Whatever happened to backgammon?: Once highly fashionable, it deserves a revival, says Christopher Bray

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The Independent Culture
DO YOU remember backgammon? You couldn't walk into a club, pub or cafe in the late 1970s without tripping over a backgammon board or being disturbed by the rattle of dice. Famous personalities were often to be seen in fashionable locations avidly playing the game. Fortunes were won and lost as people played for ridiculously high stakes.

Backgammon was undergoing a huge surge in popularity and thousands of people took it up. Whatever happened to them all and what is the state of the game today?

The first question is easier to answer. Many games flourish for brief periods and reach unprecedented heights of popularity. Trivial Pursuit is one example. There is always a group of people who will play whatever is in vogue and then move on to the next fad, whatever that may be. Undoubtedly many people who played backgammon in the Seventies have not played a game since then. But backgammon has a stronger pedigree than Trivial Pursuit, which is probably a one-off wonder. The game has been around for thousands of years in one form or another and is likely to survive for many more years yet. The invention of the doubling cube by some unknown gamesman in America in the early part of this century has seen to that.

The second question is more difficult. With many games there are a number of factors which will determine whether they become firmly established or simply fade away when the craze has passed. Let's look at some of the criteria for a sucessful game in this modern era:

All really good games are easy to learn, relatively easy to learn to play well and it takes a lifetime to become truly adept.

For games of any complexity, there must be bibliography. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the game will die.

Clubs and tournaments. Without somewhere to play and like- minded people to play with, again there will be no development. The continued success of bridge is largely down to the huge numbers of clubs all over the country.

No game (or sport) can succeed today without media coverage and corporate sponsorship. You need only examine the rapid development of chess in this country since Fisher vs Spassky (the 1972 match) to understand the power of the media. The recent Short vs Kasparov match will undoubtedly lead to a further surge of interest in chess.

How does backgammon measure up against these criteria? The first is certainly met. Apparently a simple game to the uninitiated, the complexities of high-level backgammon are endless. It combines elements of psychology, mathematics and logical thinking. Luck is a factor in the short term due to the dice, but over a long session the best player, as in poker, will always win. Computers do not yet play a credible game of backgammon. This is a combination of the complexity of the programming and the lack of investment in this area.

Backgammon has made considerable progress against the second criterion in the last 20 years. In the 1970s the only books available were simple primers. There were no recorded matches or books on strategy and tactics. The first author to make real progess was the American genius Paul Magriel with his epic work Backgammon (currently out of print and changing hands at up to pounds 75 a copy). Many new authors have come on the scene and there is now a plethora of material to choose from - not, however, in the UK. In particular a lot of work has been done on the doubling cube, the least understood and most complex part of backgammon. There are also some very good magazines on the market. These emanate almost exclusively from America and Germany, the two strongest playing nations. The result of all of this is that the players of the 1990s are light years ahead of their counterparts of the 1970s in their understanding and playing of the game.

It may surprise many people that there is a major backgammon tournament most weeks of the year. There are two basic circuits, one in America and one in Europe. The two come together in July when the World Championships are held in Monte Carlo. Tournaments are mainly held in five-star hotels in the more pleasant locales of the world (a sharp contrast to our chess- playing brethren). The UK suffers from a lack of a significant tournament because of the fact that our strange gaming laws preclude the holding of a tournament (at least one with money involved) in a hotel. The British Championships have been held in the Isle of Man for many years and one year were even held in Spain] Similarly, while clubs flourish in America, Germany and Denmark, which provided both World Championship finalists last year, the UK is poorly served.

Sponsorship and media coverage were both available in the Seventies. The picture now is not so good. Most of the major tournaments can attract some sponsorship but there is not sufficient to raise backgammon back to the levels it enjoyed 20 years ago. To do that in this very commercial age will require media, and in particular television coverage. Videotaped matches have proved highly successful within the backgammon community for both their entertainment and educational value. As a TV game backgammon has extremely high potential. Compared with chess, it is easier to understand, moves at a more acceptable pace, has much more colourful personalities and the luck element that the dice bring means that there is always the possibility of an outrageous turnaround. What more could a TV producer ask for?

So where is backgammon going? As a game it has been around as long as (or longer than) chess and will undoubtedly survive as long. As for the present, in the United States and areas of Europe, particularly Germany and Denmark, it is on the increase, with tournament attendances rising. In the UK the game survives but is stagnant. A shot in the arm is required to bring our playing standards up to the levels of our European counterparts. We need to attract new players into the game and find a way to bring top-level tournament backgammon back to Britain.

Christopher Bray will write an occasional column on backgammon for the Miscellany page.