The aim of this article is to illustrate
two major distinctions within the wider backgammon community, namely
casual and formal play. The major distinctions between the rules and etiquette
of these two distinct forms of play are outlined in a table, which may
serve as a checklist for club or tournament officials when briefing newcomers
to the formal game. It is further suggested that the introduction of 'formal'
cubeless matches would be a proactive approach to encourage the sustained
participation of newcomers to the local club scene.
Introduction: Formal and Casual Backgammon
The advent of the Internet has had a positive impact on the global popularity
of backgammon. The format of the game servers facilitates a 'de facto'
standardization of the rules of the game within the context of each specific
server. Additionally, the automatic nature of the interface prevents players
from breaking the rules, and so acts to familarize and ease the integration
of newcomers to the virtual community.
gaming serves to standardise game rules within the context of each
Virtual gaming has engendered many advantages
for the gaming community, not least of which is the ability for gamesters
to pit their skills against other similarly skilled players from the four
corners of the world twenty-four hours per day.
Despite the significant advantages, game
servers cannot compete with the 'real world' in one significant
aspect of gaming. For many gamesters, the lively social interaction of
traditional 'real world' play, which stimulates the five senses (especially
sight, sound and touch), provides a level of excitement unparalleled in
cyberspace. Traditional game playing is an inveterate social pastime,
which dates back thousands of millennia to the birthplace of civilization
itself. In the modern world, traditional gaming is practiced in a variety
of private and public milieus including the home, cafes, and clubs.
The backgammon family of race games has
undergone much evolution. The Ancient Egyptian game of Senet (left) and
Orbital-gammon (right) illustrate 5000 years of variations of a common
In general, traditional backgammon
games are played in two distinct formats: casual; and formal. Formal backgammon
is undoubtedly showcased by the various world, regional, and national
championships which regularly attract the crème de la crème
of players skilled in the art and science of the game. The formal game
is represented at the local level by the numerous clubs in existence around
the world. However, within the wider backgammon community, the 'formal'
backgammon players undoubtedly constitute an elite minority. The vast
majority of the global backgammon playing public is composed of 'casual'
or 'ethnic' players. Within the context of this article, the terms 'casual'
and 'ethnic' are used loosely to encompass keen backgammon players who
regularly play within a close family or social circle, or those who are
experienced players of ethnic backgammon variants.
The Evolution and Extinction of Games
Like biological species, board games are not instantaneously created out
of thin air. The material elements and the rules of the game evolve over
time. The origin of modern backgammon can be traced back through multitudinous
variants to the race games played by the Ancient Sumerians and Egyptians
over 5000 years ago. Like biological species, the success of a board game
is subject to the Darwinian principles of 'survival of the fittest'.
Like biological species, board games can also become extinct. Backgammon
variants may become extinct if the human resource base of players is not
replenished by new blood. An argument can be made that the popularity
of the modern 'Western' game owes much to the introduction of doubling
around 1927. However, centuries earlier, 'Western' backgammon,
(distinguished by the employment of two dice where doublets are played
twice), ousted a myriad of similar variants to become the table game of
choice for Renaissance gamesters.
gamesters soon embraced backgammon as their Table game of choice
The sustained popularity of any board game
is subject to innumerable factors. However, suffice to say that any game
will eventually become totally, or locally extinct if a stream of newcomers
does not constantly replace the gradual attrition of inveterate players.
This concept of extinction is particularly
relevant for local backgammon clubs. It is arguable that the success of
a local club will be subject to the sustained number of regular participants.
A further relevant analogy from the biological world is the concept of
'minimum viable population'. The exact number of players required to constitute
and sustain a club is a moot point, but its safe to say "the more
the merrier." Players will be less likely to expend valuable resources
to play at a club if the membership consists of just a few familiar faces:
it may be better just to hold a small regular chouette at home. Players
will be more likely to participate in the local club on a regular basis
if the membership base is sufficient to ensure an adequate number, and
variety of opponents. Hence, expanding the membership base is likely to
pay dividends over the long term, which will be of benefit to both the
club and the individual players.
