Gamers might not be aware, but March 21 is World Backgammon Day.
For several years the World Backgammon Association (WBA) has promoted the day by encouraging the backgammon community to celebrate by gathering, playing, organizing tournaments, and enjoying the game.
Regular readers may recall back in July (2020), this space was devoted to the WBA and its efforts regarding the rather ancient board game.
For those still unfamiliar backgammon is one of the oldest known board games. According to Wikipedia “its history can be traced back nearly 5,000 years to archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia. It is a two-player game where each player has fifteen pieces (checkers or men) that move between twenty-four triangles (points) according to the roll of two dice. The objective of the game is to be first to bear off, i.e. move all fifteen checkers off the board. Backgammon is a member of the tables family, one of the oldest classes of board games.
“Backgammon involves a combination of strategy and luck (from rolling dice). While the dice may determine the outcome of a single game, the better player will accumulate the better record over a series of many games. With each roll of the dice, players must choose from numerous options for moving their checkers and anticipate possible counter-moves by the opponent. The optional use of a doubling cube allows players to raise the stakes during the game.”
The 2020 article attracted the attention of the recently incorporated Canadian Backgammon Federation which called to let us know there was a lone Federation member in Saskatchewan, Brian McHolm of Saskatoon.
In a recent telephone chat, McHolm said he has been playing the classic game for years.
“I’ve been playing backgammon for 10-15 years, oh more than that. My first tournament in Saskatoon was probably 30-years ago,” he recalled. “I came across it (the tourney) it was a bunch of university kids and I was in my late-20s, and I was looking for somebody to play backgammon against in Saskatoon.”
Since then McHolm has stayed a fan of the game, although he admitted even before the current COVID-19 pandemic finding face-to-face opponents in Saskatoon has been a major challenge.
That is where the Canadian Federation has been a huge benefit, offering apps that allow for online players across the country and around the world, including weekly tournaments.
The Federation, found at www.backgammoncanada.com, also has a system to rate players, world level players at about 2200, players like McHolm in the 1700s, and new players around 1200.
While ratings help players match up with liked skilled opponents, rolling dice is part of backgammon and that means there is luck involved.
“I’ve beat players in the 1800s and been beaten by ones at 1200,” he said. “… You can get a fairly good rating in backgammon and still get beat by somebody just starting.”
McHolm said for some the dice rolling may be seen as a drawback adding games “can be unpredictable because of the dice,” but therein lies one of the great challenges of backgammon learning how to best mitigate the luck, pushing it at times, or trying to more conservative.
Another way of looking at it is dealing with the risks of the game.
“You can’t play without some risk … you just have to figure out how to best deal with it … how to mitigate the risk,” said McHolm.
One of the tools is the doubling cube.
“To speed up to match play and to provide an added dimension for strategy, a doubling cube is usually used,” details Wikipedia. “The doubling cube is not a die to be rolled, but rather a marker, with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64 inscribed on its sides to denote the current stake. At the start of each game, the doubling cube is placed on the midpoint of the bar with the number 64 showing; the cube is then said to be “centered, on 1”. When the cube is centered, either player may start their turn by proposing that the game be played for twice the current stakes. Their opponent must either accept (“take”) the doubled stakes or resign (“drop”) the game immediately.
Whenever a player accepts doubled stakes, the cube is placed on their side of the board with the corresponding power of two facing upward, to indicate that the right to re-double belongs exclusively to that player. If the opponent drops the doubled stakes, they lose the game at the current value of the doubling cube. For instance, if the cube showed the number 2 and a player wanted to redouble the stakes to put it at 4, the opponent choosing to drop the redouble would lose two, or twice the original stake.”
McHolm said the doubling cube is an essential element of the game, giving it a sort of ‘poker-like aspect where bluffing and bravado come into play.
“I’ve probably won as many games because of the doubling cube as I have on the count,” he said.
While the federation gives McHolm an outlet to play, he said he’d love to see a community develop in the province, even two or three for face-to-face games post-pandemic, adding he hopes to promote the CBF more in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan too.