I don’t really have anything to add to Raffi Khatchadourian’s profile of Falafel, one of the top-ranked backgammon players in the world (“The Chaos of the Dice,” The New Yorker, 5/13/13), but as someone who once spent a lot of time gambling and is well on his way toward those 10,000 hours of turning intuitive skill into professional ability in a different game, here are some highlights:
- Whenever a game gets glamorized, as Backgammon did in the ’60s, with black-tie world-championships and celebrity players like Lucille Ball and Paul Newman, you run the risk of turning genuine gamblers–sharks–on to the feeding frenzy of fish–mediocre competitors–if not outright whale hunters, who seek out the deep-pocketed and poor players. The players interviewed in this article are all incredibly cagey when it comes to naming the locations of private games or the rich billionaire players, lest they lose their client-opponents to other savvy and opportunistic gamers.
- It’s hard to walk away when you’re losing. One player is so rigid about playing in marathon sessions (over fifteen hours at a time, and some sessions have gone for days on end) that a gambler actually brings a stand-in with him to play while he goes to the bathroom. Another terrible player is described as losing a hundred and fifty dollars in half an hour . . . and coming back two hours later with fifty pounds of gold. In the most extreme example, one used as a parable for the sport (“the cruelest game”), one Russian prepared to kill another after wagering that the loser would die. Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” features backgammon.
- Whereas Chess relies upon predicting possibilities four and five moves into the future, something that can be done with more and more precision and you increase one’s computing power to winnow down what logically can and cannot occur, Backgammon operates entirely in the now: “The dice offer twenty-one random possibilities at each turn…. Players attempted to calculate, at each position, their game “equity”–the more the better. By shaving off any trace of error, they could hedge against the chaos of the dice.” This is the game for Wall Street traders; you stake out positions that are defensible, you look for the odds-on favorites of the points that are likeliest to become vulnerable and prepare to attack them (should the opportunity present itself), and you maximize the elements of luck that exist. Because of the dice, a novice player can beat a pro (I know this because I was able to beat my father at this game, but never at Chess, and only once while bowling), but over the course of a series of games–as in poker–the more knowledgeable player tends to win out, because a series of moves that are marginally better have an “aggregate effect [that is] undeniable. Backgammon is a game of nano-distinctions.”
- In the circle of the ridiculous rich and elite gamblers, or the casual bettors like Falafel (who have more bets going on at any one time than they can actually recall), physically manipulative situations are the new meta: Falafel (310 pounds) and his ex-roommate Genius (138) were given 50-1 odds that within a year, they could not achieve the same weight. Another one of “Mr. Joseph’s” bets (from 1996) involved giving Brian Zembic 100K if the man was willing to get breast implants for a year. (He did; he still has them.)
- There’s a handbook called “Backgammon for Blood” (from the 1970s) that is apparently “intentionally bad so that people reading it would play worse.” Again, not so different from stock trading, in which anonymous leaking misinformation about your own product (or your competitor’s) is a viably underhanded way of stacking the odds in your favor.