Brian Lonergan is not afraid to say, out loud and for all to hear, that he intends to be a Giant someday. There are many players who would like to become a Giant someday, and a few that even think they have a good shot at it, but Brian is one of the few with enough guts to come right out and predict that he will make it.
How can a young man with so little experience on the live tournament circuit be so confident and so brash? And even more perplexing, how can a young man that none of us ever heard of 3 years ago so quickly become known as a top player, beating many of the best, posting many matches under 4 PR, and proving, in his discussion of positions, that he truly understands the game well?
Even more shocking to me is that Brian did it without teachers or a mentor — all on his own. I haven’t seen anyone since Matt Cohen-Geier and Stick came on the scene that has impressed me more and risen so quickly.
So I decided to interview Brian. Before conducting the interview, I asked Brian to jot down a few notes and give me some perspective to work with, and what he wrote was such an interesting narrative, I decided to go with it rather than interrupt with the usual questions. So here is Brian Lonergan, in Brian’s own words.
I was born in Metairie, Louisiana in 1988 where I’ve lived my entire life. It’s about 10 minutes away from New Orleans, so people in the city would say I’m not really one of them, I’m just some little prick from the suburbs. And I guess they’re right. I also wasn’t underneath 10 feet of water after Katrina hit, so there’s that. The city and state as a whole have recovered a lot since then so things have been great for me down here and I’m sure I won’t be leaving anytime soon.
I’m the youngest in my family. I have one sister who is 10 years older than me, and one brother who is 14 years older. I also have 3 nieces and one nephew. I’m pretty close to my family, although I’ll bet they probably don’t think so. I graduated from LSU in 2010 on a bit of an accelerated schedule with a Masters in Accounting. I was told by my parents I had to go to college somewhere outside of New Orleans, so that was as far away as I could manage. About an hour away I guess, so you see, can’t stand to be away from home. These days I work for myself doing accounting, tax, finance, but I also deal with investment and real estate.
I’m not actually married, although people often think I am because I basically go everywhere with my best friend Chelsea. Most times, someone will ask if we’re married, because honestly we kind of act like it, and we’ll just nod in agreement because it’s easier than trying to explain the truth. The truth is we’ve been best friends since high school, we’re both weird as hell but get each other in ways no one else can, we go out and do everything together, and we’re basically perfect for each other. Unfortunately, her rule is she only dates losers, so I have virtually no chance with her. But thanks to her, I’m used to playing games with the deck stacked against me, so backgammon is nothing compared to that. This is a little known secret but she’s actually the second strongest player down here next to me. She doesn’t play that much anymore except against me, but she’s learned most of the things I know so she’s done a great job of taking her game to the next level over the past few years. She likes to tell people her method is to look at the board and then decide what is “the Brian play.” Like I said, just perfect.
Now as far as backgammon goes, one thing I want to clarify: I might be one of the younger players and have only recently started showing up to ABT events, but I’m not a new player. I’ve been doing this now for about 17 years. I didn’t always know what I was doing when I played, but thanks to dumb luck and playing against a bunch of people who in retrospect must have been at least as bad as I was, I managed to win at a decent enough rate, thereby making the game highly enjoyable for me.
Growing up, I would play a lot of different games with my dad and sister. Backgammon wasn’t one of them. We’re talking basic stuff like Connect 4, Monopoly, and probably about 20 other pointless board games that I really can’t remember. Every now and then, we would play Checkers, which we had one of those 3-in-1 game boards for. So when we would get the bag of game pieces out, I was naturally curious as to what the horse and castle were for, or why there were 3 extra checkers for each color, plus dice, and a weird die with 2, 4, 8, etc. on it. My sister would tell me, “Oh, those pieces are for chess or something, but nobody knows how to play that.”
I tried to learn chess first simply because the pieces were more exciting and lifelike as opposed to a bunch of flat circles. I was maybe 7 or 8 at the time. In my neighborhood, I had a friend who we’ll call Dave, and he learned chess from his family. So I just got him to show me the basics, and from there I got the hang of it. I played on and off for a couple years, mostly just against Dave because I really didn’t know anyone else who played at that time. I got fairly good, not really great, but caught up to his level pretty quickly. I didn’t devote a lot of time to studying it but I did enjoy playing.
By the time I was about 9 was around the point that we got a new computer with internet capabilities for the first time. So I stumbled upon a site called MSN Games where you could play card and board games against people all over the world, and I would log on and play chess, but also checkers, hearts, spades, etc. I was decent at all of them, but I really wasn’t spectacular at any. And I never took the time to study up and try to master any of those games, it was mostly just a way for me to pass some time when I was really bored. But I would go there and play chess, and again I was really just a casual player, I didn’t take it up all that seriously.
Playing online was fun, it’s just the players I would beat never put up much of a fight, and the ones I would lose to were obviously pretty far out of my league at that time. So it got a little boring and maybe a bit discouraging at some point.
I think at that point, I decided I finally had to satisfy my curiosity as to what the hell was the game on the back of the chess board. So I figured out it was called backgammon and noticed that it was one of the games you could play on MSN, and they always had a lot of players online at any given time, so I thought maybe I could watch other people play and figure out what was going on and how the game worked. I found an online rulebook that explained everything, but I found it to be more confusing than helpful, so I just tried watching and learning.
At first I had no idea what was happening, I just saw dice show up, pieces start dancing around the board randomly, sometimes the pieces would move forwards, sometimes backwards — that was either someone taking back a move or a piece getting hit, but I didn’t know that — I couldn’t really follow any of it. Match play and doubling, that just made it worse.
Eventually I started catching on to little things: Ok, he just rolled 5-3. Ok, see that piece, it just moved 5 spots, now that other piece just moved 3 spots. Ok, he just landed on the same spot as the other guy’s lone piece, and that lone piece went to the center of the board. His opponent can’t seem to land on that same spot when he has 2 or more pieces together. And on and on.
And seriously, I had nobody teaching me this game, I was just watching and absorbing information.
I would go back and read the rules after watching enough games, and it would start to almost make sense. I came to find out my dad knew how to play all along, he just hadn’t done so since probably the 70s or 80s so I don’t think he remembered everything about how it worked. I found out my uncle was actually president of a backgammon club in college, although my understanding is that he wasn’t really that good, he just figured “Backgammon Club President” was something to add to his resume, which apparently looked better with that particular credential back then than it would today I guess.
I had no real people to play with so I convinced my dad to play a few games with me so I could try to get the hang of it. He goes into the attic and digs up one of those old Cardinal backgammon boards with the felt surface, and the crappy dice cups, probably chipped dice I’m guessing, and everything.
I was like, whoa, you mean they actually make boards for this, independent of chess sets? And I mean it’s built into a briefcase, so you can walk around pretending like you’re some important business executive, but you’re really just a jackass playing a board game. It was incredible. In that moment, I knew I wanted to be a top-level backgammon player. Still didn’t have a clue how to actually play.
So I would play my dad and by this time I had at least figured out how the pieces moved, what the general objective was, how to get your guys ready for the bearoff, etc. And let’s be honest, my dad didn’t know anything in the way of strategy, he would just move pieces around, so I didn’t have anybody teaching me anything advanced. But we would play and then I would go online and play a couple games against other idiots — the kind that you knew if you were winning because they would always quit before you actually beat them.
In doing that, I learned all the basics of the game: (1) Making points is a good thing. (2) Roll lots of doubles because whoever rolls more will always win. (3) Hit if you can, but never hit loose in your home board, because you will definitely get hit back, which is bad because: (4) If you get hit, you lose. Therefore: (5) Never leave blots if you don’t have to.
Always play safe. This means the obvious way to play a 3-2 or 4-1 on the opening roll is 13/8. Clearly 5-2 and 4-3 would have to be played 13/6. (6) Double every position you’re going to win anyway, it makes the game go faster. (7) Can’t decide whether to take or drop? Flip a coin.
