Victor Ashkenazi is originally from Moscow. He moved to New York City when he was 25 where he lives today and works as a Vice President at Goldman Sachs. In 2013, he was voted by his peers as the No. 11 Giant of Backgammon. He brings not just a great skill to the game but also a wonderful demeanor and good sportsmanship.
|Can you give us some basic biographical information about yourself?|
I am originally from Moscow but traveled a lot in the Soviet Union. I spent 10 years in the very north of Russia, near The Polar Circle. I played hockey outside when temperatures dropped to −50° C sometimes. I studied Civil Engineering at St Petersburg Technical University.
I moved to New York City with my parents when I was 25. It was supposed to be temporary, while we looked after my ailing grandmother. She passed away but we decided to stay. I knew maybe 10 English words when we arrived here, having learned French in school and university.
I now live in New York City and I am a Vice President at Goldman Sachs. My 18 year old son, Max, is in college, and he is also studying Engineering. I simply cannot win without Alia rooting and standing by my side.
I started playing backgammon in Times Square around 1998. Within a couple of years, I had trouble finding people who would play with me. It was a very lively backgammon scene at that time.
By the way, Mochy was living in New York at that time, learning the game, trying to win some money at chouettes. I don’t remember him then, but he told me that he was warned only to play games that did not include me. He followed that advice.
I began working as a computer programmer in January 1999 and finished an M.S. in Financial Engineering at NYU Poly in 2005. I am still working, though now on the business side.
Victor’s son Max is following in his father’s footsteps studying Engineering
|I understand you had a background in chess before playing backgammon. How good were you? How good are you? And how did you get into chess?|
Chess is more of a childhood love. My career was very short. I started playing in tournaments when I was about 12 and quit serious chess at age of 15. I won a junior regional tournament in Russia, became an expert, then had to concentrate on finishing school and stopped playing competitively.
After moving to New York I started playing speed chess again. I was playing at around 2300 ELO in blitz chess. (That is “Master” level, I believe.)
|What made you give up chess for backgammon?|
I started playing backgammon in New York City, well after dropping serious chess. No connection there.
I am a competitive person, so my ambition in backgammon grew from the desire to win. I fell in love with the game and the more I played and studied the more I liked it.
|How have you become a such a top player? Have you read books? Taken lessons? Do you have a mentor or teacher that has helped you? What do you do on a regular basis to improve your game?|
About the only book I can remember reading was New Ideas in Backgammon, by Kit Woolsey — many years ago. I did not take lessons. I was watching people play in Times Square for couple of months before starting to play myself — so I learned the hard way, through live play.
After about a year I bought Snowie and practiced with it for about a year. I think that helped me polish my game and gain a confidence in my positional understanding. I have to say that Snowie was always kind to me, rating my game pretty high almost from the get go.
So my way of improving the game was through practice, live and online. I was an active player on all major sites at the time. (I believe I was the #1 rated player at every site at some point.) People often knew my online nicks better than my real name.
I remember playing the first couple of times at the Monte Carlo World Championships, and my opponents never knew who I was until we talked about playing online and I would give them one of my nicks. They would say: “Oh, Socrat!”
|How many hours a week do you play or study backgammon?|
I play matches online and analyze them. I do it more lately (a few times a week, a couple of hours a day) than I did for the past several years when I almost exclusively played live.
I believe that a very important part of my self-education is checking my live matches. Thankfully, with the new trend of recording matches during tournaments, and the great volunteer work by several backgammon enthusiasts, a lot of my live matches have been recorded, analyzed, and published. I believe over 60 matches were posted just on the bgonline forum. It’s a great source of information.
You might think you are a great player, and maybe even play well at home with a personal computer. But it is a different and challenging task to play at a high level in live matches against different opponents with a lot at stake.
I always agree to be recorded and never stop my matches from being published regardless of the results. I think transparency regarding your live play is a necessary part of being considered a top player. I know a number of top backgammon players share that philosophy while there are a few very notable exceptions.
|I have to admit that I am really jealous of people like you and Matt Cohn-Geier (MCG) and others who went from a total beginner to a Giant in a very short period of time. What’s your secret?|
There is no one way to do it (and that makes backgammon even more fascinating). In fact, there are almost no similarities between top players in their approach to the game.
