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Skill in Backgammon

How can backgammon be a game of skill if a player’s moves are governed by the roll of the dice? And if backgammon is a game of chance, how is it that players with high rating tend to consistently beat lower ranked players? The debate on the true nature of backgammon involves players, theorists, legalists and mathematicians. In the past, at least two US court judges ruled that backgammon is a game of skill (thus, organizing tournaments with money prizes does not lead to charges of promoting gambling) and a Senator of New Jersey who suggested to legalize online poker, has named backgammon in a list of skill games alongside chess, bridge and mahjong.

Skill Factor in the Backgammon Game

Professor Ehud Friedgut of the Einstein Institute of Mathematics, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel,and an amateur backgammon player, was recently engaged in this topic. In his article about the significance of the skill factor in the game of backgammon, he expresses his frustration at failing to successfully compete with the championship level players in free online backgammon games, despite his proven expertise in probability and combinatorics.

“To my surprise and my frustration, I soon hit the ‘glass ceiling’. I could not raise my rating in the website where I was playing to more than 1600 and discovered that players with higher rating beat me consistently. Since dealing with probability issues and theories is what I do for a living, I was certain that with a bit of experience I would become an excellent player, but this hope was proved false.”

After a year and a half of studying backgammon rules and strategies thoroughly and reading advanced backgammon books, Prof. Friedgut managed to raise his rating up to 1800, knowing that it may take additional years of studying to reach the level of the 2000+ players. “Since each player in a typical backgammon game has about forty moves, it is easy to imagine how crucial it can be to have the ability to make choices that increase the winning chances by several percent in every move.”

The Most Skilled Backgammon Players

Nevertheless, there is not one accepted method that measures backgammon players’ level of skill. Every online backgammon room uses its own rating system that represents each player’s relative ability, and different backgammon tours and associations publish different scales or ranks. Most of these methods are based on the players’ accumulated wins vs. loses, giving a heavier weight to winning against stronger players and in longer matches. Another unofficial measurement tool used to assess the backgammon player’s skill is his/her error rate.

Either way, it is widely accepted that the best backgammon players are computer programs. Snowie, for example, has played millions of games in order to be able to accurately estimate the winning chances (including the chances of winning a gammon) of every possible move in the backgammon game. As Prof. Friedgut states: “Thus, in the game of backgammon, as in chess, the level of ingenuity is such that only a truly gifted player can successfully compete with a computer.”


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