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Backgammon

I am an avid backgammon player. I play online at FIBS, where I use the handle "Splatt", and DailyGammon.

Backgammon On A Budget

Backgammon is a fascinating game, and like all games, if you want to get good at it, you need to study and practice. The problem I've found is that the books and tools that are often recommended are the most expensive. For example, Backgammon, by Paul Magriel, still commands premium prices (~$40), even though it was written 30-odd years ago! The other, more modern books are expensive as well. Backgammon software is not cheap, either, with the costs for full commercial versions running into the $300+ range. What's an aspiring player on a tight budget to do?

I've had to go the budget route, myself, which means not just getting the most bang for my buck, but spending minimal bucks. Here are some things I've done to keeps costs down.


Books
Fortunately, a lot of the older backgammon books can be purchased for bargain-basement prices from used bookstores and Amazon. Would you believe 1 cent for a hardcover copy of The Backgammon Book, commonly called the "Bible of Backgammon"? Why so cheap?

Well, the older books have fallen out of favor with modern backgammon players. Both style and standard of play have improved over the years. What was once considered dynamic play is now considered old and conservative, and playing by the old standards will get you clobbered in a modern game. The benefit of the older books is that they give you a good foundation in the fundamentals and key concepts. Books written by acknowledged experts (multiple international titles) also provide positional analysis that was surprisingly accurate for the time, and where they are wrong, they are usually not far off. I have written off really old books (before the early-70's) as being purely historical.

Let me repeat: beware some of the advice in the older books. For example, as good as Jacoby and Crawford were in their time, their advice of not splitting your back men (for fear of being hit) is grossly outdated. Computer analysis will let you know where the older experts were wrong. If I ever doubt the logic behind a play or piece of advice, I'll plug it into the computer and verify it.

One other thing to keep in mind about older books is that during the surge in backgammon popularity during the 70's, a lot of books were written that were of marginal value, as every publisher was trying to get books into the stores to cash in on the trend. Hence, you get books written by people with no internationally acknowledged experience espousing styles of play that even before the rise of computers were dismissed as suicide. For some reason, an awful lot of authors from that era had "prince" in their name.

The key I've used when buying older books is that the author needed to be an expert, respected by his peers as such. For example, Jacoby and Crawford were both respected international players who left indelible marks on the game. They considered Tim Holland (a winner of 5 international titles, and many others) to be such an expert that they asked for his input when writing their book. Hence, I have purchased books by all three. Here are the books in my library that I've been studying from. Not all of these are older books. Some are modern ones I was able to pick up at an amazing discount:

Basic Play:
The Backgammon Book, Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford
Beginning Backgammon, Tim Holland
Starting Out In Backgammon, Paul Lamford

Intermediate Play:

Advanced Play:
Backgammon for People Who Hate To Lose, Tim Holland

Positional Study:
Better Backgammon, Tim Holland
501 Essential Backgammon Problems, Bill Robertie

For those who scoff at my choices, please send me free copies of the works you recommend, and I'll be happy to add them to my library!


Bots
There are plenty of free software tools out there to help you improve your game. The bots have played a big part in improving backgammon play, as they think nothing of playing thousands of games just to tell us what the best way to play a particular roll is. Keep in mind that each bot is the product of it's training. Like people, each bot has it's own style of play, so it's a good idea to get several programs and play them all. Sometimes two strong bots will recommend two different ways to play the same roll. Which is correct? Who can say? Here are the bots I use.

GnuBG (Gnu Backgammon): The creators of this program deserve a medal. It's powerful. It has proven itself to every bit as skilled as (or better than) the expensive commercial programs. It's full-featured, and has all the tools of the expensive programs, and then some. It will tutor you as you play, analyze matches afterward and tell you where you goofed, and do countless other things. The inteface is eye-catching. And it's free. Why shell out hundreds of dollars for the full versions of commercial products, when you can get this? The only caveat: it's open-source, and is currently in alpha. Occasionally there are bugs. Small setback, in my mind.

Jellyfish: One of the strongest of bots. I use the Jellyfish Player. It won't analyze your play, tutor you, or do rollouts, nor does it have the flashiest interface. But it plays at full strength, and is free.

MonteCarlo: The free version of this software plays 1-point matches, but does so very well. The "wet sponge" sound effects are a little obnoxious.

SnowFish: Essentially a different, visually appealing, front end on a slightly older (but still strong) GnuBG engine, SnowFish is a small program that will tutor you, evaluating your proposed moves as you play.

BlowFish: A freeware match analyzer that runs on an older GnuBG engine.

Motif: A web-resident bot that plays a good game.


Equipment
Yes, you need actual equipment (board, dice, dice cups) to learn to play well. Unfortunately, set pricing ranges from dirt cheap to supremely expensive. You can get a cheap set (~$10) from Target. It has what you need to play. But it's very small, and extremely ugly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can get a set that costs $500 or more, but will the extra expense really help you learn?

My advice: hit yard sales and thrift stores. People often sell sets for cheap because they don't know/don't care what they are selling. Before you buy make sure the set is complete. Why? Anything extra you have to buy will negate the benefit of having purchased second-hand. Remember: this is backgammon on a budget. You may actually have neighbors that would sell you their set for cheap, because they don't know how to play, or don't know what it is. More than one of my neighbors has seen my set and exclaimed: "You mean you actually play that? We've got one, but don't even know what it is." That might be your cue to offer to take the set off their hands.

Another great place to buy is ebay. There are all sorts of sets on sale, and a good one can usually be found for cheap. Again, make sure the set is complete. Ask, and be specific. Don't ask "Is the set complete?" Instead, ask "Are all 30 checkers there (15 each color)? Are all the dice there (2 of each color, and doubling cube)?" You'd be surprised how many sellers say the set is complete, but then say they don't know a thing about backgammon! My favorite description: "The set is complete, with all 25 checkers!" Ask about damage, as well.


Places to Play
Study is no good if you can't practice. Where I live, backgammon isn't popular, so there are no clubs I can play at (clubs cost money, anyway). Therefore, I need to play on-line. Here are some free places to play:

FIBS: Play live against players from all over the world. The standard of play is high. You can used the text-based telnet interface, or can use any one of a number of free graphical interfaces (downloadable from the site). Like all free forums, this one can attract the dishonest. In this case, it's usually droppers: people who cut their connection when they are losing in a vain attempt to keep their rating up (this prevents the game from finishing, hence they don't actually lose). What these people fail to realize is that they're just fooling themselves (or their egos), and that their gameplay still stinks. Droppers are a fact of life at FIBS: get used to it. My rating should be a lot higher than it is.

DailyGammon: A turn-based system, you just log in once a day to make your move. The standard of play is excellent, there are always tournaments going on, the players are nicer, and come from all over the world. Because the games are not "live", you can be engaged in several games at once. One of the best things about DailyGammon is that because games are timed, droppers automatically lose! I've won a handful of games this way (once a gammon). No special software is required.

Yahoo: There are typically a lot of people on-line. The play is a little weaker than other places, but it's live and you can learn. The game is presented in an applet, which takes a couple of minutes to download.


Other Resources
A good place to go for help is rec.games.backgammon. It is an active community of players, most of whom are willing to offer advice and help on a wide variety of subjects. You'd be surprised how the most innocuous question can result in lengthy and spirited debate! Keep in mind that because this is a public international forum, there are those who will ridicule or insult you just because they can.