I view backgammon as a positional, harmonical game. There are strong players that rely on hard work and technical analysis. There are many players (maybe the majority) who rely on remembering reference positions or trying to calculate mathematical equities.
I guess the only thing we all have in common is that we love the game enough to put other interests aside and dedicate ourselves to playing and learning backgammon.
|Where do you play live and online now?|
I occasionally play in chouettes in New York City. Most of my live play is at major U.S. ABT tournaments, and I attend a few international events. Just about all of my online play is on GridGammon.
|What advice do you have for a relative beginner to learn the game well?|
I would advise not rushing as you play your matches, and don’t pay a lot of attention to your results at first. Make sure you analyze your matches on Extreme Gammon (XG) or GNU Backgammon and try to understand your mistakes.
Seek advice from a professional teacher or online sources to help you understand the areas which you find most complicated.
|What advice do you have for a more experienced player, such as a strong intermediate (8.0 PR), to take his game to a higher level?|
The better you play, the more difficult it is to improve your game. You need to work harder and go much deeper into positions to really understand what is going on. Anyone can make obvious plays and decisions, but to become a strong Open player, you have to learn how to make the tougher and closer decisions well if you want to stay ahead of the competition at that level.
|Recently in a conversation with Mochy, he said that he agreed with me that any reasonably intelligent person can become a sub 4.0 PR player if they work hard enough, and long enough, and work smart. Do you agree with that?|
I’m not positive about that. I think backgammon is a very complex game that doesn’t have too many standard rules to follow. Changing a position slightly — just moving one checker a little — often leads to a very different outcome in terms of what is the correct play.
I think becoming a very strong backgammon player is based on developing inside the flexible tool that will allow a player to come up with the best decision-analyzing approach for each position.
I’m not a big believer in remembering reference positions, as any memory lapses may result in big errors because the player believes that he “remembers” the position and doesn’t apply critical judgment. I think backgammon skill is a mix of a hard work and talent.
|What are your greatest tournament results and backgammon accomplishments?|
I have not played in that many tournaments. By far my busiest tournament year was 2012 when I played in around 10 ABT tournaments. I won the N.Y. and Tampa Opens that year, the Las Vegas and L.A. Masters, and cashed in a few other events.
I also won the Las Vegas Open in 2007 and the N.Y. Open in 2009. Both were very strong tournaments with a number of top players participating. Playing for the World Team at the Nordic Open the last few years has been a great experience, and a proud moment.
Biggest achievement? I can’t think of one. It would probably be online play over the years. (I was one of the most feared opponents in the world.) I am also very proud of my level of play in live events, as proven by XG analysis. There is no question that XG’s PR rating is the best method we have right now of measuring skill while playing.
|Tell us a little about your experience on the World Team at the Nordic.|
Both times it was an electrifying event. The first year we lost a very close match. The entire event was decided on the last roll of the last game at double match point, when we had five numbers to win — double 2 or greater — and we didn’t roll it.
Last year we won by a big margin, though the last team match featured a very exciting game that lasted several hours, when the Danes recubed to 4 and had a chance to get back into the match.
I think our team from last year was close to the best team the World could possibly have assembled. It was a perfect combination of different styles and experiences, and the average strength of our players was exceptionally high.
|Who are your heroes in backgammon — people you really respect for their play or their contributions to the game?|
I don’t have heroes in backgammon, but I respect the game of a lot of players. I admire Falafel’s positional understanding, Mochy’s technical knowledge, Sander’s talent, Akiko’s winning, and many other players’ strong qualities.
|What is the weakest part of your game and what are you doing about it?|
Not knowing match percentages could be viewed as a weakness, though I never felt particularly handicapped by that. Coming up with the right cube decision at different match scores involves much more than remembering percentages. It’s more of a general positional understanding I believe that helps me to come up with the correct answer.
|Do you have a favorite tournament format?|
I like Swiss movements.
|What other games or activities are you good at aside from chess and backgammon?|
I play soccer and volleyball pretty well and enjoy them very much.
