This article originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of GammOnLine.|
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.
'Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.' - Spock - Star Trek 6
Backgammon is arguably the ultimate strategic board-game infused with liberal elements of skill and luck. The luck factor is a given for any game driven by the engines of dice, which hold even the most skillful players hostage to the vagaries of chance. We have all borne witness to the cruel brutality of unbelievable sequences of jokers, which mock our game plans only to reward our seemingly less skillful opponents. The relative skill to luck ratio is a moot point, suffice to say:
'The outcome of a match or money game equals the net luck plus the net skill difference' - Douglas Zare, 'A Measure of Luck' (here).
From the back streets of Cairo to the sumptuous game halls of Monte Carlo, Lady Luck can, and will, take every opportunity to stamp her authority on the outcome of a game.
Monte Carlo or Bust?
'Sooner or later, those that win are those that think they can.' - Richard Bach
So, you have decided to take your shot at becoming the 2001 World Backgammon Champion, pitting your skills against the worlds best in Monte Carlo. You have paid your entry fee; bought your plane ticket; read all Kit's articles in GOL; and spent the last three months analyzing your matches with Snowie. What are your chances of taking the title? Perhaps, 50 to 1?
'When you have two top players against each other, the one who rolls better is going to win' - Kit Woolsey, (Gammonvillage interview here).
Are there further measures you could take to improve your winning chances? Well, throughout history a multitude of keen gamesters from every continent thought so. Royalty, commoners, scoundrels, even former world champions, have all sought to curry favor with the goddess Fortuna by resort to esoteric practices in hope to gain that winning magic.
One Night in Bangkok
'Get Thai'd! You're talking to a tourist. Whose every move's among the purest. Siam's gonna be the witness. To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness' - Tim Rice, 'One Night in Bangkok', from the musical 'Chess'
The word lottery is derived from the Italian 'lotto' - meaning destiny or fate. Lotteries represent games of chance in their purest form. No skills could apparently confer the gamester with an edge over any other participants. Each combination of lottery numbers has an equal probability of winning, yet extensive surveys have shown that around 20% of lottery participants select the same numbers each week, often based on birthdays, anniversaries or addresses etc. The chance of hitting the jackpot from a single entry -typically in the order of 'one in fourteen million', (figure based on the UK lottery) - belies their incredible global popularity. Given these odds it would seem that punters focus on the relatively vast prize money from a modest entry stake rather than the probability of winning.
'Lotteries are a tribute to human innumeracy' - Ian Stewart
The national Thai lottery is an inveterate source of amusement for millions of gamblers. In Bangkok, locals and visitors alike, flock to purchase their tickets from a multitude of vendors often located outside famous Buddhist temples. Perusing the ticket booths, the visitor will be surprised to note a 30% range in the price of individual tickets. Upon questioning the reason for this disparity, the prospective punter will be informed that the most expensive tickets feature the winning numbers as predicted by monks after consulting various deities and gods. The curious tourist schooled in the art of science and probability theory will no doubt scoff and dismiss this explanation as a blatant attempt by unscrupulous vendors to fleece the ignorant. However, the prices actually reflect the Neo-classical economics of supply and demand.
Thousands of local gamblers subscribe to dedicated mazazines, which publish a plethora of predictions based on the movement of the plantets and observations of sacred objects. The cognoscenti then rush out to snap up the 'lucky' numbers hopefully before their rival punters have a chance. Particularly auspicious number sequences can command over a 100% mark up. Despite the lack of hard evidence, most inveterate players will happily relay a rags to riches story of a local blessed by the predictions of the gods. Moreover, many a monk has apparently enjoyed an above average 'fifteen minutes of fame' !
The Book of the Dead
'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.' - Woody Allen
The Ancient Egyptian game of Senet is widely regarded as a distant ancestor of modern backgammon. Senet was a race board-game of parallel motion (as opposed to the contrary motion of backgammon). Each player moved a number of pieces according to the numbers generated by binary throw sticks, hence the game involved elements of both luck and skill. The earliest Senet boards discovered date from around 3500 BC, and the game remained a popular pastime until well into the Roman times. By the Nineteenth Dynasty, the secular game of Senet had become imbued with mystical significance, evident by carved game chests, which became standard funerary equipment of the era. Examples of these latter boards feature elaborately decorated points (known as houses) which symbolized a mystic route from the mortal realm to the netherworld itself. The Egyptian 'Book of the Dead' contains illustrations of a game of Senet between a mortal and an invisible opponent from the spirit world. The deceased mortal was playing for the ultimate stakes; his victory would ensure a joining with Osiris and immortality. Failure to be the first to bear off all his pieces from the board implied a devastating loss of eternal life.
