Simborg Interviews
Sabri Buyuksoy of Istanbul
Interviewed by Phil Simborg, July 2013
Sabri Buyuksoy I first heard of Sabri when he won the European Championship, and then I began hearing his name from some of my students (I have several students from Turkey at this time). In May of this year, Sabri came to Chicago to play in the Giants event at the Chicago Open, and I was one of his first opponents. I was, of course, highly impressed by his play, but even more impressed by his demeanor over the board. Sabri was highly professional, extremely intent, and never lost his composure no matter how poorly he rolled or how well I rolled.

I wanted to know more about this exceptional player and, then and there, I decided to interview him. Note that I have interviewed Falafel, Mochy, MCG, and many other top players and leaders in the game, and I am proud to add Sabri to that list.

Sabri Buyuksoy, of Istanbul, is the current WBA European Champion. He has won many tournaments and done well in Open and Masters events in the past few years around the world, competing in Denmark, Japan, USA, Cyrpus, Georgia, Austria and throughout Europe. He is one of the many highly gifted Turkish players who have discovered tournament backgammon in recent years after having played Tavla since childhood.

What is Tavla, and how does it differ from tournament Backgammon?

Tavla is backgammon without the doubling cube and backgammons count as double like gammons. The transition is a lot more than just learning about the use of the doubling cube, as score affects checker play greatly as well. I have seen many players in Turkey become excellent backgammon players, however it takes at least 2 or 3 years of study to convert.

Tell us a little about your personal life and background.

For a living, I provide consultancy on software development. Recently I have shifted my focus to human aspects of engineering, systems development and management so that I can provide consultancy for broader industries and domains. With one client, I have included backgammon in my service definition. In that sense I am a professional backgammon player.

I have BS and MS degrees in Computer Engineering and Engineer degree in Industrial Engineering. Lately, I did some MS directed studies in Psychology but didn't try to get a degree. Nowadays, following the advice of famous mystic Yunus Emre, I am educating myself on whatever I believe is important to understand myself, others and the world.

  Historic Istanbul
I was born in a beautiful Mediterranean city, Antalya, Turkey. Until I finished my high school I lived there with my family. Then I moved to the cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Gainesville, FL for my education. Then I got back to Istanbul where I live now.

I am married with one daughter. I met my wife Sebnem in the USA. My wife got her BS degree in Civil Engineering in California. She moved to Florida to get her MEng degree in Construction Management. We met there and dated for two years. Then she returned to Turkey leaving me alone in the US. One year later I also returned to Turkey and we got married. However, I kept my R&D software engineer job in the US as a tele-commuter working at home. After our daughter Dilara was born, I switched to local jobs. Around same time my wife started working as a management consultant. Trying to adapt to Turkey's engineering and business needs, I did some R&D for enterprise software development in banking industry, taught at a university, worked as the director of software development and then converted into a consultant for software development and management.

Sabri and family

Our daughter Dilara is now 13 years old. She is continuing her education. She is also learning how to play piano and guitar. She is one year away from high school. Both my wife and I work part time and mostly freelance to be able to take better care of Dilara. Now we are planning to move out of Istanbul and may move out of the country to give her better opportunities.

How did you get involved in playing backgammon?

In Turkey most people play Tavla (the Turkish cubeless version of backgammon) frequently. When I was a child I saw the game at cafes, but we didn't have a board at home. I learned the rules from an encyclopedia and started playing with a friend at his house. Then somehow we got a board. I taught all my family members how to play. Until I went to the USA I didn't know about backgammon (the cubed version).

In the city of Gainesville, Florida, where I attended college and worked, almost everybody from Turkey had Tavla boards in their houses. We used to organize Tavla tournaments once every year at our traditional doner (gyro) picnics. But I was more interested than anybody else. At that time, the Internet was not very common but dial-up service was available. In 1995, I got Internet access at my house in Gainesville and searched for tavla and backgammon. I found some fully annotated matches and studied them carefully. It was an awakening for me because some theories which I started to form suddenly found a place and context. I started to love backgammon and decided to play it seriously when/if I grow old.

