Two Worlds Collide
Casual and Formal Backgammon

Mark Driver
April 2001
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.

Online gaming serves to standardise game rules within the context of each game server

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.

Senet Orbital

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 theme.

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.

Renaissance 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 is good).

Casual Player

Click 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 to play.

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).

The Cube
© 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.

Ahmed 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 more effective?

Cubeless Tournaments

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.

a traditional game
For 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.

Sustaining Participation

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

Strip Cartoon
(Illustration 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.

Alien dice
The 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 ethnic player.

Backgammon Rules/Etiquette Formal Club and Tournament Play Examples of Casual/Ethnic Play
Board Tournament type 21" board Boards of a variety of styles and sizes.
Dice 2 dice and 1 dice cup per player 2 dice in total, no dice cups
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 game
Casting the Dice Dice must be thrown from dice cup and vigorously shaken prior to rolling Dice may be thrown from the hand
Legal Rolls Throw on right-hand side, dice must not be 'cocked' Throw any side, cocked dice may count
Cocked Dice 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
Opening Roll 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
Premature Rolls Formal rules govern premature actions No formal rules governing premature actions
Number of Checkers per Point No maximum limit Maximum 5 per point
Checker Movement 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
Bear off 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
Scoring 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
Doubling Cube Games are played with the cube and detailed rules govern cube handling Games may be cubeless, or no detailed rules governing cube handling
Match Play Games played to set number of points, with Crawford rule in force Crawford rule may be unknown
Money Games 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 rule unknown
Time Frame for Moves Clock rules may be in force No formal time constraints
Jargon Players exhibit affinity for jargon during discourse Players may be unfamiliar with even the simplest jargon

How big?
'The board should be this size.' The author posing as a local at a Lebanese Souq

Mark Driver was first introduced to backgammon while living and working in the
Middle East. After many happy years as a casual player of ethnic board games,
he was indoctrinated into the world of formal backgammon, at Sydney's
'University of Hard Knocks'—the Mill Hill Backgammon Club.

Other articles on Backgammon Variants
Other articles by Mark Driver

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