Friday, 14 August 2015

Off-Topic: Backgammon Live

Last year I made a couple of posts about my favourite game of skill, Backgammon. I emphasise that it's a game of skill, even though many consider it to be a game of luck. The estimates vary, but I consider it to be 75% skill, 25% luck. This is the percentage for game play. Match play reduces the effect of luck drastically. A weak player should be able to win one game in four against a strong player, but he will almost never win a 7-point match against him.

I first became aware of Backgammon while I lived in Germany. I was fascinated to hear that it's the world's oldest game, at least 4000 years old, much older than chess, which is barely 500 years old in its current form. In Germany Backgammon has a bad reputation, because it's played mainly by the Turkish immigrants. Most Turkish homes own a Backgammon board, and hosts like to play a few games with their guests after dinner, accompanied by alcohol and cigarettes. It might be difficult for non-Germans to understand the attitude, because it's different to racism in other countries. After the Second World War the German government invited Turks to come to Germany as Gastarbeiter, "guest workers", to help rebuild their country. The Turkish immigrants were exclusively manual labourers, not skilled professionals. Even today, 70 years later, not many Turks in Germany receive university level education. This has led to a stigma that Backgammon is a game for uneducated people. Nevertheless, I played Backgammon against my Turkish friends, and I was puzzled that I lost so often. Back then I thought it was all about luck.

In America I almost forgot about the game, until a friend of mine asked me to play. She won almost all her games against me, and I began to suspect that there was more than luck to the game.

After returning to England I had to spend a few months in hospital. I was surprised to find that Backgammon was a very popular game among the patients and staff. I spent many hours playing, and I became one of the best players in the hospital. I was finally starting to understand the game. After I left hospital I joined a Backgammon club and read books about Backgammon. It was at this time I finally considered myself an expert.

I moved home and didn't have a club near my new address. As a replacement I began to play Backgammon online on Yahoo's games site. It was a very enjoyable social site, in which the chatting was as important as the playing itself. It soon became apparent that I was one of the best players. Only occasionally did I meet someone who was on my level or better. What the better players had in common was that we had played Backgammon on the board, or Real Backgammon, as we called it. We looked down on the majority who had only ever played Backgammon online.

But all good things come to an end. The Yahoo games site was closed temporarily for maintenance, and it's now been closed for over three years. I tried other free sites, and I wasn't happy with any of them. I was told that the best players used subscription sites, but I wasn't willing to pay money for the privilege of playing Backgammon. Eventually I remained with the Backgammon game that Microsoft bundled with Windows 7, which I liked because it forced everyone to play a 5-point match. The problem with the Microsoft Backgammon game was the extremely poor quality of my opponents, even on the so-called expert level. It was so frustrating to me. I would rather lose to a good player than win against a weak player. In the Microsoft game the opponents are anonymous, so if I was lucky enough to have a good opponent I never met him again.

I had tried various Facebook versions of Backgammon in the past, but last week I stumbled on a game called Backgammon Live, which is the reason for this post. If you love Backgammon and aren't lucky enough to belong to a local club you should try it out. You won't regret it. I'll review it here, but some of the features might only be understandable after you've registered for the game.

You can find the game by searching for "Backgammon Live" in Facebook. It isn't actually a free game, but if you're a good player it's possible to play it for free. The tokens you need to play (called Coins) can be bought at the rate of 12,500 Coins for $1.99, and cheaper rates are available for bigger purchases.

When I began to play the game I was given 1000 Coins free, but a friend of mine who signed up yesterday only received 300 Coins. You can get more free Coins by watching videos or taking advantage of Facebook offers.

Each game has a stake of at least 100 Coins. The winner is allowed to keep 90% of what he wins. 10% is retained as a game tax, amusingly called a "tip to the dealer". We all know that Backgammon doesn't have a dealer.

What is immediately appealing about the game is the elegantly designed boards. They're far more attractive than the boards in any other online Backgammon games, in Facebook or elsewhere. The boards vary from room to room. This one is from the room called Vegas.

Each room has a different melody playing in the background. The melodies are repetitive, in loops of 60 seconds or less, but they're so pleasantly composed that they aren't annoying. It's possible to turn the sound off, but I've never wanted to.

The different rooms each have a different minimum bet.

Royal Palace:100 Coins
Atlantis:500 Coins
White Lotus:1,500 Coins
Persia:3,000 Coins
Vegas:5,000 Coins
Dublin:10,000 Coins
Toronto:25,000 Coins
Rome:50,000 Coins
New York:100,000 Coins
Tokyo:250,000 Coins
Macau:500,000 Coins

This division into rooms is an excellent feature. It divides the players into their playing strengths and experience in the game. The weakest players, and those who have just begun to play Backgammon Live, play in Royal Palace first, and as they win games they move up to the higher rooms one by one. Of course, anyone who buys a million tokens can jump straight into the top room. I'll discuss the strategy for picking the correct room below.

The players are ranked by an Elo system, as described on Wikipedia's Elo page. The details of the parameters used for calculation aren't described in the game's FAQ, since it would be too technical for 99% of the readers, but based on my experience it seems to be a progressive iterative calculation, not a recursive calculation, so increases in a player's strength are marked over the course of time. New players are rated 1500, and they can increase or decrease as they win or lose games. (There seems to be a glitch in the formula used where very weak players are concerned. I've been observing the ratings of my opponents, comparing their Elo rating with their win-loss performance. Strong players are rated between 1500 and 1900. Weak players are rated between 1450 and 1500, but players with a lot of losses are often rated less than 100, even though there are no ratings in the gap between 100 and 1450).

There is a strict time limit per move, which decreases in the higher rooms. This prevents stalling by players in losing situations. Failing to move in time loses the whole game.

