Saturday, April 14, 2007

Online Backgammon

Online Backgammon

Backgammon has become one of the most popular games over the internet. However, as most of the people know about the game of Poker, it will be easier to show the similarity of those two games.

Poker and Backgammon share many interesting similarities. In fact, many of the top poker pros, like Gus Hansen and Erik Seidel, played tournament Backgammon before the poker craze. With the advent of the Internet, Backgammon is now easier than ever to learn, play and score. Read on to find out what these two great games share in common.

The game of backgammon is the oldest board game known to mankind. It is so old that the facts concerning the origination are mostly left to speculation. Many believe the birth of a version of this great game emanated in Mesopotamia some 4,000 years ago (give or take a millennium), and is rooted in the tradition of rolling animal bones to predict the future and gamble on the present. Some believe the eastern borders of Iran should receive birth credit. Excavation digs have revealed that Egyptian pharaohs played a version of the game (called Senet). The Romans played an offshoot of Senet (called Tabula).

The game we enjoy today uses many of Hoyle’s rules (established in 1745) and incorporates one of the catalysts to backgammon’s popularity, the doubling cube (introduced approximately 80 years ago — inventor unknown). This advancement enabled players to bring one-sided games to a quick conclusion. In addition, games in which one player held a moderate advantage became more exciting, and required more skill.

Looking at the Doubling Cube From All Sides A typical doubling cube has six sides, and is engraved with these numbers: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64. A game begins at a value of one betting unit with “the cube” placed in neutral possession (the 64 on top designates one unit at the start of a game). During a game, if either player believes it is advantageous to play for double the stakes, before rolling the dice when it is his turn, that player may offer the cube to his opponent at twice the current stakes. So, the first offer of each game would be from one unit to two units. The doubling cube would be picked up by the doubler, and placed on the opponent’s right side board with the numeral 2 facing up to indicate the choice to the opponent: either play this game for double the starting value, or forfeit (resign) at a one-unit loss. Should the opponent accept the challenge, he “takes” and the game value moves to two units. The right to double again (redouble) always belongs exclusively to the player who last accepted the doubling cube. There is no limit to the number of doubles that can take place during a game. For example, the value of a game may rise to 128, 256, and higher (with values above 64 being tracked mentally or on paper).

The Object of Backgammon
Each player begins with 15 pieces of a different color (also referred to as men or checkers). The men are placed on designated spaces of a 24-position backgammon board. These positions are triangular and called points. For clarification sake, we can number the points from 1 to 24. We’ll designate the number 1 through 6 positions to be your opponent’s 6-point home board. You start with two men on his 1-point, and they must travel 24 points to bear off (the process of removing one’s checkers from the board after all of a player’s checkers are in his own 6-point home board). In addition, using the designated numbering arrangement, you would start with five checkers on your 12-point, three checkers on your 17-point, and five checkers on your 19-point. The pieces are borne off in accordance with the numbers rolled on the dice. Once a checker is taken off, it does not reenter the same game. Players compete to bear off all their checkers before their opponent can do so.

Playing a Game
At the start of a game, each player rolls one die onto his right side of the board. (The playing surface is divided into two sides and four quadrants.) The player who rolls the higher number (ties are do-overs) makes the first move, using both numbers on the dice as the opening roll.

Subsequently, players alternate turns and roll two dice from a dice cup to determine their move. Both dicemust always come to a stop flat on the board (not cocked or resting on top of a checker). A reroll of the dice is required if either or both is cocked or goes off the board. A legal move must be made in accordance with the dice. For example, if I roll a 5 and a 3 (5-3), I must move one piece three positions (or pips), then the same piece or another piece five positions. I can also move one piece five positions, then the same piece or another piece three positions. While moving the same checker five then three versus moving three then five may seem like the same movement of eight positions, there may be a difference. Since a player cannot land a piece on a point occupied by two or more of his opponent’s men, it is often necessary to move the eight positions in a specific order.

Which checker or checkers should a player use to complete his 5-3 move? That decision is typically based upon the shooter’s relative checker position in that specific game, the future well-being for his pieces, which points (if any) contain an opponent’s blot (a piece resting alone on a point, thus vulnerable to be hit), and which points cannot be landed upon due to an opponent having more than one piece on those points.

