Informal Learning from Games: Backgammon – the Cruelest Game

Backgammon, older than chess, is about strategy. It is about seeing the board in the big picture, and again in quadrants, and also in the patterns of dice movements across the ever changing landscape for this battle of wits.

I took up Backgammon in the fall of 1975 when I got out of the Navy. I avoided it until I got out of the Navy although I had been reading about it being all the rage.

Best friend from HS and the frat house before my 3 years of service began, and now my new housemate, Jim English taught me, I mean, beat me. I mean he taught me by way of beating me. Time and again he beat me. Taught me.

It was a difficult way to learn.

Jim and I had a history of game competitiveness going back to 1968. Chess. Cards. Pong. The typical stuff back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

After being beaten by him now at this new Backgammon game over 90 out of 100 games, we had kept score of each and every game on the inside of the box top from our cheap Milton Bradley Backgammon board game, I knew I had to do something.

I went to my local library in Lawrence Kansas and checked out this book: Backgammon – the Cruelest Game. And that title resonated with me. And I read it in secret. Jim had loaned me a book, which I still have, but never liked it and I never read very far into it. This one was simple. And it was really working for me!

I completely turned my game around, to the chagrin of my teacher… who woke up to the new reality after being beaten 10 times in a row by me, his student. I told him about the book and even loaned it to him.

We immediately restarted our scoreboard and changed the bet.

Every point was a nickel and 100 nickels was an album of choice by the winner – to be paid within one week. You couldn’t win an album back, you could only win an album for yourself.

Someone – or both of us – were going to be expanding our library of music. We played in this manner from the fall of 1975 until the late summer of 1979 when I moved off to Saginaw and Jim later moved off to San Francisco. We just caught up again F2F when I was in his town for ISPI last April.

Three keys from the book without even looking at it for over 10 years:

1-     Learn those 1st moves for every possible dice toss. It’s good most of the time for the 1st move of your opponent too.

2-     Learn how to Bear Off. I’ve seen more games lost that should have been won, simply because the blots were taken off the board in an inefficient manner.

3-     Learn how to wait and come from behind. This is trickiest – but a needed skill. It involves combining the knowledge and insights from experience in the first 2 keys to help you learn how to best lurk and come in – when it’s your only chance.

The graphic above – yeah – that’s me in the dark and you in the white trying to Bear Off without me hitting you and sending you back to the beginning. See how I’ve offered you a Blot to hit? And then to leave yourself open? Which may be my only chance – which is why I’ve let myself get into this particular position in your home court. Making it difficult for you to Bear Off. Which wasn’t my initial plan. But it’s where the rolls of the dice – mine and yours – have taken me.

I’ve bought the book 3 times over the years, as two loaners were never returned. One was loaned to a client at Alcoa who had been intrigued by my story. I saw her at an ASTD conference years ago – and then she immediately remembered not sending me the book all those years ago – and then she didn’t send it again.

But it’s OK. I quietly understand.

The current copy in my possession does not get loaned out … ever.

Especially not if you’d like to play someday.

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