To improve the chances of victory in this ultimate game of life and death, it became a common practice for Ancient Egyptian gamesters to have incantations carved on their tomb walls and doors. The following text is adapted from an inscription found in the Theban tomb of Inherka.
'That I become as the 31st god, that I may approach Mehen, and that I may lift up for him his pieces and set them down on the place of my desire: I make my place in the House of Thoth, fighting as a god against him [i.e. the opponent]85. My heart is open, intent upon his play against me. I present to him his playing pieces and his throw-sticks, but his mind is confused. He betakes himself to his place, but he is ignorant as to his best move, so that my name lives in the House of Orion and I shall live forever=85. My opponent is behind me, and I take my piece to the place that I desire for myself. I am leading at Senet. I am the skilled one... My pieces are established in the Beautiful House, my seven pieces being in front of my fingers like jackals towing the solar bark. I seize his pieces and I throw him into the Waters and he is drowned together with his pieces. You are justified so says Mehen to me, and what I wish has happened at once'. - (Translated text by Timothy Kendall)
Backgammon among the Aztecs
'One person with a belief is equal to a force of ninety-nine who have only interests' - John Stuart Mill
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they were surprised to note that a local board-game played by the natives resembled backgammon (or tabula as it was known in those days). This game known locally as Patolli, incorporated many of the features of backgammon - binary lots were used as dice to govern the movement of checkers around a race track, the winner being the first to bear all their 'men' from the board. The Spanish author Diego Duran commented that the Indians gamesters eager to ensure victory against their opponents would go to great lengths to honour and pay homage to the spirits of the dice and the board. The boards and dice were placed in prominent locations in the home, and burning incense sticks, offerings of food and drink and even ritual sacrifice, appeased the spirits. The main dice-god was Macuilxochitl; whose name the gamblers invoked whenever they cast the lots. Another god went by the name of Ometochtly, whenever they wished to throw a deuce they would invoke this deity.
The Dark Side
'Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen' - Foka Gomez
As detailed in the Icelandic Jonsbok Codex, a local gamester, Arni Petursson, was burnt alive before the Icelandic parliament in the year 1681. Arni had confessed to using witchcraft to secure victory in a game of backgammon. Western occultism is replete with many magical spells to win at gambling. Most of these rituals were of Pagan origin and consequently were expressly forbidden by the Church, who seemed to have believed in their effectiveness, as much as the practitioners. Over the centuries, the Christian Church issued numerous prohibitions against gaming though all tended to be largely ignored, even by men of the cloth. Periodic witch-hunts against illicit gamesters did little to stop the practice and their use flourished until relatively recent times.
Two examples of the dark art of victory are set out below (for reference purposes only, don't try this at home children).
The head of a serpent is pegged to the ground in a foundation rite. On the first Thursday of the full moon at Jupiter's planetary hour, the words 'Non licet ponare in egarbona quia pretium sanguinis' are written on virgin parchment. The head of the viper is then severed and placed in the centre of the script, after which the corners of the parchment are folded over the head to complete the talisman. When used in gaming, this talisman must be attached to the left arm with a red silk ribbon.
Another gambling talisman involves the use of the crossroads as a place of power. A formula is written on virgin parchment, but in place of a snake's head, a silver coin is wrapped in it. The talisman is taken before midnight on a Sunday to a crossroads, where the coin is buried. The magician must then stamp 3 times on the ground with the left foot, pronouncing the magic words on the parchment and making the sign of the cross between each word. The magician then departs without looking back. On the next day the magician returns to dig up the coin, which is then carried to the gaming table as a lucky charm.
It should be noted that these historic Grimoires often stipulate that the ritualist must donate 10% of the winnings to the poor as an offering, with the threat that if the precept is ignored, the magician will invariably lose.