I don’t remember anything else past that because after Rule 1, everything is dead wrong. And you know what? In my experience, most beginners have that exact same philosophy and refuse to deviate from it unless they’re serious about getting serious about the game. I know a woman who learned the game as a child from her mother, probably back in the 60s or early 70s, and has played casually ever since, but still subscribes to all the bad rules I listed above. There are a lot of people out there who have played backgammon, but it feels like very few realize that there’s any serious element of strategy involved. At 10 years old, I was still among that crowd.
Now despite being worse than a total novice, I never perceived myself as such. I thought I was about the greatest player to have ever touched the game. I played exclusively online for at least 10 years because I just didn’t know anybody else who played. I would try teaching a few friends but there’s only so much a total novice, which again is a level I hadn’t yet reached, can teach someone. So occasionally a friend would follow me online and essentially let me beat them, which made me feel pretty good about myself, and more importantly, my ever so prestigious rating would go up and that would allow my ego to grow.
So I only played against friends who knew less than I did and were just trying to help me out, or against other players I didn’t know, but who, rating wise, couldn’t have been too great either. And I always assumed everybody on a gaming site was a bored kid like me just wasting time, so it never occurred to me that these were mostly 40 and 50-something year old adults out there playing at the same level as a child who just learned the game a few weeks ago. And based purely on that, I got my rating to about 1800 which in theory was great, although I probably should have felt a little bad about how I went about obtaining it. But considering there were people with ratings rigged to literally over 9000, I didn’t feel like I gamed the system that much — just enough to create the illusion that I knew what the hell I was doing.
One of the earliest memories I had playing online, I was up late and logged into one of the lobbies just in time to catch some good lobby drama. That’s the thing with these sites like MSN back then, and I guess something like Safe Harbor today, you log in because you want to play some backgammon and work on your game, but most of the time, there’s more drama being manufactured in the lobby than competitive backgammon.
Anyway, this guy’s trolling the room, basically going on about how he’s so much better than everyone else, they all suck, he owns this room and demands that everyone bow down before his greatness, etc. In professional wrestling terms, that’s called “playing the heel.” And he was doing a good job of it, really getting under everyone’s skin. And people are getting angry and trying to tell him off, but he’s out there heeling it up and they’re playing right into his hand, he’s feeding off their hate and loving every minute of it.
It’s after midnight at this point, so there’s still a good crowd online, but not nearly as large as during the day. I checked and noticed that I was the highest rated player in the room at that time so I tried to pretend like that gave me some kind of pull. I was all of maybe 11 years old at this point. So I stepped up and basically told this guy, “Look, I’m the highest rated player in this room, and you’re saying you’re the best player here regardless of rating, so why don’t we play a match to find out for sure who the best is.” And it took some heavy convincing because he kept telling me I wasn’t worthy to play him, but finally he caved and we agreed that if I lost, I would go away and let him continue his trolling but if I won, he had to quit being a dick and leave the room. Back to professional wrestling terms, that’s called a “loser leaves town” match. And again, I was 11, so I probably had just watched one and was inspired to participate in such a thing myself.
Well we played maybe a 7 or 9 point match and I don’t think I was faring all that well. And there was a pretty decent sized crowd watching this game, so I felt a lot of pressure on me because there wasn’t a single person there that wanted me to lose this. He would often win a game, rub it in, and was basically just counting down until my inevitable defeat. I ended up getting some lucky breaks and brought it back to DMP. But we ended up in a racing position that I had fallen too far behind in so it appeared to be over.
Final roll of the game, he had one piece left to take off, I had 4 all stacked on the 5pt. Rolled the dice and out came, 5-5. In an instant, I went from feeling completely dejected to the most excited person in the world. That must have been the first time I experienced the thrill of the improbable, possibly undeserved, comeback finish.
That guy was clearly pissed. I tried to be nice and tell him great match or whatever, he just simply said, “You ain’t no player son.” And I told him something to the effect of, “Whatever, it was enough to beat you.” And that was that, he left the room, I got to be the hero, and everything was great.
Thing is though, he was right, I wasn’t a player — I just didn’t know it yet. And of course having won the match, I was able to stay a little more oblivious to that for a while longer. To me, backgammon really wasn’t a strategic game. Friends would ask me what the game was all about and I’d basically tell them, “Well it’s like chess except without all the thinking.” Backgammon is just the mindless alternative to chess.
I played online backgammon until I was about 13. I went to Catholic school, and at that point, one of the parishioners offered to volunteer and start up a chess club at the school. By this time, I was definitely better than anybody else at that school, including the club moderator, and I’m sure none of that was saying much. Having an actual club in place, I figured I’d quit backgammon and just try to study chess more seriously.
The first time the chess club met, there were maybe 40 or 50 kids in the middle school section. By the third week, I’m guessing we were down to about 10 or 15. I was clearly the standout in that group, and the only one with half an ounce of passion about playing and I guess the moderator saw that and encouraged me to grab some books and study up some more, so I really made a commitment to studying and playing more chess over the next couple years. And in that time, I really enjoyed the game more than I ever had before.
At some point, I wandered out to the local chess club and played a total of 3 matches against people who actually cared enough to learn the game. I lost all 3 of those, but everyone would always say, “Wow, he really had me sweating there” or “He really pushed me to the edge that’s for sure.” So it was encouraging, but none of these people were masters, they were just above average. So I had gotten to a point where I was good enough to almost win against some local above-average players.
One summer day, I’m at home when I get a phone call and it’s the school chess club moderator. He tells me, “I’m at the Burger King on the corner a few blocks from your house right now. I’ve got Alfred Carlin, 5-time Louisiana State Chess Champion with me. He wants to play you.”
I mean I didn’t follow the chess scene, I didn’t know who this guy was. He sounded important, so I’m guessing this was probably a big deal and a high honor. But in my mind, I’m thinking, “Oh this will be a disaster.” My guess is the club moderator is out putting me over to this guy, telling him about this bright student, top player in the club, loves the game, whatever to make me sound better than I really was. I’d heard him talk me up a good deal to my face before so I’m just speculating.
I figure a 5-time state champion will be able to tell if I’m actually any good or not. So I went out there and I played a game with the guy. I don’t remember anything about it, it was all a blur. We played maybe 20 moves and he offered me a draw, which I accepted in about an eighth of a second.
I don’t know what motivated it, but I never believed for a second that I played the state champion to a draw. My guess is he saw how terrible I was and just gave me a chance to save face, rather than embarrass me in front of someone who thought I was part of the second coming. Point is, the experience left me feeling like I really wasn’t cut out for chess. I improved a good bit over those 2 years, but still had a long way to go.
I’ve always felt I had the mental capacity to become a good enough player, but it was obviously going to require a lot of hard work and long hours to get there, and chess just didn’t excite me enough to make me want to put in that effort. I didn’t really know it, but I kind of longed to go back to playing backgammon.
Backgammon was always a thrill, you didn’t sit around for 10 minutes making one move, there was just more action taking place. And like I said, to me it was the mindless version of chess. You didn’t have to stress over every single move, you just roll the dice, say a prayer, and if you’re lucky, hit a bunch of blots, close out your opponent, roll lots of big doubles in a race, etc. Basically all the things that made the game so thrilling for me, and you know it didn’t hurt that you didn’t have to mentally exhaust yourself playing it.
The turning point for me with backgammon came one night when I was probably 15 and I went online looking for a chess game, and then I looked over and saw the backgammon rooms and figured it can’t hurt to go play a quick game for old time’s sake. I just wanted a distraction from chess, so playing the game that you didn’t have to think so much seemed like a fun idea.
