Backgammon Articles

R.I.P. Inside Backgammon, 1991–1999
by Chris Bray, 1998

ack in the early 1980's I had given up chess after discovering the attractions of backgammon during the all night system testing of some absolutely vital software system (computers were rather slow in those days and we were still using punched cards).

The first two books that I read were The Backgammon Book by Jacoby & Crawford and Backgammon for Profit by Joe Dwek. These books immeasurably improved my performance and my financial return from the game, proving once more that learning in any form of structured manner far outdistances the random learning that one gets from just playing.

Moving to New York in early 1982 I immediately increased my library and hopefully my skills. However books aren't published every week and I looked around for something that could keep me up to date with events in the backgammon world and provide some theoretical instruction.

Around this time the "Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine" published by Mike Maxakuli was reaching the end of its life as the popularity of backgammon began to wane. Meanwhile the New York based "Backgammon Times" edited by Les B. Levi, continued to publish, the last issue I have dating from Fall '83. Both magazines combined theory with news, anecdotes and tournament schedules and did a good job of promoting backgammon. LVBM was a little more glitzy but then it did hail from the West Coast and we must make allowance for that.

Whilst all of this had been going on two people had been producing newsletters on a regular basis. In the (then) little known area of Flint, Michigan, Carol Joy Cole had already started, in June 1978, her "Flint Area Backgammon News". Straightforward in its approach it has served the denizens of Flint, and subsequently a much larger world audience, faithfully and well for over 20 years. It continues to provide the definitive list of forthcoming tournaments. Long may it and its proprietor continue to flourish. In Chicago, in March 1977, Bill Davis had started his first newsletter the "National Backgammon League Newsletter" which went through two further incarnations before it emerged, in June 1988, as the "Chicago Point" which of course is still with us today, providing an excellent balance of news, anecdote and theory.

In the mid to late 1980's, as far as learning new theory went, we once more became dependent on books, of which there were a steady stream from the likes of Danny Kleinman and Bill Robertie. Kleinman's books were in any event written as if they were an anthology of magazine articles and kept the backgammon playing public amused but much more importantly, educated.

The next change came when in 1989 across the Atlantic in Germany Harald Johanni started his dual language "Backgammon Magazin". Johanni focused on recording and publishing whole matches between top players, thus providing a different way of learning about backgammon and one that has proved invaluable over the years.

No one though had attempted to produce, on a regular basis, a magazine that concentrated on backgammon theory and its development. The time was ripe and at the start of 1991 two new magazines began publication. Roy Friedman's "Leading Edge Backgammon" flourished and died within a year but left us with legacy of knowing how to play 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in response to an opponent who had made an inside point with his first roll.

The second magazine "Inside Backgammon Magazine" was edited by Bill Robertie, already a world champion and author of many excellent books and Kent Goulding, bon viveur, raconteur, author of the series "Backgammon with the Champions" and the possessor of a sense of humour that is positively British in its subtlety. Goulding's sardonic wit, combined with Robertie's drier but no less effective writing style, produced a magazine with top quality content throughout the eight years of its life.

As well as themselves, Bill and Kent have been fortunate to have analysts such as Kit Woolsey on their team and thus the content of Inside BG has always been strong and accurate. I produce a weekly column of some 400 words for a national newspaper and though that doesn't sound like much it still requires a lot of checking and editing. This has given me some idea of the efforts involved in producing Inside BG and how much time that must have taken Bill, Kent and the team. Over its life Inside BG contained very few typos or other errors.

Throughout its brief existence Inside BG has given us remarkable insights into backgammon theory. Anyone could produce a problem page or a feature such as the Master's Panel. What very few can do is to write the solutions to the problems or the narrative to the Panel in such a way that it both amuses and educates at the same time, consistently opening up new lines of thought for the reader.

