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Backgammon psychology

Last updated on November 12, 2020

Beginner’s guide. How to play backgammon.

This is another post in our Deluxe Backgammon series for beginners. In our last post we took a look at the concept of duplication, in this article we will explore the the idea of backgammon psychology.

Backgammon is a deceptively simple game which hides a myriad of complexities. The game itself can be learnt in a matter of hours, but it can take a lifetime to master. It has a unique blend of skill and luck that creates excitement like no other board game and has done so for 5000 years. It is a pastime that a rank beginner can compete with a professional and expect to win the occasional game. If a novice challenged a grand master at chess, they would not win a single game. Likewise, in bridge or poker the best player will almost always win. Because of the element of luck from the dice, a novice always has a chance to win in a single game of backgammon.

Luck or skill?

It has been estimated that the proportion of luck to skill in backgammon is approximately 80 to 20 in a single game. Given those numbers it sounds like backgammon is predominately all about the luck of the dice, and it is, in a single game. However, in the long term the 20 percent element of skill is an insurmountable advantage. That is why a beginner has a strong chance in a single game against an experienced player. However, is extremely unlikely to win in an 11-point match. The 20 percent edge in skill becomes unassailable over a long series of games.

Luck.

It is a very important part of the backgammon learning curve to understand these numbers. It is all part of the psychology of the game. Because of the subtle skills involved most beginners believe that those who are better than themselves are simply lucky. They view their own successes as a result of skill and blame their misfortunes on “bad luck”. Even when playing a CPU opponent in practice a beginner might throw their device in disgust, believing that the computer is cheating. It is simply not the case, rather it is the 20% element of skill coming to the fore. The 20% component of skill is significant enough to reward the correct use of tactics and strategy over the course of a game.

Decision making

Once the dice have been thrown, the game begins, and each subsequent roll will alter the position, the tactics and the strategies. There are certain basic theories and principles that should be applied, but these may need to be abandoned depending on the state of play. It is the player that focusses on the 20% component of skill that will have the edge. If a beginner focusses on the rolls of the dice, emotion and frustration will overcome their decision-making process and cloud their judgement.

Backgammon psychology is such that the beginner needs to distance themselves from the luck of the dice and focus on the strategic decision at hand. Luck fluctuates and swings during the course of most games. Indeed, it is possible for a player to have the luck of the dice over series of games. However, in the long run it will even out. The dice are not conscious, they are not self-aware, they are truly random. Accept that occasionally the luck will go against you, but the 20% component of skill will apply over the long term.

Gamesmanship

Certain players will attempt to employ gamesmanship during a game of backgammon, although it is not officially part of the etiquette of the game. This is often subtle and skilled practitioners will use this to gain a psychological advantage. Beginners may not even know that gamesmanship is being deviously applied. There is nothing wrong with gamesmanship, it is evident in most competitions and at times it can add to the entertainment. The objective of gamesmanship is to distract the mind away from the decision-making process and to allow emotion to influence your choices.

If you tend to play slowly don’t be intimidated by an opponent who rushes their moves. Take your time and play at your own pace. A useful process to avoid being rushed is to consider every checker for every roll, even when the move looks obvious. Attempt to play your routine moves with a steady rhythm. However, commit only when you feel satisfied that you have made the correct decision.

Tabula, Pompeii.

Frustration

Other opponents may try and frustrate you with slow play. These players will roll the dice and immediately play the number, but then retract the move and make another play elsewhere. Again, they will change their mind and make yet another move. This style of gamesmanship is designed to distract and frustrate. They are hoping you will get irritated and rush your own play in order to make up for lost time. If you encounter a slow player, you need to apply mental discipline and consider each move carefully and at your natural pace.

Some players like to talk and distract you by engaging in conversation or mocking your play. If this occurs you must remain calm and undistracted. Again, apply mental discipline and resist the urge to engage. If they talk, try not to listen, nor to fall into conversation. Concentrate on your game and ignore anything that intervenes.

The key to backgammon psychology is to focus on the 20% component of skill. That is the element of the game that you can control. The 80% of luck is out of your hand, but will even out over the long run. Accept that at times you will be the victim of outrageous streaks of luck, but other times you will be the beneficiary.

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