I sit down at a random table, the other player starts the match and picks the settings, and we’re playing just a single DMP game. And we start playing and I’m just positive this guy has never played before in his life. He’s leaving blots every single play. He might get a roll where he could be making the 4 point, instead he slots two pieces. I had never seen anything like it. So I’m just laughing at him, and happily picking up blot after blot figuring I’m going to cruise to victory. And every single play, just blots and more blots. He’s breaking up points already made so he can create 2 blots out of it instead of having the point.
Well just like that jackass I encountered a few years before, I start playing the heel and trash talking this guy. I’m telling him how he’s the worst player I’ve ever seen, and I’ve never watched someone try so hard to lose before, letting him know what an idiot he is, on and on. And I couldn’t help myself, because it was just the most amusing thing I had ever seen in a game — like who plays like that?
At one point he tells me to shut my mouth because “I am better than you.” And I laughed so hard, I’m thinking “Really now? I mean if you’re so good, why do you have 17 guys on the bar when there were only 15 to start with?” No way; this guy is a complete and total joke.
Well you can probably guess the rest of this pointless story. He ends up making 2 or 3 anchors in my board, I’m forced to leave a shot, he hits me, builds up his board, I never move again until it’s too late, and I’ve just been defeated by the worst player in the history of the game.
I had just never witnessed anything like it before, I never thought for one second that I could actually lose that game. Sometimes you lose and it’s just so frustrating, but here, I wasn’t angry or upset, just in complete awe.
And I don’t even think he was that good of a player, because really you’re not supposed to try for a backgame right after the first roll, but whatever, he had a plan, and I thoughtlessly played right into the trap and gave him all the timing he needed to pull it all together. It caught me completely off guard.
But in that moment, I finally decided there was more to this game than just who can hit the most blots and roll the most doubles. There was clearly some element of strategy involved and I was determined to figure it out. So from that point on, the game I once referred to as the mindless alternative to chess, suddenly became the most fascinating thing in the world to me.
I knew I wanted to learn how to actually play intelligently so I started looking for reading material. When I was playing chess, I would go to the library and find whatever books were there and just read up all I can, so I figured backgammon must have some good books too.
Turns out, backgammon isn’t nearly as big as chess, I guess I didn’t consider that at the time, but looking through that shelf, I found one book that was perfect for me, and of course it was Magriel, and I knew nothing about this book being such a big deal or whatever, I just recognized the name and thought, “Oh wait, I’ve heard of him. He’s that math professor who was world champion. I think he might be borderline crazy — like damn we hit the jackpot, this book is absolute gold.” And I took that thing home, read it cover to cover in about a day and just absorbed information. And I read it a few more times after that.
I’ve looked at the little date stamp thing on the back of the book and I’m probably the only person to have checked that book out in the past 10 years, there are multiple dates on there but they’re all me. I’m pretty sure if you go find that copy now, there are notes written in the margins where I corrected some of the plays that turned out to be a little off. But that book made me rethink everything I knew about the game, and I think that’s the case for most people who read it, but it was really all I needed to kick things into high gear.
And I read a few other articles online, like Woolsey’s guide to the 5-point match and that type of thing. But once I realized how mathematical the game really was, it just seemed so simple. And it’s still very complex, but there are ways to figure this stuff out and to me, that’s half the fun.
I’ll see novices and intermediates today find themselves in tough positions and just do what I did before I really learned, and just make any play and say a prayer. And some people will insist that math doesn’t play a part, they just play on feel and instinct. But for me, I’ve always been very mathematically inclined so it just feels so natural now to be in an interesting position and try to reason my way out of it through math and logic.
There was a time when I thought it was just 98% dumb luck. And I think a lot of lower level players still believe that, so I’m just glad that guy opened up my eyes to the reality that it’s probably only about 60 or 70% dumb luck instead.
After that, I started playing online again, and I found these tournament sites where you could sign up and they would run these events throughout the entire month, kind of like what USBGF is doing now with the online circuit. So I just got addicted to that.
I never had Snowie because I thought it was insane to pay that much for a backgammon program, but a lot of the players from those tournaments, or maybe the organizers themselves would have it and run some of my matches. So I found out I was playing what Snowie would consider “Expert” level or above and I was just this high school kid, but I was playing a lot better than these grown men and retirees that had been playing forever, so I thought I have to stick with this because I definitely have some natural ability here. I thought it was a fun game before, but now that I actually understood it and was focused and came to find out I was pretty good at it, it was just incredible, I couldn’t get enough.
I don’t know if I was the best player on that site, but I would bet I was the most passionate about competing. They would have signups until the end of the month and then maybe on the 1st of the month, post new brackets online. And it might be single elimination or other events were round robin, but I would be up after midnight sometimes on the 1st day hitting refresh to see if they were posted already. And really it didn’t matter because it was late and nobody as going to be online anyway but that’s how obsessed I was, I just had to know who my opponents were as soon as they were posted and I would try to play as many matches as I could right away.
And if you want to get into how deep this obsession was, my recollection of the details might be a little off, but one thing I remember reading about Magriel was that “X-22” came from a simulated tournament he conducted between fictional players X-1 through X-64. And I’m not making this up, but I used to do the same thing. Except I didn’t run one simulated event, I ran an entire league that played various events throughout the entire year, culminating in an invitational championship for the best players of the year. And I didn’t have “Player 1” and “Player 2,” etc; I had actual characters with distinct personalities and/or playing styles.
There were good guys and bad guys, it was an ongoing struggle. So for example, “Vladimir Crusher,” the Russian ex-militant, might have had a playing style that was a little more overly aggressive than normal. “Kojima” was a Japanese businessman who was so disgruntled by his lack of major victories and recognition in the main league that he eventually paid off a small group of players who broke off and formed their own league that played on Tuesdays. I obviously had nothing to do on Tuesdays so that was my excuse to waste a couple hours playing backgammon. And of course, it was all the players he routinely beat, so he could say he was the champion of his league. He was basically the opposite of every actual prominent Japanese player you see today, so sorry for presenting them in a negative light, but to be fair, he was pretty cool. “Pyro” used to like to set the board on fire after he won a match — that was his signature. I had to act that part out.
I mean this is what I would do because I didn’t have any actual people to play, so all my over the board experience came from playing these fictional league games. And it was before I had any backgammon programs on the computer, so I would just open up a board, sit down and play maybe an 11-point match against myself, but I would segment my mind into these 2 characters and let them go to war against each other.
I’m sure it’s all highly neurotic, I probably should have been evaluated, but whatever, it was how I sustained my interest in playing and as ridiculous as it might sound, I was gaining playing experience from it.
It’s hard to just play against yourself and there’s nothing at stake, you’re just trying to find winning plays, it can get boring fast. But here it was like every match mattered, because it held some significance in the little fantasy league, so I could take it seriously.
And you have to consider like there’s nothing more embarrassing than to be a teenager sitting in your room and your dad walks in on you playing with yourself, but you’re playing backgammon with yourself. You have to hurry up and close the board real fast, slide it under your bed and just say, “What are you talking about? I wasn’t doing that. I was totally looking at porn.”
And I would be real self-conscious about this because it’s flat out weird and there’s clearly something wrong with me and you just don’t want anyone to know about it. But at some point, I told some friends and they’re just like, “Wow, that is so you. Of course you would imagine your own backgammon league with built-in storylines.” I’ve just always had a wild imagination so that I found a way to manifest itself in backgammon.
The character I most identified with and later adopted as my online persona was simply called “Vengeance.” He was literally the physical embodiment of another player’s hatred and rage that was made human while that player was badly losing a big match and basically went off the deep end.
That was based on an actual match I played online where I was down maybe 13-away/2-away and was just furious — I was about to punch a few holes in the wall. And then as often happens when you bitch enough in the middle of a match, things started to turn around. Next thing I know, we’re at DMP and I’m rolling away to victory. The player on the other end tells me, “You sure came back with a vengeance.” My earlier frustration still hasn’t worn off yet and I’m just thinking, “Damn right I did.” As if I knew I was destined to win even though I had basically given up hope. But that’s how the name stuck, and I just became Vengeance that day.
