Backgammon, Gambling on Luck or Gambling on Skill

With the increase in backgammon's popularity and the introduction of real-money play on the internet, the role of luck and skill has become more and more a topic of conversation. This article will compare the luck and skill in backgammon to pure skill games, other board and card games of skill and luck, and to casino gambling games, which are normally played for money.

Backgammon versus Chess, Go, Reversi (Othello)

Chess, Go, and Reversi are all games of pure skill. There is no luck or gambling component. The best player will not always win, but it is very rare for a player to lose to a significantly weaker player when playing at their best. This is most assuredly not the case with backgammon. There is a significant luck component to backgammon, and the weaker player will often have a winning chance.

Backgammon versus casino-type betting

By comparison, there is a much greater skill component in backgammon gambling than in most casino games. Some casino games, like roulette or craps, contain no skill at all, and rely purely on luck and the way you bet on your money. Certainly a player can choose to make only the bets that are least favorable to the house. (For example, a wager on the pass and don't pass line at craps has a house advantage of only 1.4% and, by taking the free odds bet, that house advantage can be reduced well under 1%.)

Other gambling games, like video poker, blackjack, and some other card games, do have a skill element. Nevertheless, skill still can only reduce the player's losses, not actually give him an advantage over the house, when gambling over time (except in some isolated blackjack situations, if you count cards).

Backgammon versus Poker, Bridge, Cribbage

I do not think there is any question but that backgammon is a game of skill and luck—like poker, bridge, and cribbage. I am not going to comment on the relative importance of skill and luck when you bet. I will say for certain though, that it depends on the amount of games played. Surely, a weeklong backgammon match will favor the stronger player more than a 4-deal game of bridge. I am quite sure that for comparable amounts of time spent playing, duplicate bridge has a greater ratio of luck to skill than backgammon. I can't comment on the other games of chance and luck.

Some players will wager money on the Snowie analysis of a backgammon match. They might play a match and wager, say, $20 on the outcome of the match, and $20 on who has the lower Snowie error rate. (They usually play these games on a personal computer rather on online backgammon gaming servers.) Often the better player must handicap the weaker player. For example, a top expert might agree that the Snowie wager goes to his opponent if the opponent's error rate is within 2 points of the expert's.

The courts weigh in on backgammon gambling

In the early 1980's, the state of Oregon decided to "raid" a game tournament for real money. The tournament director, Ted Barr, was charged with promoting an illegal participation in games of skill or chance for money and/or other items of value, here backgammon was the issue. In a trial which included Paul Magriel appearing as an expert witness for the defense, the court found that backgammon met the test of a game of skill.

I am not a lawyer, and I don't pretend to know what makes a game legal or not with respect to a state's gambling law. That depends on each state's law for wagering money on a game. The Barr case is a precedent only in Oregon, but it is unlikely that a court in another state would relitigate the same issue. For now, backgammon stands as a game of skill, and not game of luck like most traditional casino games. Whether it can be legally played for real money, I do not pretend to know.