Backgammon: The game of constant action
An article by Steve Sax
This article is designed for all poker players who would like to learn about the exciting game of Backgammon. I have been playing backgammon for more than 30 years and I can tell you that it is a game of excitement and drama just as much as poker.
Some of our greatest poker players are also great backgammon players. Gus Hansen is likely one of the five best players in the world and could be the best. Other poker luminaries that are backgammon stars include Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, and "X-22" Paul Magriel.
Stu Ungar made the finals of the Las Vegas tournament in 1984 losing to Leslie Stone. She had knocked me out in the round of 8 two matches earlier. Also 1983 WSOP Champion Tom McEvoy plays competitive backgammon to this day.
There was even one World Poker Tour final table that included Gus Hansen, Abe Mosseri and Tino Lechich who are all backgammon players.
Even poker's infamous hooded wonder Phil "The Unabomber" Laak has been known to partake in a game of backgammon or two.
Backgammon was the "In" game in the 70's. Games were played at disco's, restaurants and among celebrities like Hugh Hefner and the late Don Adams.
I used to play backgammon with Don Adams at the Cavendish West club in West Hollywood in the 80's and more recently I played poker with him at Hollywood Park Casino.
Some current stars who, enjoy backgammon include Tobey "Spiderman" Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. I even had the distinct pleasure in instructing Nicole Kidman how to improve her backgammon game several years back.
I believe that backgammon can share the limelight with poker and televised competition would be a great way to share the excitement of backgammon with the viewing public.
These could take the face of celebrity-pro consulting matches as well as head to head competition between top players with expert commentary that you enjoy on many of the televised poker shows.
I am a backgammon player but I also play poker and I can tell you that I enjoy both games for some different and some similar reasons. For those of you who have not played backgammon before or would like to refresh your knowledge on the rules please click on the link here for an introduction to this fascinating game. Primer on Backgammon
As I stated before there are many similarities and also differences between backgammon and poker. Backgammon is a game of open information and poker is a game of incomplete information. In poker you don't know if you should call a bet at the river because you can't be sure what cards your opponent is holding but in backgammon if your opponent doubles you, you can easily determine what you should do based on the mathematical probability of the position.
Some positions are easier to determine than others. A simple bear-off's can be exactly determined using a formula or by calculating the probability in your head. Other positions must be analyzed using a series of principles you have learned over your years of study
In poker you will rely heavily on experience as a basis for your decision.
Mathematical calculations come into play in poker as well when you try to determine whether you will bet, call or raise. Of course these calculations play a much smaller role in whether you are making the right decision than if it were backgammon.
In this example of a backgammon cube decision (enter pos 9 here) Black has two checkers left and White has one checker left. It is Black's roll and if he is successful in bearing off his last two pieces he will win the game. If he is not successful he will lose as White is assured of bearing off his last piece no matter what he rolls.
If you go through the numbers you will see that Black will win 23 times and lose 13 times. He is a little less than a 2/1 favorite. He is right to bet "double" here as he increases his expectancy by raising the stakes.
The player playing the White pieces should call "take" since he has greater than 25% chance to win the game. That is the break-even point at which a person should take or pass a backgammon game in a simple bear-off.
In poker things are a bit different. Betting and calling have a mathematical basis but that is only part of the decision.
If you have a flush draw but there is a pair on the board, you don't know if you hit your flush if it will be good since your opponent could either already have a full house or if the flush card you hit on the river pairs the board and gives him a full house.
This is where the incomplete information comes into play as you can never be completely sure that your decision is correct since correct play by your opponent should include a bit of deception.
If your opponent is playing less than optimal then you will be even less sure about what he has but perhaps a bit more sure that long term playing with this individual will reap a profit.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go through all the possible comparisons between backgammon and poker but using limit hold-em as the vehicle for comparison I'll give you some similar gambling situations between backgammon and poker.
Hitting a three outer on the river (you have AQ and your opponent has KK) with a board of 2 4 6 9 rainbow is 3 out of 44 remaining cards or 38/3 just under 13/1 odds. In backgammon if you had 4 checkers on your four-point and your opponent was off on his next roll you would be an 11/1 underdog to roll the 44, 55 or 66 needed to end the game in your favor.
Hitting a straight draw or flush draw on the river is an 8 or 9 outer. You know 6 cards (your two and the four on the board) and perhaps can infer what your opponent has but if you don't know then you are a 38/8 underdog to hit the straight and a 37/9 underdog to hit the flush.
You are a 4.75/1 dog to make the straight and a 4.11/1 dog to make the flush. Since you may not win if you hit your hand as you may not have the nut flush or the board is paired or could pair creating a full house you need to calculate that into your decision on whether you should call a bet on the turn. If you are only getting the correct direct odds the equity you lose on the times you hit your hand and lose should be compared to the implied odds of the extra bets you will earn when you hit your hand and your opponent pays you off.
A similar odds situation in backgammon would be if you needed a double on your last roll to win a game. If you had four checkers on your one point and your opponent was off on his next roll you would win anytime you rolled a double. The odds are 30/6 (5/1) of winning in that situation.
There are all kinds of situations in backgammon that mirror poker as the fates of each opponent are dictated by the roll of dice or the falling of a card. In backgammon as compared to poker, games can turn around again and again as each game is much longer.
In poker there are four rounds of betting that follow the dealt cards, flop, turn and river but in backgammon a typical game can be 20-30 moves with the cube in play and sometimes many more.
Backgammon is akin to baseball in that it can go on indefinitely whereas a poker hand is over in a few minutes generally.
It is the number of moves in each game and the resiliency of your game winning chances, which makes backgammon such an exciting and nerve-wracking game.
In poker you could for example have pocket kings and be far in the lead as the flop came KdKs2c. Your opponent could have Jd10d and hit Ad on the turn and Qd on the river to make a royal flush.
