Bob Stoller has the distinction of being the first (and to this date, the only) Alaskan ever to have won points on the American Backgammon Tour. He is also the first Alaskan to have joined the U.S. Backgammon Federation, and he is currently the only Alaskan who is a Founding Sponsor of the USBGF.
During the January 2012 U.S. Open Backgammon Championship, Bob volunteered to assist me with the classes I was presenting to beginners. I found many of his suggestions and observations to be quite helpful and insightful, and I learned that he is the principal teacher of both backgammon and Go for the Anchorage Backgammon Club and the Anchorage Go Club. Bob is also an avid collector of backgammon sets and books.
In this interview, Bob shares his thoughts about playing and teaching backgammon and Go, and he reflects on the passion and pitfalls of being a collector.
No. I hate to disappoint your readers, but I have only seen Alaska's former part-time Governor in her television appearances. (I get asked this question all the time, so I wanted to address it at the outset.)
Are you a native Alaskan?
No. I was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1946, and I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts.
How did you find your way to Alaska?
When I graduated from law school in 1972, the two best job offers I had were (1) to be an associate-attorney with a small law firm in Portland, Oregon or (2) to serve as a Law Clerk for one of the Justices of the Alaska Supreme Court. The law firm agreed to keep its position open for me for the one-year duration of the Clerkship, if I took the Oregon Bar exam first.
After my year clerking for Justice Roger Connor, I moved to Portland. Two years later, I returned to Anchorage to open the firm's Alaska branch office.
The full story is more of an odyssey than is practical to tell here. I have moved to Anchorage four times, with lengthy sojourns in Topeka, Kansas and Juneau, Alaska. I have lived in Anchorage for the past 30 years, and now that I am retired, I expect to finish my life here.
Tell us a bit about your family.
On both sides of my family, the story is flight from persecution in Eastern Europe. My mother's parents immigrated from a village in Lithuania, circa 1910. She was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1917. My grandfather succeeded in becoming the proprietor of a small retail shoe store. Educating his daughters past high school was a financial luxury beyond his means (and inconsistent with the family's values). My mother was compelled to surrender her scholarship to Boston University after her freshman year. As a result, she maintained a life-long thirst for learning which she passed on to me. For many years before she married my father, she worked as a legal secretary.
My father's family fled from pogroms in Bessarabia, also circa 1910. Bessarabia has long since ceased to exist as a country, but back in 1910 it was located south-west of the Ukraine and north-east of Austria. My grandfather reached America ahead of his wife and children. He moved in with relatives who had previously settled in New Haven, Connecticut. He was a carpenter by trade. From what he was able to save out of his earnings, he sent money back to "the old country" to pay for his family's voyage to America. In 1911, he fell from a roof he was repairing and suffered a massive concussion. He died two days later, age 35. My father had not yet been born.
My widowed grandmother and her brood of six children (including the recently-born infant who would grow up to become my father) settled in the slums of New Haven. No welfare system existed in those days. My grandmother eked out a meager living running an outdoor fruit-and-vegetable stand.
After graduating from high school, my father worked a series of menial jobs. During the Depression, seeking a better life, he moved to Boston, found a day job and enrolled in the night school division of Northeastern University Law School. (Back then, an undergraduate degree was not a prerequisite for attending law school.) After my father passed the Massachusetts Bar exam, he was not permitted to be sworn in until he had completed the process of becoming a naturalized citizen. He practiced law as a sole practitioner for 50 years, working mostly on small personal injury cases. He died of cancer in 1993.
So, I am "first generation" on my father's side, and I am the first person in my immediate family to have earned an undergraduate degree.
I generally do not volunteer these details, because many people consider it boastful, but since you have expressly asked: Yale University, B.A., English, magna cum laude, 1968; Harvard Law School, Juris Doctor, 1972.
How did you get introduced to backgammon?
This is a story of my overcoming stupid and unreasonable childhood prejudices.
Among the toys I grew up with was a checkers set. On the reverse side of the checker-board was a strange looking game-board with large red-and-black triangles. Neither I nor any of my friends nor anyone's parents had any idea what this was. By the time I was 9, my schoolmates and I had enthusiastically taken up chess. We were certain that chess was the best game of strategy and intellect ever to have existed. Somehow, we learned that the strange board game was called "backgammon" and that it was played with checkers and dice. Although no one knew how to play, we were convinced that a game whose moves were dictated by dice could not possibly have any strategic or intellectual value whatsoever.