In the early days of Inside BG all the rollouts were done by hand and must have taken ages. In the latter years our silicon friends, TD-Gammon, JellyFish and Snowie have been available to provide assistance. This has meant quantum leaps forward in our understanding of the game as the bots have become stronger. Barclay Cooke must be turning in his grave as he watches modern players perform, happily making the ace-point and slotting only occasionally, blindly following the playing habits of the bots.

Inside BG has not blindly followed but has analysed the performance of our silicon chums pointing out what is good, what is bad, what is likely to be right and what is not. You have only got to look at the Summer 1998 issue and read Robertie's analysis of the cubeful rollouts performed by Snowie to realise that it is the interpretation of the results produced by the bots that is important, not the results themselves.

The amount of backgammon knowledge contained in the collective copies of Inside BG is huge and you ignore it at your peril. Those poor souls who have missed out for the last eight years are really flying blind in today's backgammon world.

Reading an issue of Inside BG once is of course not enough. For those of us who won't see thirty again, or even forty as in my own case, it is well known that we retain very little of what we read (only 10%) on a first pass. It is how you read and re-read that is important. When playing through games you should always use a board just because the visual impact helps you to remember. Problems should also be studied with a board. Contentious positions should be analysed with JellyFish or Snowie, or even better, discussed with friends and rolled out as propositions.

Finally you should re-read all your copies of Inside BG at least once a year — ideally making a note of key points along the way and then re-reading those. As a test, how many of you can remember the formulae for aggressive versus safe bear-off plays in post ace-point games? If you can't, go back and find the relevant editions of Inside BG (there are four of them).

It is to be hoped that Bill and Kent (or someone) will find the time to edit all of their material and produce a "Best of Inside BG" book of some sort — they could even include some of KG's best jokes?! It would be a sad loss to the backgammon-playing world if this weren't done. An anthology of the problems alone would, if studied assiduously, considerably enhance the skill levels of the majority of players. Back issues will obviously be available for some time to come.

And so Inside BG comes to an end as all good things must. We must appreciate that Bill and Kent have changing priorities and that the magazine will be no more. However, given the wonders of modern technology, what they have produced will remain available to many generations and not suffer the fate that befell the works of Ozymandius.

We in the world of backgammon should acknowledge our debt to Kent and Bill and thank them for all their efforts of the last eight years in producing such a high quality magazine. We should wish them well in their future endeavours whatever they may be. We should also encourage Carol, Bill, Harald, Michael Crane (who produces the excellent UK magazine Bibafax) and all the others around the world who currently produce backgammon magazines of one sort or another to keep on writing.

With the advent of the Internet the world is changing and most of the current magazines now have associated web sites. The web has done wonders for backgammon allowing people from all over the world to play each other from the comfort of their own homes. The backgammon news group on the net is an excellent forum for the exchange of ideas and debate. However, though distribution methods may change and communication is easier, the human mind does not yet seem ready to do its studying from computer screens rather than good old-fashioned paper. Thus I foresee a long life for backgammon books and magazines.

Therefore the burning question that remains is who will pick up the mantle and lead us through the backgammon theory of the next millennium? Whatever you might think neither JellyFish nor Snowie can do the job. They will help more and more as time goes on but they will still need a human master to guide them. Any volunteers?

Addendum (June 1999)

I originally wrote this article in December 1998. In the last few weeks Kit Woolsey has stepped forwards to answer the question I posed in the last paragraph by producing the first truly web-based backgammon magazine Gammonline at

This looks to be a tremendous magazine with articles for all standards of player, a fully annotated match each month and a problem set. The graphics are excellent. The one great advantage of a web-based publication is that there is no limit to the length of articles. The magazine can be as long as it needs to be each month and authors can fully express themselves rather than having to get an idea across in a specific number of words. At $36 for a year's subscription this is a real bargain. Ignore it at your peril.

Anyone wishing to reprint or republish any part of this article is welcome to do so.

Chris Bray is the backgammon columnist for The Independent
newspaper in London and author of four books on backgammon.

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