The increasing popularity of the Internet
bodes well for local clubs, as virtual gamers seek to test their skills
in the 'real world'. Perhaps the most promising supply of new blood is
the cornucopia of casual and ethnic gamers who primarily play in smaller
social circles. By advertising through local media outlets a club can
make its presence known throughout the catchment area. Ensuring the sustained
participation of such players may prove to be more problematic.
The following story is based on actual
events at a backgammon club (names and some minor details have been changed),
and may serve to illustrate the perceived barriers to the sustained participation
of newcomers in the formal club scene.
A Tale of Two Players
Ahmed has played the game of 'shish-besh' (the Arabic term for
Backgammon), within the local immigrant community for decades. He particularly
enjoys the social aspect of playing the game but derives little pleasure
from playing on the Internet. Hearing about a local club he decides to
participate in the weekly tournament. The secretary informs him of the
tournament format: five-point single elimination matches, with the Crawford
rule in force. Observing the blank look on Ahmed's face, the secretary
manages to find a spare minute to explain the concept of doubling. During
the discussion Ahmed comes to appreciate that there are a number of customs
(which he may perceive to be 'local' rules), with which he is unfamiliar.
Undaunted, Ahmed is reasonably comfortable to participate in the tournament
and he sits down to play his first opponent, Andy.
Before their match commences, Andy explains
that they must play with Andy's dice, as they are 'precisions'. Ahmed
has no idea why Andy's dice should be so special, and perhaps the seeds
of suspicion are sown in his mind. The two players roll off for the opening
roll: Ahmed's five beats Andy's two. Ahmed picks up both dice to re-roll
his opening throw. He is instantly informed that he must play the numbers
on the original roll. Andy goes on to explain that the dice must be thrown
on the right-hand side of the board and cocked dice must be thrown again.
Ahmed perceives that the locals play a very strict game (perhaps this
here to read how a casual Turkish 'tavla' player fares against
a formal backgammon player.
During the middle-game Andy throws double
2's and proceeds to move his checkers. Unhappy with the resulting position,
he replaces them to consider an alternative move. Ahmed objects claiming
that the 'touch move' rule has been breached. He is informed that this
rule is not an official rule of 'international backgammon'. Andy settles
upon his final choice for the 2-2 and proceeds to pick and pass in Ahmed's
home-board. Once more Ahmed claims the rules do not permit this type of
move (note this rule is common in the Middle East). Again, he is informed
of the 'official rules of international backgammon'. It soon dawns on
Ahmed that not only does he need to learn a complete set of new rules,
but he must also 'unlearn' many of the rules and customs by which he learned
Despite his 'expert' checker skills,
Ahmed loses the match to Andy through the latter's skillful use of the
doubling cube. Ahmed decides to watch some of the other locals play, and
comprehends that he is at a major disadvantage through his ignorance of
cube skills. As the first round matches draw to an end, Ahmed invites
the unlucky losers to a 'friendly game'. There are no takers, as the regulars
want to buy back in the tourney to earn some championship points, or play
chouette for money. Ahmed is invited to participate in a small stakes
chouette but unfortunately he must decline. "Losing a few dollars
is of little consequence" Ahmed informs the group, "The tenets
of Islam prevent me from gambling". The table erupts in laughter
as earlier everybody had witnessed Ahmed pay his 20 dollars to join the
tournament. "It's a long story" replies Ahmed as he leaves the
group. (It should be noted that despite the Islamic prohibition of gambling,
participation in an 'official' competition, which explicitly and formally
rewards a skillful winner is generally permissible, in spite of any entry
fee. The annual Abu Dhabi backgammon tournament provides a classic example).
© Dean Kezan
To casual players the cube is a fearsome beast
Meanwhile, John, another first-time visitor
to the club, has been totally trounced and knocked out of the first round
losing by a doubled backgammon in the first game. It was the first time
John had played with the doubling cube; in fact it was the first time
he had played this new 'variation' which permitted more than five checkers
on a board point, and a backgammon scored three points!
The five checkers
per point rule is a common variant - for example, peg backgammon
Eventually Ahmed and John make contact
and soon become engaged in a 'friendly' game. Ahmed's victory is
an unsatisfying experience as John was obviously an 'absolute beginner'
providing little challenge. Ahmed was never seen at the club again.
