The On Line Backgammon Experience


By Robert Wachtel

In the early 1990s, when a few brave programmers started exploring the possibility of playing games of mixed skill and chance such as backgammon in the brave new universe of the internet (it was called the “world-wide web” back then), it would have taken a Nostradamus to anticipate the startling changes that the next few years would hold. Connections to other computers, unreliable and buggy, were made at dial-up speed. PCs had very little memory and limited processing power. We all had a peasant’s fear of sending our money out into the ether where it could be stolen or scammed from us.

Online Poker Phenomenal Growth

That all changed. People began to trust the net. We shopped, played, made friends online. And online poker became an overnight phenomenon, framed with huge exclamation marks when the exquisitely named Chris Moneymaker, everyman extraordinaire, went all the way from a $40 online satellite entry to victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker. As the new hole-card cameras made the game seem easy and obvious to the millions of spectators who gathered around TV sets to second guess the pros and wannabes, online poker boomed. Internet backgammon, however, lagged behind.

While Online Backgammon…

Part of the problem was that our game was less TV-friendly than poker. It was just the features of backgammon that we love — its complexity and subtlety – that made it difficult to present to the mass viewer. As television showered riches and notoriety on one game, it did almost nothing for the other.

There was also another, structural problem. Poker is a game easily played in groups. In the cyberspace provided by online poker sites, tables of players formed and filled at lightning speed. Ten at a table, nine, six … it didn’t matter. Everybody felt free to jump in, and there was rarely much of a wait if you wanted to play the game du jour, no-limit Texas hold ‘em.

Play Chouette Online?

Backgammon can be played in groups as well: but the form that it takes then, the chouette, is far more of a challenge to translate into the virtual arena than a simple poker table. When you are unable to speak in real time with the other participants, the consultation aspect of chouette play is impossible to implement: and when you are unable to observe the other players, the possibility of being dumped or colluded against makes the whole adventure too dangerous to embark upon.

Backgammon Sites & the Poker Model

Faced with these restrictions, online backgammon sites opted for an invitation model of game arrangement. Using this structure, future opponents learn each other’s identities and negotiate stakes and conditions of contest before agreeing to play one another. If you don’t want to play someone because they are too tough, or they want to play for more than you are comfortable with, or you want to play a three point match and they want to play to seven, the game just never happens. It is only in online backgammon tournaments that the poker model is in play: once you enter the tournament, your opponents are assigned to you.

The invitation model makes the process of getting action a much more intimate, but also more cumbersome and time-consuming business in backgammon than it is in poker. In the next article in this series, I will survey the pros and cons of the various invitation setups that different backgammon sites have adopted, and give you some hints as to how to use each to your advantage.

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