There has been much discussion about the use of clocks at backgammon tournaments
on the bulletin board, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a full
article discussing clocks. This will consist of several things which
been written in the past, as well as my own discussion. I would like to
thank Carol Cole, editor of The Flint Area Backgammon Newsletter and
Bill Robertie, editor of the late Inside Backgammon, for giving me permission
to reprint material from their magazines.
First, here are some excerpts from the rec.games.backgammon newsgroup,
which are taken from Carol's newsletter. My comments will be interspersed.
"One reason I find clocks unappealing is that they introduce so many potentially
awkward situations, which most players can debate until the cows come home,
and the occasional one argues over the board. Backgammon is not like chess,
where the actual time required for moves is fairly constant and the clock
regulates thinking time. A backgammon clock directs the playa
player can be coerced into sub-optimal moves by time trouble, cubing early
rather than risk a long sequence of single points, and playing running games
and blitzes (which tend to be decided quickly) instead of backgames and hitting
contests, and a player with time advantage can deliberately take the opposite
tack in order to run his opponent out of time. Still they seem to be here
to stay, so we had best learn to live with them."
Julian Hayward, England
Julian makes good points. Due to the nature of backgammon, more than
the player's thinking time is reflected by the clock. This means that if
a match were super long, say an 11-point match for which each player made
1000 moves, it would be just about physically impossible for either player
to make the time control no matter how fast they played. As for the point
about taking advantage of an opponent's time problems, there will be a
real life illustration of this later.
"We have started playing with the clock in Dublin and it's really a great
addition. The slow players have speeded up and the fast players have
slowed down!. Tournament rounds tend to finish simultaneously, which is
great for everyone. Backgammon is now a spectator sport, with both players
playing at a reasonable speed.
There have been no arguments, though I have raised a couple of issues on the
rec.games.backgammon newsgroup. All of these were settled amiably over the
board, but I just want to get other opinions in case of a serious dispute
in a major tournament.
Anyway I am packing my suitcases to go to the Paris Open, and I am sure I
will have a lot more clock issues arising from that tournament."
Brendan Burgess, Dublin Backgammon Club, Ireland
There certainly were some clock stories at the Paris tournament, which allowed
only 55 minutes per player for an 11-point match (compared to the 65 minutes
allowed in the World Cup). As a result, the winner of the Master's,
Donald Kahn, almost didn't survive his semi-final match. I wasn't there,
but from what I had heard he was in desperate time trouble during his final
game, and in fact his flag fell before he had borne off all his checkers.
Fortunately for him he had achieved a gin position in the race (he could not
lose no matter what the dice rolls were), and the rules of the tournament
stipulated that he wins the match under such circumstances.
"As one of the busiest tournament directors in the world, I am wholly for the use
of clocks. They are a great tool to ensure the smooth running and timely
ending of matches and tournaments. At BIBA tournaments they are used as a
"persuader" inasmuch as I trawl the playing areas checking the scores at
set times and issue warnings that if the points scored don't reach a
certain level by my return (15 minutes later), then the remaining segment of
the match will continue with clocks. I find that does the trick most of
I think this is a good practical approach for small club tournaments which
are run on a more informal level. For higher level tournaments I don't the
think this kind of subjectivity can work. Strict written rules which the
directors follow are necessary.
"My only experience with clocks in a tournament has been the Japan Open, where
clocks are used as a matter of course. Some people in my club like to use
them, whereas some don't, so it's just a matter of two people agreeing. The
main problem in our club is remembering to switch from "finished my move,
so I pick up my dice" mode to "finished my move, so I leave the dice where
they are and hit the clock" mode. I always pick the dice up a few
timeswhile the opponent smiles indulgently and lets my time tick away.
Perhaps one reason why clocks aren't too contentious over here is that the
time allowed seems fairly generous. I don't know what is standard in the
U.S., but in Japan each player gets 35 minutes for a five-point match (so
you could theoretically have a match lasting 70 minutes). Most matches never
get close to flag-dropping, so the clocks are not adding undue pressure to
the game, but do serve to keep the really slow players in check.
I would definitely recommend people to get used to clocks in a club
environment. They don't really affect your play, but the extra
unfamiliarity in a tournament environment is definitely to be avoided.
