Tobias Hellwag International Backgammon Ambassador

I met Tobias last year when he came to Chicago strictly to play in our local Chicago backgammon events and daily chouettes. (He had recently spent time with Matt Cohn-Geier in Japan, and Matt probably told him how much he had learned about backgammon from the superior players in our chouette.) Very quickly he gained my respect both as a backgammon player and as an exceptional person. We became good friends, but before long I realized he was one of the most well-travelled, experienced, and interesting people in all of backgammon. Read the interview below and you will understand why.
Tobias grew up in Germany and now lives in Zurich and travels all over the world playing in major backgammon tournaments and visiting chouettes and friends in major cities.

How did you get introduced to backgammon?

I was about 10 years old when my brother used to bring a backgammon set home. Backgammon was part of the fine society in Munich in the 80’s. He had boards out of Plexiglas and fine handcrafted leather. They looked beautiful. That was my first contact. It looked very mysterious to me and my brother was way too busy to show me how it works.

At 17 I moved to my own place in downtown Munich and next door was a pub with my favorite pinball machine, “The Addams Family.” This pub was full of hardcore gamblers and there was a high stakes backgammon game. When I was 19 someone there had the mercy to teach me the rules and, of course, I had to play for money even in my very first game.

What is your favorite tournament or type of game?

All tournaments are great fun—I just love the competition. But of course the most fame and most money is Monte Carlo, so this is my favorite!

What was your most fun, exciting win?

My first final was in 1998, which was very exciting. It was a strong field but I didn’t win it so it doesn’t qualify for this question. The most exciting win was the big 100K in Tangier (Africa) in 2002. (More on that later.)

How would you like to see the game changed?

Over the years I met many people with ideas how to change the game. They want to make it fairer or take “the luck factor” out of the game. The problem here is there is no “luck factor” in this game. Certainly it seems unlucky when you feel or know you are a 70% or more favorite and still lose, but in the long run you will win seven out of ten times when you have a 70% advantage. To me backgammon is a well balanced game, and I wouldn’t change anything.

What advice would you give to a new player that wants to become a top player some day?
  1. Never blame the dice, and be aware that losing is part of the game. It will become less when you improve but you should learn to handle it. That doesn’t mean losing shouldn’t bother you, but use it as motivation. Don’t let it drag you down seriously and don’t become superstitious because you had a strange sequence of dice rolls.
  2. Play in a consulting chouette with at least one top player and/or take lessons from a qualified teacher.
  3. Practice and analyze with the bots (3 to 5 games every day are enough). Read books (ask your teacher which ones).
  4. Play, play, play—best live and for money. (Be careful with the amount you play for.) If you want to become a pro one day you should be familiar with winning and losing and know how to handle big wins and losses. That usually takes awhile.
  5. Take breaks from backgammon sometimes. It will be good for the quality of your play and also for your life balance.
How do you prepare for tournaments?

Be well rested, and leave all other than backgammon behind you for the tournament.

Now that we have ExtremeGammon that plays as well or better than anyone and gives us virtually all the answers, do you think there is less creativity and less room for various styles of play than ever before? If true, does this make the game less interesting or exciting?

ExtremeGammon and other software gives us results. The reasons why, we need to find ourselves. And for that we need intuition, study, and creative thinking.

When we see a position where we are wrong and if it is not within the first three moves or in the late bear off, we are almost 100% sure never to get the identical position again. We could get something similar though. Now we have to understand what is similar with the same result and what’s similar but requires different solutions. The software can help us a lot if we understand how to ask it. That we can only do if we understand all aspects of a position. Now we have to figure out which aspects are more dominant in a particular case and why. This is a very creative process.

Ten years ago, I often heard in chouettes that someone chose the “Snowie move.” (Usually this was said when someone played safe, which was unpopular in the late 80’s and was considered to be uncreative.) Like this person wasn’t thinking and just copied the computer style. If copying the machine would be possible, I would recommend it. But it is not. Backgammon is highly complex and we can only play what we understand. The software only shows us when and where we are wrong, but it’s up to us to try to understand what aspects of the position lead to the result.

