Clocks in Backgammon

Clocks in Backgammon

There has been much discussion about the use of clocks at backgammon tournaments on the bulletin board, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a full article discussing clocks. This will consist of several things which been written in the past, as well as my own discussion. I would like to thank Carol Cole, editor of The Flint Area Backgammon Newsletter and Bill Robertie, editor of the late Inside Backgammon, for giving me permission to reprint material from their magazines.

First, here are some excerpts from the newsgroup, which are taken from Carol’s newsletter. My comments will be interspersed.

“One reason I find clocks unappealing is that they introduce so many potentially awkward situations, which most players can debate until the cows come home, and the occasional one argues over the board. Backgammon is not like chess, where the actual time required for moves is fairly constant and the clock regulates thinking time. A backgammon clock directs the play—a player can be coerced into sub-optimal moves by time trouble, cubing early rather than risk a long sequence of single points, and playing running games and blitzes (which tend to be decided quickly) instead of backgames and hitting contests, and a player with time advantage can deliberately take the opposite tack in order to run his opponent out of time. Still they seem to be here to stay, so we had best learn to live with them.”

Julian Hayward, England

Julian makes good points. Due to the nature of backgammon, more than the player’s thinking time is reflected by the clock. This means that if a match were super long, say an 11-point match for which each player made 1000 moves, it would be just about physically impossible for either player to make the time control no matter how fast they played. As for the point about taking advantage of an opponent’s time problems, there will be a real life illustration of this later.

“We have started playing with the clock in Dublin and it’s really a great addition. The slow players have speeded up and the fast players have slowed down!. Tournament rounds tend to finish simultaneously, which is great for everyone. Backgammon is now a spectator sport, with both players playing at a reasonable speed.

There have been no arguments, though I have raised a couple of issues on the newsgroup. All of these were settled amiably over the board, but I just want to get other opinions in case of a serious dispute in a major tournament.

Anyway I am packing my suitcases to go to the Paris Open, and I am sure I will have a lot more clock issues arising from that tournament.”

Brendan Burgess, Dublin Backgammon Club, Ireland

There certainly were some clock stories at the Paris tournament, which allowed only 55 minutes per player for an 11-point match (compared to the 65 minutes allowed in the World Cup). As a result, the winner of the Master’s, Donald Kahn, almost didn’t survive his semi-final match. I wasn’t there, but from what I had heard he was in desperate time trouble during his final game, and in fact his flag fell before he had borne off all his checkers. Fortunately for him he had achieved a gin position in the race (he could not lose no matter what the dice rolls were), and the rules of the tournament stipulated that he wins the match under such circumstances.

“As one of the busiest tournament directors in the world, I am wholly for the use of clocks. They are a great tool to ensure the smooth running and timely ending of matches and tournaments. At BIBA tournaments they are used as a “persuader” inasmuch as I trawl the playing areas checking the scores at set times and issue warnings that if the points scored don’t reach a certain level by my return (15 minutes later), then the remaining segment of the match will continue with clocks. I find that does the trick most of the time.”

Michael Crane

I think this is a good practical approach for small club tournaments which are run on a more informal level. For higher level tournaments I don’t the think this kind of subjectivity can work. Strict written rules which the directors follow are necessary.

“My only experience with clocks in a tournament has been the Japan Open, where clocks are used as a matter of course. Some people in my club like to use them, whereas some don’t, so it’s just a matter of two people agreeing. The main problem in our club is remembering to switch from “finished my move, so I pick up my dice” mode to “finished my move, so I leave the dice where they are and hit the clock” mode. I always pick the dice up a few times—while the opponent smiles indulgently and lets my time tick away.

Perhaps one reason why clocks aren’t too contentious over here is that the time allowed seems fairly generous. I don’t know what is standard in the U.S., but in Japan each player gets 35 minutes for a five-point match (so you could theoretically have a match lasting 70 minutes). Most matches never get close to flag-dropping, so the clocks are not adding undue pressure to the game, but do serve to keep the really slow players in check.