The following week John makes his second
visit to the club. Although he spent a good few hours reading to brush
up on his limited knowledge of the game, John instinctively knows that
the 20 dollars to enter the tournament would be totally wasted in the
face of stiff competition. John looks around for Ahmed or any other 'beginner'
to play with. After doing the rounds of the club, it is obvious that the
participants are all 'experts'. Nevertheless, he eventually joins the
small stakes chouette, losing consistently, doubled gammon after doubled
gammon. A few players critique his cube and checker strategy, but what
planet are these guys on? Match equities; market losers; doubling windows;
Kleinman counts; dmp; mwc, the jargon never stops. Clearly he is
well out of his league in this company.
One member waxes lyrical about Internet
backgammon and points John to FIBS, a backgammon server that sounds very
interesting. It will be many months before John ventures back to the club.
In the meantime, a stream of Johns and Ahmeds pass through the club doors
never to be seen again after their initial curiosity is sated.
Bridging the Gap: The Integration of
Casual and Formal Backgammon
The story of Ahmed and John starkly illustrates the chasm between formal
and casual backgammon. A number of barriers both perceived and real prevent
the smooth transition of the casual gamer into a typical formal club scene.
Both Ahmed and John perceived that entering the formal tournament would
result in their swift elimination due to lack of cube skills, and in John's
case, his general inexperience.
with family recovering from his visit to the club
Its fair to say that the doubling cube
sorts out the wheat from the chaff. Mastering cube skills is prerequisite
for casuals wishing to progress to the next level of tournament play.
However, cube skills are not gained overnight. Fluency in doubling strategy
is only gained by much study and practice. During the interim, many newcomers
may be unwilling to pay to hone their cube skills learning the hard way
whilst losing to the 'experts' at the local club.
Clubs may implement a number of measures
to cater for the less experienced players. Typical initiatives
include tournament divisions for the beginner and intermediate classes.
In larger clubs, such divisions may satisfy the requirements of casual
players, but many clubs are simply too small to provide a reasonable number
of competitors in each division. In addition 'beginner' and 'intermediate'
are subjective and ambiguous categories and it may be hard to accurately
place a player within a specific division. The compartmentalization of
players into skill brackets obviously prevents the competitive interaction
between experienced and less experienced players. In a typical backgammon
club of modest size, this may not satisfy the social needs of some players.
Players confined to small divisions may become bored playing against the
same small circle of opponents. Perhaps another approach might prove
It is common to hear club players lamenting the fact that more people
are playing on the Internet these days. On many backgammon servers, it
is common to find both experienced and inexperienced players engaged in
cubeless games. At FIBS for instance, a whole distinct body of players
enjoy the competition and rewards associated with single point matches.
On the IYT (ItsYourTurn.Com)
server, the monthly cubeless backgammon tournaments attract on average
three times more entrants than tournaments held with the cube. It should
also be noted that many of the stronger players on the Internet are still
regular entrants in cubeless games.
Perhaps it would be beneficial for backgammon
clubs to cater to this niche market. Consider the advantages of regular
cubeless match tournaments from the perspective of casual players like
Ahmed and John. Inexperienced players would have a forum where they could
familiarize themselves with the 'formal' rules of the game and develop
their checker play skills unburdened by potentially worrisome cube strategy.
Experienced ethnic players such as Ahmed would have more rewarding victories
against similar opponents. Newcomers would find it relatively easy
to find a game suited to their skill level, and more importantly would
be more likely to return to club in the future. In time the allure of
the cube games might prompt the casuals to master cube strategy and become
regular entrants in the main club events.
demonstration purposes only Sydney's David Reitzin and Steve Clary
shoot it out in traditional style on a typical Arabic style board
The formal recognition of cubeless match
results by awarding championship points (cubeless division) and an annual
trophy would provide valuable incentives to secure the regular participation
of players. Even 'expert' players knocked out of the main tournament
might even be enticed to enter the cubeless events with the allure of
a cubeless trophy as testament to their success. The participation of
experienced players in cubeless matches should not be discouraged as the
absence of the cube serves to mitigate the advantage enjoyed by the stronger
player. Furthermore, cubeless matches may provide valuable practice for
playing at particular match scores, for example, double match point.