In competition, we play against humans, not machines. But if we ask the machine about a position, it gives us the result like our opponent is a computer too. We know that’s not true, so some people argue for a “different choice”—”their style” sometimes, as they try to “trick” their opponent.

In general a weaker player will make his mistakes himself. We don’t need to trick him in. It is more that we trick ourselves by that, by speculating on a mistake our opponent hasn’t made and might not do at all. You just can’t be sure what a bad player might do wrong, and sometimes he accidentally gets it right and you are punished for intentionally making a worse play.

But sometimes there are two or even three moves which are almost equal in equity but represent different philosophies. If I know that’s the case, I can think about whether one of my choices gives more of a challenge to my opponent even though it might cost me some tiny percentage on my PR (error rate).

Who is your vote for the number one player of all time, and of today?

Number one of all time is, with no doubt, Paul Magriel. He has played at a top level for almost 40 years and, without him, the top level now would be probably lower.

He wrote the first important book in backgammon and was teaching many of the top players of nowadays and before, Backgammon owes him big!

As he is not very active, he doesn’t qualify for being #1 Giant of 2011/2012. Giant #1 of today is Mochy and that’s my vote too.

It is true there are others, like Mike Svobodny, who is maybe more successful playing money games, or Falafel, or Matt Cohn-Geier, who might have a slightly better performance rating. But Mochy is a complete player and a great ambassador of the game. He is fighting very actively against Internet cheaters, initiating new global events, and does lots of volunteer work for the game. Very important also is that he plays all the big tournaments and does well in all disciplines: money game, tournaments, Internet, chouettes, and teaching.

I understand that you give some backgammon lessons in your spare time. Do you care to elaborate on this?

So far, I miss the time. I love travelling to tournaments too much. I only give live lessons so far, and I put much effort in every student. Most of my customers are quite experienced. They have usually played for years already but have had less success than they think they should. I start trying to understand their thinking and then I can overwork systematically some patterns they used to get wrong. A big part of my work is also coaching. All this is highly individualized and I developed custom-made training programs. That takes a lot of time so it his hard elaborate.

Why should people spend $50 or $100 an hour for lessons when then can by books and read articles and blogs for a lot less?

Who would learn Spanish or piano from a book or blog? Backgammon has the same complexity as a language.

Books provide interesting knowledge, but they can’t talk to you about your mistakes. They will tell you what the author thought is important. A good teacher can work on your specific mistakes (misunderstandings). A book can be a piece of the puzzle—a good teacher shows you the picture!

All backgammon teachers I know invested many years of hard study, did research and scientific work in the game; they could have become doctors or lawyers instead. If you find a good teacher for 50$ or 100$ an hour it is a bargain!

What are your plans for backgammon play in the near future?

Winning the High Roller in Punta Cana ( this year and become world champion in 2012.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now relative to backgammon?

Whatever the future brings, backgammon will be always part of my life. It changed my way of thinking and taught me how to handle problems in life.

I recently heard a German top manager in a interview. He studied law and pointed out that he needs maybe less than 3% of his studies in daily work. But the way of thinking he learned in his studies he needs all the time. I think studying backgammon serves the same purpose.

What is your favorite side-event or alternative form of backgammon?

I love doubles-consulting. I usually play with one of my students or a friend. I like the team spirit and also enjoy debating.

What do you think is needed to see the game grow?

The game was big in the 70’s and 80’s when knowledge about the game was in an early stage. People thought about the game more as gambling instead of a mind sport.

In the early 90’s, with the first bots and better literature, backgammon started to change. That scared off some of the gamblers and some of the people who learned quickly with the new tools did win but sometimes didn’t know how to behave. (Winning brings strong emotions and you need to learn to handle this too. There are more bad winners than bad losers around.) As a result, some got broke, some were pissed and stopped, and others went to the “new market” with more money—poker.

