My First Backgammon
Below is a story of my latest tournament. And for those of you who know me, when you hear the word "tournament" you immediately think of chess, right? Well... surprise! This wasn't a chess tournament! I finally got around to entering a backgammon tournament!
It was S-O M-U-C-H F-U-N. I had as much fun at this event, or more, than I've had at any of the 82 different chess tournaments I've entered over the past twenty years!
This backgammon tourney took place over four days at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in viva Las Vegas in mid November of 2015. The main tournament started on Thursday but there were a bunch of preliminary activities that started the day before, so I suppose this means it really got started on Wednesday. I arrived Tuesday evening, so I spent six days and five nights there.
There were three separate divisions; the Championship Division, the Intermediate (also known as Advanced) Division, and the Beginner's Division.
I never did find out what constitutes a "beginner." Your first tournament? You don't know the rules? I didn't really care since I wasn't about to enter that division, even if I was eligible, which I probably was. I'm not a beginner.
I entered the Intermediate Division rather than the Championship, only because the entry fee was considerably cheaper ($200 vs. $500) and I thought I best first get my feet wet and learn how these backgammon tourneys work without it costing me an arm and a leg.
From what I understand, most backgammon tournaments are not the typical Swiss System format like they are in the chess tourneys I am familiar with. (Although some backgammon tourneys are and they certainly can be.) Instead, it's more often the elimination-bracket-type format, where the losers are eliminated and the winners move on. (Is there a name for that?)
I know many backgammon tourneys have a double-elimination system. If you lose a match you get bumped over to the secondary bracket and you continue to play from there. Only after you lose twice are you eliminated completely.
The format for this tourney was somewhat similar. It had three brackets, called Main Flight, Consolation, and Last Chance. Each player starts in Main Flight and you play until you lose a match. Once you lose you are then eliminated from this bracket completely. You then get bumped over to Consolation, and you can still win this bracket if you don't lose again. If you lose in this bracket you are done with this bracket completely, and you get bumped down to Last Chance. After you lose in Last Chance, you're done for good. So you're guaranteed just three matches, but will play more than this if you win a match or two, of course.
In the Championship Division, in Main Flight each match is the first to 15 points. My division, Intermediate, had matches to 11 points. In my section, once you get bumped down to Consolation, matches are to 9 points. (They are probably 11 in the Championship Consolation.) Once you get bumped down to Last Chance, matches are to just 5 points. (Probably 7 in the Championship Last Chance.)
Here are some of the notable differences between a backgammon tourney and a chess tourney.
(1) You can and often do chat with your opponent a bit, during your match! In fact, there is a lot talking going on in the playing room all the time, by players and spectators. One of my opponents even asked me after I rolled and moved and then picked up my dice why I didn't choose an alternate move, that he considered better. You don't see any of this at chess tourneys, of course. And the backgammon tournament director is often making frequent announcements during the day with his microphone ("I need one player right now who wants to play a two-point mini match."), etc. At a chess tourney you're not supposed to have any talking in the playing room, once the round has started.
(2) Game clocks are not used. Actually, for the Super Jackpot side event ($1,000 to enter the round of 32 and $2,000 to enter the round of 16!), this was a "clock-preferred" event and you did see some players using clocks. But not all of these matches had clocks and there were no clocks used at any other event.
(3) The moves of the game are not recorded, at all, by anyone, in any division. That's just not done in backgammon. It would slow up the game too much, I suspect. Several players did record their match with their own video camera, mounted on a tripod right next to the board. I could certain see myself doing this in the future, because right now I would love to have a record of all of my games, to see all of my mistakes! (Today's backgammon software programs are very, VERY strong. The equivalent of Deep Blue, Stockfish, Komodo, etc., or better. With these software programs, in addition to playing games, you can, of course, set up any position, click Analyze and within a few seconds know exactly what the best move is. Today's backgammon software plays far better than any human.)
(4) There were no "cheap sets/boards." In most chess tourneys the typical set used are those common, black and white plastic piece, vinyl roll-up board sets. You might suspect backgammon would have something equivalent. Maybe an easy-to-carry vinyl roll-up board with plastic checkers. Nope, not at all. Instead, just about everyone has their own, large, beautiful, tournament-size board, costing many hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
The board I brought with me, a recent tournament-size board that I spent $265 on (on sale from $395), was probably on the LOW-end of the value scale, of the typical board I saw! I'm not kidding. It was entertaining just to walk up and down the rows of tables and look at all of the beautiful boards.
(5) There were
no kids! None! The average age in the room was probably 40+! Maybe
more! I also don't believe there were any teenagers! In fact, if you
were in your 20s I suspect you were in the minority! The Senior's
Tournament, which started Wednesday, had more than 120 entrants.
(Actually, now that I think about it, that number doesn't mean
anything. With an low entry fee of $60, many of these entrants were
Those are the major differences I noticed. I suspect there are a few others. But anyone accustomed to chess tourneys would probably fit right in at a backgammon tourney. I know I did.
