Backgammon Research

I’ve started playing more backgammon over the past year. Most of my family plays, and some may be shocked, but I have a few friends that are known to wager on a game. While in Greece, both Mike and I were looking for a decent set to bring back from the trip.  We focused on traditional Greek wooden boards without trays/chip holders.

I am discovering there are different games and not one board type is ideal for all sessions.  I really like playing in Greece, or with family on holidays on the wooden boards, and be able to slap the chip down and make allot of noise when the miracle roll comes up.  It’s a completely social game, and best played after a good meal and some Tsikoudia. Playing a competitive game, it’s nice to use the much larger set with 1.75 ” chips and a leather, or material playing field.   The larger board leave extra space to throw the dice and there’s much less noise in rolling dice, or moving chips.   Not sure if everyone would have this same view, or if it’s me just rationalizing the 3rd board purchase in 7 months, but I’m happy with the investment 🙂

Greek Backgammon Boards

One thing that stands out in Greece is that all the tourist areas sold wooden backgammon sets and many of the same sets are sold all over Greece, with prices varying, depending on the store. For example a basic set with  map of Greece, on the side, would go for 25 Euros in a nice store, and 15 Euros in the flea market. Slight haggling was available in most places, especially if you wanted them to ship it back to the US.

Mike bought this set for himself:

Mike's Backgammon set

The set I bought is in the same category and part number.Greek Set

Both are all wood sets with 2 color points. Wedges are a rosewood and green, or black. The olive branch is wood inlay. There is no design on the outside and sell for about 95 Euros  on Crete, which included deluxe checkers. The melamine sets were in the 15-25 Euro range.

Before buying the set, I had gone into a shop in Chania that specialized in Backgammon and Chess. When I was last in Greece (over 10 years ago), I had purchased a set there and remembered they had a good selection. The shop was still there, but the selection was limited to high end sets and different than any I saw anywhere else in Greece.  I found one I really liked and the owner was selling it for 450 Euros, and was willing to sell it for 400. I left the shop to think about it, and that night decided to go back and get it. The shop was closed and I came across another tourist shop with the more typical sets. Doing the math and because the store was closed, I decided the price difference  (over 300 Euros) wasn’t worth going with the nicer set.

After getting home I was able to determine that most of the sets in the shops were from the same company. The company was called Viotask . Both the set I bought and Mike bought were part number T700. Found the malemine set was probably an A148, based on it’s size.

The really nice set I liked was from a company in Athens. The boards were designed by Antonios Neroulias. He had the same set I saw in the shop in Chania for 193 Euros for online purchase. After searching to see if I could find it local, or cheaper, I ordered from him. The set was $260 and $80 shipping. I ordered some extra dice and some additional Galathin checkers and I was all in for about $390. Not a cheap set, but the quality is very good.

Rosewood-close up

Had an email exchange with the owner. My feedback was that the $80 shipping was going to discourage most US buyers. He took the advice and lowered it to $60, even though it may be at a loss. He talked about looking for an agent and reseller in the US, and forwarded some documentation. Sounds like it would take too much time for me to be interested in doing it, but it’s always fun to plug numbers into a spreadsheet and see what comes out.

The last type of set I heard about was a solid olive set that was hand carved by prisoners on Crete. I was told they sell for about $100 and the contact is a small shop near the bus station in Chania. A friend has one of these sets she picked up last year and I’m waiting to take a look at it.

After playing at the twincities backgammon club, I’ve seen many of the tournament players use much larger sets. They don’t use the solid wood sets I was used to. I like the noise for a casual game with friends, but can see how it would get annoying for a serious game where you are trying to count PIPs to determine the proper doubling strategy and many games going on next to each other. One reasonably priced set was a Crisloid Tournament set (~$150). The boards are bigger, and the checkers are 1 3/4 inches. One consistent recommendation was to talk to Carol Joy Cole. She’s a very nice lady that directs many of the tournaments and runs a backgammon club in Flint Michigan. She has a shop (boutique) at all the tournaments. One complaint is that her web site isn’t very descriptive or have pictures, but a quick call and I got all the information I needed. She makes some modifications to the factory sets before shipping. Not exactly clear what the upgrades or, but for the set I bought, I see other sites advertising it as having cork on the sides and playing field. The one I received was a material and painted playing field. I’ve seen the cork configuration and this is much better. The cork doesn’t handle humidity well and will start to wrinkle (especially on the sides). Metal corners are also attached to protect the set. Based on feedback from others and my experience, I’d recommend going to her for a board, rather than some of the other places that advertise on Internet. Price is cheaper or in the same range, but the upgrades make a difference.

