Back at the start of August the UK took on the USA in an online backgammon match. There were twelve players on each team and four different formats were used over three days of very competitive play. However, before we look at the 2020 match, we need to use a Tardis to step back forty-seven years to 1973 to find the origins of the match
The 1973 Match
In October 1973 the Clermont Club in London’s West End hosted a match between the UK and the USA. Joe Dwek and Phillip Martyn (who passed away earlier this year) represented England, while Barclay Cooke and his son, Walter, played for the USA. After forty games of head-to-head play (the pairings were changed after twenty games) the USA emerged victorious by the score of 73-64.
The event was noteworthy in several respects. It is hard to believe now, but this was the first time that the moves of a match were recorded! Until then backgammon books had always used single static positions to educate their readers. Obviously, there was no agreed notation at the time, but the matches were broadcast to an audience via CCTV (another first) and so it was a simple task to go over the recordings and note down the moves. It is truly amazing that a game that is five thousand years old should get to the early 1970s before somebody thought to document the moves of an entire game.
The second innovation was to try ‘duplicate backgammon’. A referee rolled one set of dice and that roll had to be played at both tables. The idea was to try to eliminate some of the luck in the game. Sadly, this was a complete failure as the games at the two tables diverged very quickly and then, for example, a roll of double fours could be a joker at one table while it was an anti-joker at the other. To my knowledge the experiment has never been repeated.
Barclay Cooke, in collaboration with René Orléan, produced a book, “Championship Backgammon”, which analysed the first eight games of the match. There were to be other books detailing the remaining thirty-two games but, sadly, they never saw the light of day.
Cooke was known to be a strong player but, unfortunately for him, he was operating in the era before computers. Much of his theory was seriously flawed but probably no more so than many of his peers. Of the four players, Dwek was probably the strongest and he was undoubtedly ahead of his time in his understanding of the game. He went on to win the European Championship in 1976 and then lose the 1981 World Championship final to Lee Genud. Very sadly, Walter Cooke died of cancer only a year after the match. He was thirty-seven.
Cooke’s book is a fascinating insight into backgammon in the early 1970s, but you have to take the analysis with a pinch, or more, of salt. When I first read the book in 1980, I was impressed by it. Re-reading it now I realised just how much the game has developed in the last forty-seven years. Basically, the book is now valueless other than as a testament to how the game was played in the early 1970s and as light entertainment! The implication for older players (amongst which I number) is that you have to unlearn a lot of what you took to be gospel before the advent of the bots.
A lot of the blunders made by all four players are huge conceptual mistakes because in those days nobody actually knew how to play some of the complex positions and the only available reference was ‘expert opinion’. There is no mention of a pip count or a lead in the race at any point during the book. Some of the doubling decisions are bizarre.
I decided to enter the moves of the games into XG for analysis. Remember that the four players were considered to be amongst the best in the world at the time of the match. Their PRs were as follows:
- Barclay Cooke 7.79
- Joe Dwek 9.02
- Walter Cooke 11.60
- Phillip Martyn 13.15
Quite staggering – they wouldn’t even be able to hold their own in a modern intermediates tournament!
There are countless examples in the match of where players just did not apply modern theory. I will give but one. This position is taken from the first game between Barclay Cooke (Red) and Joe Dwek (White):
The Jacoby Rule was not in effect and Barclay had a 53 to play. Any modern player would find 9/1* with barely a moment’s thought. Cooke selected the super safe 13/8, 9/6 – a blunder in XG terms. Dwek rolled 21, played bar/24, 6/4. Cooke then doubled and, naturally, Dwek passed. In fact, Cooke should have played on for an undoubled gammon. Doubling was an error but not a blunder.
The 2020 Match
Martin Barkwill, the UK captain, has been a busy man since taking office. Earlier this year he was in discussions with Joe Russell, former world champion and chairman of the US Backgammon Federation, to reprise the UK vs USA match of 1973. Unfortunately, Covid-19 intervened and the event had to be played online. It is hoped that the next match, probably in 2022, will be played over the board.
The UK team was selected by a mixture of qualifying by right (Tim Cross and Gaz Owen) and a number of play-off matches where the winner of each contest had to beat his opponent both in the match score and by having the lower PR. The pre-qualification process and much of the actual match was organised by Simon Barget who captained the team over the three days. The UK team was:
- Simon Barget (c)
- Aref Alipour
- Jon Barnes
- Chris Bray
- Tim Cross
- Charles Hill
- Raj Jansari
- Brain Lever
- Gaz Owen
- Lawrence Powell
- Chris Rogers
- Oliver Squire
There were a few substitutes but most of the matches were played by these twelve.