Alas, the glory days of backgammon are long gone. If you didn't know or don't remember, backgammon was VERY big in '70s. Everybody seemed to be playing, stores sold out their backgammon sets as soon as they arrived, many backgammon books were published, clubs and tourneys were springing up all over the country, etc.
In 1978, for example, 652 players played in a tourney in Las Vegas and the amateur prize for the winner was $180,000.00! Wow! The year after, with a slightly restructured event, drawing now 700+ players, the amateur winner took home $130,000.00! Amazing!
Alas, that type of a turnout and thus those types of prizes in backgammon are most likely a thing of the past. Here are the prizes for this event, which were based upon the number of entries:
players, 35 of which were re-entries)
players 27 of which were re-entries)
Other Side Events
There were many other prizes and many other events too. (Beginner's Jackpot, After-Tournament Tournament, Blitz, Mini-Matches, etc.)
Some of the matches were being streamed live. More than once after my matches were over and I arrived back to my hotel room, I was able to watch a couple of the games live, using my laptop.
Wednesday evening there was a re-match between Phil Simborg, a famous backgammon teacher, and Masayuki Mochizuki (Mochy), a former World Champion. Mochy believed, since his error rate was so much lower than Phil's, that he could spot Phil the cube every game and still be a favorite. This was the premise for their initial match. They played once before, a year ago or so, and Mochy won. I've watched the YouTube video of that match, a couple of times. The video is accompanied with live, entertaining commentary by a backgammon expert by the name of Falafel. Wednesday night was the rematch and I watched it live, again with Falafel commentating on the game. Mochy won again. He's phenomenal. I said hello to him on Thursday, and thanked him for all of his instructional videos and for making himself available to play others online, and for being a good "ambassador" to the game. He asked me my name and I told him. He recognized it! He said he's seen some of my YouTube comments to some of these videos!
Several of the authors of some of the backgammon books I have were there, competing, including Bill Robertie. It was fun to see them in person.
Anyway, I won my very first match on Thursday, 11 to 2! Talk about a rush! My opponent was from back East, who was wearing a Minnesota Vikings jersey, although he said he wasn't a Vikings fan. The shirt was a gift, he said. (Really? You won't catch me ever wearing an Eagles jersey or a Redskins jersey, for example, even it was a gift.)
It's one thing to play backgammon against my brother for fun, or to play against my friend Jennifer for backrub minutes, or to play my friend Rick for a dollar or two a point. It's another thing entirely to play in a tournament, for money, against a seasoned player! Love it, love it, love it!
Alas, I lost Friday morning, to an old guy who had his wife sitting next to him the entire time. Daniel got out to an early lead and I couldn't catch up. I felt I was just as strong of a player as he was and was disappointed the match was only to 11 points.
In all on Friday I played three matches, consisting of a total of 29 different games! (7+12+10) I won my next match but then I lost the one after that. I suspect 29 backgammon games is probably more games of backgammon that I've played in one day in my entire life. (Maybe when I was a kid my brother Bill and I might have played more on some occasion, but I don't think so. 29 games is a lot of games.)
After that second loss Friday evening I'm already now bumped down to Last Chance... which didn't start until Sunday morning. So Saturday ended up being a free day for me. There are lots of other side events to play in, including a $100 Jackpot event for all players no longer in Main Flight or Consolation, but I felt a cold coming on and I needed a break anyway. On Sunday I won my first match (a very exciting one) but then I lost the next match. (Also exciting... the score was 4 to 4 going into the final game.) So I ended up with three match wins and three match losses.
Oh yea, I almost forgot. According to my first round opponent (the non-Viking fan) precision dice are required! I knew what precision dice were, of course, and I suspected they were at least recommended. I didn't know we had to use them! Seriously? Shaking and then rolling two cubes from a dice cup, many of which have trip lips, isn't good enough to generate a random number? We need precision dice? That's just too funny. What's even funnier is some people were using baffle boxes, to roll their dice. (A small plastic device sitting next to the board that you drop the dice into and they tumble around inside and then fall out onto the board. Google it if you're interested in seeing one.)
So I went ahead and bought a couple of pairs of precision dice that matched my backgammon set. (They're expensive! $13.00 a pair! I've looked online and that price is actually a bargain.)
After I was up 6 to 0 against the non-Viking fan, he asked for a dice switch. Too funny. You will never see me complain about "bad dice" and request a "dice switch."
The entry fee for the typical local chess tourneys I participate are usually between $100 and $120 or so, for six and sometimes just five games... which works out to about $17-$24 per game. In all, I played six matches consisting of 51 backgammon games, in a tourney with an entry fee of $200, which works out to just $4 per game. (Of course, backgammon games are usually much shorter than a typical chess game, so this amount-per-game comparison probably isn't valid.)
Other than my match against Daniel, the old guy with his wife, at one point I was ahead in all of my matches, so all-in-all I think I did okay.
So anyway, that's my little backgammon tournament adventure. Now, when it comes to the game of backgammon, I can also say I'm a tournament player! Ha ha! There are two large tourneys in Vegas every year, so I guess I will need to start planning my vacations on the weeks these tourneys are held. Already looking forward to the next one.