And to get an idea of how crazy or just bored I was, I would play with that name online, but what people didn’t realize was I was playing in character. That wasn’t Brian playing; it was really “Vengeance.” So everything I would say or do was something the fictional character of Vengeance would say or do.
See how stupid that is? At one point years ago, I decided to turn Vengeance into a bad guy and he became like the biggest villain in the entire league. So that was reflected when I played online and I would just make all these little sarcastic comments that would drive people insane, and do whatever else to maybe stir the pot here and there. And it’s weird because I’m actually a nice guy in real life, but playing online it was just way more fun to portray this over-the-top character.
Playing behind a screen allowed you the chance to briefly be someone you really weren’t. What was great though, is it got to the point where maybe 8 or 10 people would watch my matches just hoping to see me lose. So I mean, that’s excellent motivation to play your best, and then if I lost, I could at least feel like, well that jerk Vengeance deserved to lose and these people must be happy to have seen him fall.
Maybe people I played online will read this and take comfort in knowing I never really meant them any harm; I was just a weird kid acting out his imagination on a computer. Maybe they’ll still want to punch me in the face anyway, that’s ok too.
But yeah, there are just certain traits that character possessed whether he was good or bad, and those are the traits I try to exhibit when I play. You can strike Vengeance down; he’ll just get back up and return the pain double. That’s the attitude I have when I play. It’s so easy to get frustrated when you’re losing and start playing recklessly, give up all hope, lose and then bitch about how unfair it all was. But it takes a lot of mental toughness to actually do something about it, to keep fighting even when the odds are against you and to be motivated by your shortcomings instead of being discouraged by them.
Even if you beat me today, you’re on my hit list now and I’m going to pick you off next time I see you. I’m not the guy going, “Oh please don’t let me draw Player X because he always beats me.” I’m thinking more in the line of, you better hope I don’t draw you because I owe you one and I’m out for blood today. That’s the spirit of Vengeance. Best in the world.
Back to the fictional league for just a bit, because I want to point out why my fantasy land was way more legit than the actual backgammon world. You see, because in my league, we had an actual World Champion, like who defended the title and everything. That’s probably one of my biggest complaints about the way backgammon is run right now. We really don’t have an official world league or governing body so sometimes it feels like everybody is just making stuff up as they go along.
You got this tournament held exclusively in Monte Carlo that somehow has dubbed itself the “World Championship.” You don’t have to qualify for it or anything, just show up, pay your high entry fee, whatever, you’re in. And I don’t want to take anything away from anyone who has won it because there are some really great players who have done so, but you know, there are also some less than spectacular players who have done so as well.
I don’t get why a world championship doesn’t at least travel to other locations. Maybe it’s in Vegas one year, then London the next, then Tokyo, maybe back to Monte Carlo at some point, but there’s at least some kind of rotation in the mix. But more to the point, I don’t see how it’s prestigious in anything other than name only. Someone’s calling it the world championship and we’re just going along with it and saying yeah, ok, why not. There’s really nothing stopping me from holding a tournament in my backyard and calling it the Supreme Backgammon Championship of the Galaxy, but I don’t know how official that title would really be. Someone will argue to me it’s all about tradition, but I just don’t see it.
Remember back when I made reference to watching professional wrestling as a kid? I mean that’s it, it’s so simple, even a scripted sport can get it right better than the backgammon community can. That’s the system we had in my imaginary league, it’s the same kind of system chess uses as well: A reigning champion with a linear succession. So we would have a champion, and every so often he would be called to defend that title against an eligible challenger.
You don’t win one tournament and become world champion for a year until the next world champion is crowned at the next tournament. You work your way up to being a top contender and then the only way to become World Champion is to defeat the current Champion.
So when I was doing these fake tournaments, the winner of the annual invitational event would get an automatic title shot, and there could have been other ways to earn a championship match through sustained performance or accumulating enough points in a certain amount of time. And the champion and challenger would face off, 25-point matches, possibly a series of them to determine who would earn the right to be called World Champion at the end of the day.
I think it would be way more exciting to say, here’s current Champion Mochy defending his title against Challenger Michy, who earned his way here through some type of candidates pool, and they will now face off in a series of 11 long matches over the course of the next week to determine who is the rightful holder of the title Backgammon World Champion — as opposed to saying, here’s Mochy, Michy, Akiko, Petko, and like 100 other people you’ve never heard of before but who had 1000 Euros to throw around, playing in one tournament that is somehow more prestigious than any other because its organizers said so.
I’m done now. But seriously, somebody make it happen.
Well anyway, by the time I went to college, I had played so many games out against myself and just found all these fascinating positions, which by this point I was able to run in GNU and I was just really ingrained in the whole thing. So I was learning a lot because I was just always playing backgammon and the funny thing is, playing against yourself, you don’t really care if you win, and really how can you lose, but you’re just trying to play smart, so that took a lot of edge off I think. To be able to just play a game trying to make good decisions without having to worry about getting pissed off when things didn’t go your way.
I recently read on bgonline, someone posted that a good practice is instead of just playing against XG, set both sides to human, and play both sides so you get twice the playing experience. And I was just thinking, damn I’ve been doing that for about 10 years.
It all sounds very anti-social I’m sure, but once I got into college, backgammon became kind of a signature of mine. I might go out with some friends and I would always bring an old board with me no matter where we were and just use it as a sort of conversation piece. Somebody would get curious and want to play, or maybe somebody recognized the game as something they used to play with their family and want to give it a shot.
Knowing they wouldn’t have much of a chance pulling a match out against me, I would offer them something like 100-1 odds to play me. And most people would jump at it even if they knew less than nothing about how to actually play. I never did lose that $100 to anyone, although a few have come close. But it wasn’t about money for me, it was just taking something I enjoyed and finding a way to make it the most interesting thing in a room full of people. I don’t know if anyone ever got inspired enough to start playing when I wasn’t around, but it was good to see people having fun with it and to give the game some exposure, which was something I never got without looking for it on my own.
That’s the thing with me. I never took lessons from anybody, I never had someone mentoring me. Everything I learned about this game, I learned through my own independent research. I don’t expect that anyone else came to learn this game and love the game and be fascinated by it in the same way I did. Like I said, I was pretty damn weird and I don’t think other players truly get that about me. I’ve had people either online or in real life who will come up to me and want to know, “Well who taught you? Where’d you learn to play?” And they don’t believe me when I tell them I got so curious about the game, that I basically taught myself.
Other people will try to assert that maybe I’m not as good a player as some might claim I am. I was about 19 when one of the tournament sites I played on sent me an e-mail informing that a couple players complained about my playing style and they were investigating me. And they followed this up by saying, we ran some of your games with Jellyfish and have reason to believe you may be cheating. And I deleted the e-mail and didn’t even take it seriously, basically thought it was a joke because at the time I honestly didn’t know what the hell Jellyfish was.
I had GNU, I mean I was cheap like that, I used it to run my matches and run interesting positions all the time, but they made a point to say GNU didn’t show anything out of the ordinary, but JF says you’re a computer. And maybe six months later, they gave me a lifetime ban based off of that, never even gave me a chance to speak up for myself.
When online players would ask who taught me to play, they would want me to be able to tell them that I got lessons from Robertie or Magriel or Nack or Kit or just someone they knew and respected who could vouch for me and give me some degree of credibility. When I couldn’t do that, they would tell me, “Well there’s no way you could have learned all that on your own.” And I would think well why the hell not? Because you know, when you were 16 and your friends were out underage drinking somewhere, you weren’t sitting at home playing out the finals of an intense fictional backgammon tournament against yourself, in character, and highlighting all the interesting positions and making notes on them and figuring out why a certain play might be better than another and on and on. And I was.