The salient point is that cubeless matches
may offer great potential to enhance both the membership base and the
social interaction within local clubs.
Once a club attracts a stream of new members, it is important to encourage
their sustained participation. A number of player development initiatives
are practiced by some clubs, including for example, periodic seminars
on various aspects of the game. Another important factor to consider is
the provision of basic information to raise the awareness of newcomers
to the wealth of learning resources such as books, websites, and software.
Tournament and club officials will often
be the first point of contact for newcomers. A helpful and knowledgeable
official will often create a favorable first impression for the first
time visitor. It is often taken for granted that officials will be highly
conversant with the formal rules and etiquette of the game.
Club officials should be familiar with
the wide variety of rule variants
by Gene Zukor, originally published in 'Taking Some of the Luck
Out of Backgammon' by W. D. Eyre, Rampao Publishing Co, NY, 1931)
However, in their de facto roles as public
relations officers, club and tournament officials should take the time
to familiarize themselves with the significant differences between the
formal game and the myriad customs, rules and nuances of the wider casual
backgammon community. Such familiarity will pre-empt, or at least minimise
potential disputes or conflicts between formal and casual players. A basic
familiarity with the style and format of ethnic game variants will enable
an official to ease the integration of the newcomer to the club or tournament.
rules of formal backgammon may be alien to many casual players
The use of documented information tailored
to the perceived requirements of casual players would also be of immense
benefit to newcomers. Such information could be made available in the
form of printed leaflets or perhaps posted on the Internet.
Information for Club Officials and Players
The following table illustrates many of potential differences between
the formal club rules and etiquette, and those of the typical casual and/or
Club and Tournament Play
of Casual/Ethnic Play
||Tournament type 21"
||Boards of a variety of
styles and sizes.
||2 dice and 1 dice cup
||2 dice in total, no dice
|Direction of Play
||By mutual agreement, or
highest throw entitles a player to choose direction and/or checkers
||Players may only be used
to playing in one direction, or direction may alternate after each
|Casting the Dice
||Dice must be thrown from
dice cup and vigorously shaken prior to rolling
||Dice may be thrown from
||Throw on right-hand side,
dice must not be 'cocked'
||Throw any side, cocked
dice may count
||Both dice must lie flat
on the playing surface on the right side of the board. Both dice be
re-cast if one or both are illegal
||Dice landing on checkers,
or landing on opposite side of the board are legal
||Both players throw one
die, player throwing highest plays the numbers on both dice at start
of each game
||Highest rolling player
may throw again and/or winning player rolls first for subsequent games
||Formal rules govern premature
||No formal rules governing
|Number of Checkers per
||No maximum limit
||Maximum 5 per point
||The numbers on the dice
may be played in any order. Both dice must be played if possible.
If only one move is playable then the highest number must be played
||The highest number must
be played first
|Pick and Pass
||Pick and Pass in home
board is permitted
||Pick and pass in home
board is illegal
|Touch it - Move it
||Touch move is not enforced,
a player may move the checkers and return them to their original position
before deciding on the final move
||Once touched a checker
must be moved
||Exact number is not required
to bear a checker
||Exact number may be required
to bear a checker
|End of Move
||A player's move ends when
the dice are lifted from the board. The opponent must wait for the
player to signal the end of their turn before casting their dice
||A player's move ends when
she has lifted her hand from the last checker to be moved
||Gammons and backgammons
score double and triple the stake respectively
||Backgammons may score
only two points, or points may be awarded according to number of checkers
loser has remaining on the board
||Games are played with
the cube and detailed rules govern cube handling
||Games may be cubeless,
or no detailed rules governing cube handling
||Games played to set number
of points, with Crawford rule in force
||Crawford rule may be unknown
||Head to head, or chouette
money games with or without the Jacoby rule in force
||Money games may be regarded
as taboo (eg Muslims), Chouette concept may be unfamiliar, and Jacoby
|Time Frame for Moves
||Clock rules may be in
||No formal time constraints
|| Players exhibit affinity
for jargon during discourse
||Players may be unfamiliar
with even the simplest jargon
board should be this size.' The author posing as a local at a Lebanese