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Backgammon Corner

Backgammon and Poker: An Alternate Perspective

by Thor Henrykson |  Published: Dec 01, 2006

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Many of us have played no-limit hold'em poker, and many of us also have played backgammon. After playing both games, it quickly becomes evident that although very different, both of these games have an undeniable similarity and feel to them. The more you play, the more it seems that you are really playing the same game, and only the vehicles for playing those games (board game versus card game) are different. However, the basic premise of navigating randomness more effectively than your opponent is the common language of the two games. Confused? Let's see if we can eliminate your confusion. We will start by examining what I call the Game Vehicles: a backgammon set and a standard card deck.

In backgammon, there exists an undeniable organic nature. It has been argued that the playing board, composed of 24 triangles, represents 12 months of the year, one year for each player. The alternating colors of the triangles (dark and light) represent day and night. The sum total of the 24 triangles represents the 24 hours in a day. The 30 checkers (15 for each player) represent 30 days of a month. And the dice, with opposing sides always adding up to 7, represent the seven days of a week. Given the ancient roots of the game, and the ancients' obsession with the passage of time, it is no surprise that a backgammon set is basically a calendar.

Backgammon shares this interesting and ancient symbolism with a standard deck of playing cards. Here again, it can be argued that a typical deck of playing cards is also an ancient form of a calendar. How? Well, let's examine our typical deck of cards, composed of 52 cards plus a joker. There are four suits, which represent the four seasons of the year. There are 13 cards per suit, which represent the 13 phases of the lunar cycle. The two colors of the four suits represent night (black) and day (red). Finally, the combined value of all of the 52 cards (plus one joker) represents the 365 days of the year. To arrive at this number, add the values of all of the cards, with the ace equaling 1 point, the jack equaling 11 points, the queen equaling 12 points, the king equaling 13 points, and the joker equaling 1 point [(91x4) + 1 = 365]. When viewed in this way, it is clear that like backgammon, playing cards are basically a calendar.

So, we now have two gaming vehicles that are different in appearance but similar in their symbolic representation of the same thing: a solar calendar. Calendars mark the passage of time, often subdivided by seasons that differentiate themselves mainly by weather patterns. Although these weather patterns are predictable when viewed in a larger time frame (seasons), it often is impossible to predict short-term (daily or weekly) weather patterns that wreak unexpected havoc. Let's call these unpredictable weather patterns the Random Factor. This Random Factor is inherent in nature, and successfully navigating it has been a challenge for people since the beginning of time.

This Random Factor is also what drives our two Game Vehicles, although it is expressed by different means. In backgammon, the roll of the two dice and their numerical outcome provide the randomness that you, the player, must manage to your advantage. In no-limit hold'em poker, shuffling and receiving two random cards and seeing a random flop express the Random Factor. Here again, you as the player must navigate the random circumstance bestowed upon you by chance more successfully than your opponent. Although there is a finite set of outcomes for both dice rolls and no-limit hold'em starting hands (as wide as the seasons are long), it is quite difficult to deduce or manage the short-term outcomes (putting people on hands in poker, and deciding which moves are best for your relative position in backgammon). The player who can best manage these short-term random events will, in the long run, be the winning player. Historically, those civilizations that were most adept at managing short-term random events (droughts, floods, and so on) were the ones that survived (won).

Now, what makes backgammon and no-limit hold'em poker truly magnificent games is one additional and very important factor that negates many of the constraints of the Game Vehicles and the Random Factor. Let's call this Factor X. In backgammon, it is the doubling cube, and in no-limit hold'em poker, the all-in bet. In effect, Factor X allows a player to raise the stakes of the game to the point where the potential outcome becomes unfavorable to the other player and forces him to capitulate. The skillful use of Factor X is oftentimes the edge that separates a winning player from a losing player. It also adds the elements of excitement and intensity that are unrivaled in other games. If you want to master these two great games, you must master Factor X.

Although it sounds somewhat crazy, this alternate perspective on backgammon and no-limit hold'em poker will really help you gain a better understanding of what is truly going on when the game is on. May fortune smile upon you, but if she doesn't, you'll know what to do. spade

E-mail Thor at: henrykson@gmail.com.