And there are examples of game theory today that are different from how people thought 40 years ago, so there are things I learned from the start that other people might have had to relearn along the way because the old way of thinking eventually got disproved by a computer. I had a very different approach to gathering knowledge on the game when I was younger; it was admittedly very “out there.” But it helped me improve tremendously in that time.
I don’t do all that anymore, and maybe I should, but I’ve developed other ways of learning, studying and improving since then. This is me though; I’m not your traditional, run-of-the-mill backgammon player. I have a lot of different approaches, attitudes and beliefs about how the game is played or how an event should be run or whatever.
One question I always see asked of players is do you prefer live or online play. And the answer is always the same — live play without a doubt because you interact with real people, you get to shake the dice and touch a real board and you know your opponent isn’t using a computer and online backgammon isn’t real backgammon. And to me, I see the appeal of both but I don’t necessarily favor one or the other.
I spent probably 15 years playing online and I learned a lot and developed my skills greatly as a player in that time, so when someone tries to tell me that online backgammon isn’t “real” backgammon or that I’m not a “real” backgammon player because I play online and probably don’t know how to count pips on my own and whatever, I mean you’re just displaying your ignorance is all. At the same time, I don’t play online nearly as much as I used to, mainly because I don’t have to rely on it anymore. But there are pros and cons to both forms and there’s merit to both and a time and a place for each, so I don’t discount one side or the other. Backgammon is backgammon no matter where you play, it’s supposed to be fun and challenging and it will maintain those qualities wherever you play. Unless you’re just an awful person who doesn’t know how to have fun I guess.
I’ll probably catch some flak for this one, but another thing is I always hear players talking about the glory days of backgammon and it was all glitz and glamour and such a sophisticated game for sophisticated people who were oh so elegant and beautiful and classy and enjoyed the finer things in life, and you know they long for the game to return to those days. And I’m just not a part of that crowd at all.
You know, as an example, they have some really beautiful boards out there, but personally, I don’t need an expensive luxurious board to be a great player. And I have nothing against a nice board, but to me it feels like many people are way more concerned with aesthetics than they are about improving their game. The equipment doesn’t make the player. So I’ll play on any board you put in front of me, whether it’s $10,000 or some cheapo $8 plastic piece of garbage, or if it’s a virtual board online, whatever. I came here to kick your ass in backgammon; I can do that on any medium. I’ve seen way too many instances at the local club of players going to such great effort to decide whose $90 board — seriously now — they should play on and it’s a little off-putting. Who the hell cares, just play the damn game.
The only thing for me equipment-wise is I do want precision dice that aren’t all mangled up, but that’s for the purpose of keeping the dice random. At the end of the day, backgammon is a game of decision making and that’s what I’m here for. I don’t care if the board is drawn on a piece of paper with nickels and dimes used as checkers. I just want to play the best backgammon I can.
I guess a third thing is just the idea of backgammon as a gambling game. Again, nothing against that aspect of the game, but I really don’t play for the money. Some people find that insane. I can play chouettes and head to head stakes and all that, but at the end of the day I’m a tournament player first and foremost.
There’s really not a lot of money to be made just in tournaments alone, but if I was desperate for money, I wouldn’t be wasting time with backgammon in the first place. For me, I fight for a prize and that prize comes in the form of main event trophies and ABT points. When I’m at a tournament and I’m alive in the main event, I don’t even entertain the thought of playing side games with everyone because I’m totally focused on winning the crown.
I’ve made a good deal of free cash playing, though obviously not even close to what some people have accumulated. But that doesn’t bother me because money isn’t my primary motivator. You can’t put a price on honor or prestige. I’m out there working my ass off to be among the best players in the world. Not necessarily the richest or the prettiest. Just the best.
I developed all those attitudes while playing online really. It’s kind of funny, but you see it there too sometimes. There’s no actual board for you to play on of course, but sometimes you’re on a playing site where you have to sit down at a virtual table and you get players who will only play at Table 8 for example. So you’re scheduled to play somebody and you get to the room and just sit down at the first available table and you wait and wait for them to join you and they don’t, but then they message you and go, “Ok, I’m on table 8 when you’re ready.” Like you see me sitting here and you can’t just come to me because you have to play on your “lucky table” and we just took being ridiculous to a whole new level. But I said before, a lot of times you play online and it’s about 90% drama and 10% competitive backgammon.
There are a lot of casual players over on this Safe Harbor site and most of them don’t know they’re casual players, so they get real paranoid about people either cheating or the dice being perpetually rigged against them or whatever — it’s never their fault if they don’t win. And you’re playing for free so it’s not like anyone has any real incentive to try to screw you over there. I don’t think most of these people realize how seriously I take the game, so it’s just a little annoying to constantly put yourself in that environment where your hard work only earns you people’s hatred and not their respect.
I would get people who would talk to online tournament directors or send me messages directly and say, “I don’t think it’s possible for you to play a 4 PR so I think you’re probably cheating,” or, “Every time I play you, you always have incredible luck so I think you’re hacking the dice.” I mean this is what I’m trying to do, is elevate my game and win. When I don’t play better than a 5, I’m not happy with myself. When I play between say 4 and 5, I maybe consider that acceptable, but I know I’m capable of doing better. So for someone to use that range as evidence of, “you’re obviously cheating” is just absurd to me. Maybe you aren’t capable of playing that level but I am, so back off.
The only things I really care about when I’m playing are winning and playing strong. So it sucks when I’m working my ass off to do both of these things and when I’m successful, someone’s going to get jealous and turn around and say you’re not for real. I’m the realest guy on that site; nobody there is as intense as I am. It doesn’t mean they aren’t any good or capable of being good. It just means I guarantee I have way more passion for it than anyone else there. But that’s the reality of playing only online. There’s always going to be doubt. So I always knew I wanted to break out of that routine and make a name for myself playing in the flesh.
Ok, so this is how I finally transitioned to live play. It had to be early January 2012, so I would have been not quite 24. But I was reading the final issue of the Chicago Point newsletter and I was looking over the list of all the local backgammon clubs and their players of the year for 2011. And I noticed a lot of names I recognized like maybe Bob Koca, Herb Gurland, Carol, etc. But what caught my eye was I saw a listing for a “New Orleans Backgammon Club.” And I looked at that guy’s name and didn’t recognize it so it didn’t appear that he played any ABT events or anything like that. So I basically wondered, well is this guy actually any good, or is he just the best player they know of down here?
I didn’t even know we had a club down here and I didn’t know who this guy was that they called their player of the year and didn’t know how he played, but I honestly believed there was nobody in this area who plays this game as intense as I do. So that was all the motivation I needed. I decided I’m going to find out where these guys play, I’m going to walk in there and own the place from day one, and next year it’s gonna be my name on that list. And you know, other than that being the last issue so there really wasn’t going to be another list, I was right about all those things. The list lived on in Carol’s newsletter so I got my satisfaction eventually.
I tried to find information about the club but didn’t have a whole lot of luck. They had a website but there wasn’t much to it. I’m summarizing here but it was something like, “New Orleans Backgammon Club. We are a backgammon club in New Orleans. Come join us.” I don’t remember there being much to go by as far as format or match lengths or anything like that.
Well later that same week, Chelsea calls me, and I don’t know what her official title is these days but she’s basically the Sales Queen Manager at the New Orleans Athletic Club, which she’ll have you know is like the second oldest athletic club in the nation — but anyway she calls and says, “Yeah don’t ask me why, but for some reason there’s supposed to be a free backgammon tournament with prizes at the athletic club next Thursday. So you really need to come down here and show these idiots what it means to play backgammon.” Her words, not mine. But it turned out this thing was run by the local backgammon club and it was their annual recruitment drive. They go down to the gym and try to find people to play backgammon. I don’t know if that’s a common practice or not but I guess who cares.