The odds of that occurring would be 2 outs in 47 times 1 out in 46. That is 2/2162 or 1080/1. That is sufficiently a rare occurrence however bad that may be that is as bad as it gets in poker.
In backgammon the beats or (suck-outs) can be much more brutal or exciting depending on what side you are on. In position 10 here is an example of an extraordinary game I once witnessed.
The odds of my friend winning this game were calculable by determining the parlay of multiple events that were necessary to lose. He was Black on roll and won this game. What was necessary for him to win here?
He had to stay out with 11, 22, 21 or 12 (4/36). His opponent had to roll an ace (but not 11) 10/36. He had to stay out again 1/36. His opponent rolled a double 1/6. He hit the checker 11/36 and he won the game 1/14.
Let's string those numbers together and see how that compares to our runner-runner royal flush situation. 4/36 (1/9) x 10/36 (5/18) x 1/36 x 6/36 (1/6) x 11/36 x 1/14= 1/320,654. Imagine Phil Hellmuth losing this game and explaining the odds to the television audience.
This is an exceptional example of course and rarely happens but I have witnessed and experienced bad beats and incredible suck-outs over my many years of playing backgammon. The only thing that comes close in poker in terms of those odds is being dealt two cards to a royal flush and then flopping it. The odds of that occurring are 649,739/1. Amazingly in my 5 years of playing poker I did flop a royal flush in hearts at the Bicycle Casino during a tournament.
I'm not trying to scare you off of playing backgammon, quite the contrary. I'm just showing you that backgammon is a game of incredible resiliency and one in which you are never out of it until it is mathematically impossible which as you witnessed in the previous example is most every game.
While poker can have a suck-out and re-suck on the river, backgammon, the swings can go on and on and games can be incredibly exciting.
Another reason why poker players might like to try backgammon is that is a game of constant action. You always have something to do since it is a head to head game.
In poker most decent players fold about 85% of the time and while your time is well invested during those hands to pay attention to the betting patterns tells and counter-tells of your opponents, that can be wearing over time and not as exciting as if you were in the hand yourself.
In backgammon every other move you have something to do as you will roll the dice and move the pieces in response to what your opponent does on his turn.
I have spoken to many top poker players and many of them enjoy backgammon more than poker because of those factors.
Another difference between poker and backgammon is bluffing. While bluffing does exist in backgammon by interpreting your opponent's body language, attitude, and your experience playing against him, it is basically an open information contest in which your decision to continue the game you are in is based on odds alone.
In poker of course bluffing is a good part of the game. While this can be intellectually stimulating, it can be somewhat frustrating when you guess wrong and fold a winner or make a "dumb" call on the turn when you were drawing dead.
I don't advocate poker players give up poker to play backgammon. Quite the contrary, I play both games and enjoy both games for their own qualities but from time to time I take a break from backgammon and try my skills at poker.
Poker players might have the same need to try a different game in which they can't be bluffed out. That to me is one of backgammon's enduring qualities in that you win and lose on your own merits as a player and aren't subject to being tricked by your opponent.
For those of you poker players who still love to bluff, it exists if only in a much more subtle way in backgammon as I have bluffed out many less experienced backgammon players by sensing their lack of comfort or by some harmless table talk to get them to do the wrong thing
It's a good idea to have a different game to play once I in a while and the variety of backgammon and its excitement can help you refresh yourself when you are ready to play some more poker.
Live poker is generally spread in multi-handed games nine or ten players. Sometimes games get shorthanded but there is rarely heads up play unless you get to the final two players at a tournament.
Live backgammon has three main variations that give you decent alternatives in your playing conditions. You can play against one opponent head to head. You can play in a chouette where one player plays against another and individuals on the side can bet on one player or another.
In addition backgammon players can play tournament games where players play to a set number of points and the first player to reach that number wins the match. Players advance in tournaments like the draw sheet of Wimbledon until there are two players left. The winner of that final match is the winner of the tournament.
Players who lose in early matches generally play in either a second chance bracket or a consolation tournament, which gives players who lose one match an additional chance to win cash prizes.
The drama of a backgammon match is extensive. I have experienced such highs and lows during individual matches and tournaments as you must run the gauntlet of pending disaster on each tournament, match, game and move.
In backgammon you move towards a victory or try to ward off defeat by making tactical decisions within the greater strategic whole.
I have experienced brutal losses having lost won games one after another to see a victory end in defeat but also have won from some amazingly difficult positions as I did in the finals in Los Angeles coming from 14-0 down to fifteen to win the tournament.
It's all part of the game. If you won all the time how much fun would that be anyway. The experience of the struggle is part of what makes backgammon an exciting game to play.
Many of the players I play with have been playing for decades and one player who is a regular in our game has been playing for 78 years. I doubt that if the game weren't interesting and exciting he would have played for 78 days.
Another fun way to participate in backgammon is in a doubles tournament. This contest faces two teams of two players against each other. You may discuss strategy with your partner and your opponents will discuss their decisions as well.
Watching good doubles teams play against each other is a great lesson since you get inside the minds of these top players and see their, though processes in action. In poker games this isn't practical, as hidden information would preclude any public discussion of strategy.
The closest poker gets to this is watching televised poker where selected experts weigh in on the decisions made at the table. This can be interesting and educational but sometimes I have seen the "expert's" rationale fit the situation and not be sound advice.
Backgammon as well as poker can be played live or online. There are quite a few sites to play at and you can play for free at most of them. You can watch good players play at GamesGrid and learn from their moves. The good players generally have ratings over 1800 but some may be below that.
Poker has had a tremendous increase in popularity in the last few years and I'm sure that with an influx of new poker players trying backgammon that we can share the limelight with poker in the world's imagination.
Play well and have fun.