The US team was:
- Joe Russell (c)
- Victor Ashkenazi
- Matt Cohn-Geier
- Dennis Culpepper
- Karen Davis
- Neil Kazaross
- Roberto Litzenberger
- Dmitry Obukhov
- Steve Sax
- Marty Storer
- Chris Trencher
- Bob Wachtel
The four formats used were:
- Speed play
- Double match point (best of five)
- Teams of three (non-consulting)
I would like to report that the match was close but sadly not. The USA looked stronger on paper and so it proved in real life. They romped home by the somewhat embarrassing scoreline of 233-133. However, nearly all the matches were close, and it is fair to say that the USA had the rub of the green.
The Performance Ratings (PR) of both teams were extremely low and a credit to the game. There were several instances of PRs below 2, where 2.5 is deemed to be World Championship level. Overall the USA average PR was better than that of the UK, so their victory was well-deserved. At the end of this article you can see the Awards Section listing the detailed performances. I am indebted to Joe Russell for putting this together. Many congratulations to Matt Cohn-Geier and Aref Alipour for their overall performances.
I have not yet had time to analyse the matches in great depth so I will content myself with just a couple of positions from my own matches by way of examples
In one round I had the pleasure of playing Matt Cohn-Geier (MCG) who is currently ranked number four in the list of Backgammon Giants.
In our eleven-point match of 223 moves MCG made precisely three significant errors (blunders). I made four. Backgammon is a strange game insomuch as we focus on errors, rather than great moves, to assist our learning process.
Therefore, I hope MCG will not mind my featuring one of his errors as it is instructive.
MCG (Red) elected to play 13/11, 12/11 in order to block my sixes from his 5-pt. The question of whether Red needs that point when he is twenty-six pips in the race is moot. It is a short-term asset, but he may have trouble clearing it later. The other problem is that it leaves White four potentially game-winning shots. XG hates leaving game-winning shots and much prefers 13/12, 3/1 with this 21. A simple but, I hope you will agree, informative position. MCG went on to win this game and then match by the score 11-9.
Backgammon is nothing within without its ludicrous turnarounds which brings us all back for more!
In my one of my DMP games against Steve Sax the following position arose. I was Red and had just run my last rear checker out with a 64 played 24/14. Things looked grim. Thirty-five numbers hit. Naturally Steve rolled double fives. C’est la vie!!
The whole match was played on Backgammon Galaxy and live commentary was provided by Mark Brockmann Olsen, Justin Nowell and guests. Thanks to Mark and his friends for all their efforts. The event was great fun, if somewhat tiring.
Online backgammon has its place, but nothing can compare with live play and everyone is looking forward to the next match being fought out over the board. Hopefully there will also be time for fine wine and food!
Speed: Best overall performance
Speed: Lowest average PR
DMP: Best overall performance
DMP: Lowest average PR
Team: Best overall performance by a team (3-4 members)
Team: Lowest average PR by a team (3-4 members)
Team: Best overall individual performance
Team: Lowest individual average PR
Individual: Best overall performance
Individual: Lowest average PR
Matt Cohn-Geier: W3 L0, 1.59PR
Matt Cohn-Geier: 1.59
Chris Trencher: W2 L0, 1.65PR
Chris Trencher: 1.65
Team A (Victor Ashkenazi, Karen Davis, Chris Trencher, Steve Sax) W3 L0, 3.74PR
Team B (Dennis Culpepper, Matt Cohn-Geier, Neil Kazaross, Joe Russell) 3.00
Victor Ashkenazi W3 L0, 2.34PR
Dennis Culpepper 1.99
Matt Cohn-Geier W1 L1 1.64PR
Matt Cohn-Geier 1.64
Gaz Owen, W2 L0, 2.47 PR
Gaz Owen, 2.47
Aref Alipour W3 L0 2.73PR
Charles Hill: 1.57
Team C (Aref Alipour, Gaz Owen, Oliver Squire) W2 L1, 3.06PR
Team C (Aref Alipour, Gaz Owen, Oliver Squire) 3.06
Aref Alipour W2 L1, 2.42PR
Raj Jansari 1.73
Lawrence Powell W1 L1, 2.89PR
Aref Alipour 2.87
Magriel Cup Players of the Match: Matt Cohn-Geier (US), Aref Alipour (UK)