After going back to Turkey and letting twelve years go by takes us to 2007. I realized that delaying this issue was not a good strategy in life. Especially after our daughter recovered from some health issues, I decided not to delay anything I thought important and registered for a Tavla tournament in Bodrum, Turkey. We went there with my wife. We enjoyed everything and especially human aspects of the game. After the tournament when we returned to Istanbul, I started playing backgammon in the WBF (Worldwide Backgammon Federation) league.

Now it is a crucial part of my life and career. I give harmony and corporate culture consultancy to a multi-site software development company, and last year they supported my backgammon career too. As part of my job, I sometimes organize backgammon tournaments, apply backgammon tests, or use backgammon as a medium to explain business concepts in this company.

When did you start seriously studying the modern version of backgammon?

In 1998, I bought Jellyfish Analyzer and the famous book of Kit Woolsey, How to Play Tournament Backgammon. However they were on the shelf waiting for me getting old. When I started to play backgammon in 2007, I tried to study the game using these. However, I realized that Jellyfish was out of fashion and the book was a luxury compared to my level of play. I bought Snowie, Paul Lamford's two books (Starting Out In Backgammon and Improve Your Backgammon) and Bill Robertie's 501 Essential Backgammon Problems book. I studied them and practiced using Snowie and immediately got some good results in leagues.

I understand you were recently crowned the European Champion. Tell us about that honor.

It is a great honor to play against very good players and champions in the Europe. Two years ago, I won my first international tournament. Last year I won the European Pro Championship. This year, after winning European Backgammon Tour, I felt like I was on a good track.

The important thing is to love the game. Other things take care of themselves. An important thing to notice is when I balance my playing abilities and my inner world, success is inevitable but feeling good inside is still the most rewarding.


In May, 2013, you came to Chicago to play in the Giants Invitational and compete against many of the top players in the world in various events. Tell us about that experience.

Chicago was very exceptional for me. There was little to get distracted and it was all about top backgammon. Last year too, I played there and felt similarly. This year I felt stronger and more competitive. I believe it is one of the benchmark tournaments in the world. I believe the organizer of Chicago tournaments, Rory Pascar, must organize more tournaments both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.

What backgammon books do you recommend?

Writing a good backgammon book is not easy. It is not possible to cover everything for everyone in a single book.

Beginners need a very concise book to start with. Chris Bray's Backgammon for Dummies and Paul Lamford's Starting Out in Backgammon are good books.

Intermediate players can go over all aspects of backgammon deeper. I believe Paul Magriel's Backgammon and Bill Robertie's 501 Essential Backgammon Problems are good for this purpose.

Advanced players need to enhance their understanding of the game with more powerful ideas like game plans. Mary Hickey's book, What's Your Game Plan is a good read in this area of the game.

Then we need books for expert players. Ballard and Weaver's Backgammon Openings, Book A is such a book. Forums like is another good source for such players.

All these books miss the most important part of the game. It is the human aspects of the game. Jake Jacobs addresses some parts of this phenomenon in his books.

Do you have any heroes in backgammon?

I personally know a lot of players and they all have interesting personalities. They show strength in different aspects of the game and life.

In terms of human aspects, I think Cemalettin Yuksel (Turkey) and Akiko Yazawa (Japan) are great examples of how to be present during the game. These players get most out of their technical ability (i.e., performance rating, error rating, or shortly referred as PR). I know better PR players but they don't get good results.

In terms of strategical aspects, Falafel is a great player. He must have come across a lot of reference positions and he tries to get the most out of a position. He stresses the importance of the idea (i.e., game plan) behind the moves.

Sabri and Falafel
Sabri and Falafel

Considering systematic dimension, Mochy and Michy are great players. They dissect the game into knowledge areas and try to excel in them with a balanced approach. They keep studying and measuring their performance daily.

