30 years of Backgammon, John Clark tells it as it is.Brown is the new black, Lebron is the next Jordan and Backgammon is the new Poker? Why? Because according to backgammon player John Clark it's… well just like poker… when you can see the other guys' checkers, but you don't know what cards are coming next… And is it as exciting… but perhaps more confusing.
GOM: How long have you been playing backgammon?
John: I've been playing it in one shape or form for over 30 years, since I was a penniless student.
GOM: At what point did you determine a strategy? And do you use a standard strategy or have you developed your own?
John: Backgammon strategy is largely dictated by the software which plays to a near mathematically perfect standard. Realistically, there may be only about 30 to 50 players in the world that have actually played better than the best software available. This is now the standard by which everyone is judged.
GOM: Will the best software would always beat a human because software plays a mathematically perfect backgammon?.
John: No, because there are certain things a human can do that software can't; particularly when playing against other humans. For instance, a human can better evaluate his opponent than software can. The reason for that is that the software assumes that it is playing against the software. The best software assumes it is playing an equal opponent, whilst a human may know that he is not playing an equal opponent, which means he can do something profitable, whereas the software would not, because he believes his opponent isn't going to make a mistake.
GOM: So playing a non optimal strategy means you could beat a computer?
John: Not necessarily, it's a little more complicated than that. Non-optimal strategy is not going to work very well against a computer because a computer isn't going to make mistakes. To play better than the computer, you'd have to play better than its evaluation, which is the standard against which error rates are measured. But very often, when you check out evaluation errors by doing 'rollouts', the rollout results will confirm what appeared to be the inferior play, turning out to be superior.
GOM: So errors are in fact sometimes correct?
John: The very best players in the world, when you really analyze their errors, you'll find that their errors are not errors at all; they're actually better plays than the computer; as confirmed by the computer when it does rollouts from that particular position.
GOM: Is there much money in Backgammon tournaments and cash play?
John: In both. There are big cash tournament with a six figure prize pools almost every month. Online, there are 30 backgammon servers, most of which you can play for money. I've certainly heard stories about millions flying around on the internet, but that's not typical. Typical is relatively small stakes.
GOM: Where are the biggest online and land based tournaments?
John: The biggest online game is on crew money games, in terms of live tournaments the biggest is probably the World Championship in Monte Carlo in July. But there have been bigger tournaments than that in the past, due to sponsorship money. There used to be a tournament in Istanbul with $100,000 added prize money every year, but that's stopped. There are possible rumors of a tournament starting in Barbados next year with a million dollars in prize money.
GOM: Can you be a fulltime backgammon player, just online like you can in poker, or do you need to be a top 100 player?
John: You have to be in the top 100 to do it full time, however I do know of some junior players who are making a comfortable living or a comfortable supplement by being very selective as to whom they play online. In backgammon you don't need a particularly big edge over your opponent to crush them. And there's certainly a number on intermediate players who are doing very well on the internet against sub-intermediate players.
GOM: How much does luck affect a game?
John: One game is hugely affected by luck, however, in the long run there's no luck and the superior player will inevitably triumph.
GOM: A lot of players go from playing chess for money, to backgammon, to poker. Why is that?
John: Chess is a soulless game, where the better player will always win. The charm of poker and backgammon is that the inexperienced player will win from time to time; they just won't win quite as often as the highly experienced pro.
GOM: Do you play poker?
John: Yeah, I play live and online, but I much prefer a game with constant excitement like backgammon.
GOM: Taking that into account, why do you think poker is so much bigger than backgammon?
John: I think poker is so incredibly easy to learn and it's the one game that the computers haven't quite cracked yet, so there's a certain mystique to it. However, I believe that people will get bored with poker soon, largely because of the lack of excitement because you have to fold 80% of your hands. But in backgammon there is constant excitement.
GOM: How many players do nothing other than play backgammon? Have you always played full time, or did you have a 9 to 5?
John: By my own estimation there are less than a thousand playing full time. I'm not a backgammon professional, although I'm well known. However, I do other things as well, backgammon to me is a hobby, although I play and practice every day.
GOM: Do you practice against 'Snowy' (computer program) or humans?
John: I prefer to play on the internet against humans, because when you come to play large tournaments you are playing humans, not computers.
GOM: I know player evaluation analysis is a huge part of backgammon. Explain it to the uninitiated.
John: Let's use a poker analogy. Imagine somebody is raising you all of his chips, and you happen to know that you are precisely 50-50 to win the hand. Should you call or pass? Well it now depends on what else you know about your opponent. If you know, in the long run, you are 60% to beat him then you pass. But if you know he is 60% to beat you then you call. The same applies to backgammon; there are certain positions, often critical positions, which the computer would take, but why should you take if it's a borderline take if you happen to know that you're 65% against this guy in every game you play.
GOM: Do you think backgammon will ever be as big as poker?
John: I believe that televised backgammon can be more exciting than poker. There are an equivalent number of interesting characters in the game, it's a hugely thrilling game, the commentary, particularly by Paul Magriel will bring this game to a much wider audience and I think that there's a good chance this could become as big as televised poker.
The world's first televised Backgammon event is to air on British TV this December and if it's a success, it surely wont be long till it heads stateside. The championship being shown, took place at Fairmount, Monte Carlo in July 2005. Over 500 competitors, including some of the most accomplished players in the world, were vying for the world title and the $100,000 prize.
Professionals like Las Vegas based legends Mike Svobodny, Paul Magriel and their Russian beautiful protégé Victoria Smirnoff will make television history on the 30th Backgammon world championships.
As well as tournament action viewers will enjoy a behind the scenes look at high stakes players as they prepare for the big event.