Skill vs. Luck in Backgammon; Is One More Important than the Other?

I’ve often been asked, is it more important in backgammon (or any game of chance) to be lucky or skillful? It’s not an easy one to answer.

A key question is, how the heck can BG be a game of skill if so many of a player’s moves are governed by the roll of the dice? OK, and how about this? If BG is a game of chance, how is it that players with high rating tend to consistently beat lower ranked players?

The debate on the true nature of backgammon involves players, theorists, legalists and mathematicians. US court judges, by the way, have ruled that backgammon is a game of skill (thus, organizing tournaments with money prizes does not lead to charges of promoting gambling) and a Senator of New Jersey who suggested to legalize online poker, has named backgammon in a list of skill games alongside chess, bridge and mahjong.

So, does that answer the question. Maybe…. In an article bu Ehud Friedgut at professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on this very subject, he expresses his frustration at failing to successfully compete with the championship level players in online backgammon games, despite his proven expertise in probability and combinatorics. “To my surprise and my frustration, I soon hit the ‘glass ceiling’. I could not raise my rating in the website where I was playing to more than 1600 and discovered that players with higher rating beat me consistently. Since dealing with probability issues and theories is what I do for a living, I was certain that with a bit of experience I would become an excellent player, but this hope was proved false.”

After a year and a half of studying backgammon thoroughly and reading advance Friedgut managed to raise his rating up to 1800, knowing that it may take additional years of studying to reach the level of the 2000+ players.

Anyway, it is widely accepted that the best backgammon players are computer programs. Snowie, for example, has played millions of games in order to be able to accurately estimate the winning chances (including the chances of winning a gammon) of every possible move in the backgammon game.

So skill does count. And luck too. Together, it makes for champion players.

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