I mentioned hitting a blot, but didn’t elaborate. What happens in that case? The lone piece (the blot) is picked up and removed from the board. The checker is placed on the middle ridge that separates the two sides of the playing board. This ridge is known as the bar, and is a holding area. A player whose blot is hit must reenter from the bar onto an available space (a point containing no more than one opponent piece) within his opponent’s home board. Upon being hit, the player must reenter prior to making any other move. For example, if my opponent has made the 6-point, the 3-point, and the 1-point in his home board, I can enter with a roll of 2, 4, or 5 on either of my dice. I use the other number on the dice to complete my move with the same checker or a different one.

If a player cannot make a legal move with one or both of his dice (all points to which he might otherwise move are occupied by two or more opponent checkers), he forfeits that portion of his turn. For example, let’s say I have borne off 13 men, and I now occupy my opponent’s 5-point with both remaining checkers. If I roll 6-4, I can bear off only one man (using the 6 on one die), assuming my opponent has two or more pieces on his 1-point. My 4 on the second die is blocked; thus, I forfeit that part of the move.

Scoring a Game
The winner of a game gets one point if the cube was never turned, or the cube was offered and declined. Otherwise, the winner gets the value of the cube. However, there are two circumstances in which the value of the game is doubled or tripled. They are when one player gammons another, and when one player backgammons another:
Gammon occurs when one player bears off all his pieces before the opponent bears off any. This is scored as a double game (the winner gets twice the value of the doubling cube).
Backgammon occurs when one player bears off all his pieces before the opponent bears off any and the opponent still has at least one piece in the winner’s inner (or home) board. In the United States, we value this occurrence as a triple game (the winner gets three times the value of the doubling cube). Some areas of the world do not recognize triple games.

The Affinities of Poker and Backgammon
On the surface, the games appear to have nothing in common. Backgammon is played with dice; poker with cards. Backgammon is normally played against a lone opponent; poker is thought of as a multiple-player game. An involved backgammon game can take more than 30 minutes, while even a complex poker hand (if not involving Jim Meehan) is over in less than five minutes, and many hands take less than a minute to complete. In poker, my choices are to check, bet, fold, or raise. If my opening backgammon roll is 4-3, I have a choice of at least 12 different moves (although many of them are poor alternatives to bringing two checkers down from my 12-point in an effort to start making points in my home board, or my aggressive preference of bringing one checker down with the 3 and starting my opponent’s 5-point with the 4). Poker chips are easy to shuffle, while not even Evelyn Ng can shuffle backgammon checkers. However, looking more closely at the two games, I believe we can make a case that they are similar in many ways.

Both require skill, but are influenced by luck. Both are great gambling games for that reason.
Both adapt beautifully to cash games and tournament play.
Players can make raises in both games (by betting in poker and by using the doubling cube in backgammon).

Learning the rules and mechanics of the games is relatively easy, but it takes long hours of study and practice to play each game at an expert level.
Backgammon and poker are both games that we enjoy playing face to face. Each game can also be played online for fun or money at numerous websites. Both games lend themselves nicely to mouse-clicking gamers.

In poker, when a player raises an illegal amount, if the opponent calls, the pot is pushed, another hand is played, and the error stands. In backgammon, if a player makes an illegal move, for example I move nine pips after rolling a 4-3, either my opponent or I can correct the situation, but it must be done before he rolls his dice.

