Monday, December 2, 2019

The Backgammon Chronicles: A Pro's Adventures on Tour Volume 2

When I was attending college in the early eighties, I was very much involved in playing darts, ping pong, and backgammon. This may surprise many learning this about me, but I made extra money by betting on backgammon. I felt fortunate that my father was an experienced player and taught me everything I needed to learn about the game and how to bet. After I graduated, I no longer bet on my skill with the game, but turned to it for fun with my family and friends. This brings me to my next author, Robert Wachtel, and his book "The Backgammon Chronicles: A Pro's Adventures on Tour Volume 2 which was published on November 8, 2019. It is an interesting tale and worth reading.


The Backgammon Chronicles: A Pro’s Adventures on Tour is a lush, two-volume, full-color cornucopia of gambling stories, character sketches, historical essays and tournament drama that takes the reader on an insider’s odyssey through backgammon’s last whirlwind decade––with its author, one of the game’s elite competitors, as guide. Introducing you to the game’s stars even as he narrates his clashes with them in a score of exotic venues, Robert Wachtel frames the action against an overview of the events and crises that have defined contemporary backgammon: the advent of the artificial-intelligence programs and their virtual extinction of the game’s traditional role as a gambling recreation; the ecstatic birth and untimely death of online play; the burst of investment and enthusiasm brought to the game by the poker boom; and current trends: the outreach of Western backgammon culture back towards the game’s birthplace, the Middle East; and the efforts of the federations of the major nations to establish a viable global community