The other thing to look out for is the very chatty opponenthe or she
is more than likely chatting on your time."
Gavin Anderson, Sapporo, Japan
Getting used to the clocks just takes a bit of practice, and any serious
tournament player who isn't used to them and is playing in a tournament
with clocks should certainly take the time to play a practice match using them.
The amount of time given to each player is not standardizedevery club
or tournament chooses its own time limits. I believe that the clocks should
be used as they are in the the Japan Open, with the purpose of moving the
really slow players along rather than having an effect on the outcome, but
many players and directors feel otherwise.
"Personally, I don't like the clocks that much, as it can create time problems
if several games evolve into deep backgames with no double-outs, for example,
or one of those repetitive recycling games where the primer continually
sends back checkers to try to retrieve a second blot. In chess the time
limits are based on time for moves, instead of the entire match. I think the
correct usage of clocks in tournaments is to apply them only to matches in
progress that are already going very slowly. The tournament director or
assistants need to watch the drawsheets to look for players that are
holding up the brackets, etc.
We use clocks in all matches in our weekly tournaments in the Atlanta Club,
mostly to make sure we finish before midnight (Thursdays). I've only
lost twice on time, but I don't like some of the tactics that can be
employed by the player who has more time left (such as failing to double
at 2-away, 2-away when holding an advantage, trying to force three or
four games instead of ending it with this game). I think it creates
some "bad" backgammon at times."
Gregg Cattanach, Doravill, Georgia
And from the editor of the Flint Newsletter:
"Club director Dave Cardwell plans to use chess clocks to pace all the
matches in the Georgia State Championships & Peach Cup on June 8-11
in Atlanta. This is the first ABT event in which chess clocks will be
used in a positive format rather than a punitive situation.
Flint Area BG Club members have voluntarily practiced with chess clocks
to prepare for major tournaments, but mandatory clocks in all matches
would inhibit the friendly social atomosphere that helps the club welcome
newcomers and average 20 players a week."
Carol Joy Cole
An online poll about clocks suggested by Carol Cole was conducted in
November 1999 by Art Grater, and the results are on his web page.
Click [link no longer active] to see the results of this poll.
Here are some more comments from a couple of top tournament players. First,
from Donald Kahn, winner of the Masters tournament in Paris:
"In general, though I don't mind the clock and think that if properly used it is
a good thing, I state most vehemently that the times alloted at this
tournament (The Paris tournament, where Donald won the Masters) were
indaequate, such as to make for hurried and therefore sub-standard play.
I mean, it's not supposed to be speed chess, is it?
55 minutes for 11 points is not enough when the match goes to 14
games (as did my rubber semifinal). If one or two of them are longies, the
clocks start going scary. And I noticed several very good pros in time
trouble, though none lost on it.
This is very easy to remedy:
1. Lengthen the allotted times.
2. Or, at a certain point, for instance after 11 games played in an 11-point
match (or 17 in a 17-point match, etc.), put the clocks aside, or what amounts
to the same thing, set them to 30 minutes."
And now from Malcolm Davis, unquestionably one of the top players in the
world, winner of the 1996 World cup (and just about everything else).
"When I started playing backgammon in 1975, the United States was the leader
of the backgammon worldthe best players and the best tournaments
were U.S. dominated.
Alas, that has changed. A reversal has taken place, and while I am happy that
backgammon has progressed so significantly in Europe, I would certainly like
to see the United States become more excellent, both in terms of quality,
well-run tournaments as well as level of play.
First, let me express gratitude to the wonderful, selfless directors all
over the world who organize backgammon tournaments. I was peripherally
involved in organizing the Dallas Mid-America tournament in 1976, and I
gained some appreciation for what is involved.
Now I respectfully suggest one very important improvement that begs to be
made. Utilizing "chess" clocks, or "backgammon" clocks, if you please,
in all championship division matches. Already the major tournaments in Europe,
for instance Istanbul, Copenhagen, and Paris, are all three using clocks.