Considering publicity of the game, you, Phil Simborg, and Mochy are very hardworking. We need to get young players with correct attitude toward the game and these guys are trying very hard for that.

Tell us about backgammon in Turkey.

Backgammon in Turkey has shown great progress lately. There are clubs all around Turkey organizing leagues and tournaments. We have a lot of players of Tavla (traditional cubeless version of backgammon), maybe 5 to 10 million people. Last ten years, around 5000 of them learned backgammon. And nowadays around 50 of them are good international players. I have a website dedicated to backgammon both in its technical side and its resemblance with life,

Our local backgammon group in Besiktas, Turkey welcomes great players such that sometimes I play only with champions. They meet like twice a month and I play like once a month. There are leagues offered by Istavder and WBF in Istanbul. They meet either Saturdays or Sundays. Since it takes almost whole day I don't play these leagues. WBF also offers Thursday night tournaments but I don't usually play there either.

How are you ranked in Turkey? Who are the other top players?

There is no chesslike agreed formal ranking of players. However, according to most systematic work of the WBF Turkey's master points, I am the first and only International Master of Turkey. Here is the top ten of that list as of May 11, 2013, omitting non-Turkish players:

  1. Sabri Büyüksoy
  2. Abdullah Sorgüven
  3. Arda Findikoglu
  4. Cemalettin Yüksel
  5. Erhan Yenisen
  6. Seda Koç
  7. Hamza Nar
  8. Cem Duran
  9. Feza Diyarbekir
  10. Gültekin Uygur

Using a more club-agnostic approach, if we make a systematic study using Chicago Point international tournament results starting from 2010 and considering the difficulty of playing in these tournaments, the list can be something like this (in alphabetical order; this is a delicate issue):

  • Abdullah Sorgüven
  • Ali Çetin Belene
  • Ali Serif Rende
  • Arda Findikoglu
  • Aykut Uzel
  • Bülent Bahar
  • Cemalettin Yüksel
  • Cengiz Ergin
  • Cuneyt Argun Genc
  • Çaglar Erdogan
  • Dursun Çetin
  • Erhan Yenisen
  • Faruk Perkin
  • Fuat Erdag
  • Gazi Çelen
  • Gökay Güleç
  • Haluk Oral
  • Hilmi Göchan
  • Hisar Uyar
  • Ilhan Koç
  • Kemal Erdem
  • Oguz User
  • Ömer Akgül
  • Rasim Tüfek
  • Sabri Büyüksoy
  • Selim Kalyoncu
  • Serkan Koç
  • Talat Papatya
  • Tunç Hamarat
  • Ufuk Aksak
  • Yalkin Erk
  • Zafer Tas

Do you have or use Extreme Gammon? Did you use Snowie or GNU before? What are your thoughts about them?

I have had Extreme Gammon (XG) since 2009 when it was first released. I used Snowie before that. Before that, I had Jellyfish but didn't use it. I sometimes use GNU if I want to play cubeless matches or export match annotations. I believe XG is a very powerful and good software.

Recently, GNU 1.0 was released. Both XG 2 and GNU 1 have similar strength because they use similar neural training technologies. The most powerful feature of XG is XG++ mode which is very strong and reasonably fast. I use it mostly when I have doubts about a position. Sometimes I do rollouts when I believe the position is too complex to be covered by neural intelligence technology. I think human aspects of backgammon are missing in all programs and it is not easy to embed them.

How would you like to see tournaments changed?

I like tournaments where losses are handled more naturally. Backgammon is such a game that it is possible to lose even to a beginner. Both the number of matches and the number of allowed losses should be increased.

Using speedgammon with 9-point matches, it would be possible to play 6 to 8 matches per day. In a three-day tournament 18 to 24 matches could be played. We could allow 4 to 6 losses before elimination. We could use the Ftbg System, similar to Chicago Open's More Swiss format. This fast format will bring energy to the tournament such that it will be possible to watch broadcast matches without breaking the flow of the game.