Now backgammon has found its identity and people respect the game for what it is, a mind sport!

With the new identity, there also came a new market. While decades ago people just wanted to win as much money as possible, now people want to master the game—they want to know the right moves. Top players don’t have to be hustlers anymore to make money. They will be invited into chouettes and hired for lessons and seminars. And people enjoy playing in big series like the ABT (American Backgammon Tour) or EBT (European Backgammon Tour).

(Some smart people like you, Phil, figured that out early and made a good business with teaching and lecturing. )

Do you have any philosophies of life you care to share?

If you want a change, change yourself. If you can’t change anything, deal with the situation as it is.

What are you really good at besides backgammon?

I can deescalate conflicts. I think that’s a particular strength of mine.

You have been spending some time in Japan lately. Care to talk about that experience or the people there?

It is true Japan was not just a trip or a journey; it was an experience, and I love to talk about that! I have to admit that my experience is from the perspective of a tourist, so there might be other points of view that are more critical.

The society in Japan is based on consensus and sense. They don’t have less individuality but they don’t express it with noise or violence like in many other western countries.

The streets are safe, all people I met in a nine-month period were extremely friendly and helpful. I didn’t even have to ask for help, just looking like I needed help made people stop and talk to me.

If you leave your wallet in a street cafe in downtown, it will be waiting for you when you return a few hours later. If it is not still at the table where you left it, it will be waiting for you at the counter of the shop.

Price transparency and great service is given like in no other country I traveled to. There are no tips in Japan (anywhere) and the taxes are always included. Waiters aren’t friendly because they look for a good tip. They are friendly because it is part of good service and they are proud to give good service. And the same great service is provided to all guests.

The food quality is the highest in the world, Tokyo has 160,000 restaurants and I never found any place with bad food. And, related to the quality, the prices are very fair and I would even say amazingly low! The metropolitan area of Tokyo has 35 million people, but I was never pushed or nudged during my whole nine month visit!

When things make sense, everybody commits to it. One example: everybody collects bottles for recycling. This happens in Germany too, but there is deposit on the bottle. In Japan a deposit is not necessary; people understand it makes sense so they do it.

Tokyo is full of modern and unique architecture. On a piece of land of maybe 25 square meters, where in Europe they might park two cars or put a tree, in Tokyo a 14-floor house will be built, earthquake proof, in about six months, and almost without any noise.

London and Tokyo both had terrorist attacks in the Underground system. London installed cameras everywhere. Tokyo just removed the hiding places. Instead of videotaping their people all the time, they removed all the litter bins in the whole city. (You won’t find any trash on the streets. People carry their trash home.) Both cities had no more attacks but Tokyo’s way is much more charming.

On every walkway are tactile trails for blind people around the whole city and in every metro station#151;all 181. Of course it is the same for the S-train system, the monorails and the regular trains. The public transport is amazing. You can get trains to the far south or north of the country every 15 minutes, and some of them are faster than 250 km/h.

In Europe I often heard politicians talking about the fear of “ending up” like Japan,” where the economy has grown at 0% for the past 20 years. They threaten voters with awful consequences such as high unemployment rates and inflation. Japan has jobs for every citizen, the unemployment rate is never higher than 4%, and prices are getting cheaper.

I can continue like this for hours. It sounds like the future, but it is Japan today. My advice for everyone: Watch Japan, enjoy it, and learn! Arigato.

You spent some time in Chicago recently. Why Chicago? What about your experiences there?

I came to Chicago, because MCG (Matt Cohn-Geier) told me there is a chouette everyday, and I wanted to play every day.

Not many cities with a daily chouettes are around. He also told me about the nice people, the great food, the beauty of the city, the museums, and the charming atmosphere. I made many friends in Chicago and it is one of my favorite cities all over the world.

You have become very close friends with MCG and have spoken very highly of his game. Can you tell us a little about him? (Matt Cohn-Geier is a young man who came from nowhere in just a couple of years to become one of the top players in the world.)

