By Robert Wachtel
The neural network programs, when they arrived on the backgammon scene in the mid 1990s, were great equalizers. Talent and experience became almost irrelevant overnight, and all of a sudden anyone could unlock the secrets of the most complex and difficult positions and study the game systematically, as if from a school book. Players quickly found out that the bots’ evaluations (their “first look” or impressions) of positions were not always accurate; but there was a simple solution to that problem too: just stick the positions into your computer, set it up to do thousands of rollouts of each, and go to sleep! There, in the morning, were your answers.
A new breed of backgammon player, mostly German or Scandinavian, appeared on the scene within a couple of years. Cold, analytical, young and purely bot-taught, these players efficiently scooped up information, organized it, and began winning backgammon tournaments.
“Players began bringing their laptops to tournaments”
Things did not go so well for many of the “world class players” of the previous generation. They were revealed as quite weak — and almost unteachable. Some fell into denial, and spent the time they should have devoted to relearning their craft cursing the computers and mourning the passing of genius; but even the old dogs who tried to adapt had trouble releasing themselves from the bad habits of a lifetime. They had spent their formative years developing misconceptions, flawed rules of thumb, and getting away with inaccuracies that their opponents never punished. Now, as the general level of play rose, they sank.
Bots Killed Money Action Too
Not only did the bots kill the older generation, they killed most of the money action as well — not so much because the weaker players improved (though that did happen) but because those players finally realized how bad they were. For years, they had deceived themselves, guessing that they were at about the same level as the players to whom they lost consistently: but when the bots told them that they played with an error rate of 12 against opponents with error rate 3, even the most stubborn of them began to feel ashamed of their own excuses.
Proposition play, once the forte of the backgammon elite, also went moribund. Those magical times when you could watch a captivating clash of ideas as two brilliant players with opposite opinions tested their beliefs for days on end vanished. Players began bringing their laptops to tournaments: and all it took was one quick glance at the computer to tell you whether or not you whether you should keep playing the prop or quit.
And Backgammon Books
The bots also made a bit of a joke out of the business of writing backgammon books. In the pre-bot era, only the strongest players (or the best mathematicians) would dare to put their necks on the chopping block by claiming to understand a few positions which they had exhaustively studied; but now very ordinary or even weak players began writing authoritative-looking books. These books often consisted of nothing more than a bunch of random positions that the author had bot-analyzed; not particularly interesting or instructive, but always certifiably “correct”!
Cheating with Bots in Online Backgammon
The development of the bots had a chilling effect as well upon online backgammon, which was launched on various servers at around the same time. Immediately a new and ugly specter rose to haunt the game: cheating with bots. Except for the time and effort involved in practicing the skill, there was nothing to prevent a player from running one of his bot programs on the same computer he was using to play online, and inputting the game moves into it to play nearly perfect backgammon.
Automatic bots were developed as well, though the better players were usually able to avoid these; for, like bad poker players, they had lots of tells: they never chatted, never moved immediately, always asked for rematches, and so on. But the bad players, for years, were eaten alive by the automatic bots and humans using bots. That has begun to change now: at least on a few of the leading backgammon sites are working to eliminate bots and level the playing field again.