Back in the early 1980's I had given up chess after discovering the
attractions of backgammon during the all night system testing of some
absolutely vital software system (computers were rather slow in those days
and we were still using punched cards).
The first two books that I read were "The Backgammon Book" by Jacoby &
Crawford and "Backgammon for Profit" by Joe Dwek. These books immeasurably
improved my performance and my financial return from the game, proving once
more that learning in any form of structured manner far outdistances the
random learning that one gets from just playing.
Moving to New York in early 1982 I immediately increased my library and
hopefully my skills. However books aren't published every week and I looked
around for something that could keep me up to date with events in the
backgammon world and provide some theoretical instruction.
Around this time the "Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine" published by Mike
Maxakuli was reaching the end of its life as the popularity of backgammon
began to wane. Meanwhile the New York based "Backgammon Times" edited by
Les B. Levi, continued to publish, the last issue I have dating from Fall
'83. Both magazines combined theory with news, anecdotes and tournament
schedules and did a good job of promoting backgammon. LVBM was a little
more glitzy but then it did hail from the West Coast and we must make
allowance for that.
Whilst all of this had been going on two people had been producing
newsletters on a regular basis. In the (then) little known area of Flint,
Michigan Carol Joy Cole had already started, in June 1978, her "Flint Area
Backgammon News". Straightforward in its approach it has served the
denizens of Flint, and subsequently a much larger world audience,
faithfully and well for over 20 years. It continues to provide the
definitive list of forthcoming tournaments. Long may it and its proprietor
continue to flourish. In Chicago, in March 1977, Bill Davis had started his
first newsletter the "National Backgammon League Newsletter" which went
through two further incarnations before it emerged, in June 1988, as the
"Chicago Point" which of course is still with us today, providing an
excellent balance of news, anecdote and theory.
In the mid to late 1980's, as far as learning new theory went, we once more
became dependent on books, of which there were a steady stream from the
likes of Danny Kleinman and Bill Robertie. Kleinman's books were in any
event written as if they were an anthology of magazine articles and kept
the backgammon playing public amused but much more importantly, educated.
The next change came when in 1989 across the Atlantic in Germany Harald
Johanni started his dual language "Backgammon Magazin". Johanni focused on
recording and publishing whole matches between top players, thus providing
a different way of learning about backgammon and one that has proved
invaluable over the years.
No one though had attempted to produce, on a regular basis, a magazine that
concentrated on backgammon theory and its development. The time was ripe
and at the start of 1991 two new magazines began publication. Roy
Friedman's "Leading Edge Backgammon" flourished and died within a year but
left us with legacy of knowing how to play 62,63,64 in response to an
opponent who had made an inside point with his first roll.
The second magazine "Inside Magazine" was edited by Bill Robertie, already
a world champion and author of many excellent books and Kent Goulding, bon
viveur, raconteur, author of the series "Backgammon with the Champions" and
the possessor of a sense of humour that is positively British in its
subtlety. Goulding's sardonic wit, combined with Robertie's drier but no
less effective writing style, produced a magazine with top quality content
throughout the eight years of its life.
As well as themselves, Bill and Kent have been fortunate to have analysts
such as Kit Woolsey on their team and thus the content of Inside BG has
always been strong and accurate. I produce a weekly column of some 400
words for a national newspaper and though that doesn't sound like much it
still requires a lot of checking and editing. This has given me some idea
of the efforts involved in producing Inside BG and how much time that must
have taken Bill, Kent and the team. Over its life Inside BG contained very
few typos or other errors.
Throughout its brief existence Inside BG has given us remarkable insights
into backgammon theory. Anyone could produce a problem page or a feature
such as the Master's Panel. What very few can do is to write the solutions
to the problems or the narrative to the Panel in such a way that it both
amuses and educates at the same time, consistently opening up new lines of
thought for the reader.
