Currently ranked world #11 on the peer-rated survey “The Giants of Backgammon” and Grandmaster 2nd class by the Backgammon Masters Awarding Body (BMAB), Robert Wachtel has been one of the game’s elite players for the last 40 years. A chess master, Doctor of Philosophy and an options trader, he is the author of two prior backgammon books, In the Game until the End (1993) and In the Game until the End Vol. II (2014), and more than 40 journal articles. Robert was the editor of the US Backgammon Federation’s flagship magazine, PrimeTime Backgammon, from 2011 to 2019. He is the author of The Language of Backgammon: A Player’s Dictionary, a companion volume to The Backgammon Chronicles.
Join us in the live interview with Robert on 15th December, Sunday 8 PM CST on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/InternationalBookPromotion/videos/578910579347355/
Your book is called The Backgammon Chronicles, and it is the story of your adventures on the pro tour. Can you give us some background about backgammon itself and explain how you became a player?
Backgammon is a very ancient game––some forms of it have been found at archaeological digs of the civilizations of Egypt and Sumer––and perhaps the most popular board game in the world to this day. In the Middle East everyone––young, old, male, female, rich, poor––plays.
Backgammon was also well-established for centuries in Europe and America (checkerboards customarily had a backgammon board on their flip side, and feisty backgammon games in inns and taverns were always a favorite theme for European artists) but in the 1920s the Western game was revolutionized with the invention of the “doubling cube”: a feature that, as in poker, allows players to raise the stakes in a game in progress. “The cube,” as it is called, makes this already-excellent game even faster and more skillful. The only problem is that it has proved difficult for it to gain acceptance among the real backgammon masses: the traditional players of the Middle East.
I learned backgammon in my late 20s after emerging from graduate school with an advanced degree but few immediate employment prospects. I was good at it (I had been a bright prospect as a young chess player and the skill carried over); and I discovered to my delight that it allowed me the opportunity to travel, make money, and have just as much mental stimulation as in academia––and a lot more fun––matching my wits with other players.
You say in some of your promotional material that your book is unique because it fills in a gap in backgammon literature. Can you explain?
All gambling games are intriguing, especially for the majority of people who have conventional jobs. The subcultures––underworlds actually––that support that lifestyle have a similar fascination. For example: a 1930s New York City version of such a subculture is brilliantly depicted in the short stories of the journalist Damon Runyon.
Among gambling games, backgammon is one of the very best: as I state in the Preface to my book, “Its unique luck/skill structure––combined with the more recent addition of the doubling cube––generates breathtaking accidents, outrageous turnabouts, and amazing escapes.”
Yet (for various interesting reasons) the last 40 years of backgammon literature has lacked this vital element. When it first became wildly popular in the USA in the 1970s, backgammon was all about the glamor and romance of travel and risk-taking; but since then (to again quote my Preface) “a curious public has mostly been offered a Spartan diet of manuals, quiz sets, and textbooks.” The Backgammon Chronicles is the first book to recapture the sizzle that the game deserves.
I have heard people say that backgammon is a dice game and therefore is all luck. If that is true, how could anybody hope to be a professional? Just by having better luck than others? And by the way, is it true that some people are luckier than others? Please explain.
Backgammon does indeed (like life itself) have a big element of luck. A beginner can beat an expert––and it happens all the time! But it also has a very significant skill element, which means that in the long run––and most of the time in the short run as well––the expert will come out ahead. This feature gives the game an inbuilt “hustle”––for unless you are yourself a skilled player, the luck factor looks as if it is all that matters!
And to answer the second question: yes, of course some people are luckier than others. How could it be otherwise? But that doesn’t mean that luck is something they own, like a designer gown.
You also describe backgammon as a “sport.” Is this really fair? Should people who play games be given the same respect as real athletes?
I think so. Mental competition requires no less dedication, training and talent than its physical counterpart, and produces dramatic episodes that spectators experience with as much joy and excitement as well. Nor are mind sports (though this has only been appreciated recently) purely cerebral; to excel at them for any extended time, a competitor must attend to his or her physical condition with care and discipline, striving to maintain the premium shape which they will require, just like a physical athlete, to be able to execute.
Can a non-backgammon player enjoy your book?
Yes, because it is primarily a memoir, a travelogue, and a storybook. Most of the stories and essays, it is true, incorporate backgammon positions and analysis, but you can understand them perfectly well without the nuances. And the book features hundreds of photos—so if you like, you can just look at the pictures!
Can you tell us about the dictionary of backgammon that you will be publishing this month to accompany your book?
Sure. I would like Chronicles to reach a wider audience than the few thousand hard-core backgammon players who attend major tournaments and who have studied the game for thousands of hours. But when I was writing the book I began to realize that an outsider might find some of the terminology that is second nature to me confusing or even intimidating. So I decided that Chronicles should include a glossary. But once I’d started on that, I couldn’t see the point of not taking the next step and creating a proper dictionary for the game. In the dictionary, called The Language of Backgammon, I’ve tried to strike a balance between the new and the old by clearly defining the statistical ideas that have enabled contemporary players to analyze the game with unprecedented depth and accuracy, while retaining a lot of the slang that that links backgammon to its naughty gambling origins.