There was a time when backgammon was a big deal, occupying a similar status among the mathematically minded as chess and poker, and especially in the Mediterranean it was a, if not the, gambling game of choice.
There is even a set piece in Octopussy in which James Bond out sneaks a cheat over the backgammon board, before losing his winnings in the ensuing rickshaw chase.
In the early days of computing backgammon was a favoured gambling game. Windows came with a board as standard and there were sites where you could compete for money either in standard match games with a doubling cube or in tournaments.
Nowadays it is much harder to scrape up a game online for cash. To explain why you might need to know a little more about the game.
What it Backgammon?
Backgammon is the modern, standardised version of a kind of dice racing game that may have its roots as far back in history as 30th-Century BCE Persia.
Players race their counters around the board in opposite directions to get them first to the ‘home’ area and then to remove them from the board.
However, what elevates it from a mere dice race are two features: hitting, blocking and the doubling cube.
Hitting allows a player to send an opponent’s counter back to the start of the game if the counter is alone on a square and is landed on by your counter.
Blocking can be done by the fact that only one side can occupy a point at once.
If you maintain two or more counters on certain points you can limit the opponents possible moves on certain throws.
The doubling cube is rather like a raise in poker. You can pass the doubling cube if you feel you are ahead. Your opponent can either accept the cube in which case the stakes double, and they have the cube, and can double if the advantage shifts.
Or else they can fold, the game ends and you collect the current stake. It does mean in a game that moves back and forth you can find yourself playing for as much as 26 or 64 times your original stake.
The full rules are easily found online.
If you wanted to play, you used to have all sorts of options: TrueMoneyGames, Play65, and PartyGammon (a spin-off of PartyPoker) have all been lost to history.
A quick Google search will find you dozens of places to play for free. But if you want the thrill of trading shekels you are going to have to arrange something off site.
Some of the drop off has been due to the rise in popularity of poker. Many of the skills are transferable, the field of players much bigger and – for a while back in the noughties – a lot softer.
It’s not uncommon to find backgammon listed as a hobby on professional poker profiles, or alongside poker in the same section of computer science majors’.
These people just put the game down for a better thing.
There was something else that helped them along though. The digital revolution.
Solving for Backgammon
Backgammon is a very limited board in some ways: 15 pieces for each player, 30 possible rolls of the dice on any given go, and 24 pips for the counters to find their way too.
Compared to the 64 squares, 32 pieces, and dozen or so rules for moving those pieces backgammon is a fairly limited feild.
The close connection between backgammon and coders also meant it was front and centre of the machine learning revolution. After chess it is probably the most analysed game, when it comes to non-human eyes.
The result was a triple blow of bots that could beat humans, and made the online environment a hive of scum and villainy where the computers gulled innocent first year mathematicians into handing over their beer money.
But it also reached a point where much of the competition was removed from the game. Although Backgammon is not completely ‘solved’ (a term meaning that it is possible for a human or machine to play perfectly), it began to feel that way. Through intense study, it was possible to play near perfectly. And at that point the only thing that mattered was the die.
The whole game turned back into a race and online backgammon, where computer assistance was unavoidable, died a death.
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