I would definitely recommend people to get used to clocks in a club environment. They don’t really affect your play, but the extra unfamiliarity in a tournament environment is definitely to be avoided. The other thing to look out for is the very chatty opponent—he or she is more than likely chatting on your time.”

Gavin Anderson, Sapporo, Japan

Getting used to the clocks just takes a bit of practice, and any serious tournament player who isn’t used to them and is playing in a tournament with clocks should certainly take the time to play a practice match using them. The amount of time given to each player is not standardized—every club or tournament chooses its own time limits. I believe that the clocks should be used as they are in the the Japan Open, with the purpose of moving the really slow players along rather than having an effect on the outcome, but many players and directors feel otherwise.

“Personally, I don’t like the clocks that much, as it can create time problems if several games evolve into deep backgames with no double-outs, for example, or one of those repetitive recycling games where the primer continually sends back checkers to try to retrieve a second blot. In chess the time limits are based on time for moves, instead of the entire match. I think the correct usage of clocks in tournaments is to apply them only to matches in progress that are already going very slowly. The tournament director or assistants need to watch the drawsheets to look for players that are holding up the brackets, etc.

We use clocks in all matches in our weekly tournaments in the Atlanta Club, mostly to make sure we finish before midnight (Thursdays). I’ve only lost twice on time, but I don’t like some of the tactics that can be employed by the player who has more time left (such as failing to double at 2-away, 2-away when holding an advantage, trying to force three or four games instead of ending it with this game). I think it creates some “bad” backgammon at times.”

Gregg Cattanach, Doravill, Georgia

And from the editor of the Flint Newsletter:

“Club director Dave Cardwell plans to use chess clocks to pace all the matches in the Georgia State Championships & Peach Cup on June 8-11 in Atlanta. This is the first ABT event in which chess clocks will be used in a positive format rather than a punitive situation.

Flint Area BG Club members have voluntarily practiced with chess clocks to prepare for major tournaments, but mandatory clocks in all matches would inhibit the friendly social atomosphere that helps the club welcome newcomers and average 20 players a week.”

Carol Joy Cole

An online poll about clocks suggested by Carol Cole was conducted in November 1999 by Art Grater, and the results are on his web page. Click [link no longer active] to see the results of this poll.

Here are some more comments from a couple of top tournament players. First, from Donald Kahn, winner of the Masters tournament in Paris:

“In general, though I don’t mind the clock and think that if properly used it is a good thing, I state most vehemently that the times alloted at this tournament (The Paris tournament, where Donald won the Masters) were indaequate, such as to make for hurried and therefore sub-standard play. I mean, it’s not supposed to be speed chess, is it?

55 minutes for 11 points is not enough when the match goes to 14 games (as did my rubber semifinal). If one or two of them are longies, the clocks start going scary. And I noticed several very good pros in time trouble, though none lost on it.

This is very easy to remedy:

1. Lengthen the allotted times.

2. Or, at a certain point, for instance after 11 games played in an 11-point match (or 17 in a 17-point match, etc.), put the clocks aside, or what amounts to the same thing, set them to 30 minutes.”

Donald Kahn

And now from Malcolm Davis, unquestionably one of the top players in the world, winner of the 1996 World cup (and just about everything else).

“When I started playing backgammon in 1975, the United States was the leader of the backgammon world—the best players and the best tournaments were U.S. dominated.

Alas, that has changed. A reversal has taken place, and while I am happy that backgammon has progressed so significantly in Europe, I would certainly like to see the United States become more excellent, both in terms of quality, well-run tournaments as well as level of play.

First, let me express gratitude to the wonderful, selfless directors all over the world who organize backgammon tournaments. I was peripherally involved in organizing the Dallas Mid-America tournament in 1976, and I gained some appreciation for what is involved.

Now I respectfully suggest one very important improvement that begs to be made. Utilizing “chess” clocks, or “backgammon” clocks, if you please, in all championship division matches. Already the major tournaments in Europe, for instance Istanbul, Copenhagen, and Paris, are all three using clocks. Monte Carlo is considering clocks for the final 64. Of course the World Cup, sponsered by Kent Goulding and Bill Robertie, pioneered the use of clocks. And who could imagine a World Cup, truly a great tournament, without them?