Crisloid Close up

Backgammon Pieces or Checkers

I found all the information I wanted to know about the range of boards available, and started research the checkers.  I’ve hear talk about people buying bone, ivory, or milkstone pieces . As far as I can tell, chips come in some form of plastic, wood, or metal. For the types of games I play, I stick to plastic. There are many grades of plastic here’s what I could tell about them.

The lady in the shop confirmed no one is really selling bone, or milkstone chips, they are plastic. Researching it further it looks like most of the higher end chips are made of Galalith. As stated in the Wikipedia article it can be made to imitate ivory, bone, stone, etc.. and dyed easily.

The Neroulias site had the following types of chips available and seemed similar to the ranges I saw in the other shops without written descriptions.

  • Fintishi polysteric chips
  • Center-Perl polyesteric chips
  • No 86b polyesteric
  • Polyesteric Two Color backgammon chips
  • Quality Galalith Chips

The price variations seemed to be on how well the chip held it’s polish, the smoother shiner chips cost more than the dull chips. The Galalith chips were thicker than the others, but had the same diameter, with a very nice finish.

Dice

For the standard size wooden set, I’ve gotten used to the small dice that both players share and can be thrown so they spin like a top. The house rules, I’ve grown up with including playing any roll as long as the die is lying flat on the playing surface, or chip. off board, is a re-roll. The tournament, or more official rules are much stricter.  See rules for more details.

Using cups and strict rules on the smaller wooden boards, wouldn’t work well, because there isn’t allot of space, and dice would regularly land on chips, especially when you start bearing off and all the chips are on the same side. Started looking into dice throwing and randomness. There’s plenty of debates on Internet around craps system and what looks like a good book by Stanford Wong called Wong on Dice. The implication is that you can make rolls less random in something like craps, where you have to throw the hole distance and bounce the dice off the wall of pyramid rubber. If there’s any truth to it, not using cups or precision dice may have some impact in backgammon.

The precision dice concept is that some dice have the dots carve out on the die surface. The amount cut out for 6 dots would be more than 1, so the side with 1 on it, is heavier. The precision dice are flat on all surfaces and tested in the same way casino craps dice are manufactured, and are made of a more durable plastic so they don’t wear as quickly. It’s a nice theoretical concept, but doubt is has much impact on the game.

For anyone that studies the math around blackjack, you realize there’s no impact to your probability of winning, or losing if others at the table don’t follow basic strategy, but for some reason you can easily recall big bets that were lost when the last person to take, or pass a card played it according to proper basic strategy. It’s somehow easier to accept losing if they followed proper play. It mathematically doesn’t matter, as they could help you as much as hurt you, but becomes an irrational focus. It’s discussed at every table when it happens. More emotionally by those that don’t understand the math.  The same thing happens to me in rolling dice. I roll doubles, and my opponent picks up the dice and they come up as doubles, and I don’t feel they were shaken, or rolled well, I get the same feeling when someone hit a hard 16 against the dealers 5, causing me to lose.

Books and Software 

I’ve tried to improve my game by finding books, or software.  The analysis done by neural networks in software has made it easy to play against and opponent that is one of the best in the world and get advice from them.  The 2 free programs I’ve tried are Jellyfish, and GNUbg.  Jellyfish has some commercial versions with more features, and I’ve only tried the free one.  The other popular one is called Snowie.  From my perspective, there’s no need to invest in the more expensive versions and GNUbg is a great program.  The tutor mode can be used to tell you exactly when you made a bad play and what the right play is.  The challenge with using the tutor mode is that it’s tough for a beginner.  I’d like to only know when I did something really wrong against basic, or fundamental principles, but instead you get feedback when the math shows you aren’t doing the right move.   That being said it’s still a great tool.

I was getting tips from Steve Brown , while playing at the Minneapolis club.  He was very helpful in going over some of the basics on doubling, and ideal bearing off setup, along with other tips. I had mentioned I was reading Paul Magriel’s book, and also Jim Dweck’s book.  Both were from the 70s, before the advanced computer analysis.  They are both very good books, but the Magriel book was hundreds of pages, and I had trouble retaining the key points, before losing interest.  He suggested “Starting out in Backgammon“, by Paul Lamford.  It’s about 100 pages and an extremely easy read, with the key concepts spelled out in a way that’s easy to understand and retain.  I was so impressed, I immediately ordered his other 2 books.

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