Backgammon may not have the cachet of poker but online gaming firms believe it will be the next big thing, not least because it is a game of skill and unlikely to fall foul of American regulators.
One of the oldest games in the world – it was invented in Mesopotamia in 5,000 BC – was slow to set up shop in the online market but has shown growth to match that of poker in its early years.
Play65, the Cyprus-based market leader, has 500,000 registered users after less than a year’s trading, and predicts the online backgammon market will be between 70 per cent and 80 per cent the size of the poker market in by 2009.
An ambitious target, perhaps, but the big beasts of online gaming are ready to throw their weight behind the game. Backgammon is strongly rumoured to be one of two new games PartyGaming, the world’s biggest internet poker operator, will launch this year.
Mati Gross of tc.ads, the marketing arm of Play65, says stiffer competition will take backgammon to a new level. “The more companies get into it, the more money will be spent on advertising and promotion, and the higher the game’s profile will be. Online backgammon will take off.”
The game’s popularity in Arab and Mediterranean countries, which have yet to succumb to the internet poker revolution, is a major selling point. But can the coffee house players of Istanbul be dragged onto the internet and persuaded to open up their wallets?
David McDowell of GameAccount, the UK’s largest skill game operator, says: “Five years ago poker was a game played in garages and basements but people soon flocked to play the game online.”
He predicts backgammon will become the “New Poker” and says internet gambling firms are beating down his door to help them tap in to foreign markets.
Peter Dubens, the chairman of Ukbetting, one of the first gambling websites in the UK to offer backgammon, is similarly bullish. He says: “The more broadband internet expands across the world the more the online game will grow. It has great potential.”
Backgammon’s strong skill element also allows it to evade the regulatory pressures that have hampered the growth of online poker in the US. Though gaming regulations on the other side of the Atlantic are notoriously ill-defined, backgammon is widely considered to fall just the right side of the chance-luck divide, making it easier for online firms to promote their sites and process payments.
This summer the game’s profile will be raised by the first televised $1m backgammon championship, raising the profile of backgammon even more.