So I go down there and I meet the two club directors and they set me up with a 5-point match against another player. There were only 4 or 5 of us so it wasn’t really a tournament, it was just like play a match and if you win you get free entry to the next weekly tournament. So I won my match, got my free entry and that was my excuse for finally being able to go check this place out.
I played one of the club directors immediately after and the amusing thing I remember was this. I was leading, and then he survived at Crawford to get his score to 2-away/1-away PC. So he makes the 3 point, I open with 2-1 or some garbage, he doubles, I drop. And he gets all excited and proclaims, “Hey Mike! Remember the free drop? He knows about it!” They were so astonished by it and I was just sitting there like, “Ok, who doesn’t know about that?” Apparently, a lot of people. It never occurred to me that they tend to get way more novices than people who are already playing world class, so something that seemed basic to me was apparently a pretty big deal.
The next week, I went to the regular weekly club tournament. My first opponent was the one who was named reigning player of the year, and I thought this is really a make or break moment right here. It’s weird to me now, but I think I was just a little nervous that night. I didn’t know any of these other players so I didn’t how they played or how seriously they would take some kid who just randomly showed up one night. I’m supposedly facing off against the best player in the club, so I might go there thinking I’m a great player and end up embarrassing myself against someone who actually is.
I was down by a good bit, and I kept finding myself in holding games and dropping cubes that possibly may have been takes. I didn’t get the feeling that my opponent thought I was any good. Again, probably just some random kid who wandered in one time only to find he was in way over his head, and never be seen again. So at some point, I closed my eyes, calmed down, let all that anxiety go away, and I just became Vengeance. I came back from way behind and won that match. I went on to finish second place that night, losing a close match at DMP to the co-director who played about the most overly aggressive style I’d ever seen in my life, and as far as I’m concerned, basically just got away with it. Vladimir Crusher would have been proud of him. I felt like I was robbed of my moment that night, but I was pretty well hooked. I had to come back to exact vengeance, right?
I had a few personal reasons at the time that I wasn’t able to return to the club as often as I would have liked, but by the summer, I was able to be there every week and call myself a regular. One of the things I realized was nobody was keeping track of the results each week so I got into thinking, like hell, if I’m going to be playing every week, I want to at least know how I’m doing and how I stack up against everyone else.
I love numbers and data and all that, so I was already keeping a personal Excel sheet with all my live stats, but that was just for me, I didn’t have one made for everyone else. So I got us signed up for that backgames.org deal and took the initiative to post all the results and develop a point system and just try to make things more exciting and competitive. I’m probably the only person who actually looks up those standings, but it motivates me in trying to be the top player, so if others aren’t taking advantage of that, that’s on them.
By the end of that year, I had accomplished exactly what I set out to do. I owned it from day one and took player of the year honors right out of the gate. My win rate was something like 67% and I won at least twice as many tournaments as any other individual player, so it made me feel good to know that I was able to replicate my online success out in the real world.
My first venture into a kind of “bigger” tournament was a regional event also run by the local club. I haven’t decided if this tournament actually qualifies or not really. I once described it to someone as a backgammon tournament for people too afraid to play in an actual backgammon tournament, so I’m sure they wouldn’t have asked me to help advertise the thing I suppose. I really don’t mean to sound so negative about it, it was just a very weird payout structure to me.
It was limited to exactly 16 people, and they wanted it to be 8 locals and 8 from other states, but it wasn’t like us vs. them kind of thing, it was just a single elimination tournament, but there was way more emphasis on trying to find outside players than on gathering all the locals for the big event of the year. So you would pay your $250 entry, of which $200 would go to the prize pool, so you had $3200 total. But then they would pay you by the win, so you win your first game you get $50, then next round maybe $75 and so on. And there was a consolation for the losers in the first round and they would get maybe $25 per win in that bracket. And then they would actually hold two tournaments, one in the morning, one at night, so that further segmented it. So you had 16 people, and basically everyone would get some kind of prize assuming they won at least one match, which seemed counterintuitive to me. Like if we’re paying $200 and everyone gets $50 back, why not just lower the entry by $50? But you couldn’t hold an event with a focus on out of town players coming to the city and have an entry fee too low to make it worth their while. Thing is, I can’t imagine any player who had to travel would actually be able to break even and that’s even if they won every single match.
But anyhow in 2013, Chelsea and I both agreed to enter. I know I had to have been the strongest player there and I’d say she was probably playing at about an upper-Intermediate level at the time, but she was also very nervous which I’m sure played a factor. Well I went on a tear and won 6 matches in a row, putting me in the finals of both events. Chelsea made it to the semifinal of the second tournament and was this close to winning which would have been great since we would have played each other in the final. Actually we probably would have just left early. I ended up winning one final and losing the other.
The following year, the format was revised a little bit with a round robin qualifying round followed by a 4-player playoff, and Chelsea stormed 7-0 to win the event. I was way more proud of her than I was of myself winning it the previous year because she really improved a lot in that time.
My first actual ABT event was in 2013, about a month after the local tournament. I came to find out that the two co-directors of the club would go out to the Atlanta tournament every year. It’s the closest one to us and one of the guys refuses to fly, so they would take the train over there each year, like a 12-hour ride. So I had just won all those matches at the local tournament and I had been telling people who I played online for years that I wish I could hit the national scene at some point, so this just seemed like the right opportunity for me. I told them I was in and they took care of all the arrangements so I just had to get my train ticket and I was set.
We played for most of the ride over, low stakes but I was still able to basically pay for the trip so that was cool. When we got there, I found out I was entered in the Advanced bracket. I had done zero research on this tournament so for whatever reason, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there was more than one division and that the guys from the club would be playing in the lower one. So I stood there going, “Wait, Advanced? Are you sure?” And some people basically told me, you know, you’re only 25, this is your first ABT event, it’s no big deal don’t worry about it. Advanced is perfect for you. So I just shrugged it off and said ok.
Well I went on to win that tournament, and aside from the first match where I could tell I was playing a lot better than my opponent but maybe just not rolling as well, I really didn’t break a sweat that day. What’s kind of amusing is I played Presser in the third round, and I could tell he knew what he was doing, and I don’t know if he took me seriously or not, but I probably had the stars aligned for me that day so I don’t recall facing too many difficult decisions. It’s just funny looking back now to think of the two of us just trolling an Advanced bracket for no real reason, but there we were.
After that, I just went back home and kept playing at the New Orleans club for my backgammon fix. The following year, the guys didn’t go back to Atlanta. I would have gone myself, but WrestleMania was at the Superdome that same weekend, so you know, I enjoy stupid crap so that’s what we did instead. Did I mention they have a real world champion by the way? It’s not fake, it’s just scripted. But really, I didn’t have anyone else who would go to ABT events with me, so I just kept sitting them all out myself.
I think that’s been the hardest thing for me playing at the local club. I don’t want to take anything away from anybody over there. It’s not like everyone there is just an awful player so I don’t want to make it seem that way. Except for maybe one or two, even the weakest players there are generally utilizing some kind of strategy — it’s probably deeply flawed, but they are using some kind of reason as opposed to just randomly throwing pieces around. A couple of guys would probably be really strong Intermediates if they cared enough to play an ABT tournament. It’s just that I’m really the only Open level player at the club and I’m the only one who cares about the game enough to want to compete on a larger scale, or to improve my game to the highest level. I don’t know what it was like before I came around, but the thing is, I think it was always a very casual kind of club. Because these guys aren’t going out to all these big events, or reading up on the game, analyzing their matches and keeping track of their mistakes and so on.