In the early days of Inside BG all the rollouts were done by hand and must
have taken ages. In the latter years our silicon friends, TD-Gammon,
JellyFish and Snowie have been available to provide assistance. This has
meant quantum leaps forward in our understanding of the game as the bots
have become stronger. Barclay Cooke must be turning in his grave as he
watches modern players perform, happily making the ace-point and slotting
only occasionally, blindly following the playing habits of the bots.
Inside BG has not blindly followed but has analysed the performance of our
silicon chums pointing out what is good, what is bad, what is likely to be
right and what is not. You have only got to look at the Summer 1998 issue
and read Robertie's analysis of the cubeful rollouts performed by Snowie to
realise that it is the interpretation of the results produced by the bots
that is important, not the results themselves.
The amount of backgammon knowledge contained in the collective copies of
Inside BG is huge and you ignore it at your peril. Those poor souls who
have missed out for the last eight years are really flying blind in today's
Reading an issue of Inside BG once is of course not enough. For those of us
who won't see thirty again, or even forty as in my own case, it is well
known that we retain very little of what we read (only 10%) on a first
pass. It is how you read and re-read that is important. When playing
through games you should always use a board just because the visual impact
helps you to remember. Problems should also be studied with a board.
Contentious positions should be analysed with JellyFish or Snowie, or even
better, discussed with friends and rolled out as propositions.
Finally you should re-read all your copies of Inside BG at least once a
year - ideally making a note of key points along the way and then
re-reading those. As a test, how many of you can remember the formulae for
aggressive versus safe bear-off plays in post ace-point games? If you
can't, go back and find the relevant editions of Inside BG (there are four
It is to be hoped that Bill and Kent (or someone) will find the time to
edit all of their material and produce a "Best of Inside BG" book of some
sort - they could even include some of KG's best jokes?! It would be a sad
loss to the backgammon-playing world if this weren't done. An anthology of
the problems alone would, if studied assiduously, considerably enhance the
skill levels of the majority of players. Back issues will obviously be
available for some time to come.
And so Inside BG comes to an end as all good things must. We must
appreciate that Bill and Kent have changing priorities and that the
magazine will be no more. However, given the wonders of modern technology,
what they have produced will remain available to many generations and not
suffer the fate that befell the works of Ozymandius.
We in the world of backgammon should acknowledge our debt to Kent and Bill
and thank them for all their efforts of the last eight years in producing
such a high quality magazine. We should wish them well in their future
endeavours whatever they may be. We should also encourage Carol, Bill,
Harald, Michael Crane (who produces the excellent UK magazine Bibafax) and
all the others around the world who currently produce backgammon magazines
of one sort or another to keep on writing.
With the advent of the Internet the world is changing and most of the
current magazines now have associated web sites. The web has done wonders
for backgammon allowing people from all over the world to play each other
from the comfort of their own homes. The backgammon news group on the net
is an excellent forum for the exchange of ideas and debate. However, though
distribution methods may change and communication is easier, the human mind
does not yet seem ready to do its studying from computer screens rather
than good old-fashioned paper. Thus I foresee a long life for backgammon
books and magazines.
Therefore the burning question that remains is who will pick up the mantle
and lead us through the backgammon theory of the next millennium? Whatever
you might think neither JellyFish nor Snowie can do the job. They will help
more and more as time goes on but they will still need a human master to
guide them. Any volunteers?
Addendum (June 1999):
I originally wrote this article in December 1998. In the last few weeks Kit
Woolsey has stepped forwards to answer the question I posed in the last
paragraph by producing the first truly web-based backgammon magazine
"Gammonline" at www.gammonline.com.
This looks to be a tremendous magazine with articles for all standards of
player, a fully annotated match each month and a problem set. The graphics
are excellent. The one great advantage of a web-based publication is that
there is no limit to the length of articles. The magazine can be as long as
it needs to be each month and authors can fully express themselves rather
than having to get an idea across in a specific number of words. At $36 for
a year's subscription this is a real bargain. Ignore it at your peril.
Anyone wishing to reprint or republish any part of this article is welcome
to do so.