It wasn't until I started college at Yale in 1964 that I found people who knew the rules. My backgammon-playing classmates were all sons of very wealthy and socially-prominent families. One of them went out of his way to inform me that someone of my background was not welcome in their set. His scorn and contempt convinced me that backgammon was a silly, gambling game for rich snobs, and as utterly unapproachable for me as polo or yacht racing.
Flash forward 15 years to 1979. I have returned to Anchorage and am now working as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alaska Department of Law. At that time, Anchorage had fairly sizeable and organized groups of both chess players and backgammon players. Our daily newspaper, The Anchorage Times, even featured a weekly chess column.
For no good reason at all, the chess writer attacked backgammon and backgammon players in one of his columns. The backgammon crowd was understandably incensed. They challenged the chess players to a backgammon tournament: the three best chess players would play head-to-head backgammon matches against the three best backgammon-players. (I was a nonparticipant observer.) The chess players won, and the columnist gloated insufferably. But backgammon — the game — achieved a subtle and ironic form of revenge. All of the chess players who participated in that event became passionate about backgammon!
That episode convinced me that, regardless of how I might feel about individual players, the game itself deserved my attention and respect. I purchased copies of Paul Magriel's Backgammon, Joe Dwek's Backgammon For Profit, and Barclay Cooke and Rene Orlean's Championship Backgammon, and an inexpensive set. Studying the books and moving the checkers, I taught myself the basics as best I could.
How did you become interested in tournament backgammon?
It took me another 29 years to discover tournament backgammon.
After I graduated from law school, my career and professional responsibilities took absolute priority over everything else in my life. For 26 years (1981 through 2007) I maintained a solo practice specializing in public utility law. In addition, for 13 of those years (1983 through 1996) I was simultaneously a senior attorney with the State of Alaska's special litigation team engaged in collecting underpaid royalties owed to the State from the producers of the oil fields at Alaska's North Slope. Our major adversaries were Exxon, British Petroleum, and ARCO (now known as Conoco/Phillips). In aggregate, our litigation team collected approximately $1.1 billion for the State of Alaska.
All this legal work paid well, but it came at a high personal cost. For five consecutive years, I averaged fewer than two days off per month. Sixteen-hour work days and seven-day work weeks were the norm.
In July 2007 I returned to the Department of Law as a full-time employee to serve the remaining time required for me to vest in the State of Alaska's retirement system. As a State employee with the benefit of guaranteed leave time (and now relieved from the demands of both private practice and the oil-and-gas litigations), I was finally able to schedule modest vacations.
I had long known of backgammon tournaments, but I had never had the time to attend one. In April 2008 I flew to Las Vegas to observe "up close and personal" Howard Markowitz's American Backgammon Tour event. That was a great experience. I sat literally at the elbow of Nack Ballard as he and his wife Hsiao-Yee trounced the team of Malcolm Davis and Kit Woolsey in the Doubles event, and I watched many other great players in action, including John O'Hagan, Ed O'Laughlin, and Chuck Bower. Best of all, I got to know Carol Joy Cole, and she became my backgammon mentor. Although I spent nearly all of my time as a spectator, I did take a plunge on a $50 jackpot. My modest goal was to win at least one point under tournament conditions. I did so — but just barely. Adam Lusk (Lynn Lusk's college-age son) crushed me in 7–1.
Since then, I have played in ten ABT events. I played in the Open in one event just for the experience, but in the Advanced division in the balance of the events.
I understand you are a co-founder of the Anchorage Backgammon Club and the principal teacher of backgammon there. Please tell us something about that.
The Anchorage Backgammon Club is an outgrowth of the Anchorage Go Club, of which I am also a co-founder. My strongest backgammon opponent, who is also one of our strongest Go players, is a former multi-year Alaska State Chess Champion by the name of Ed Sawyer. Ed is my co-founder of both clubs.
After holding the Alaska State Chess Championship for several years, Ed turned to competitive Bridge and became a Life Master. Years later, having become bored with Bridge, Ed decided to learn Go. (For more than 25 years, I had been trying with total lack of success to teach Go to the chess players.) Ed and I started playing Go on a regular basis in the coffee shop of our local Barnes & Noble. From time to time, curious onlookers would ask what we were doing. We eventually attracted a regular Thursday-night gathering.
Many of the interested onlookers were school-age children shopping for books with their parents. Go proved to be too challenging for some of them. So I started bringing a backgammon set and teaching backgammon to anyone who preferred the faster-paced game of backgammon to either chess or Go.
I am now the principal teacher of both Go and backgammon in both clubs, for anyone who wants to learn either game. I make a special point of teaching the basics to complete beginners. I also make "house calls" to give private backgammon lessons to my colleagues in the Alaska Attorney General's Office.
How do you go about teaching backgammon to beginners?
For my students who are literally just starting to learn, my approach is to get them playing immediately in games which are, in effect, student-and-me as a team versus me. With each dice roll, I try to point out all of the available plays for each die. I recommend what I believe is the best play and the reasons for my recommendations, but the final decision on each move is the student's responsibility.
When Ed Sawyer or one of our other experienced players is available, I ask them to supplement my recommendations with their own observations. For my own dice, I always make what I believe is the best play. I think it is important for raw beginners to have a legitimate chance to win their first games, but I never want anyone to think that I am just letting them win.
Do you have a list of books on backgammon that you recommend for your students?
Only after I am satisfied that a beginner is comfortable making his or her own moves do I offer any book recommendations, with one exception. I maintain an array of inexpensive sets and a selection of second-hand copies of some backgammon primers from the 1970s (e.g., Jacoby and Crawford, The Backgammon Book, and Obolensky and James, Backgammon, The Action Game). For my serious students, I loan these out so they can play at home with a friend or spouse and have an authoritative reference at hand for setting up the opening position.
For my "advanced beginners" and "developing intermediates," I have developed a reading list based on the books I have personally found most helpful. In outline format, here it is:
- Basic Primers:
- Chris Bray, Backgammon For Dummies
- Paul Magriel, Backgammon
- Illustrative Individual Games:
- Bill Robertie, Backgammon For Winners
- Bill Robertie, Backgammon For Serious Players
- Match Dynamics:
- Marty Storer (with Malcolm Davis, Ed O'Laughlin, and Frank Talbot), Backgammon Praxis, Volumes 1 and 2
- Danny Kleinman and Antonio Ortega (with Neil Kazaross), Backgammon with the Giants: Neil Kazaross
- Bill Robertie, Modern Backgammon (illustrative match: Jerry Grandell vs. Nack Ballard)
- Advanced Manuals:
- Kit Woolsey and Tami Jones, Understanding Backgammon
- Bill Robertie, Modern Backgammon
- Bill Robertie, 501 Backgammon Problems
- Walter Trice, Backgammon Bootcamp
- Bill Robertie, Advanced Backgammon, Volumes 1 and 2
- Summary Study Guide:
- Ed Rosenblum and Phil Simborg, The Expert's Guide to Winning Backgammon
Which of these books have you, yourself, found most helpful?
The books that have helped me the most are Marty Storer's Backgammon Praxis, the Kleinman, Ortega, and Kazaross collection of Neil Kazaross's matches, Backgammon with the Giants: Neil Kazaross, and Bill Robertie's Modern Backgammon.
As your readers have probably deduced by now, I am something of a storyteller, and I respond best to narratives. I find the most rewarding way to study backgammon (or Go, or chess) is to play over complete games. I view each game as a story in and of itself, with a beginning, middle. and end.
From my experience with tournament backgammon, I have come to see the true "unit of the story" as being the match as a whole. As you, Phil, and all seasoned tournament players already know, cube decisions and even many checker plays are enormously influenced by match score. Those score-based dynamics are vividly illustrated in the three matches of Malcolm Davis collected in Backgammon Praxis Volumes 1 and 2, in the three matches of Neil Kazaross collected in Backgammon With The Giants: Neil Kazaross, and in the Grandell vs. Ballard match which comprises Chapter 7 of Modern Backgammon. Modern Backgammon has, in addition, Bill Robertie's enormously valuable explanation of the four "fundamental principles of maneuver," which he deduced from playing against neural net computer programs: (1) Efficiency; (2) Connectivity; (3) Non-Commitment; and (4) Robustness.
Do you use any of the "bots"?