This volume rejoins the backgammon epic in mid-2011, just as its carnival years were winding down. The projects of online money backgammon and television series on the poker model were failing; and with their demise a new landscape came in to view: drawn in deeper hues, it revealed a backgammon geography with centers of power in Japan, Denmark, Turkey and the United States and a re-imagination of the game itself––from its traditional role as a gambling recreation to that of a true mind sport––with a player’s excellence no longer judged by his “earn” but by the rating assigned him by artificial-intelligence programs (“bots”) that were stronger than any human. A hustler no longer, the hero of the second decade of the 21st century emerged as a dedicated statistical scientist, training with the same AI that would judge him in his noble quest for backgammon truth.
This fresh paradigm led to the staging of several exceptional events, the most eminent of which was an annual team match that pitted Denmark against “the rest of the world.” This might sound like an unfair contest, but it was hardly so, for that small Scandinavian nation was undoubtedly (for reasons carefully explained in Chronicles) by far the world’s strongest. The author made the World team four times, in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, and did his best to record not only the decisions that were eventually made by the teams but also the passionate debates that led to them. Disciples of the analysis programs that these masters of the game may have been, they were far from robotic themselves––and this volume faithfully reproduces some of the fascinating ground-zero interplay, under terrific pressure, of visceral emotion and brilliant intelligence. To further emphasize the players’ humanity: when at last they could not agree with one another, they frequently relieved the tension with bets!
The author followed the tour as it continued with new sponsors and destinations. His travels took him to Gibraltar, the legendary British fortress at the southern tip of Spain that has lately become a gaming and offshore banking haven; to the exotic Black-Sea republic of Georgia, where, as in most Middle-Eastern countries, backgammon is the national game, played by everyone––young, old, rich, poor, male and female; and to North Cyprus, which nowadays is to nearby Islamic lands something like what Cuba used to be to the USA: an offshore refuge for gamblers whose preferred recreations are prohibited at home. And the island’s casinos treat their customers as Vegas did theirs 40 years ago: with cheap rooms, 24-hour buffets, and open bars where the free alcohol never stops flowing. The weather is fine, so it’s no surprise that the turnout for Cyprus is always huge. Full disclosure: though contrary to the author’s principles, this volume contains a baklava food-porn photo (there are about 15 varieties on offer every day, all day long).
The Backgammon Chronicles: A Pro's Adventures on Tour Volume 2 Paperback
by Robert Wachtel  (Author)
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in New York City but grew up in New Jersey when my parents migrated to one of the suburban housing developments that sprang up there in the 1950s. My dad was a research chemist, and with no real sense of career direction, that is what I studied too. I graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in chemistry -- a most demanding and restrictive curriculum, but when I was finally allowed to take an elective in my senior year, I chose an introductory philosophy course. I discovered not only that I was good at it but also that it entailed infinitely less drudgery than the hard science I had been wrestling with during school.
That insight put me off to the races. I got a scholarship to the University of Toronto and eventually earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of science. However, in the end, the experience was not rewarding. The star of our department was a clever, ambitious young logician and a prolific publisher -- a hot commodity at conferences and colloquia. I was at a loss for a thesis topic until I became aware that he was a "scientific anti-realist" and one who believed that science was just a contemporary myth, deserving no greater status than a billion other conceptual structures that earlier civilizations had invented to explain the world. I took umbrage and boldly asked him if I could organize my thesis around his writings.
To my delight, he accepted; and in the fullness of time (3 more years), he and the rest of my examiners accepted my thesis. The problem was that I was sure that I had refuted him. I expected him to admit as much; but to my dismay, he was utterly uninterested in my efforts! To him, I had merely fulfilled a professional requirement. He wished me well and hoped I would get a comfortable position at a nice university.
Disillusioned, I sought at the local chess club the satisfaction the professor had denied me. I had been a promising player in high school, achieving a master rank and placing 2nd a couple of times in the US Junior Championships. One day I saw something new at the club. None of us knew anything about backgammon, but I was instantly fascinated with it––and because I realized right away that it was a game of skill (with some luck to hide that truth) I began to receive from it the justice (albeit in the crass form of money) that I craved.
I became a professional gambler. Backgammon was always my mainstay; but I played poker, blackjack, and even baccarat in casinos, always with an edge; I learned the business of sports betting and worked for five years as an options trader on the Philadelphia stock exchange, winning and losing life-changing sums.
In the late 1990s, I began connecting with the left side of my brain. Through some chance acquaintances, I gained access to sources of provocative information relating to the bitter, surpassingly nasty squabble surrounding the will of the heiress Doris Duke, celebrated as the “richest girl in the world” in her heyday. Duke died in 1993 in Los Angeles, leaving a number of avaricious bottom feeders yearning for a piece of her fortune. I knew some of them, and spent years playing detective and unraveling their lies and machinations. The result was my 2003 book, An Overdose of Greed. (Duke was alleged to have died through a deliberate overdose of morphine ordered by her Irish butler, Bernard Lafferty). I did not quite succeed in getting it published at the time, but in researching it for so long I had acquired a taste for lucid non-fiction.
While continuing to play backgammon on tour (mostly in Europe) I wrote two technical backgammon books: In the Game Until the End (1993) and In the Game Until the End Volume II (2014) but also more than 40 magazine and website articles about the gambling underworld and the thriving economy I knew well. In addition I worked from 2010 through 2018 as the copy editor of PrimeTime Backgammon, the United States Backgammon Federation’s flagship magazine I’ve spent the last three years composing my two-volume current offering, The Backgammon Chronicles: A Pro’s Adventures on Tour.
What inspired you to write the book?
The game of backgammon has beguiled players of many lands and cultures for more than three millennia. Its unique luck/skill structure, combined with the more recent addition of the doubling cube, generates breathtaking accidents, outrageous turnabouts, and amazing escapes. Its mastery demands preternatural calm: the ability, while buffeted by those hurricanes of chance, to serenely pursue deep strategies and execute a myriad of tactical improvisations.
One would expect a sport this vivid and dramatic to have generated a great library of lore. Like that of other beloved competitions––baseball, soccer, chess, poker, football, tennis– -- its literature should paint indelible portraits of its heroes and rogues; contain collections, with generations of commentary, of its immortal battles; include passionate debates over its ethics and rules; and most of all, tell us stories. It is stories that teach people the history and spirit of a sport, and that make fans of them for life, whether they are destined to become competitors themselves or remain mere bleacher bums.
But the literature of backgammon, since the bad old days of the 70s, when a few of the game’s polished hustlers offered the public a peek into their demimonde, has mostly consisted of a Spartan diet of manuals, quiz sets, and textbooks. Despite the best intentions of federations and organizers, the scene has grown ever less welcoming to the amateur, the newcomer.
As one of the backgammon’s top players, this long-standing narrative deficit has always troubled me. After years of touring, traveling, and gambling, I had a hundred stories to tell--not just of my own experiences, but of backgammon's history and unique subculture. In publishing The Backgammon Chronicles: A Pro's Adventures on Tour, I hope to have taken an important first toward making world-class backgammon more accessible to the millions of enthusiasts, both in America and abroad, who play the game recreationally. And that excellent outcome would be enhanced if the book succeeded in encouraging some of my reticent friends and colleagues, among them the world’s finest, to do the same: to share their adventures with the public––and their future fans.
Where did you get the inspiration for the book’s cover?

