By Robert Wachtel
I got off to a better start in the consulting doubles event of the first Mallorca Backgammon Challenge, where I had cleverly chosen as a partner the fine German player Juergen Orlowski. There were only eight teams entered, so it was a matter of only two matches until we found ourselves in the final. Our opponents were two convivial Monte Carlo World Backgammon Championship finalists: Mario Sequiera of Portugal (2007) and Ricardo Malas of Spain (2010).
Controversy follows Mario wherever he goes; and this small island was no refuge from it. He has the habit (completely legal, according to the official rules of backgammon) of shuffling his checkers back and forth when he rolls an awkward number, trying different plays then placing the pieces back in their original positions. Except that they don’t always go back to the original. In his 2008 Monte Carlo final match against Lars Trabolt, he rolled a 6-6 and played five sixes when trying to run off the gammon. He also played an opening 5-3 as a 4-2.
Yet these “mistakes” occur quite often, even at the highest levels, when a shuffler is allowed to do his thing. Mario’s 2008 coups were an echo of those which occurred in the 2007 Monte Carlo final match, when Brazilian Alvaro Savio faced Argentinian Jorge Pan. Playing in a private room with a closed-circuit feed going out to a huge audience, Savio rolled an imperfect 6-3; and after a few minutes of trying various plays and attempting to replace the checkers back in more advantageous positions (and having his opponent repeatedly correct him), he at last transformed the ugly 6-3 into a beautiful 5-3. So rapidly and smoothly was the final rearrangement of the pieces done that both Pan and a referee overseeing the game missed the trick! The audience in the TV room howled to no avail; and it was only by a miracle that his opponent won the game and the event.
The better to avoid such accidents, it makes complete sense to record a match against checker-shifters like Mario as it happens. That way, if any question about the legality of a play arises, you can simply “go to the tape” to resolve it. And so I was happy to learn from my doubles partner that he had discovered that, by mounting a webcam on his notebook computer, he was able to make perfectly clear videos of the action on the backgammon board during his matches.
The only problem was that Mario objected to our using this equipment; and surprisingly, he found some traction for his case. Since time immemorial, the rules of backgammon have always prohibited players from using “mechanical aids” (such as calculators or computers) at the playing table. Mario insisted that it was “perhaps very likely” that Juergen’s webcam was not such an aid, but that he “could not be sure” that we would not use it to cheat him. “It’s only a camera,” we moaned, but Mario was adamant; and unfortunately Mr. Tafazzoli, the tournament director, thought his own rule ambiguous enough to admit that Mario had a point. Eventually we were obliged to hand-record the match (very distracting), though Mario sportingly offered us some extra time on our clock to do so. In my opinion, there should be a very clear provision in the rules allowing players to video their matches. Ideally (with the proper budget I suppose) this task should be performed for the players by the organizer himself.
The key game of our 9-point final match against Sequiera and Malas was the sixth one. We were down 2-3 when they shipped us a very early cube.