Recommended Backgammon books, by Chris Bray
Backgammon does not benefit from the same magnificent bibliography as chess. One of the reasons for this is that nobody thought of writing down the moves of a backgammon match until 1973, about 300 years after the first recorded chess game!
Backgammon does appear in books before the start of the twentieth century, but rarely. The most obvious exception to this is “Hoyles Games”, where it dutifully takes its position along with other games, but the detail is poor.
In 1844 George Frederick Pardon commented in his book “Backgammon”:
“Backgammon has always been a fire-side, a domestic, a conjugal game; it is not so abstruse as to banish conversation on general topics; it does not like chess, or love, or art, or science, require the entire man, whilst the ever-recurring rattle of the dice keeps the ear alert and the attention alive; it has often been found an anodyne to the gout, the rheumatism, the azure devils, or the ‘yellow spleen’.”
Hopefully we have developed our understanding of the game just a little since then.
In 1925 or 1926 the doubling cube and chouettes entered the game and all books published prior to those dates became obsolete overnight. That’s not to say that the doubling cube was immediately understood. Witness this statement from Georges Mabardi’s “Backgammon to Win” – the premier book of the early 1930’s:
“If two absolutely perfect players engaged in a match, there would never be an accepted double.”
Close, but no cigar!!
There was a flurry of backgammon books in the 1930’s but between 1939 and the early 1960’s the dice cups went silent and quills were downed as the word dealt with more serious matters.
Then in the mid-1960’s Prince Alexis Obolensky conceived the idea of international backgammon tournaments and the second great backgammon boom began. From 1970 onwards the presses started to roll again and there was no shortage of material. The problem came in sorting the wheat from the chaff.
In fact, one of the first books of that era, “The Backgammon Book” by Jacoby and Crawford was one of the best. It clearly and concisely laid out how to play as well as including a superb history of the game.
In 1976 Paul Magriel, then the best player in the world (he’s still in the top twenty), published the definitive book on the game. Simply entitled “Backgammon” its elucidation of the fundamental principles of the game has never been bettered and it has recently been reissued (with a fascinating profile of the author included). It is a book that should be in every serious player’s library.
Of course there was some dross as well. If you ever come across “Backgammon for Blood” by Bruce Becker or “Dynamic Cube Strategy” by Horowitz and Roman then tread very carefully indeed.
From the mid-1970’s onwards at least some games were recorded and Kent Goulding broke new ground by publishing books of recorded matches between top players. These were entitled “Backgammon with the Champions” and were a huge hit. Other theoreticians were also getting in on the act, the most notable being Danny Kleinman and Bill Robertie.
The theory of backgammon, despite being nearly 5000 years old, was really in its infancy. Magriel, Goulding, Kleinman and Robertie developed that theory in quantum leaps and the master of the 1980’s was already way ahead of his 1960’s counterpart.
And then in the 1990’s came computers and again the theory of the game underwent fundamental changes. If the computers were to be believed, and especially those computers based on neural nets, then much of what was accepted theory was in fact bunkum!
This lead to a plethora of new books to accommodate these latest changes and to interpret the computer rollouts. It was now possible, using advanced rollout techniques, to determine the correct move in any given position with a reasonable degree of certainty.
The advent of the computer era led to books such as “New Ideas in Backgammon” by Kit Woolsey and Hal Heinrich and “Modern Backgammon” by Robertie. Kit Woolsey also demystified the complexities of match play with his brilliant monograph: “How to Play Tournament Backgammon.”
It was also time to re-examine the classics of yesteryear using computer programs such as Snowie and gnubg. Jeremy Bagai did this superbly in his “Classic Backgammon Revisited”. Bagai’s analyis proved that one of the supposed classics of the past, “Paradoxes and Probabilities” by Barclay Cooke, was only 50% correct! This is not to denigrate Cooke, he was only working with the knowledge of his era, but it does show how much the theory of the game has evolved in the last 30 years.
There have been relatively few backgammon books published in the last few years but those that have appeared have been worth waiting for.
These include Chris Bray’s (the backgammon correspondent for The Independent newspaper in the UK) two anthologies of his articles, “What Colour is the Wind?” and “Second Wind”, “Backgammon Boot Camp” by Walter Trice, Marty Storer’s superb two-volume set, “Backgammon Praxis” and finally “The Backgammon Encyclopaedia – Volume 1” by Kit Woolsey which is one of the very few books dedicated to the topic of the doubling cube.
The quality is rising and future books can only add to our store of knowledge on the world’s most fascinating game.
Recommended Backgammon Reading
There are many backgammon books available, what follows is a list of essential reading. Study these and you will truly become a much better player:
- “Backgammon” by Paul Magriel
- “Advanced Backgammon – Volumes 1 & 2” by Bill Robertie
- “Modern Backgammon” by Bill Robertie
- “Classic Backgammon Revisited” by Jeremy Bagai
- “New Ideas in Backgammon” by Kit Woolsey & Hal Heinrich
- “The Backgammon Encyclopaedia – Volume 1” by Kit Woolsey
- “How to Play Tournament Backgammon” by Kit Woolsey
- “Backgammon Boot Camp” by Walter Trice
- “The Doubling Cube in Backgammon – Volume 1” by Dr. Jeff Ward
- “Vision Laughs at Counting with Advice to the Dicelorn” by Danny Kleinman
- “The Backgammon Book” (extended version) by Oswald Jacoby & John Crawford
- “Backgammon Praxis” by Marty Storer
- “What Colour is the Wind?” by Chris Bray
- “Second Wind” by Chris Bray
- You can find more Backgammon reviews here.