No. There are so many aspects of using the computer which frustrate me that I have not made any personal use of the available computer programs. Nevertheless, I fully accept that in order to become an Open level player (or even a highly competent Advanced level player), it is essential to make use of the available technology. So I encourage all of my students who have any tournament aspirations to find a bot which they can work with as soon as possible.
Ed Sawyer, in particular, has been working aggressively with GNU Backgammon and Extreme Gammon (XG). As a result, he has become by far the strongest player in the Anchorage Backgammon Club.
What are your future goals in backgammon?
With respect to tournament backgammon, my personal goals are quite limited. I have come to the tournament scene too late in life, and I have too many other interests to be willing to dedicate myself to the rigors involved in mastering the game in a serious way. It is also quite expensive and time-consuming to travel from Anchorage to most ABT events. The non-stop flight from Anchorage to Seattle by itself takes 3.5 hours.
To this moment, I am the only Alaskan ever to have won points on the American Backgammon Tour. But having said that, I freely admit it is a mock-heroic accomplishment. My lifetime ABT point total is 0.67 — as in two-thirds of one single, solitary point (earned from my second-place finish in the Novice section, Chicago, May 2009, against my Las Vegas 2008 nemesis Adam Lusk). My current goal in tournament backgammon is to win the incremental one-third of a point required to achieve full integer status. Given the quality of play I have encountered among Advanced level tournament players and the stamina needed to cash in an ABT event, I seriously doubt I will ever achieve that goal, modest as it is.
Beyond winning any ABT points at all, what I had initially wanted from playing in ABT events was the ability to share with Ed Sawyer and the rest of the Anchorage Backgammon Club a vivid sense of the tournament experience. I am now able to do that. My hope is that other Alaskans will eventually become regular participants in ABT events and eclipse my miniscule achievements.
Accordingly, when I teach even the newest beginner, we follow all of the ABT practices, including the procedure for mixing the dice, throw exclusively on the right side and out of cups. My one exception is the cube. Substantially all of my rank beginners are intimidated by the cube when they first get started. Consequently, I never even suggest using the cube with a beginner until I see that he or she is confident with their checker-play.
Earlier this year I successfully encouraged one of my students to play in the Texas Backgammon Championships. For the two months prior to that event, I asked everyone in the Anchorage Backgammon Club to play on the clock, so that clocked-play under tournament conditions would not be an intimidating experience. Although my student had never before played backgammon under any form of tournament conditions, he played in the Open Section and won his first two matches. He defeated Justin Nunez in a warm-up match, and he gave Richard Munitz a difficult battle in the main tournament. I was truly delighted for him.
To my great amusement, I have recently become a "poster child" for the ABT itself. On the ABT's Facebook page, in the photograph of the playing hall at the July 2012 Michigan Summer Masters' Tournament, I appear in the very front row, wearing my "trademark" dark suspenders and a "game face," playing my first round match against Judy Field. (Ms. Field went on to win that match.)
If you could change any tournament practices, what would you change?
Clocked play should be mandatory in tournament backgammon for all divisions (with the possible exception of the Beginners or Novice section), for the many compelling reasons that you and several other commentators have stated in numerous postings on Stick Rice's BG Online Forum. Nearly seventeen years ago, in the July–October 1996 edition of Inside Backgammon magazine, Bill Robertie documented five serious problems caused by the lack of a clock-mandatory policy for tournament play. In a companion article in that same issue, Kit Woolsey predicted, "The clock is here to stay. Without it, slow play becomes a major problem at backgammon tournaments."
I cannot believe there were two more highly respected tournament players back in 1996 than Bill or Kit. But to my amazement, clocked play has not been uniformly required in any of the ten ABT events
I have played in.
In both the chess community and the Go community, clocks are simply "part of the furniture" of a tournament, as integral to the tournament experience as the chessmen or the Go stones. Even scholastic-level chess tournaments for children as young as eight or nine are played under a clock-mandatory policy. If eight-year old children can play tournament chess under clocked conditions, surely Advanced level and Open level adults should be able to play tournament backgammon under clocked conditions as well.
In a purely social setting, in both chess and Go, clocks are not used if either player objects. But a social setting is vastly different from a tournament, because many people can be inconvenienced in a tournament context if even one player engages in slow play, regardless of whether that player does so as a deliberate tactic or merely inadvertently.
Do you have any heroes in backgammon?