The game has auto-play when there is only one legal move possible. This speeds up the game immensely.

One interesting feature of the game is that it allows a Beaver, i.e. immediate redoubling while retaining possession of the doubling cube. I know about the Beaver from reading about it, but I've never encountered it before, because it's rarely used in clubs, tournaments or online play. In theory it should be used when you think your opponent doubled you by mistake. I didn't know how to use it at first, but I've now built it into my playing strategy.

Now for the game's negative features. It will be a long list, but I emphasise that they're all minor complaints, far outweighed by the game's positive features.

The main disadvantage is that Backgammon Live only allows game play, not match play. This seemed like a big negative at first, but after a week of play I hardly miss playing matches. It would be too difficult to mix game play and match play in one program anyway (even though Yahoo attempted to do it). It would mess up the Elo ratings. Any strong player who only played matches would have an astronomically high rating compared to the others who only play games.

The game's chat system is very primitive, so primitive that almost nobody uses it. Instead of an attractive scroll box, the text appears in text bubbles that disappear after a few seconds. Apart from this, the move timer continues to run down while chatting, so it's a bad idea to type anything during your own move.

The opponent is assigned at random, so it's not possible to play against a Facebook friend. It's also not possible to make someone you meet in-game a friend, so that you can play against him another day.

The timeout system can be disadvantageous to the game's winner. Sometimes I'm expecting to win a gammon, but my opponent times out and I'm only awarded a single point win. A better solution would be to always consider a timeout a gammon unless the loser has already borne off at least one checker. This would discourage strategic timing out.

There are annoying mini-games that pop up at the beginning or in the middle of games. These are promoted as ways for people low on Coins to get more, but they're irritating to people like me who don't want to play them. There's Blackjack, Slots, Double-or-Quit bets and others. There should be an option to turn them off so that I never have to see them again.

Now for the best strategy to play Backgammon Live.

The golden rule of gambling is:

Never bet more than you can afford to lose.

I wrote that in bold, because it's something everybody should remember. It applies to every sort of gambling, whether you're betting on pure luck or what you consider to be a sure thing. If you intend to gamble, look at the money in your hand and imagine that you're going to lose it. Then ask yourself, will losing it hurt? If the answer is Yes, either gamble less or don't gamble at all. It's a rule I applied when I played Blackjack in the casinos in Las Vegas. I assigned myself a gambling budget each evening, and when it was gone I went back to my hotel. It's a rule I apply when I buy a Lotto ticket every Saturday. The ticket costs me £2 (about $3), an amount so small that if I never win I won't feel the loss. Anyone who follows this rule will never get into debt. It's so important that I'll repeat it.

Never bet more than you can afford to lose.

Have you got it? Let's apply it to Backgammon Live. I'm a good player, a very good player, but even the best player can have a losing streak. I apply the golden rule of gambling when I choose which room to play in. I only enter a room if the balance of Coins in my account is at least 20 times the minimum bet for that room. I had to break this rule at the beginning because I only started out with 1000 Coins, but I doubled my money to 2000 Coins within a few games and I've adhered to the rule ever since. In the lower rooms the players are (usually) weaker, so it's easier to win, and my money slowly increases until I can enter a higher room. If I have a losing streak in a higher room I go back to a lower room to recoup my losses. This is the opposite of the doubler syndrome common among compulsive gamblers: if they make a loss they bet twice as much to get it back. Even playing the lower rooms at first, I built up my initial 1000 Coins to 50,000 after five days and 150,000 after eight days.

Every day I see players who are in the wrong room. They're playing in Vegas with a 5000 Coins minimum bet, even though they only have 6000 Coins in their account. Sometimes it's a weak player who has ventured too high. Other times it's a strong player who has lost most of his Coins in an even higher room. I show no mercy, especially if it's a strong player. I take great pleasure in bankrupting players, taking all their Coins to force them to buy more or start again at the bottom after watching silly videos for an hour. Today I bankrupted four players, one of whom had an 1850 rating. That felt good.

How do I do it? First of all, I'm a very good player. Maybe not the best player in Backgammon Live, but strong enough to have a good chance of defeating the better players. Then it's all about doubling. All good Backgammon players know the rules of doubling. "Offer a double if you think you have a 66% chance of winning". "Accept a double if you think you have a 25% chance of winning". These rules don't apply to me when I'm up against a financially vulnerable opponent. If I have 150,000 coins and my opponent only has 6000 coins I double a 5000 game as soon as I have the slightest advantage. This forces him to gamble all he has. Typically a person in this position gets nervous and makes mistakes. The same applies if my opponent thinks he's winning and doubles me. If I think I have the slightest chance of winning I accept the double. The way Backgammon Live's "Maximum Bet" system works prevents me being gammoned, so I don't have to worry about the consequences of losing badly. This is also where the Beaver comes in. If my opponent doubles me when I have 150,000 Coins and he has 16,000 Coins I can force him to gamble everything by beavering him. Of course, I might lose the game, but it doesn't matter. I can afford to lose 16,000 Coins. He can't. I've made a few big losses in the last few days and had to crawl my way back up, one game at a time. But every time I bankrupt another player it's worth it. I can bankrupt others, but they can never bankrupt me because I follow the golden rule of gambling.

One last thing. When you sign up for Backgammon Live you're given an option to allow it to notify your friends when you win a game. This is the default setting. Please deactivate it. Your friends will hate you if you spam them every time you play.

Addendum on September 9th, 2015

I noticed today that Backgammon Live has added a feature to allow people to invite their Facebook friends to play a game. Excellent! The game keeps getting better. As far as I can tell the game has to be played in the lowest table, Royal Palace, but that's only a small restriction.

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