Originally published at BluffEurope.com – reproduced with thanks
Poker and backgammon share similar traits in that they are games which combine great skill – and some luck. There are advantages in understanding the intricacies of both games, which at first may not be obvious to the novice poker player. In poker you need to understand the opponent’s mind-set and gauge how they’ll react to various levels of betting.
Playing backgammon requires an essential understanding of the equities of position. Both require analytical thinking and skills in mathematics and probability. But mastering all these disciplines to an advanced level will benefit your backgammon and poker games and advance your skillset in both games.
Exploring the Similarities
Backgammon is the easier game to study to advance your skills than poker, as there is more information available to study: the position of the chequers, potential moves, equities and cube action.
In poker the information is hidden, as you have to guess the hand the opponent is holding, which makes it a much more difficult game to study. Studying backgammon to an advanced level will help increase your skills in analysis and risk, and that will eventually benefit you at the poker table when trying to determine your opponent’s hand. A poker player’s skill is advanced when they calculate equity in position rather than making a random bet.
With a poker bet, you need to be able to estimate and recall how many times your opponent has folded, called and what the size of the bet was each time. Good analysis and recall will ensure you remain ahead. The ability to assess a player’s personality accurately is more essential in the poker game than it is in backgammon.
Crossover: How Poker Pros use Backgammon
There are excellent examples of very successful poker players who cut their teeth playing backgammon, namely Gus Hansen and Sander Lyloff. Both still play backgammon regularly as they believe it is useful when preparing mentally for poker tournaments. Gus recently said: “Backgammon is still important to me, as I continue to study equities in backgammon, which helps me in poker.”
The Power of the Bluff
A key component of poker is bluffing, but does bluffing exist in backgammon? In poker, the bluff action is valuable and crucial at times, but understanding when to bluff or call on considerable bets, a player must be able to reasonably assess the mathematics and risk.
Bluff play is almost unknown in backgammon, but does exist in the multi-player variation of backgammon known as “Chouette”. Some players may pass a cube when offered a doubling cube, as they’ve either not been able to analyse the board correctly – or not realised that the doubling cube was offered – as a bluff in an attempt to add pressure and make opponents pass or take a cube incorrectly. One of the top backgammon players in the world, Mike “Falafel” Nathanzon really values a bluff move in backgammon and says, “It’s a very difficult move but I do it, although I mainly aim it at the weaker players!”
Time to hit the Backgammon tables
Once you have advanced your game in backgammon, a player considering playing poker will probably be far more skilled at poker than they would first believe. Gus Hansen was under-estimated as a poker player for a considerable time, as the vast majority of poker players did not credit his mathematical astuteness. Gus studies backgammon on artificial intelligence programs, which help with risk analysis. Sander Lyloff won the Barcelona EPT in 2007 as a relative newcomer and his win could partly be attributed to the skills he had developed over the years from his backgammon play.
Playing and studying both backgammon and poker has enormous value. Poker players who wish to develop their game should study backgammon in the first instance and then their advancement in the game of poker should be quite rapid.
Postscript: Brits shine at the WSOB
It’s not just poker players who enjoy a World Series every year. In recent years, the World Series of Backgammon has emerged, with tournaments worth $100–250k in prize money held – and television coverage to boot. The Backgammon Masters Awards Board (BMAB) has now become the eminent organisation that awards Grandmaster status to those playing at the highest level all over the world. 2016 has been a great year for British players Gaz Owen and Jools Fetterlein who have both been awarded the title of Grandmaster for their skills in Backgammon. Gaz is a very strong player in both backgammon and poker, with fantastic mathematical analysis.
Jools is a great studier of the backgammon game, which has resulted in his Grandmaster status. Gaz recently commented on how his Backgammon skills help with his poker game.
“You need a lust to gamble to excel in both games. You have to enjoy the risk and have no fear. I was really reckless when I started both games, I would take everything at backgammon and play almost every hand at poker, calling wildly. Gaining control was key, although I found this easier to do with backgammon than with poker.”