May the Force Be With You
in what I see, I believe in what I hear, I believe that what I'm
In the 'mega-bucks' world of the professional sports stars - where 'winning isn't everything, but losing is nothing' - physical skill would seem to reign supreme. Millions of dollars are spent on personal trainers, dieticians formulate power meals, and computers analyze muscle movements. Yet, a whole distinct body of literature has evolved dedicated to the metaphysical dimensions of sport. From Wimbledon's centre court to Gleneagles' 18th tee, an array of glittering superstars have attributed their success to the arcane dynamics of 'Flow'.
Flow is being 'in the zone', or 'in sync'. Flow is 'samhadi' - the highest level of Zen consciousness, or inner awareness. Flow is the psychology of optimal experience; and flow is one manifestation of winning magic. Constraints of space and time preclude detailed exploration of this topic within the context of this article. However, the use of ritual and talismen often plays a significant role in the personal attainment of flow states. A runner may feel uncomfortable without their 'lucky' running shoes; a ball player may feel unable to deliver the goods without their lucky charm, or a skater may feel naked deprived of the opportunity to condition their mind by breathing exercises. The uninitiated, may perceive these behaviour patterns as mere superstition, but to the athlete, they are a means to focus on a mindset conducive to entering a state of flow.
A little over two decades ago, a former world backgammon champion, Baron Vernon Ball, wrote a book advising would-be future champions to improve their game through Silva mind control 'master the art of effortless concentration, and influence the laws of probability with your mind'. At first glance some sections of the book would seem to be scripted from an episode of 'The Twilight Zone':
'X must roll 6-6 to win on this roll. X visualizes double 6's on his mental screen, knows they will be there and throws. Double 6's appear. X credits mind control and bolsters his belief system, while O mumbles a comment on X's unbelievable luck.'
Our modern day champions probably wouldn't give the time of day to even ridicule Ball's work. But, perhaps we shouldn't dismiss Ball's contribution to the backgammon literature as solely the work of a madman. 'Alpha Backgammon' contains some sound advice to enable the reader to reap the many benefits from meditation, and to facilitate a state of mind conducive to attaining and sustaining flow. Furthermore, according to Ball, 'Silva Mind Control' served to propel him to the hallowed status of World Backgammon Champion only two years after learning how to set up the board!
'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' - Arthur C. Clarke
Backgammon has a long rich heritage spanning centuries of social and technological revolution. Does the arcane wisdom of the Ancients deserve shelf space in our modern world of virtual libraries where the best players have placed their faith in the science of the machines? Could the maelstrom of technological development engender a future shock, where players look back through their old archived collections of GammOnline and laugh at the hocus-pocus beliefs of the Snowie disciples?
Backgammon is a game of skill and luck, yet we currently exhibit a tendency to focus solely on the skill side of the equation. Its significant to note that our arsenal of neural net technology is currently devoted to deep analysis of our game skills, but remember Snowie can equally quantify the luck element too. When serious money and kudos are up for grabs, perhaps we should find time to consider this question:
What would you rather be; the most skillful loser, or the luckiest winner?
Article copyright Mark Driver 2001
References and Select Bibliography
Ball, Baron Vernon, 'Alpha Backgammon', (published by William Morrow & Company, Inc, NY, 1980).
Culin, Stewart, 'American Indian Games', (Published in American Anthropologist, vol 5, , 1903) pp 58-64.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, 'Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience',(Published by Harper Collins, New York, 1991)
Deshimaru, Taisen, 'The Zen Way to the Martial Arts', (published by Dutton, NY, 1982)
Fiske, Willard, 'Chess in Iceland' (Published byThe Florentine Typographical Society. Florence, 1905)
Gallway, W., Timothy, 'The Inner Game of Tennis', (Published by Cape, London, 1975)
Jackson, Susqan, A., and Czikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, 'Flow in Sports', (published by Champaign, Human Kinetics, Leeds, Uk, 199)
Kendal, Timothy 'Passing through the Netherworld', (Published by. : Kirk Game Company, Belmont, Mass USA, 1978).
Stewart, I, 'It probably wont be you' (Published in the Times Higher Education Supplement April 12, 1996).