by Jake Jacobs
10 May 2015
Once upon a time, when the world was young and innocent, and the gods had not wrathfully loosed bots upon the world, backgammon players would sometimes play props (short for "propositions"). Even without the cold judgment of Snowie or XG, players had some sense of the game's pecking order. Anyone might take a chance in a chou, each thinking that while one or two players were sharks, he himself was at least a barracuda, ready to prey upon the smaller fish. But heads up against a top player? Not without something to even the odds.
The opening roll perhaps, a 31 for a true mismatch, maybe a 61 if the players were closer. Or money odds, which trimmed more than a few overconfident pros. The way those worked was one player would spot the other say $1.10 to a dollar. If they played for $10 a point, and the stronger player won a doubled gammon he'd collect $40, but if the weaker player won it, he'd be collecting $44.00. I heard about spots ranging from $1.05 to $1.40. It doesn't sound like much but the points add up if the spot is figured every game, instead of on the session. One of the most common spots, because it was so simple, was to spot the other player the cube.
A few weeks ago, the day after the Vegas tournament, two players revived that prop.
Mochy Mochizuki and Phil Simborg have both been tireless promoters of backgammon for the past decade. Mochy has used his high profile as a World Champion and #1 Giant to introduce the game to Japanese players, and to introduce the world to Japan's players. One of his projects is called U25, for "Under 25," with the aim of teaching young players the game. His playing the prop was in part designed to raise funding for this project. (If you would like more information contact Mochy at: firstname.lastname@example.org) Phil has been even more active than Mochy, teaching, lecturing, and serving until recently on the board of the US Backgammon Federation, and on its Education Committee. They played the prop as a novel way to raise backgammon's profile. They had a bit of money riding as well. (How much isn't known, but there were backers jumping in on both sides.)
The agreement was that Phil would start each game with the cube, gammons and backgammons activated. The match would be clocked, with two minutes per game, a 12-second delay, and 3 seconds per move added to the reserve. In other words, if you played your first three moves in less than 12-seconds each time, you would have 2:09 in reserve. Run out of time and you would lose two points, while getting 30 seconds added to your reserve. Finally, the match would last for thirty games, so that each player would get to play each of the fifteen unique opening rolls once; Mochy started the first game with 12, Phil the next game with 12, Mochy the third game with 13, etc.
The match was live-streamed, with color commentary provided by Carter Mattig and Falafel, among others. Half a world and half a day away, I didn't see the live match, but the "Mochy vs Simborg Duel" is posted on YouTube. The match file is available to download from Stick Rice's site, BG Online.
One of the inspirations for the match was this fundamental question: how much is cube ownership worth? There are various units used to measure skill difference. The number of points won or lost is the traditional measure; the modified Elo rating is another, in use for the past twenty-five years; and PR ratings provided by bots are a third. The consensus is that a 1.0 PR difference is equivalent to 30 Elo rating points, and that cube ownership might be worth 3.0 PR. Both PR ratings and Elo ratings are moving targets, but Mochy's PR is estimated at 3.0, and Phil's at 6.0. If we grant all of those assumptions, then the match was even. Was it? Let's see.
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