Welcome to The Backgammon Chronicles––a lush, two-volume, full-color cornucopia of gambling stories, character sketches, historical essays and tournament drama that will take you on an insider’s odyssey through backgammon’s last whirlwind decade––with its author, one of the game’s elite competitors, as your 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 nuanced overview of the events and crises that have defined contemporary backgammon: the triumphant emergence of mathematical analysis and proposition play from the superstitious, pre-scientific mindset of the 70s; 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.
Here are previews of the treats you’ll find in each volume. First, Volume 1:
The action begins with Volume 1 of Chronicles, in late 2008, when the formulas that had fueled a worldwide poker boom were being tested in Europe and the Middle East on the internationally more popular game of backgammon. The scene was intoxicating: 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.
I, your guide to the era, would never claim to have been its very best player, nor (by far) its biggest earner, but I was nevertheless one of its elite: rated among the world’s top 10 or 15; a seasoned pro and an insider; both a peer and a friend of most of backgammon’s best and brightest. You’ll meet those brilliant, quirky characters up close in these pages as I both face off against or partner with them in tournament play, and engage them in a special entertainment of my own device, dubbed by ex-world #1 Mike Natanzon (trade name: Falafel) “The Chronicles.”
Chronicles are histories; and I’ve so named these two volumes, because that is indeed what they are: episodes of my backgammon adventures. But the title has a double meaning: the books are chronicles in Falafel’s sense as well, for the special entertainment mentioned above figures prominently in many of these tales. At a major tournament I’d gather together as many highly opinionated geniuses as I could find and present them with dilemmas I’d encountered over the board––and often gotten wrong. The format always aroused their competitive instincts, provoking these backgammon giants to argue, bluster, and challenge one another, backing their preferences with hefty side bets. A lover of the game could hardly hope for a more exciting experience than watching these sparks fly. (The photo at the top of this home page is one of a typical Chronicles session. It features both the Japanese superstar and world #1 Masayuki Mochihito (Mochy) and (next to him) Falafel with an assortment of world-class players and gamblers looking on).
The Backgammon Chronicles is a travelog as well, for the tournament trail we followed was well worth photographing: from Stockholm to Prague to Copenhagen to Enghien Les Bains (a spa town just outside of Paris); to Velden (Austria), Montreux (Switzerland) and Oulu (Finland); to Oslo, Majorca (Spain) and North Cyprus; and finally, as this volume ends, into the heights of the French Alps, with a photo of me, “Frozen Warrior,” that speaks of the sacrifice required to play the game at the highest level: an altitude of almost 3000 meters amidst the peaks overlooking the French ski village of Meribel!
And Volume 2:
This volume rejoins the backgammon epic in mid-2011, just as its carnival years were winding down. For reasons carefully examined in the text, 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 also explained in Chronicles) by far the world’s strongest. I made the World team four times, in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, and did my best on each occasion to take advantage of the unique opportunity 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 my hope is that I’ve faithfully reproduced in this volume some of the fascinating ground-zero interplay, under terrific pressure, of their visceral emotion and brilliant intelligence.
I followed the tour as it continued with new sponsors and destinations. My travels took me 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 is the case with most middle-eastern countries, backgammon is the national game, played by everyone––young, old, rich, poor, male and female; and on 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. The island’s casinos treat their customers in the style of Vegas 50 years ago: with cheap rooms, 24-hour buffets, and open bars where the free alcohol never stops flowing. The weather is fine as well, so it’s no surprise and that the turnout for the Cyprus tournament is always enormous. Full disclosure: it’s entirely against my principles, but I could not resist: this volume contains a baklava food-porn photo (there are about 15 varieties on offer every day, all day long).
An intense moment captured from one of the Denmark vs Rest of the World matches. Contrast with:
Georgian street backgammon!
Volume 2 for sale at
Note: Both volumes of Chronicles are now also available at Backgammon Supplies A La Carte:
And for dessert, your Rosetta Stone, a key to the jargon: The Language of Backgammon: A Player's Dictionary.
Once a favorite pastime of thrill-seeking gamblers, backgammon has evolved over the last half century into a true statistical science, with its top players rigorously training with artificial-intelligence programs in their quest to master the game’s secrets.
The vocabulary of backgammon has evolved as well. While much of it remains that of a craps player out of a Damon Runyon story, it now also teems with expressions denoting mathematical parameters and techniques that would have left an old-school risk-taker utterly at sea.
This dictionary, a companion volume to the author’s The Backgammon Chronicles, captures the language in this transitional phase, preserving its colorful, traditional argot while clearly defining the concepts that enable the modern player to analyze the game with unprecedented depth and accuracy.
The Language of Backgammon will be published in December 2019.