By Robert Wachtel
In the pre-computer era, everything about backgammon was difficult and confusing. But with the opportunities to make money were fabulous.
When I learned to play, in the late 1970s, the international backgammon circuit, which spanned jet-set watering holes throughout Europe and the Caribbean, was populated by a moveable menagerie of poseurs and egomaniacs. Very few players thought of backgammon as a mathematical game or even as one about which you could learn through experience. Cults of personality, rather, were the norm: a few self-proclaimed world-class experts, accompanied by a reverent entourage, would occasionally deign to pronounce on a position. Opinions that deviated from their dogmas were invariably met with scorn. You were jeered at if you made the ace point early in the game, and most everyone dropped the most trivial takes. To do otherwise was to associate yourself with the sick gamblers and steamers -- the ones from whom the polished, supercilious pros made all their money.
The enlightenment that would conquer this medieval mentality began taking shape at the legendary Mayfair Club in New York City. Paul Magriel, math professor and chess expert, led the way. Magriel was one of the first to recognize that a huge impediment to learning backgammon lay in the difficulty involved in gathering sufficient quantities of statistical data. His solution: play thousands of games, and observe the results when different choices were made for key moves. Rather than go through the logistics of seeking out practice partners, Magriel simplified his research project by setting up tournaments in which he played himself! One such tournament drew 64 Magriel entrants. The winner was Magriel #22 B and ever since Magriel has been known by the nickname X-22.
The idea of testing moves one against another through repetitive play B what is now known as a rollout B followed quickly. But doing rollouts by hand was a lonely and time-consuming affair. Only a few players had the determination and patience to sit at home and set up the same position over and over, roll the dice, and play it out to a conclusion while everyone else was out having fun. But the knowledge they acquired by this exercise was invaluable.
As an example, consider this episode of backgammon history. Back in the early days, when everybody passed everything, all of the good players would drop in positions like this when Black doubled: