Michael Strato of GammonVillage interviews Jeremy Bagai (2001)

Hi Jeremy.

Hello Michael. Thanks for having me.

To start off, could you please give us some personal and background information about yourself.

I'm thirty-two years old. Grew up in Los Angeles and then attended U.C. Berkeley, which I loved. I wasn't a backgammon player then, but I did learn to gamble while playing pool, and later became obsessed with juggling (I peaked shortly after learning five balls). I moved to Philadelphia and got my doctorate in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where I studied Judgment and Decision Making: how we think about probability and risk; how we make choices; why we make errors. Since then, I've been teaching Negotiations and Decision Theory at the Wharton School of Business. But a career change may be on the horizon . . .

Then I would need to know when you started playing Backgammon, how you got started, what attracts you to the game, what methods you used to advance in skill.

I was introduced to backgammon by a college friend in 1989. After a week or so I thought I had mastered the game, and was amazed that my friend kept beating me. So I got the first book I could find, which happened to be Jacoby and Crawford's Backgammon Book, and was hooked within an hour. Unlike the chess books I had tried (and failed) to absorb, this was actually fun to read. The concepts made sense immediately. I knew I had found my home. I began to study everything I could find on backgammon and haven't stopped.

Next a little about tournaments you play in. How and when you got started in tournament play, how many and which ones you go to each year, and your tournament record, tournaments you have won or have come close in.

I live on the East Coast of the U.S., so those tournaments are the easiest for me to get to. I've also played in Europe over the last two summers. My best tournament results include the 1996 Asian Championships (2nd place); 2000 Indiana Open (1st Cons. in the Open, Split 1st/2nd in the Masters, 1st in the Warm-Up); and the 2001 Monte-Carlo Super Jackpot (2nd place). I used to play only one or two week-end tournaments a year, but I'm now able to get to five or six.

Your new book, "Classic Backgammon Revisited", takes a look at more than 100 errors in several Backgammon books published in the past. Please tell us why you chose this topic for your book and identify the books and their authors and why you chose them?

Why did I write this book? The simplest answer is that is that I really wanted to read this book. The idea came to me in July of 1999. Snowie and Jellyfish had already transformed our vision of the game, but I recognized that I was having trouble letting go of some of the old concepts. (Perhaps this was because I had spent more time studying books from the 70's and 80's than I had spent actually playing.) Using the 'bots to analyze my current matches was great, but what I really needed to get beyond my outdated conceptions was to examine those conceptions at their source. Why did I ever start making that mistake? I wanted to know what the 'bots could tell me about the classic backgammon texts. An hour later I realized I had outlined a book. Two years later, I was finally able to read it. I chose to reexamine those books that had the most influence on me, and on the community at large. It's not that these books have the most errors; rather it's that these books have had the widest audience and the most effect. These are the classics. They are: The Backgammon Book, by Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford (1970); Backgammon, by Paul Magriel (1976); Backgammon for Profit, by Joe Dwek (1976); Paradoxes and Probabilities, by Barclay Cooke (1978); Advanced Backgammon, by Bill Robertie (1984, revised and expanded 1991).

How did you determine these errors and why are they errors? Are these the sort that Snowie calls blunders? Do you think they were due to insufficient rollouts or mostly just the personal styles of the players back then? Were some of these inconsistencies noticed when these books were published and discussed by other players at the time?

I entered every position from those five books into Snowie, and asked for its quick 3-ply analysis. If Snowie thought that the author's solution was clearly correct (the next best play was over .05 points-per-game worse), then I let it go. If Snowie thought there were other plays that were close, or actually better, then I started doing rollouts. The book consists of those problems for which a Snowie rollout finds another play to be over .05 p.p.g. better. 5% turns out to be a conservative criterion. These are big errors. Were the errors originally due to personal style or to insufficient rollouts? I can only guess, but my understanding is that hand rollouts were not at all common until the 80's. Dwek once mentions rolling out a position a hundred times, but this was the rare exception. I believe the blunders (and brilliancies) of the earlier books reflect their authors' personal conception of the game at that time. Robertie, however, did do rollouts, and reported them as such. Others may have been doing rollouts before, but Robertie was certainly the first to write about backgammon as an empirical science. And yes, some of Robertie's errors are the kind you might expect from rolling out a position 108 times, rather than 10,800.