Wednesdays are maybe the one night of the week when they devote any time at all to backgammon, so maybe they just show up out of habit or to get away from the wife for a couple hours or whatever. And again, I’d say the second best player in the group probably plays close to an 8 PR so I mean right on the cusp of playing at the next level if he put in the effort, but I can’t ever shake the feel that nobody cares as much about learning and improving as they do about just showing up with what they already know and hoping it will be enough each week.
So when I’m out doing my thing, there are times when other players are kind of looking down on me for it, which basically sucks. I used to try to stimulate interest and discussion by bringing these positions of the week for people to look at and dissect before the tournament, but most of the time it would just be guys looking at it for half a second, making the “obvious” play and then looking at each other quizzically like, “Lol, that was so easy.” And then I’d show them the correct play and instead of learning something new, it would be, “Yeah who would ever play it like that?” So I mean I keep trying to change the way people look at the game and play the game, but I have very limited success with that crowd, and it is a very casual group of players so I think they’re just used to doing things a certain way and they’re not as crazy about it as I am enough to want to change that.
One of the things that would really bother me about playing there is, unlike online where you get a copy of the match log after it’s over, there’s no feedback when you’re done. So I would just play these matches and have no idea how I was doing. Sometimes I might remember short sequences from certain games and I would try to recreate them, but playing two or three matches a week, sometimes they start to all blend together.
Nobody does it here, but I see all the people on the ABT with their cameras recording all their matches, or some people just take pictures of interesting positions. And I think it’s great but again, you get to this point where people are showing off more about all the high end equipment they have and less about how they’re actually playing during those matches. I guess this goes back to how I said I do things a little different from most people. See because I don’t want to invest a lot of money into video recording equipment because it hurts my return first off. Then I have to actually watch myself playing this entire match and then enter all the moves at the pace of the match. I can speed it up but it gets a little tedious watching and then transcribing back and forth like that. Besides, if I tell my friends who don’t play backgammon that I like to watch myself on tape, they might get the wrong idea.
Ok, so this is what I do. I grab a pen and paper, which I’d say costs about 85 cents, but it’s actually free because I took this home from the last tournament I was at. But then I take it, and I Nactate the entire match. If you’re not familiar with Nactation, go look it up because clearly it changed my life. And I’ll be honest, I don’t even go full on extreme with every single one of these because at some point crazy moves happen and you get stuff like lower case letters and underline and italics and don’t get me started on things that get coded F and M and stuff like that. But I do it in a way such that I can understand exactly what’s on there, and that’s really the important thing. But look at this, here’s an example of one from last week’s pile.
It’s probably illegible to most people, but I guess I’m the only one who needs to read it. This match was kind of short. But you’re just writing down the dice roll and then one letter to communicate all that information. Sometimes I’ll write the landing point as a subscript if I’m not totally sure what the letter would be. I’m trying not to think about all that so I can focus on my game. But writing it down forces me to adjust my pace just a little, so I’m not rushing through the game and making careless mistakes. I really shouldn’t do this part, but you’ll see there some of the plays have these question marks next to them, so those are just moves I wasn’t sure of when I made them.
I’m highly critical of myself when I play, so I’ll sit there and second guess a lot of moves in the moment and later on the computer might say they were right but I’m not convinced until I see it. This match here I had a redouble that I gave and circled it “BAD DOUBLE!!!!” with like 4 exclamation points which I think means I assumed giving the double was about a 0.4 blunder. It actually turned out to be correct by a good bit but just the way my opponent took the cube so confidently and then gave it back to me at 8 the very next play had me thinking, “Well maybe I screwed something up bad there.”
Anyway, they take hardly any time to write down, and then I take it home, and I go through this paper and input the moves on GNU because I find it easier to transcribe there instead of typing in all the dice rolls, and I mean 10 minutes tops, you put in this entire 9 or 11-point match and it’s done. Then I open it in XG and run ++ on it overnight. Next day, I’ll go through the match move-by-move and every time I find an error, or maybe a play I got right but didn’t fully understand, I’ll make a screenshot of that position and add it to a PowerPoint and then I’ll make another slide that shows the XG analysis.
I’ll then go a little more in depth with it and figure out why the best play was better than mine, maybe make a few variations and compare the results to the original, but I’ll write up a short little explanation or some kind of theme behind the position and the play to help me understand what’s going on. And I’ll kind of go through those positions like flash cards. And I’ll tell you, it’s a really great practice because everything you’re adding to that collection is something you got wrong in an actual match at some point. So those are the things you need the most help with trying to understand.
I think that might be my number one piece of advice to beginners and intermediates who want to step up their game. I see some of the local players here make the same mistakes week after week and it is because they are using flawed logic in a given situation and yet they continue to subscribe to that same flawed logic because it’s never occurred to them that what they are doing is wrong. I’ve also seen certain players online who would run their matches only looking for validation, like they want XG to say “congratulations you are a world class player.” So when it instead says, “actually you kinda sucked,” they would get offended and sit there going, “well that’s just ridiculous, what was so bad about my play?”
You can’t keep defending all your bad plays; you have to learn how to adapt. XG is there to help you but you have to be willing to learn. Part of getting better involves admitting that you’re not perfect, or maybe not even that great to begin with. I know a guy at the club who insists he’s one of the best players there, but also that the game is pure luck, no skill involved, so of course when he loses it’s only because he got screwed. But he consistently plays about a 20 PR and obviously makes zero effort to improve himself. I might play a 3 or 4 PR in a given match, but if it’s anything higher than 0, that means there were mistakes made somewhere, and those are learning opportunities. So if I can play at a high level and still make efforts to improve myself, someone who plays an 8 or a 12 or a 20 has that much more room for improvement. Take advantage of that and turn your weaknesses into strengths.
I’m not an asshole or anything when I play, but I am very intense and the Nactation is part of that. There are maybe one or two players who don’t like that I do this, or don’t like me thinking about plays and that kind of thing. I hate that they feel that way but I can’t let it bother me either. My thing is I want to help other players step up their game because I think it’s just natural that you enjoy something more if you’re more knowledgeable of it. A lot of players in the group I think would prefer me to just tone it back instead.
It’s too bad though, because there is no off switch to this. I can’t just play down to someone else’s level and I’m not going to try anyway because it’s not what I’m here for. I can be an excellent resource to anyone who wants to learn and wants to improve. I invite and encourage all players in the club to find ways to improve their game, but if you don’t accept that invitation, you know don’t get mad at me because I play better than you I suppose. I’ve heard some say they would like to get better; they just don’t have the time. There are a couple of guys here who are fairly avid gamers so they might also play chess, bridge, poker, dungeons and dragons, you name it. And there are some top-level backgammon players who are also great players at other games, so it’s not like you can’t be great at more than one thing.
I know for me, playing these games is like an art form, so I’d rather focus on mastering one art form instead of just being good at several of them. That might explain why some people can’t make the commitment to learning backgammon more in depth, but it also explains why I’m so into it. I’ve had people get a little annoyed because I’m thinking about my plays, and hell, I’ve had one guy tell me I’m taking the fun out of the game, which is the last thing I’m trying to do. But to me, the better you understand the game, the more fun it gets. And really how much fun can it be to just mindlessly throw pieces around without any logic or reason behind it? But I get it, because do you know what’s probably not fun? Losing all the time because you’re just throwing pieces wherever they fit, while your opponent is methodically placing them where they want to be.
Do you know how to correct that? Work to improve your own game! It gets a little discouraging sometimes when you walk into a place called a “backgammon club” and you like to think that people would appreciate your skill set and the competition you provide them but instead they just look at you like you’re that weird guy who can’t just play backgammon, but actually wants to be good at it.
I’ve heard many players get asked the question, “Can you see yourself as a Giant?” And for me, there’s no question about it. I’ve pushed myself this far because I want to play my best, and earn my way to the top, and I’m out there working my ass off for it. I think it should be the goal of every player to play the best they can. Maybe not everyone has the potential to be on the level of a giant, but even if it means just improving one aspect of your game, you’re going to get more enjoyment out of it in the long run if you evolve with the game instead of being a static “I know what I know and that’s all I know” type of player.