I was introduced to Matt two years ago in Tokyo, they told me he is “the new star” in backgammon. Well I had many of these new stars for breakfast over the years. They were all quite tasty. After I saw Matt playing I understood quickly that this breakfast could cost me all my teeth maybe.

In almost 20 years of backgammon I never saw someone learning so quickly as him. One of his particular strengths is that he is not affected by a certain kind of disease which is highly infective among top players—infallibility!

Some players after winning a big tournament were caught cheating on the Internet—not to make money, but to hide their mistakes. Some don’t want people to record their matches, or just don’t go to tournaments anymore. Others, when they make a mistake, will tell you hours and hours why their mistake wasn’t really a mistake but just a proof of their geniality. When Matt makes a mistake, he is only curious what was misleading to him. He doesn’t try to cover it; he wants to learn from his mistakes as fast as possible.

Matt is not only a strong player (profound understatement), he is an expert in food of all cultures, art, and music. He has a great sense of humor and is good friend.

What are your thoughts about the use of clocks, baffle boxes, and rolling tubes in tournament play?

Baffle boxes should, if not be mandatory, at least be optional at all tournaments. In my experience, they mean less cocked dice, and there is never a strange feeling if a freak sequence happens. Everyone knows the dice are well randomized, and there is no skill in the rolls, just in the moves.

Clocks are necessary in big tournaments where the format can lead to four or more long matches on one day. One slow player can screw up the whole schedule of the event and it is hard to keep the concentration high if someone is too slow.

The dice-tube might be a good tool but, as I like to see the dice roll, I won’t call it “my thing.”

How do you relax other than playing backgammon?

Backgammon does a lot to me, but relaxing is the wrong word.

I relax best over food with friends or a walk. But if friends are not around I like to swim or run for an hour, or read a book.

You spent some time traveling with Magriel. Can you tell us about him and about those travels?

I used to date his secretary. She once gave me a test he just developed. I scored 9 out of 10 and Magriel started to take notice of me as a serious backgammon player. Besides backgammon we understood very well many other aspects in life. We met and travelled to many tournaments together (in more than nine different countries).

Once we both had no sleep and went from Stockholm to Amsterdam via Brussels. In the Brussels airport we picked up the wrong luggage. It looked similar to ours but wasn’t ours. We didn’t notice (as were debating a equity problem and didn’t care about profane things like bags) until we were in the train to Amsterdam already and had to return to the airport then. Things like this happened a lot. We were late for the tournament in Amsterdam then. Registration was about to end and if I hadn’t reached a Swiss pro I just briefly knew on his cell and convinced him to pay the €3000 (poker tournament) entry for X22 (Magriel), the whole travel would have been for nothing. It was chaotic. But, as you know, only true genius can master the chaos.

Magriel knows like no other about the science behind the game and also makes science as entertaining as it actually is.

Who are your heroes in backgammon—people you respect either for their play or for other reasons?

I wouldn’t call anyone my hero, but there are certainly true heroes of backgammon around. My friend Kenji is one of them. He invested a lot of time and money to make backgammon popular in Japan and to bring Japanese players to big tournaments in the U.S. and Europe, and to invite the strongest players from all over the world to Japan. (Don’t miss his sushi party on the Thursday before the tournament in Tokyo starts.) For a few years he has gotten help from another backgammon hero, Mochy, who does backgammon summer camps for kids and introduces many people to the game in Japan and writes an exciting blog about all the tournaments he plays in (in Japanese only). Both play every Tuesday for free with anyone who is interested, in a coffee place in Tokyo.

Chris Ternell is another backgammon hero. He was a taxi driver from London and started the biggest backgammon federation in the world, the Danish Backgammon Federation. Without him, we might have no tournament called the Nordic Open. And maybe people like Gus Hanson, Morten Holm, and Mads Anderson would have never started playing.