It is way past time to stop rewarding those few who basically ruin a tournament by employing a basic strategy of never making a move—seeming somehow to believe they cannot lose a match if they never finish it. Any reasonable test of backgammon skill must employ some kind of time constraints.

In talking to players around the world about the use of clocks, I find a great majority in favor of them. Even the players generally regarded a being slow prefer to have clocks so they can demonstrate that their speed is being unfairly cirticized. And it does seem to be true that “slow” players are not as slow as everybody thinks—and with clocks they can prove it.

Tournament directors may be reluctant to include clocks in previously “unclocked” tournaments because it is a change, maybe some players may not like them, and they understandably do not want to go to the expense of providing clocks.

I have a couple of suggestions. Make clocks mandatory if either player elects to utilize them and can furnish a clock. The other suggestion is to provide a small voluntary additional charge in registration fees until clocks are paid for. I would be happy to contribute.

As for the argument that some players might not compete if clocks were mandatory, I say that more will compete if they are an integral part of the format. For instance, I am planning to attend Francois Tardieu’s Paris tournament in February strictly because he has included clocks in his tournament format.

To expect your opponent to graciously sit for move after move while you carefully examine the merits of how to play an opening 3-1 is thoughtless, selfish, inconsiderate, and ridiculous. A player who cannot play an 11-point match in an hour of clock time per participant should enter the beginners’ tournament.

Furthermore, clocks with one pair of dice eliminate many areas of potential disputes, i.e. whether the dice were “up”, what the roll was, etc.

I could say, “Tournament Director, don’t ask what backgammon can do for you, but rather what you can do for backgammon.” But that would be misleading. Tournament directors can do something for both backgammon and themselves by instituting clocks in at least the championship rounds of future tournaments. They can begin to restore the United States’ prominence as a leader in the backgammon world—in the process, making backgammon more enjoyable for the players, as well as for themselves.”

Malcolm Davis, Dallas, Texas

Malcolm is not exaggerating about how slow some players can be, particularly if they are using their slowness for gamesmanship purposes. Here is an excerpt from an article written by Bill Robertie in Inside Backgammon:

“There are a few players, well-known to most experienced directors, who deliberately play slowly in an attempt to annoy their opponents. I got my introduction to this approach many years ago at a Las Vegas tournament. Nack Ballard had reached the semi-finals and was scheduled to play the match at 10:00 PM on a Saturday night. I thought it would be a good match to record. Was I mistaken.

Nack’s opponent started with a 3-1 in the first game. Easy to play, right? He looked at making the 5-point for awhile. Then he looked at playing 13/10, 6/5. A theoretical innovation? After that he tried 13/9, then 24/20, then 13/10, 24/23. I was impressed, not having known there were so many real chnoices for an opening 3-1. After about two minutes, with a big sigh, he settled on making the 5-point after all. The match continued in this vein. At 1:00 AM, after three solid hours of play, the score was 8-7 or thereabouts. Then Nack’s opponent got a grip on himself and buckled down to some serious slow play. Shake the dice for a minute. Roll the dice. Oops, cocked dice. Shake for another minute. Where’s that perfecta? And so forth.

After five hours I was tempted to quit, but I’d already invested so much time it seemed like a shame to give up. Throwing good hours after bad, I stuck it out until 6:00 AM when the match ground to a halt. Nack had won, 19-18. I had recorded the whole match, and it still sits today in my files as the longest 19-point match ever played.

At the paris Open in 1990, I watched Paul Magriel’s opponent, notorious for his poor sportsmanship, drag a 17-point match on for seven hours before winning. At the U.S invitational in 1986, Kent Goulding had a couple of similar horror stories.

Under the traditional rules of backgammon, a player subjected to this sort of abuse had the right to call for a monitor on a match who theoretically had the right to administer penalty points. For some reason, players rarely elected this defense, and I’ve never actually seen a penalty point awarded for this sort of slow play.”

Bill Robertie

To conclude this discussion, I present an article I wrote for Inside Backgammon after the 1996 World Cup. This article is representative of my personal views about clocks in backgammon.

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