Forum Archive : Books

Cooke & Orléan: Championship Backgammon

From:   Timothy Chow
Date:   4 April 2011
Subject:   Question about the 1973 Cooke/Dwek/Martyn match
Forum: Forums

I just discovered that the local university library has a couple of old
books on backgammon. The first one that I've checked out is Championship
Backgammon by Barclay Cooke and René Orléan, published in 1980. This book
analyzes the first few games of a match that took place in London in 1973,
between Barclay Cooke and Walter Cooke on the American side, and Philip
Martyn and Joe Dwek on the British side. As one might expect, the play and
the analysis are way off the mark by modern bot standards, so I'm not going
to say much about that here.

What is most interesting to me is the format of the match. Curiously, the
book does not clearly lay out the rules for the match anywhere, but I was
able to infer most of them from Cooke's commentary. Barclay played Joe and
Walter played Philip. The most striking thing, in my view, is that they did
not play a "match to n games"; instead, they played a fixed number of games
(40 games each) and the score of each team was simply the sum of scores of
the two team members.

Another somewhat odd feature of the setup was that the players were kept in
the dark about the scoreboard of the other pair, except during breaks. That
is, for the first 15 games, Barclay and Joe had no idea what Walter and
Philip's scoreboard looked like, and vice versa. At the end of 15 games,
they took a break and were able to compare notes. There was a second break
after the end of the 30th game. Furthermore, the breaks did not occur at
the originally scheduled times; originally there was supposed to be just
one break at the halfway point, but they decided to try using duplicate
dice and this made the games take longer than they anticipated.

Match play strategy under these conditions is an interesting question. A
couple of years ago I toyed with the idea of having backgammon matches with
a fixed number of games, but someone (on I think)
convinced me that it was a weak idea, because if one player took a runaway
lead then you would likely conclude with a series of boring games where the
trailer tries desperately to win an undoubled gammon from the outset (since
any double would be dropped to preserve the lead).

In the London match, the Americans did have a strong lead after the second
break. However, during the final 10 games, apparently the Brits did not try
the undoubled gammon strategy; instead, they just cashed their games
quickly. The book does not give the transcripts of the later matches or
even the scoreboard (it concentrates on the first 8 games of each player),
so it's hard to tell whether the cube strategy was correct or not.
Moreover, it's not completely clear what the correct cube action is when
you have imperfect information about the score (since you don't know how
well your partner is doing in the other room).

Anyway, I'm surprised that for such a high-profile match, these sorts of
details were apparently not thought through carefully. Was this sort of
setup for a match ever repeated? Was there ever a time when it was common
practice to play a fixed number of games in a match, rather than playing a
"match to n games" as is standard today? Finally, were the remaining games
of the London match ever published anywhere?

Marv Porten  writes:

In "What Colour is the Wind" (7/2003 edition) Chris Bray says:

    "The games were played in separate rooms .... The dice for both black
    and white were thrown by a neutral referee and each roll was
    communicated to both rooms. Once both rooms had completed their moves
    the referee would roll again. He would continue to roll until the games
    in both rooms were complete. Given the format a game could be over in
    one room in three moves whilst in the second room the game might go on
    for fifty moves. For this reason the format never became popular."
    (page 182)

Author's note, page 183:

    "After publication of the first edition of this book [What Colour is
    the Wind] Jake Jacobs told me that David Dor-El, author of "The
    Clermont Book of Backgammon", has the missing games [of the USA v UK
    duplicate match] but also has an inflated estimate of their worth."
Did you find the information in this article useful?          

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