As I have become more familiar with the backgammon community in general and the tournament community in particular, I have come to have high regard for many people. I have four categories of individuals for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration: (1) Writers/Teachers; (2) Players; (3) Personal Mentors; and (4) General Benefactors. (It should go without saying that there is considerable overlap among the categories which any individual could be listed in.)
Among the Writers and Teachers, I would single out for special mention (listed in alphabetical order) Mary Hickey, Danny Kleinman, Paul Magriel, Stick Rice, Bill Robertie, Phil Simborg, Marty Storer, and Kit Woolsey.
Among the Players who I most enjoy watching up close are Matt Cohn-Geier, Malcolm Davis, Falafel, Ray Fogerlund, Neil Kazaross, Michy, and Mochy.
My Personal Mentors are Carol Joy Cole, Patrick Gibson, and Bill Riles.
Among the General Benefactors of Backgammon, I would list Ed Bennett, Bill Davis, Karen Davis, and Perry Gartner.
Distilling this list down to two individuals, I must give special acknowledgement to Carol Joy Cole, who been my primary mentor for all things backgammon for more than five years, and to Malcolm Davis, whom I consider to be as excellent a role model as backgammon could possibly have.
I want to say a few additional words on behalf of Malcolm. He has won major tournaments going back more than 30 years. He has won tournaments on several continents. He has won at least one major event in every decade from the 1980s through the 2010s. He was the number one player on the ABT in 2003. He has received a high standing among the Giants in every poll since the Giants list began. Based on his amazing record of tournament victories, Malcolm can credibly be considered the Jack Nicklaus of American backgammon.
In addition, Malcolm has allowed three of his most important matches to be published and closely analyzed in Marty Storer's superb Backgammon Praxis Volumes 1 and 2. In two of those matches, Malcolm was the loser! For me personally, the ultimate validation I have received in backgammon was Malcolm's having chosen me to be his Doubles partner in the 2013 USBGF Tournament Of Stars.
You have previously mentioned your role as co-founder of the Anchorage Go Club. How does Go compare with backgammon?
Go is unquestionably the deepest game of pure intellect and strategy I have ever encountered. Surprisingly, it is also by far the easiest to teach the basics to beginners. My slow students take 10 minutes to learn them, and my average students take 5 minutes to do so. I mean — literally — five minutes!
There are, in essence, only four rules in Go. The board starts empty, and once a stone is placed on the board, it does not move at all, unless it is captured (in which case, it is removed). The game ends by mutual agreement.
In your interview with all-time Giant Nack Ballard I was surprised to read his admission that he wished he had learned Go when he was much younger. (It is the second question/answer of that interview.) But Nack gave no explanation for why he considers Go to be such a fascinating game. So with your readers' indulgence, I will take a few paragraphs to describe Go and compare it to backgammon and chess.
As I just mentioned, by contrast with chess and backgammon (where the opposing armies start the game at full strength and the forces are whittled down during play), in Go the board starts empty and the opposing forces build themselves up over time. Scoring in Go to determine who wins and by how much is counted in terms of "points of territory."
I have created a metaphor to illustrate the somewhat abstract concept of "territory." Picture a vast, uninhabited island, the size of Greenland but without any ice or snow. Two ships crowded with refugees (i.e., the bowls holding the black and white Go stones) approach this island from opposite directions. Each side wants to create secure homes on land for their refugee populations. Because the island is huge, if each player demonstrates minimal competence, neither will be able colonize
it to the total exclusion of the other. The winner is the player who secures the greater portion. The margin of victory can be as small as one point. (In casual play, it is possible for a game to end in a tie. But in tournament play, a half-point tie-breaking convention exists whereby victory is awarded to the player who goes second, as "compensation" for the tempo advantage inherent in making the first placement.)
Backgammon has rightly been called "the cruelest game," in part because it so frequently happens that the dice compel a player to dismantle an otherwise commanding position and get crushed as a direct consequence. That dynamic also happens in checkers, by virtue of the rule mandating jumps, and in chess, which has coined the term zugzwang. ("A German word, now anglicized, for a position in which whoever has the move would obtain a worse result than if it were the opponent's turn to play." The Oxford Companion To Chess, New Edition, page 458.)
