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Book review: Backgammon by Paul Magriel, published 1976.

Last updated on February 15, 2022

About the author

Paul David Magriel Jr (July 1, 1946 – March 5, 2018), was a professional backgammon player, poker player, and author based in Las Vegas, Nevada. His 1976 book, Backgammon, is often referred to as the bible of backgammon. He was known as X-22 on the backgammon circuit. The nickname X-22 originates from Magriel’s simulation of a real backgammon tournament.  He had used 64 boards, numbered X-1 through X-64, in which the player designated “X-22” eventually won. Magriel arguably won more major backgammon tournaments than any other player in the world. He was also widely considered the world’s best backgammon teacher.

Backgammon by Paul Magriel, 1976, book cover.
Backgammon by Paul Magriel, 1976.

Review

Recently at Deluxe Backgammon, we had the good fortune to come across a copy of Paul Magriel’s masterpiece, Backgammon. It is considered the definitive work on the game of backgammon for both novices and experts. In fact, many experienced players consider it to be the only backgammon book a player at any level will ever need. The author, Paul Magriel, was the 1978 Backgammon World Champion and New York Times backgammon columnist. The book was written by Magriel and his then-wife, Renee, between 1973 and 1976. Renee Magriel was not listed as a co-author.  The book ingeniously deconstructs every aspect of backgammon into its component parts. Each component is then explained in a unique, easy to understand, step-by-step, building-block approach.

Magriel writes in a concise non-technical manner. The man was clearly a mathematical genius and could certainly have confused his readers by bombarding them with complex mathematical terminology. However, this isn’t the case. Every component of the game is described in such a clear manner that an absolute beginner will be able to understand every concept. This is why it is considered the bible of backgammon, for its clarity.  It is also is enhanced by 600 gameboard diagrams, a glossary, and tables. This book is an indispensable guide and reference tool for any player who wants to take the game seriously and improve their play.

Sections

The book is divided into 5 sections, Basics, Using Men Effectively, Middle Game Strategy, Endgame and Advanced Positional Play. Each of the sections is subsequently broken down into individual chapters (see below). Obviously, it starts with the basics and gradually introduces more complex concepts as it progresses through each section. The first section is for beginners, the next three for intermediate players and the last covers advanced concepts. Even though it becomes more complex as it progresses through the sections, Magriel manages to write in a simplified and clear manner that makes every concept understandable.

Observations

Just to be clear, the following comments are observations, not criticisms. The graphics are quite dated, but were probably state of the art at the time. The setup was the reverse of what I am used to, so it took a couple of chapters before I was comfortable with the board. Also, it is important to remember that the book is nearly 50 years old and pre-dates accessible computer processing. For example, the 6-4 opening roll, Magriel advocates running 24/14. The prevailing view at the time was that the 2-point was too deep in the board to be of any value. However, modern rollouts suggest 8/2, 6/2 is the better play. Another example is the 5-3 opening. Magriel advises a 13/8, 13/10 play, bringing two builders down from your mid-point. Again, modern rollouts have proven that 8/3, 6-3 is the better play.

An updated version was reprinted in 2004. The text is identical to the original except for the addition of a 10-page foreword by Renée Magriel Roberts, who is also listed as a co-author. I don’t know who owns the rights to the book, but it would certainly be worth republishing today. Modern graphics and some amendments based on computer rollouts would make this a must-have book for all backgammon enthusiasts.

Conclusion

The book is out of print and hard to come by. Unfortunately, we had to return our review copy. It is definitely the backgammon book I would want in my home library. It is the sort of book that you could return to regularly to refresh your knowledge and sharpen your game. If you ever have the opportunity, please read this book. Deluxe Backgammon highly recommends Backgammon by Paul Magriel for all students of the game.

Chapter list

Pages, 404 for the 1976 version of Backgammon, by Paul Magriel.

Section I.  Basics
1. Rules
2. Notation
3. Basic Checker Play
4. Game I: Running game
5. Opening Rolls
6. Game II: Holding Game
7. Basic Doubling Strategy
8. Game III: Priming Game
9. Game IV: Attacking Game
10. Pip Count
11. Basic Odds

Section II.  Using Men Effectively
12. Builders and Flexibility
13. Duplication and Diversification
14. When You Are Forced to Leave Shots

Section III.  Middle Game Strategy
15. Modern Opening Theory
16. Safe Play vs. Bold Play
17. Slotting
18. Action Play
19. One Man Back
20. Golden Point
21. Splitting
22. Doubling Theory

Section IV.  Endgame
23. No Possible Contact
24. Avoiding Contact
25. After Contact

Section V.  Advanced Positional Play
26. Priming and Blocking
27. Control of the Outside
28. Timing
29. Holding Game and Backgame

Glossary
Tables

You can read other reviews of backgammon books here.

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