As a social aspect, I would like to see more families and more ladies in the tournaments. Social events must be organized such that backgammon should not only be backgammon but an opportunity to get to know people and spend good time with them.

More Swiss or any Swiss format is good. Chouette can be used as a tournament format too. When we can produce the long run in a short period of tournament time, I mean when losing a few matches does not mean losing the whole tournament, any format can be better.

What are your other hobbies and interests outside of backgammon?

I play classical guitar, for which fifteen years ago I started training. Almost six years I got semiformal training. Three years ago I started to play together with my friend Sayat Sirin, as a classical guitar duo. You can find some of our pieces on YouTube.

I also like to read books about cognitive psychology, sociology, neuroscience, neuroplasticity, brain, biology, and spiritual maturation. I will try to write about how these topics interrelate with each other in my other website,, soon.

Are you a member of the USBGF? Do you visit the web site and facebook page? Do you participate in any of the online events? Do you play online at all?

Yes, I have been a member of the USBGF for last two years. I read their newsletter and follow their facebook page. I would like to see USBGF as an official (governmental) federation too. I played in some online events however time difference is a bit of a bottleneck for me. I sometimes play on GridGammon as arykanda.

What personal skills do you have that make you an exceptional player?

I followed Falafel's advice about human aspects of the game. I try to follow what most players will not even notice. For example, Falafel gave me advice about concentration and game presence, and I took note of them and changed my attitude. I also pay great attention to the understanding of the game not just memorizing reference positions. Understanding is more important than knowledge.

Could you explain more about what you mean by "understanding is more important than knowledge." What do you do to help understand a tough play or cube decision? Do you seek help from others?

I have been reading and studying for some time. I have been watching games and listening to masters for the last three years. I have been annotating matches the last two years. Among these activities, writing annotations especially helped me understand positions better.

Sometimes a position comes up and I am baffled. I don't usually ask people when it happens. I check the position using an XG rollout. Then there is usually some clearing in my head. I see the number of wins, losses, gammons, match equities, gammon values, etc. If I still don't understand, I live with the position in my head. Sometimes after a day and sometimes later, ideas appear again. Then I test my ideas using XG. I am a contemplating kind of person.

It may seem inefficient but solving tough plays on my own helps me remember better. I use some frameworks to explain positions. To give an idea about them you can look at the Game page of my site.

Since I give much more importance to human aspects, I have some coverage of that too. It will appear on the Player page of my site. (I will try to translate it soon.) Sometimes we miss some moves; sometimes we like a move but we don't select it. I believe we have to understand why we behave in such ways. Therefore human aspects of playing must be considered when analyzing good moves and errors of ourselves and the others.

One key aspect of understanding positions is that named concepts and frameworks are sometimes too wide that they can be wrong sometimes at borderline situations. We have to test positions with what will happen next and the ability of our opponents to play the game from then on. Great players always test the validity of their concepts by testing their candidate moves.

Coming to understanding compared to memorization, there must be a good optimal number of reference positions a player has to know by heart. This will allow them to play very fast and accurately. However when the player sees a novel position, they should have a way of solving the needs of the position according to a feasible plan to win the game. If the player elaborates on this thought and tries developing a systematic approach to analyzing and solving, they will have muscles fit enough to respond to any situation.

How many hours a week do you spend playing and studying backgammon?

There is some variability in my study hours. When a tournament gets close, I study and practice more. On average, I can say 15 to 20 hours a week.

Who do you think is the best player in the world?

I believe the best player is Mochy because he is strong and balanced in all dimensions of human factors, strategic, and systematic. I believe PR only shows a good technical playing ability on average. It does not indicate how errors are distributed. More than that, putting honest effort for improving backgammon is crucial. Having fun is important but enriching the game is more fulfilling.

What advice would you give to new tournament players who want to excel?

I think new players should watch great players more often. They should also get software help to classify and understand their errors. If they can stop making big errors they can aim for smaller ones. They should use a systematic approach to the game, and it never ends.

Thank you to Phil Simborg for sharing this article.
You can contact Phil at:
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