Backgammon and Technology – Part 1


In this series of articles we are going to be looking at how you can improve your backgammon game utilising moderen technology. In order to achieve this we shall take a quick look at the history of the game and then see how our backgammon skills and strategy have developed over te ages.

The history of backgammon

Backgammon has been arround for some 5,000 years and in the first 4900 years the rate of development and learning was incredibly slow. In the initial period people could only learn from each other by word of mouth and the skill level of the layers was likely the same for many hundreds of years.

Backgammon shows up in art and literature throughout the ages and is mentioned by Chaucer and by Shakespeare. With the arrival of the printing press one would have expected an enormous increase in the development of the game but unlike chess which gained its own bibliography early, backgammon manuals were not published.

Backgammon does appear in Hoyle but no matter how good one book was not going to change the status quo much. The around the middle of the 1920’s backgammon was changed forever with the introduction of the doubling cube. Thousands of people ‘discovered’ the game and the clubs of New York and Boston were full of backgammon players. All of a sudden there was a backgammon author in everyone as people tried to cash in on the everyone rushed to publish a book on the game in an effort to cash in on the new craze.

Then the Wall Street Crash took place and the popularity of backgammon plummeted, as a result the game practically dissapeared.

It was thanks to the effort of Prince Alexis Obolensky who created the international backgammon circuit in 1964 that backgammon made a remarkable recovery. Backgammon was hot, there was plenty of money around and backgammon enjoyed a second ‘Boom’ period.

As with the first boom back in the 20’s a host of backgammon books were published of which a large number were dubious in quality.

Around this time a number of young and clever people , including ex chess players took an interest in the game and started to develop backgammon theory as we know it today. The doubling cube was analysed for the 1st time since its introduction in the 1920’s and all this resulted in what would be known as the bible of the game “Backgammon” authored by Paul Magriel..

When the practice of recording games and analysing them was introduced by Kent Goulding backgammon took another giant leap forward.

Computers and Backgammon

As the quality of the literature increased along with our understanding of the game a new problem was encountered. What was the right play in any given position. Until the use of the computer we relied on the experts opinion but who was to say that the experts were right ?.

The same bright people that joined in the 70’s then came up with the notion of roll outs. This simply meant taking a position and playing the game to conclusion with every possible roll of the dice enough times in order to see what would be the right play at any given time.

This was a definite improvement the only problem being that there was no time to practice the thousands of rollouts required to get an accurate statistical result.

And that was when the PC made its entrance. Until then there was some experimentation with running backgammon software on a main frame computer but that met with limited success.

Thirteen years later the computer program “Expert Backgammon” made its first appearance. Not only could you play against the computer but more importantly you could practice rollouts. Simply give it a position tell it to play it your chosen move(s) hundreds of times and all the hard work was being done while you slept.

This software was based on the same theory as many chess programs that were available at the time. Pick position, analyse all possible future moves, calculate and select the best one depending on the algorithm that was used.

Whilst this did create some ok results, there was a problem due to the fact that after a couple of moves in backgammon, the number of variations gets to be so big that the most powerful computers are unable to look ahead far enough in a normal time frame, to calculate the optimal move.

Neural Networks

It was IBM scientist Gerry Tesauro who used backgammon to test his attempt to create a computer that would model the human brain in the way it worked. The idea was to give the computer information about a problem and then let it work out for itself the solution instead of telling the computer how to solve something using directions.

He created “TD Gammon” which was taught backgammon rules and then told to calculate the best backgammon strategy and tactics. It then proceeded to play itself 500,000 times and produced a result which was truly fascinating. Basically some of the plays that had been standard for centuries turned out to be completely wrong. TD Gammon held its own against the best players of the day and backgammon was changed forever.


This article gives us the relevant historical information. In the rest of the series we shall be taking a looking at how you can use the technology to increase your skill level and enjoyment of this game.