In both games, skillful players incorporate mathematical probability into decision-making. For example, in poker, we might calculate the probability of successfully drawing to a flush, and then determine if we have the correct pot or implied odds to make the call. In backgammon, when faced with accepting a double, we might calculate the probability of winning the game, and then compare the bottom line outcomes when accepting and declining the cube. For instance, if I am offered the doubling cube in a running game (one in which all of my pieces have advanced beyond my opponent’s pieces), whether I accept or reject an offer to double will be based on my chances of winning. In general, I will accept the cube if I have a greater than 25 percent chance of winning the game. Hmm, that seems pretty low, so let’s do the math based on this situation occurring 200 times. The first 100 times, I will decline and lose one unit. That’s an easy calculation. I will lose 100 units. For the second 100 offers I will accept each time. I will lose 75 percent of the time, and at the doubled value of two units, thus 75 x 2 = 150 units of loss. But, I will win 25 percent of the time, and at the doubled value of two units, thus 25 x 2 = 50 units of loss. My net loss, by accepting the cube, will be 150-50=100. So, we can confirm that 25 percent is the break-even point for accepting a cube. But, wait. Haven’t I forgotten something? Yes, once I “own” the cube, I have the ability to offer it back to my opponent. For example, after accepting said cube in a running game, my opponent may throw low numbers while I am firing boxcars and double fives. I will leapfrog ahead, and possibly own an 80-to-20 advantage (an estimated win probability that I would calculate based on how many pips I am ahead, and how many rolls might remain). Prior to taking my roll, I would offer the cube back to my opponent (staying with our example) at 4. He should decline, having less than a 25 percent chance to win. However, he might err and accept the cube. This brings another poker-backgammon similarity into the mix. Making decisions that will put your opponent to the test (usually by betting or raising in poker) is what good players do. So, in backgammon, if I fail to offer the cube with an 80-to-20 edge, and then roll a 2-1, I would have missed a great opportunity. I should have forced my opponent to fold, but instead, I gave him a freeroll of the dice. In poker, if I check a leading hand, and give my opponent a free card to his flush draw, I make a similar mistake. Making decisions that provide opportunities for your opponents to make errors is key to winning in backgammon and in poker.

In backgammon, we are often faced with the dilemma of rolling a number that forces us to expose one or more blots, and we have a choice of where to expose them. The probability of getting hit and being sent to the bar comes into play. If getting hit is detrimental at that point in the game (some times you want to be hit for timing purposes), we calculate our opponent’s probability of hitting our blot. For example, of the 36 different outcomes (we will stipulate that 4-1 and 1-4 on the two dice are considered to be different outcomes) my opponent has six ways to hit a blot that is seven unattended pips away (6-1, 1-6, 5-2, 2-5, 4-3, 3-4). He has a whopping 17 ways to hit a blot that is six unblocked pips away (6-1, 1-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-5, 5-6, 6-6, 2-2, 3-3, 4-2, 2-4, 5-1, 1-5). Realizing how many shots one has to hit direct (six pips or less) and indirect (seven or more pips removed) blots is rote to a seasoned backgammon player, in the same way that poker players commit flush draw probabilities to memory.
In no-limit poker, ownership of a big stack is power. A player’s decisions are often made based on his stack size in relation to his opponent’s stack. In backgammon, possession of the cube is power. I can use the cube to force my opponent to make a tough decision whether to resign at one unit, or continue to contest a game where he is at a decided disadvantage, and for double stakes. The cube is also my protector. Should I fall well behind in a game, I will be able to play to conclusion, and possibly rally back.

A good poker player calculates risk vs. reward on an ongoing basis during a day’s play. When playing backgammon, I will take more risk when trailing by a wide margin in a match. My cube and checker movement decisions are often based on the score in the match. For example, if I trail 12-4 in a 15-point match against a good player, I will be looking to take any marginal cube at 2 to give myself a chance to win a 4-point, or even an 8-point game (possible if I make an aggressive double offering to 4, and then gammon my opponent).
Knowing your opponents comes into play in both games. In poker, reading an opponent’s motives and tendencies is paramount. In backgammon, being aware that your opponent has a propensity to take the cube in dangerous situations may allow you an extra roll before doubling. Conversely, knowing your opponent will typically fold to an offer more readily than he should allows you to double him out quickly, thus saving you from the risk of unlucky dice on the next roll.

I believe good poker and backgammon players stay at least one move ahead of their intermediate counterparts. In backgammon, we foresee the development of a back game (defense driven), or a running game (offense minded), and make our moves proactively.

Learning the Game
It is easier to learn how to play backgammon today than ever before. Simply type, “learn backgammon” into a search engine such as and, in less than one second, more than 1.1 million choices (not an exaggeration) will appear. Many options will lead you to playing on the Internet for both fun and money.
I am about to take the easy way out for two reasons: I'm lazy, and I'm in danger of exceeding my word quota. So I will refer you to a website that will:
Allow you to download free backgammon software
Provide how-to-play instructions
Explain some backgammon terms, such as beavers
Allow you to participate in play money games and real money action
List the commission schedule (similar to a poker rake) for money games
Play in Torunaments