So yes, when you play against me, whether it’s online, or locally, or out on the ABT, bold prediction perhaps, but you’re playing against a future Giant. Unless you’re reading this in the future and I’m already a Giant. Either way, I’m continuously motivated by my desire to grow as a player, so I would hope others would be motivated to push themselves harder as well. I’ve watched people who don’t play so well get discouraged and quit playing altogether.
But look at my beginnings. There was a time when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I enjoyed the game and I wanted to get better, so I made the effort. You know, if you took the time it takes to bitch about bad dice and instead used that time to study just one or two crucial mistakes you made in the same match, you would improve dramatically over time. I think that’s the biggest obstacle in the way of some of the players in my group. Because everyone likes to complain, but not everyone likes to know why and how much they suck. The best day of my backgammon life was that game I described where I finally figured out just how much I sucked. Without it, I might still be playing like that, or worse yet, I may have given up a long time ago. All I see now are goals and possibilities, and I won’t stop until I’ve achieved them. I mean I won’t lose sleep over a ranking list, but I think it’s always good to have something to shoot for.
I think that’s part of how I ended up finally hitting the ABT circuit this past year. I figure I played online for all those years and got really good at it, but then people would tell me, “yeah but you’re just an online player.” So I stepped it up and started playing at a live club. And I did that for three years and proved myself on that scene. But I accomplished everything there was to do down here, so now it’s, “ok so you’re good but you only play local players who you were already better than.” I feel like I exhausted all my challenges here, so it was finally time to take the show on the road and start playing on the ABT.
At the start of the year, I stopped playing at the club altogether and just focused on building up my game on my own. I went back to Atlanta, this time correctly entered in the Open division, and made it to the semifinals. I lost a tough match at effective DMP, but I played a great game, so I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself for losing. I had people coming up to me saying, “Man I thought you had it, that was a tough break.” But I shook it off and told them no big deal because I’m winning the Consolation tomorrow. And I did. And again that goes back to attitude. It’s so easy to get frustrated in defeat, but what good is it? You can’t change the past, so forget about it and just keep playing your best, your time will come.
After Atlanta, I started playing at the club again and I think there are people proud to see one of their own competing on a national level, but it’s still difficult to be the only one. Somebody there will want me to not play so seriously, but that’s like asking me to forget how to breathe. I look at the club as a developmental league. I come here each week to work on my game so that I will be that much better when it comes time for a bigger tournament. I don’t even play a whole lot of matches anymore. I just record what I do play, save the positions, study the themes and explanations behind them, and just review it all constantly. Anybody can do it, but I guess I can see how some would lose patience or interest rather quickly.
Really when you think about it, I’m sure a lot of people have lost interest in backgammon. It’s hard to say what the best approach is for getting new players so the game can grow again. Sometimes down here, we put more of an emphasis on finding older players who maybe used to play 20, 30, 40 years ago and getting them to come back, but I think that only goes so far. I’ve seen a couple such players try to get back into it, but the game has changed too much since they last played and they just never adapt. Or maybe they were very casual players who only knew a little about the game as it was, and to try to learn it from the ground up at 50 or 60 years old is just too much.
I definitely think we need to start getting younger players into the game, because that’s the next generation that will help sustain the game. Local clubs should probably be looking in area high schools and universities for new recruits. Math clubs could appreciate all the probabilities and decision-making that goes along with backgammon. And then you figure, most high schools have a chess club, so why not backgammon? There are chess players who are very sharp and have a lot of mental toughness, but will only go so far as a chess player yet could be a top backgammon player very easily if they put as much effort into it. If you could get just one member from each chess club to give backgammon a serious shot, you give yourself a pretty good base of young players who have the potential to grow the game for future generations. I think whatever Mochy is doing with the Under-25 Club is the right kind of idea and we need to do more to promote the game in that way here in the States.
I’ve wasted like two hours talking about backgammon, so I will briefly say that yes I do have a few other hobbies. I’m not sure, but I think hobby is just a nice way of saying “pointless way to waste time.” So, other than backgammon, I can think of a couple of those. For one, I’m pretty big into craft beer so I’m always looking for an excuse to try something new in that area. I go for quality over quantity. If I’m going to have a drink, it’s just a waste for me not to explore all the interesting things brewers can do with their beers, as opposed to just downing a case of whatever garbage and trying to get drunk for the sake of being drunk.
I’m not really a “beer snob” as they say because drinking beer is supposed to be fun and that kind of attitude doesn’t really help anybody. I will laugh however if someone tries to tell me about how they are a big “beer connoisseur” and then start naming all the most basic beers as proof of their expertise. When I go to a tournament, one of my favorite things to do is walk around town and buy some local beer that I can’t get back home.
I’ve already made enough references to professional wrestling, so I won’t get into that as a hobby or whether or not I used to deliver signature moves to friends or let them knock me off ladders or anything ridiculous like that.
I guess my other big obsession is listening to and collecting all these old Casey Kasem American Top 40 shows. I’ve always been interested in just the evolution of music over the years, and as far as I can tell, all this mainstream stuff has mostly gone downhill in more recent years. Several years ago, they started remastering all these old Top 40 shows from the 70s and 80s and put them into syndication and for whatever reason, I thought it was about the greatest thing ever. So every week, I’ll listen to a show online and I’ll be recording the entire thing, and I’ll go back and cut out all the commercials and save the episode to a hard drive, and I’ve just got this whole collection built up. I might not get to listen to it all at once, so I’ll just go back and forth with it while I’m doing other things on the computer.
So playing backgammon online, I recently had a tournament organizer that was getting highly suspicious of me for whatever reason, and one of the things he cited was that I would occasionally take these little pauses in between certain rolls. So I guess he thought I was pausing before I rolled so I could rig up my old Dice Hacker 9000 and give myself the perfect roll. I had to explain to him that no, while that would potentially be less embarrassing, what I’m actually doing is deleting commercials from my latest recording of American Top 40 from 1984 and then going into Excel and typing in the name and position of whatever song was just played. He wasn’t buying that, but you know, anyone is welcome to come visit and watch me play on a computer sometime so you can see firsthand how I’m way more into how far up did Duran Duran’s latest single go this week than I am about playing a free backgammon match as quickly as possible.
Also, do you have trouble memorizing match equities or take points and gammon values at various scores? Try memorizing every single song that went to number one for two whole decades and the dates in which they did. We’ll be in a car somewhere and a song will come on and I’ll just randomly chime in, “Alright! The Police took this to number one in July 1983.” And someone will usually come back with, “Ok, Casey, thanks.”
I think my plan for backgammon now is to just keep playing as many tournaments as I’m able to. I still play online occasionally and at the club, but I’m more focused on bigger events. One of the things I love about the live tournaments is that at many of them now, we have people like Michelle Steinberg — a fellow beer lover by the way — and Rynell Nunez doing the live streaming of matches.
I’m sure some players find it intimidating to be recorded and would rather not be streamed, but I’m all for it. What’s great for me too is I got a little fan club that watches me play. Some of them are people I’ve only known from playing online, but I’ll have friends and family members back home just checking in to see how I’m doing.
I have one friend who knew very little about the game but would watch anyway because he wanted to lend his support. He’s a bit of a numbers guy himself, so he watched and got intrigued enough to want to learn, so I’ve been showing him the ropes a bit. His plan is to come with me to a tournament, probably Charlotte, and play in the Novice division.
So I mean just like that, potentially a new player that really only turned up because he saw a friend playing and got curious. So maybe if every active player finds just one friend who doesn’t already play, ties them up and forces them to play, you know we can double our numbers just like that.
Thanks for allowing me to waste your time, I hope to see more people hitting the tournament scene in the future.