Monte Carlo is considering clocks for the final 64. Of course the World
Cup, sponsered by Kent Goulding and Bill Robertie, pioneered the use of
clocks. And who could imagine a World Cup, truly a great tournament,
It is way past time to stop rewarding those few who basically ruin a tournament
by employing a basic strategy of never making a moveseeming somehow to
believe they cannot lose a match if they never finish it. Any reasonable test
of backgammon skill must employ some kind of time constraints.
In talking to players around the world about the use of clocks, I find a
great majority in favor of them. Even the players generally regarded a
being slow prefer to have clocks so they can demonstrate that their speed
is being unfairly cirticized. And it does seem to be true that "slow"
players are not as slow as everybody thinksand with clocks they can
Tournament directors may be reluctant to include clocks in previously
"unclocked" tournaments because it is a change, maybe some players
may not like them, and they understandably do not want to go to the
expense of providing clocks.
I have a couple of suggestions. Make clocks mandatory if either player
elects to utilize them and can furnish a clock. The other suggestion is
to provide a small voluntary additional charge in registration fees until
clocks are paid for. I would be happy to contribute.
As for the argument that some players might not compete if clocks were
mandatory, I say that more will compete if they are an integral
part of the format. For instance, I am planning to attend Francois
Tardieu's Paris tournament in February strictly because he has included
clocks in his tournament format.
To expect your opponent to graciously sit for move after move while you
carefully examine the merits of how to play an opening 3-1 is
thoughtless, selfish, inconsiderate, and ridiculous. A player who cannot
play an 11-point match in an hour of clock time per participant should
enter the beginners' tournament.
Furthermore, clocks with one pair of dice eliminate many areas of
potential disputes, i.e. whether the dice were "up", what the
roll was, etc.
I could say, "Tournament Director, don't ask what backgammon can do for
you, but rather what you can do for backgammon." But that would be
misleading. Tournament directors can do something for both backgammon
and themselves by instituting clocks in at least the championship rounds
of future tournaments. They can begin to restore the United States'
prominence as a leader in the backgammon worldin the process, making
backgammon more enjoyable for the players, as well as for themselves."
Malcolm Davis, Dallas, Texas
Malcolm is not exaggerating about how slow some players can be, particularly
if they are using their slowness for gamesmanship purposes. Here is
an excerpt from an article written by Bill Robertie in Inside Backgammon:
"There are a few players, well-known to most experienced directors, who
deliberately play slowly in an attempt to annoy their opponents. I got
my introduction to this approach many years ago at a Las Vegas tournament.
Nack Ballard had reached the semi-finals and was scheduled to play the
match at 10:00 PM on a Saturday night. I thought it would be a good
match to record. Was I mistaken.
Nack's opponent started with a 3-1 in the first game. Easy to play, right?
He looked at making the 5-point for awhile. Then he looked at playing 13/10,
6/5. A theoretical innovation? After that he tried 13/9, then 24/20, then
13/10, 24/23. I was impressed, not having known there were so many real
chnoices for an opening 3-1. After about two minutes, with a big sigh,
he settled on making the 5-point after all. The match continued in this vein.
At 1:00 AM, after three solid hours of play, the score was 8-7 or
thereabouts. Then Nack's opponent got a grip on himself and buckled down to
some serious slow play. Shake the dice for a minute. Roll the dice.
Oops, cocked dice. Shake for another minute. Where's that perfecta? And
After five hours I was tempted to quit, but I'd already invested so much time
it seemed like a shame to give up. Throwing good hours after bad, I stuck
it out until 6:00 AM when the match ground to a halt. Nack had won, 19-18.
I had recorded the whole match, and it still sits today in my files as the longest
19-point match ever played.
At the paris Open in 1990, I watched Paul Magriel's opponent, notorious for
his poor sportsmanship, drag a 17-point match on for seven hours before
winning. At the U.S invitational in 1986, Kent Goulding had a couple
of similar horror stories.
Under the traditional rules of backgammon, a player subjected to this
sort of abuse had the right to call for a monitor on a match who theoretically
had the right to administer penalty points. For some reason, players
rarely elected this defense, and I've never actually seen a penalty point
awarded for this sort of slow play."
To conclude this discussion, I present an article I wrote for Inside Backgammon
after the 1996 World Cup. This article is representative of my personal views about
clocks in backgammon.
The Chess Clock