In Go, by contrast, a player is never required to make a move against his own interest. On each turn, you are permitted to place one stone, but if you cannot find a useful move, you are allowed to pass one or more turns without penalty. You are also allowed to resume playing after having previously passed, again without penalty.
Go lends itself particularly well to metaphors of economics, business competition, and biology. Every turn is an investment decision, and the goal is to place each stone where it will yield the greatest net profit. It is possible to create positions which are categorically invulnerable. At a minimum, it takes six placements to do so, and the return is a miniscule two points of territory. A player who "develops his market" so cautiously is thereby giving his opponent a golden opportunity to develop several proto-colonies with vast potential influence which might ultimately secure a far greater "market share." Thus, in a sense roughly comparable to backgammon, Go involves a weighing and balancing of risk against potential reward.
A large but imperfectly secured territorial framework is like a human body, which can easily be invaded by microscopic viruses and bacteria. When the inevitable invasion comes, the player's "immune system" of defense must be able to destroy the invader. If not, a large potential territory can be dramatically reduced or even lost entirely.
As deeply as I respect both Go and chess, I think backgammon offers the best paradigm for confronting the problems presented in day-to-day life. In this respect, I take issue with those writers who suggest that Go or chess offers ideal training for life (e.g. Troy Anderson, The Way of Go: 8 Ancient Strategy Secrets for Success in Business and Life; Maurice Ashley, Chess For Success: Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens; Garry Kasparov with Mig Greengard, How Life Imitates Chess). In both Go and chess, everything a player needs to know is simultaneously everything he can know. Conversely, everything he can know is also everything he needs to know. All the Go stones (or chess pieces) stand in plain sight on the board. No "information" is hidden, and nothing can be hidden.
To be sure, luck plays an important (although frequently unacknowledged) part in both Go and chess. Either player may blunder at any time. The exceptionally witty chess writer and grandmaster Savielly Tartakower penned two apt epigrams: "The mistakes are all there waiting to be made," and "The winner is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake."
Backgammon, by contrast, constantly requires both players to make critical decisions under conditions of inescapable uncertainty. Analogous to Werner Heisenberg's famous "uncertainty principle" in physics, a backgammon player can never know with anything more precise than a probability distribution either what his next roll will be or what his opponent's next roll will be. (I am assuming, of course, that neither player is cheating.) Just as life all too often rewards the unworthy and punishes the meritorious, so in backgammon it frequently transpires that a game is lost not in spite of — but precisely because — the loser made the objectively "best" play available under the circumstances.
Both Neil Kazaross and Danny Kleinman have previously expressed those very ideas more eloquently that I have just done. But to my mind, Bill Robertie has said it best: "If you make better moves than your opponents, you will win in the long run. In the short run, there are no guarantees. You may become an excellent player and still lose a 100-point session to a clod, or get knocked out in the first round of six consecutive tournaments, or reach the finals in the biggest tournament of your life and lose 25–0. Those are the breaks. If you can't handle that much uncertainty, tough. Go play chess." (Advanced Backgammon, Volume 1: Positional Play, preface to the first edition at page iii.)
I understand you are a collector of backgammon sets. Please tell us about your collection.
As far back as my childhood interests in baseball cards and model airplanes, I have always had a passion for collecting things. As an outgrowth of my developing interest in backgammon five years ago, I started collecting backgammon sets and building a library of backgammon books and publications.
Part of backgammon's appeal for me is what Danny Kleinman has called the "sensuousness" of the game. Danny has a delightful passage in his essay "The Other Side of the Checkerboard" (which appears within Vision Laughs At Counting): "The players sat at burnished wood tables inset with cork or velveteen playing surfaces over which they slid smooth alabaster checkers. Sometimes marbling of the red, green, brown or ivory checkers enhanced the lush visual effect. ... Even the dice themselves were finely machined with uniformly beveled corners and inlaid pips, and of a variety of translucent colors through which light filtered delicately."
Whereas many players consider a set to be merely the toolkit of the game, I see a well-made backgammon set as "participatory sculpture." A harmoniously-colored board is, for me, as much of an artistic experience as a well-rendered landscape painting.
How many sets do you have in your collection?
I am embarrassed to confess that I cannot say precisely how many backgammon sets I currently own. One qualitative answer is, "Too damn many!" With respect to my "serious" sets (as distinct from the array of inexpensive sets I keep on hand as loaners and to give as Christmas or birthday gifts), the best I can say is "several dozen."
