Wind Assisted

2009 was a fairly unusual year for backgammon in that there were no new books on the game published. While there was plenty of good on-line material available the lack of new books is worrying because normally the number of books published mirrors the popularity of the game. Let us hope this is only a short-term hiccup and that authors soon return to writing about the game. I was going to wait until 2011 to publish my next ‘Wind’ book but because of the lack of other new books I decided, with a little prompting from Carol Joy Cole, to bring the new book forward a year.

One of the problems is that you will never get rich as a backgammon author as it is a very niche market. If you sell a thousand copies then you are doing very well indeed. The exception is probably my own “Backgammon for Dummies” which is approaching about 6,000 in sales but that reflects the power of the Dummies brand as much as anything. So backgammon writing remains as much a labour of love as anything else!


So where is backgammon now? Throughout what I call the ‘Internet Years’ backgammon has maintained a core following without ever quite taking off in the way that poker has done. The media coverage of poker has transformed the game ever since the producers worked out how to give viewers access to the players’ hole cards. That development, coupled with the fact that poker is relatively simple to understand (if not to play) has meant that it has been a huge success.

Backgammon has yet to make that leap. It has appeared on TV much more in the last decade thanks to the hard work of independent producers such as Andy Bell who has made a success of the World Series of Backgammon, despite a number of problems along the way. The PartyGammon sponsored million dollar tournament in the Bahamas was great fun but I doubt the promoters made much money.

The fundamental problem is that backgammon is too difficult! While apparently a simple game it is actually extremely complex. The further you delve into the intricacies of the game using the bots the more sophisticated it becomes and you realise just how many mistakes even the top players make.

Watching live backgammon at somewhere like Monte Carlo is great fun but the audience there is made up of experienced players, some of them the best in the world. Taking a match and making it exciting for the average games player or even the man in the street is where poker succeeds and backgammon, as yet, fails.

The doubling cube baffles the average spectator yet it is at the very heart of the game. This means that for now the audience for backgammon programmes remains limited to the relatively small number of people who understand the game at intermediate level (try defining that!). The man in the street can get a sense of the excitement of the game but, until we find a way to easily explain some of the more complex elements such as doubling, the intricacies of the game will remain a closed book to the vast majority of potential viewers.

The other area that has developed hugely since “Second Wind” was published is on-line play. Playing on-line requires a whole new set of skills because of the limits in use in on-line play. When, for example, you are playing for £10 a point with a maximum win/loss of £40 per game that setting of an upper limit should substantially change your cube action, particularly in the area of redoubling – something that many on-line players don’t understand. Of course, this is all the better for those who have taken the time to study this. As ever in life, those that do the work get the reward.

As to the book itself the structure remains the same as the other two ‘Wind’ books with material presented in chronological order and it covers the years 2007-2009. In addition there are two quizzes and an index. The main new addition is full rollout information for all the positions as this had been a request from readers for some time.

Can rollouts be taken as gospel truth? Of course not, because they take no account of human emotions and the fact that humans make errors, but at least the rollouts give a solid base to work from. Even the bots make mistakes and they also evolve with time. All the rollouts in the book are done using Snowie 4.7 but it is becoming clear that eXtreme Gammon (XG) is stronger than Snowie so once or twice I have asked XG to give its opinion.

For now eXtreme Gammon may be the strongest player in the world but no doubt there will be further developments as computers get ever more powerful and neural net techniques evolve. It is to be hoped that the long-awaited next version of Snowie will finally arrive in 2010. Competition drives innovation so it would be good to see further developments in all three bots as that can only benefit all of us.

While the game of draughts (checkers) has been ‘solved’ by computers and for £50 you can buy a chess program that can crush most grandmasters, the same is not true of backgammon. The pace of change in theory has slowed over the last few years after the huge advances of the preceding decade, but I believe there is still a long way to go in the evolution of the game, particularly in the area of doubling, by far the most difficult aspect of the game.

“Wind Assisted” can be obtained from www.lulu.com where you can also preview the first dozen pages (also, click here for a small taster). The book contains approximately 150 positions/articles and two quizzes. It has full rollout data for all positions using Snowie 4.7 and occasionally eXtreme Gammon also makes a contribution. It can also be obtained directly from myself or Chris Ternel’s Backgammon Shop - www.bgshop.com.

Chris Bray
chris.bray@btconnect.com

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Easter at Harbinger Hall
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The Dowager Duchess’s spectacular Easter egg hunt had concluded successfully and the party had repaired to the long drawing room for an afternoon’s backgammon.

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In the box sat the Enigmatic Englishman. Cautious Cuthbert was captaining the team and he was delighted with his roll of double ones. He quickly played 8/7(2), 8/6 but paused before picking up his dice. “Anybody want to play anything else?” he enquired.
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Nigel Natural was first to speak. “I don’t know why but that just doesn’t look right to me. I wonder if we should just play 8/6(2)?”
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“Don’t be silly, NN. A point is a point and CC’s play is obviously correct,” said the Prophylactic Pole.
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“I’m not sure which play is right,” said DD, “so I will go with the majority.”
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“In that case I am going to make my original play,” said CC and picked up his dice.

“And I thought the day couldn’t get any better after my success in the egg hunt,” said EE. “It should be clear to all of you that making a new point that you will shortly have to dismantle is not the right idea. Your plan is not to try to contain my checkers behind a prime but to clear your own points.
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“One of the huge benefits of 8/6(2) is that other than 61 you won’t have to play any sixes next roll and that in turn might lead to my having to give up one of my anchors before I want to.”
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EE rolled 51 (8/2), the team rolled 62 (7/1, 8/6) and then EE rolled 25 hitting the blot and allowed himself the smallest of smiles.

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