Chiva Tafazzoli is a hero of backgammon. He gave up a good job to create a new tournament series.

Phil Simborg is a hero of backgammon. He created a university and high school program all over the U.S. to teach backgammon to kids and students.

All those people who invest time and effort in the game without looking for personal profit, and who bring the joy of the game to others, are heroes. My deepest respect to them. There are more of them around—watch out!

Do you play online? Where?

Very rarely, and only on GridGammon nowadays. I did play a lot 4 to 8 years ago, on Play65 and Party Gammon. I sometimes played more than 70 hours a week, and a good part of that time I was just waiting for action. It was good money, but my life came out of balance sitting 10 hours each day on the net waiting for customers, so I stopped.

You have played in chouettes all over the world. Where are the best, most fun chouettes?

I like chouettes everywhere, but recently I had the most fun in Hamburg and Chicago.

I love the Chicago Chouette Rules and the fact that they are written out and there is no doubt about what the rules are. I understand that you (Phil) and Jake had a lot to do with designing those rules.

There are a lot of interesting characters in backgammon. Who do you find the most interesting to sit down and talk to over dinner?

We had some good dinners, you and I Phil, right? Actually all of them where fun!

At tournaments, I like to go in a big group of people to dinner, so I can choose between different conversations and pick the best one. Good when at least one friend is part of the group so I am sure it never gets really bad.

If you were given major sponsorship to run a backgammon tournament, tell us about it. Where would it be, what would the format be, and what would you do to make it more interesting and exciting?

The place has to be easy to fly into, must be interesting itself, so social guests can come with players, and players have the option to do sightseeing as well. There should be a well cultivated local backgammon scene so a certain field of players can be guaranteed, and a good atmosphere too. As I speak only English and German, it would be in an English or German speaking country. I would consider Manhattan, Chicago, or Zurich. But Chicago has tournaments already (good ones). In Manhattan, it would be hard to find a good playing room and hotel for a suitable price. So my choice would be Zurich!

Zurich is a charming little city in the heart of Europe with an amazing landscape and lots of museums and great cuisine.

It is the biggest city in Switzerland and has an enthusiastic backgammon community. All of the players I met are extremely well mannered. Most of them speak at least three languages. And it would be easy make people from all European and American countries feel welcome and at home.

Knockout format (needs no introduction, everyone is familiar with this and people will know always how they will continue) with a fighters-bracket. All matches would be played with clocks. This way every one would have two chances for a prize. And more money on the prizes, because it is just four prizes instead of six. With clock play, everything would be easy to schedule.

The final key for a successful tournament is a good host, who takes care of all the guests, is accurate with the schedule, and always aware of what is going on.

To round it all up, I would invite Paul Magriel to do the seminar and the commentary of the finals, and Michal Buffer for the auction.

You recently shared a room with Paul Weaver. Can you tell us something about him and that experience?

As I said before in this interview, Japan was an experience. But sharing a room with Paul I wouldn’t call an experience. I shared a room with a friend, that’s all. We shared food, and the day we were in Lisbon before the tournament started, he cooked and invited me. Paul rests a little more than others. This is maybe the only thing to mention special about sharing a room with him.

I have known Paul since 2009. We had common friends from France and Japan and became friends too.

To reach a certain level of play you will have suffered and studied a lot. All world class players share a pool of experience without having to know each other in person. This common part can be a good basis, and on this basis I have become friends with most top players. Did you know he is an excellent piano player?

You have seen, first hand, backgammon all over the world. What are your favorite backgammon cities? Is the game very different from Japan to Denmark to England to the USA?

Chicago, Hamburg, Zurich, Paris, London, and New York all have big backgammon communities. Sure Copenhagen has a lot of action, but I haven’t played chouette there for six years, so I don’t feel qualified to talk about the action there. In Tokyo, chouette time is most Tuesdays but only for a few hours and people often don’t play for money.