How many errors did you find in these books? Are the errors from these classics all illustrated with a board position in their original form or did you also find certain flaws or discrepancies in the written parts of these books?

I only examined positions that were diagrammed on the page. When it comes to assessing general advice, you're on your own.

In what types of positions did you find the majority of the flaws? Slotting, priming or doubling plays or holding vs. racing situations? Did you find a certain trend?

I didn't find any pure race or non-contact bear-off errors, for the obvious reason that those plays are easy to figure out. Everything else in backgammon is well-represented. In fact, one of the things I'm most pleased with is that the book feels pretty much like a general backgammon book, with chapters on the opening, middle games, prime vs. prime, bearing in, backgames, and end contact.

When asked, most experienced players suggest only two or three books that a beginner should read to get a good start in Backgammon. Since there is still much to learn from the books you have commented on, and people will still continue to buy them, can we say that your book should be used as a reference so that readers anticipate the suggested flaws, or in other words, your book can improve the learning experience obtained from these other books?

That's exactly the way I hope for my book to be used. For instance, it would be laughable to think that my book could, in any way, replace Magriel's. I'm confident that five hundred years from now, if there are still human beings that play backgammon and value money, they will be reading Magriel. Just as you say, I hope my book can improve the learning experience to be had from the classics.

Given the current situation, where many Web sites are publishing positions and annotated matches, what's your view on the future for backgammon publishing in book form and what is your idea of a good backgammon book nowadays?

I think the Internet in general, and your site in particular, is great for backgammon. It's so much easier to find a resource, get general information, or get expert opinion on a position, than it was just a few years ago. And the servers, or course, have had a tremendous impact. All this is good. And it is good for the future of backgammon books as well, simply because the Internet is bringing new people to the game everyday. Many of these people will eventually want to read books. Will the content now available on the Internet make backgammon books obsolete? I don't think so. A Web site is a great place to report news. A book is still the best place to develop an idea. The standard of quality for backgammon books certainly has changed, however, because of the 'bots. Before 1995, an author could get away with saying "I don't know the right answer here, but I'll tell you how the expert approaches this position . . ." and even if he was dead wrong, you might learn something. These days, there's no excuse for spreading backgammon misinformation, because any author can use a 'bot just as he would a spell-checker. The danger of the current era is the "It's right to play safe here because the rollout shows it to be so" type analysis. The best analysis not only illuminates the position at hand, but also develops concepts and heuristics that can be applied to a range of similar positions. It should actually be useful. The 'bots don't do this on their own; they just provide facts. Good backgammon writing builds concepts out of facts. That's the quality that makes Robertie such a stand-out author. For instance, his post-ace-point-game series (most completely presented in 501 Essential Problems) pretty much clears up an entire phase of the game about which most of us had been simply guessing. That's very useful.

Do you think Backgammon is experiencing a new growth in popularity? If yes, how do you measure this? What can be done to make Backgammon more popular?

I don't know. Gammonvillage is helping it along.

In the Super Jackpot at Monte Carlo against Nojibullah Sallamzy, I was there when you offered Nojibullah to split the prize money before the match began, and again when you arrived at the score of 12-12 in the 13-pointer (DMP). Although you lost, I wondered if this is simply something done out of politeness, in the act of being a gentleman, or is it the issue of the money? Would the title have meant anything to you?

I think you are suffering from a false memory there - I didn't offer to split with him before the match. I had hedged a little elsewhere and was happy to play. DMP was the first time I asked if he wanted to hedge. I usually don't, but in this case the $70,000 difference between winning and losing seemed like a silly amount to bet on one game. I asked and he declined. Lucky for him, I made the last mistake and lost the game. No player is ever under any obligation to hedge. It is always entirely voluntary. Sometimes it makes sense for both players and sometimes it doesn't. I don't know why he didn't want to hedge at that time, but it doesn't matter. I was ready to play. Would the title have meant anything to me? Sure, but probably not as much as the extra $70,000 would have. The nice thing is, there are more tournaments. Every year.

Thank you for the interview.

Thank you!