Because there are two volumes of the book, there are two covers, both the work of a German artist (and backgammon lover), Bernhard Grau. The covers are appropriate for the content of the volumes. The first, which shows two dice in flight with smileys on their faces, depicts the carnival atmosphere of short but madcap period from 2005-10, when the formulas that had fueled a worldwide poker boom were being tested on backgammon: games for every stake, from pennies to thousands of dollars, were available 24/7 online, with live tournaments held year-round in lavish resorts, their prize pools fortified by great dollops of money added by casinos, hotels, and assorted gambling platforms. Entrepreneurs––their eyes starry with visions of the sort of high-stakes tours, galas, books, films, and TV series that had reaped easy profits for media and gaming concerns in promoting poker––were taking meetings and arranging financing.
The cover of Volume 2 depicts a more serene tableau, post-2011 when the frenzy of the prior years had somewhat abated. By then, many of the mad gamblers had gone extinct—and the icy mountain peaks, the river and earth, the winsome suitcases labeled with tricks of the trade are symbols of life on tour for the expert, matching his skill in tournament play with others of his class. Their solidity represents the fortitude and composure upon which the success of any athlete, physical or mental, depends.
Who has been the most significant influence on you personally and as a writer?
What I try to accomplish in these books is both high-quality sports (i.e. mind-sports) writing and the clear-eyed depiction of the unique characters--all with their homemade codes of ethics and justice--who live by their wits at society's fringe. The masters of this trade were Damon Runyon and H. L. Mencken--and of course their precursor Mark Twain was no slouch either.
What struggles and obstacles did you have to overcome?
I’ve been very lucky. My only real obstacle to writing this and my other books (other than my own laziness) has been that their composition has required me to occasionally take extended sabbaticals from active competition in the games I love.
Tell your readers about your book
The Backgammon Chronicles is a lush, two-volume, full-color cornucopia of essays, gambling stories, backgammon analysis, history and lore, character sketches, essays, and photography that takes the reader on an insider’s odyssey through backgammon’s last whirlwind decade––with its author, one of the game’s elite competitors, as guide. Along the way, you'll meet the brilliant, quirky characters who inhabit this realm––intuitive gamblers, mental warriors, and statistical scientists––all dueling with bets as they strive to perceive backgammon's truths through the dust storms of confusion created by the dice.
Introducing the reader to the game’s stars even as he narrates his clashes with them in a score of exotic venues, the author, Robert Wachtel, frames the action against an overview of the events and crises that have defined contemporary backgammon: the advent of the artificial intelligence programs and their virtual extinction of the game’s traditional role as a gambling recreation; the ecstatic birth and untimely death of online play; the burst of investment and enthusiasm brought to the game by the poker boom; and current trends: the outreach of Western backgammon culture back towards the game’s birthplace, the Middle East; and the efforts of the federations of the major nations to establish a viable global community.
What is your target audience, and why?
My target audience consists of the millions and millions of amateurs, not just in the United States but throughout the world, who love the game of backgammon. By writing an only semi-technical book, it contains plenty of backgammon positions, but I don't go too deeply into the weeds in discussing them, and they all arise in the context of the many stories I tell, I hope to gently draw these people a bit closer to the highly competitive world of tournament (and money) backgammon—if not to make them players, then at least to enable them to be fans. To that end, I've also written The Language of Backgammon: A Player's Dictionary, to help cut through the mathematical and gaming jargon that might intimidate some amateurs who might otherwise pursue the game more deeply. The dictionary, which will be published in a few weeks, contains clear explanations of modern statistical concepts but also preserves the colorful language of backgammon’s gambling past.
What do you consider your greatest success in life?
Though I am no physician, I have aimed to apply the Hippocratic oath––“First of all, do no harm”–– to my personal and professional life. Thus I've done my best to not deceive or lead others on, and to avoid entanglements with people with whom it was obvious I would never get along. That goal, if I’ve achieved it, is my greatest success; but my professional achievements have also been a source of considerable satisfaction. Among these, I would have to say that the one I prize the most was that of being chosen four times to participate in an epic team challenge match between the backgammon superpower nation of Denmark and “The Rest of the World” held from 2010 through 2017.  This was not only a great honor but a unique experience: backgammon has memorably been called “the cruelest game” because of the loneliness competitors feel when the dice abuse them; so it was a wonderful antidote to abiding isolation to have had the chance to work cooperatively with the other members of such a distinguished team. We had some wonderful successes, which I describe vividly in Volume 2 of Chronicles.
What one unique thing separates you from other writers in your genre?
Most writers in my genre (that of mind-sport journalism)––are straight-up left-brainers. They are brilliant calculators and risk evaluators but are not particularly well suited to communicate their ideas--and certainly not their feelings--to others. My talents are distributed a bit more broadly. I am more of a player/sportswriter––actually a rare breed.