I know the legal moves rule from Copenhagen but it is not too popular worldwide. I did play it in Chicago, and some other good rules, and would hope it would be everywhere. I tried to promote it in some chouettes but people are suspicious about it when they hear it for the first time.

My favorite backgammon city of all is Chicago. They have a big weekly tournament, are open and friendly to everyone new, and have clear and good rules for the chouette.

You won $100,000 in a major tournament. Can you tell us about that experience?

2002 in Monoco. Abraham Eitan announced he would do a tournament in Morocco with $100,000 added. Nobody really knew if it would take place, as 100K is quite a bit, and nobody knew the sponsor and the place. After almost three months on tour and just back from Las Vegas, I was in Hamburg just one day before Morocco started when I got a call from a player who arrived in Morocco: “The $100,000 added is confirmed, and there are only 16 players so far and 10 more reservations.” (Only hotel guests were allowed to attend the event.) I had just €600 left in cash and no credit cards. My money was at the bank. I had no time to withdraw more. I took a flight and hoped for the best. Andreas Humke helped me spontaneously.

The tournament was during Ramadan, so you couldn’t eat anywhere outside the hotel. The weather was cloudy and the 44 players were the only guests in 1000 room hotel. The whole atmosphere was a bit spooky.

First day was two matches, then a free day, then another match, then another free day, and so on. Forty-four backgammon sharks and no side action. The semifinalists were getting $2500, which barely covered the costs; there was 10K for the runner up and 100K for the winner. As you can imagine, there was a lot of hedging going on.

There was some added money at the auction and Phil Laak and David Wells bought almost the complete auction (started at last 16) and took the added money—smart guys! In the semi against Phil Laak, I became a huge underdog at double match point after leading 7-away Crawford earlier. Then he finally left a shot during the bear off and I was lucky to hit him.

In the final, I was always trailing until 3-away/2-away. Then I rolled a 5-5 from the bar that was hit and gammoned him with the cube turned. (X22 named the roll of double 5’s “snowflakes,” so my name is “snowflakes55” on GridGammon.)

I have never seen you get really angry or upset while playing backgammon. Are you the same way in the rest of your life, and how do maintain such a calm and pleasant attitude?

When I started to play, the environment was full of hustlers and popular way to make money in a game was putting someone on tilt. I remember when I complained about this to a friend, he told me it might not be my game if I cannot stand the heat, I also complained about some spectators who obviously seemed to enjoy seeing someone getting gammoned on a high cube. He replied to me that we play at a public place and they are part of the scenery. That was a tough school. I started to handle my own emotion and not blaming others if I felt bad.

I play backgammon because I love it. I actually like to face pressure. I like the challenge. I enjoy making a good decision in a difficult situation. Sometimes that means smiling when someone wants to needle you and sometimes it means shutting up when you see an opportunity for revenge. Not all backgammon decisions are about cube or checker play! Respect is the key, in the game and in life.

When you were in Chicago you took time out to visit both major zoos and you did a lot of other sight seeing. Do you do that wherever you go? Where are the best zoos in the world and what are some of your favorite cities to sight see?

98% of my travels are related to backgammon and when I travel to a tournament I often miss the time for tourist stuff. But even more than the major sight-seeing, I love the scenery and atmosphere of cities. I love to take long walks to get a feeling for the city I am in. Walking at nighttime thru a city after a busy day at the tournament is a good way for me to relax.

I like zoos as long as they are not just displays of captured animals but try to bring nature closer to people. An incredible fact to me is that some of these zoos sell only junk food and, except French fries, nothing is without meat. (I am a vegetarian.)

I liked the zoo in Lincoln park, which is free of admission (like the zoo in Mexico City). And twice in February, at 0°F, I was the only visitor at the time I was there. An amazing experience to see all those animals and not a single human.

My favorite zoos are the Night Safari in Singapore, which is so impressive because it is in rainforest and gives you a pure feeling of nature, and the one in Zurich, which hides the people from the animals and has a very big and amazing rainforest hall including a little lake and a very nice restaurant.


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