Ides of March Cambridge Invitational Tournament - March 2014

by Jason Pack
9 May 2014

Sean Williams

Introduction by Jason Pack

The history of backgammon as a social and intellectual pastime is littered with innovations, and yet in the 21st century, we tend to think that there are only three standard formats of the game -- heads-up cash games, matches, and chouette -- and that these forms are set in stone and unlikely to evolve or be surpassed. Some Western backgammon players feel that all other forms of the game are distinctly inferior and not worthy of serious study. In reality, backgammon (even with its fixed checker play rules since the 18th century) is amenable to an infinite number of variants, many of which have a special social or intellectual appeal such as the Middle Eastern practice of five point cubeless matches or the 1950s practice of cubeful match play without the Crawford rule, etc.

It is worth remembering that the doubling cube was invented by happenstance around 1926 and quickly caught on as it added an extra element of excitement and a novel field for skill and contemplation. Similarly, the idea of modifying heads-up cash backgammon games into match backgammon only evolved as a way to allow tournament play. Match backgammon has since caught on outside of tournaments, because many players find it more fascinating and dynamic than cash game sessions.

In the past few decades, the knockout tournament format, with progressive consolation rounds and a last chance, all consisting of matches of odd-number of points (i.e. 7 or 11 or 17 pointers) has achieved a near-hegemonic status within the backgammon world, but it is far from the only conceivable tournament format. In fact, some of the best and most respected tournaments in the world use other formats. Partisans of Swiss tournaments (e.g Chicago Open) or double elimination tournaments (e.g. Nordic) will say that those formats are not only more enjoyable but are more likely to favor skill, while being conducive to all attendees having fun and getting in as many meaningful matches as possible. Sadly, although Chicago and Nordic are universally respected few tournament directors are willing to apply their spirit of innovation to their own tournaments.

Having experimented with many possible tournament formats, I believe a round robin format of different match lengths -- especially stressing even-numbered match lengths -- can be particularly enjoyable, while also rewarding a deeper understanding of match score dynamics and human psychology. This format certainly has its draw backs as it is time consuming, is best suited for smaller more "intimate" events, and requires having a suitable number of participants. Nonetheless, it maximizes the amount of backgammon played by all the participants and promotes the social aspect of the game by assuring that all participants play with and get to meet each other. Although it is impossible to declare one tournament format as the ideal, having now hosted a round robin tournament of different match lengths, I can say fairly definitively that it promoted the psychological and intellectual challenges that we all relish in backgammon.

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