever he likes against the box. Accordingly, the box makes individual doubling decisions against each team member. As you can see, the box can be playing multiple cubes at the same time in the same game and can win or lose a lot of money. It sounds confusing and at first, it is. But chouettes are great fun so if you get invited to one you should give it a whirl.

Different chouettes have different rules and standards of etiquette. However, what never changes is the feeling (when you are the box) that you are playing an opponent with multiple personalities! The pressure of this and of potentially playing for large amounts of money in a single game can lead to some unusual plays. Whatever you do, don’t play for big bucks until you’ve played many a chouette.

Even if a chouette does cost you some cash in the course of an evening, you will at least get your money’s worth in terms of learning and having fun. And it will help you to get used to the pressure of playing under the scrutiny of an audience in a backgammon tournament. The ability to read people will help you in chouette. You can also benefit by observing everyone closely and noticing if someone is prone to making mistakes when playing under pressure, particularly when that player becomes the box player. You should also be aware, when you are captain, to know which of your team players are really worth listening to.

In many chouettes, when two players disagree strongly about a move, a bet on the play is often made. A picture is taken and at the earliest convenience, the play is put into a computer program to determine the winner. The bragging rights are usually worth more than the bet! But everyone learns something from the experience.

Be careful if you are joining a chouette where everybody knows each other pretty well except for you. You will be at a disadvantage because the others all know each other’s skills and styles. Chouettes are pretty commonplace in backgammon and wherever you play, if you ask your local club, it’s likely that someone will know where there is a regular one that you can join. I highly recommend giving it a go. It can send your adrenaline levels off the charts but it will also turbocharge you along the learning curve.

Roger Low and Paul Magriel play blindfolded in a demonstration match with Denise Hemingway and George Plimpton (Backgammon Galore).

Roger Low and Paul Magriel play blindfolded in a demonstration match with Denise Hemingway and George Plimpton (Backgammon Galore).

Whether playing in a formal chouette or even just with a friend or a small group, it’s always fun to play for money even if it’s just for the price of a drink. It gives the game that competitive edge and tension.

Backgammon players, just like other gamblers, always remember the good times and are hazy about the number of times they have lost. One player I know claims to have won £4 million over the years. I always wonder — as he reminds me of this — why I am paying for the drinks again!

Learn from the pros

At many tournaments and backgammon club meetings, there are matches between professionals that you can watch, and lectures you can attend. You can even find videos of backgammon matches on YouTube. You can sit back and watch matches between many of the best players in the world. As you watch them play, think about what play or cube decision you would make. (You can even pause the video and make a decision and then press play again to see if you made the same decision as the pro.)

Unless you are a great player yourself, you will be surprised and even shocked at the number of moves you see played that you would never even have thought of. You will learn one of the most important lessons in life… that you don’t know what you don’t know. Watching the pros will show you how much you have to learn.

Playing backgamon online

Cheating in live backgammon games is difficult and, thankfully, rarely happens. But in online matches, where you can’t see your opponent, it’s much easier to be hoodwinked.

There’s a great scene in the Bond film Goldfinger where Goldfinger employs Shirley Eaton’s character to look at his opponent’s cards and transmit the news to her boss who is playing by the swimming pool below.

shirleyeatonWhat happened in the scene in the film could never happen in backgammon because there are no hidden aspects to the game. However, it is possible to cheat online. That’s where cheats can and do prosper.

When I first caught the backgammon bug, I wanted to get as much experience as possible, so I started playing against other people online for money. I only played for small amounts but they started to add up, given the frequency at which I lost!

One of the reasons I lost was that I wasn’t very good, but the other reason was that my opponent would be sitting next to two screens: one showing his match against a sucker (that’ll be me) and the other running his favourite computer software. He was fast enough to fool me. He would move the obvious moves himself and then update a replica game on computer programme while I was pondering my next clumsy move. On the more difficult moves or cube decisions, his computer would give him the answers. Ultimately, I was playing against a machine. I might as well have been playing Roger Federer at tennis for money! I discovered this the hard way after losing some money and a more seasoned player warning me not to play for money online. There are plenty of gambling sites and poker dens online where you can play backgammon for money, but it’s a risky business. On the other hand, playing people online for fun is a great idea and a brilliant way of improving your game because you can play whenever you feel like it.

There are some good sites such as FIBS http://www.fibs.com/, Gammon site http://www.gammonsite.com/ and Backgammon Masters http://www.backgammonmasters.com but my favourite is where a lot of professionals play, Grid Gammon, although it is less easy to join as it is by invitation only: http://www.gridgammon.com/.

Rupert Hill — no relation (at least that’s what I claim when he is being embarrassing, as in this story; at other times I acknowledge him as my brother) — had tried for some time to be accepted by ‘Grid Gammon’, the most exclusive site in online playing. He had started playing on the computer program Xtreme Gammon, where his results got him rated him as a ‘casual player’ (which is a polite way of saying that he was not very good). Rupert took this term to mean that he had a reasonable grading as a player. When he couldn’t get registered at Grid Gammon he emailed its administrators complaining that he should gain entry because he was rated as a ‘casual player’. This is a bit like writing to Harvard to ask why your straight E-grades didn’t get you a place.