One way to categorize my backgammon collection is in terms of the countries or areas represented. With respect to the Americas, I have sets from more than a dozen manufacturers and individuals resident in the United States; two manufacturers from Mexico, and three makers in Brazil. With respect to Europe, I have sets from manufacturers and individuals from England, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey. I have two middle-eastern inlaid wooden box-boards. With respect to Asia, I have sets from manufacturers in Thailand, Taiwan and mainland China (although only the Thai sets are of noteworthy quality).
In terms of what I regard as "the best-of-the-best," I would divide my collection into two sub-categories: (1) sets made by high-end firms, and (2) sets made by individual craftsmen. Among the highest-quality firms represented in my collection are: Geoffrey Parker Games, Alexandra Llewellyn Designs, Hector Saxe, Zaza & Sacci, Dal Negro, Plaspel, Casa Aries of Mexico City, and Nova Enterprises. Among the individual craftsmen represented in my collection are: Takao Morioka, Vinton Knarr, Bob Zavoral, Vitor Hollanda, Genesis Naylor, Hanim Terlemez and Volker Wenzlaff. I have a few wonderful leather-surfaced, wooden-framed sets from a small group of craftsmen in the Seattle area who work together under the trade name "Brahma Boards." Those sets also belong in the "best-of-the-best" sub- category of sets made by individual craftsmen.
Arguably the single most elegant set I own was made by Geoffrey Parker Games. Alexandra Llewellyn's creations are also quite exquisite. In my opinion, the best sets I own for serious, practical play were made to my specifications by Volker Wenzlaff of Munster, Germany. (Mr. Wenzlaff's English-language web address is http://www.gammoner.com.)
Unquestionably the most "collectible" set I own from the perspective of provenance was the personal competition board of one of the all-time great Giants of Backgammon. (Out of respect for that individual's privacy, I will not identify the prior owner.)
Do you have any words of advice for a would-be collector?
Collecting of any kind can be both a source of great enjoyment and a curse. For anyone who does not already have the passion, my counsel is to consider yourself fortunate, and do not try to cultivate it.
For anyone who already has the collecting passion, my advice is to be very circumspect with your acquisitions. One world-renown collector of Oriental carpets has written, "Collecting is a good way of staying perpetually broke!" A seriously dark side of collecting is that it can easily degenerate into hoarding disorder.
The most successful collectors I know of have a well-developed set of criteria which guide all of their purchases. In other words, they know in their own mind what each new acquisition contributes to the whole in terms of their collecting goals.
Above all, never let your collecting jeopardize your financial security. It is far easier to turn money into things than it is to turn things back into money.
Aside from your backgammon heroes, do you have any other life hero?
Yes. My all-time life hero is the late Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–1988). Feynman was not only an amazing genius in physics, he had an incredibly wide-ranging array of interests, and he was a hilarious story-teller. In many of his best stories, he appears as a curious innocent who triumphs in spite of himself.
In addition to several excellent biographies of Feynman, there are two delightful collections of his stories available in paperback form — Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?
In World War II, Feynman was one of the youngest physicists working on the development of the atomic bomb. During his years with the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico, he developed a major talent for safe-cracking! During the 1950s, as a visiting physics professor in Brazil, he became a successful but anonymous percussionist with a prize-winning samba band, using the underside of a small frying pan for a drum. Later in life, he unraveled the mysteries of the Mayan Codex.
During his tenure as a full Professor at Cal Tech, for recreation he would calculate solutions to physics problems on napkins and place-mats while sipping orange juice and watching topless dancers perform in a bar in Pasadena, California. My kind of guy!
What is your favorite quote, or do you have a philosophy of life you would like to share?
In my freshman year of college, I was put into an advanced-placement English class. Our first reading assignment was The General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (in the original Middle English!).
In The Canterbury Tales, a group of two dozen men and women representing a cross-section of 14th Century English society are making an Easter-time pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. To relieve the tedium of travel, each member of the group tells a story. The General Prologue sets the stage and describes the individuals, one-by-one, in a series of brief pen portraits. One of the pilgrims is a student at Oxford University, of whom Chaucer wrote: "Gladly would he learn and gladly teach." That sentiment has been my guiding philosophy ever since.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers and for including me among the many great contributors to backgammon you have previously interviewed.