|What other passions and interests do you have?|
My childhood passion was reading. I like music and movies. I try to see a new movie every week. I prefer independent and foreign movies to Hollywood productions.
|We have talked a lot about tournament play, but I know you also have a fine reputation as a money player. Who would you rank amongst the best in money play?|
Please keep in mind that I may not know or have seen many strong players, but from my personal perspective, in no particular order, I would consider these some of the best: Falafel, Wells, Trabi, Mochy, Sander, and Gus. Recently I really like Akiko’s game. She is a Judit Polgar of backgammon!
|What are your plans for future tournaments and travel in backgammon?|
I really don’t make distant future plans. In terms of 2015, I expect to play in New York, San Antonio, Nordic, Monte Carlo, and one (maybe two) of the new great tournaments in Cyprus. There could be two or three more tournaments depending on my schedule. I liked the Carolina Open last year around Labor Day and may play there again. “Faster Masters” is a fun event there.
|If you could change any of the rules of backgammon, what rules would you change?|
I definitely prefer legal moves and mandatory clocks. I am glad to see more tournaments requiring both.
|Are you good at speedgammon? Do you enjoy it?|
That is my favorite type of game. I would prefer all Masters events to have speed gammon rules — 10-second delay per move and 1 minute per point of the match.
|Some say David Wells might be the best speed gammon player. Do you agree? Who would you rank highly in that area?|
David was my teammate in the last World-versus-Denmark match. I didn’t know him personally before. I was most impressed with his game — speed gammon or otherwise. Others who are very strong that I have seen include Sander, Falafel, MCG, and Petko.
|How do you think the top players of 20 years ago would stack up against the top players today?|
I know very little about Nack’s game. Many say he is still very strong and I am sure if he, Grandell, Levermann, Sheiman, Snelling, and the other greats of the past played today, they would do well if they continued with their studies and updated their games according to what we now know from the bots.
From that generation, and the players that I know well, I think Senk was one of the best, one who managed the transition to the new game with his own style. Malcolm Davis’s results and level of play are still amazing. His winning the Masters Jackpot in Las Vegas this year, and a consistently strong showing in other tournaments makes me a believer in Malcolm.
|What players will you be putting near the top of the Giants list that maybe weren’t mentioned or weren’t as high as you think they should be?|
I don’t think my Giants list would be too different than the actual one. Among the players who are underrated on the Giants list, in my opinion, would be: Wells, Kristensen, and Obukhov.
|What other top players do you hang out with and are your close friends? Could you share an interesting or funny story about any of them?|
I consider a lot of backgammon players personal friends. The entire list would be too long. As lawyers like to say, “Included but not limited to”: Petko, Dima, Tuvya, Falafel, Arkadiy, Mochy, Akiko, Carter, Mark Brockman, Tomas Kristensen, Yaroslav Gusev, and many others.
I think backgammon is blessed to have so many interesting personalities.
|What do you think needs to be done to help grow the game and make it more popular around the world?|
The creation of a unified world backgammon federation should be the first step. Then (1) a unified, Federation-approved, set of rules; and (2) a series of qualifying tournaments leading in a logical and consistent way to selecting a true World Champion.
All of that should help players’ enjoyment of the game and attract new sponsorships. We see pockets of backgammon growth in communities around the world. A global organization would help to provide a direction for this growth. I believe chess could be taken as a model.
|I know you are a full-time professional in the financial field, but it appears you could make living playing backgammon if you chose to. How many people in the world do you think to make a living playing the game? (By “making a living,” I mean live comfortably.)|
If we take backgammon alone, then there are probably no more than five to ten people who live comfortably off of backgammon. And if we call “professionals” only people who live off their tournaments earnings, then the number would be close to zero. It is not a smart career choice at this time.
|Why do you live in New York? If you had to move, where would you live?|
New York is my place of choice. I don’t think I could live that long anywhere else. This city (though crazy and stressful) offers great variety in culture, food, and personalities!
|When you are playing an inferior opponent, in the early rounds of a tournament, and even in later rounds, do you alter your game in any way based on the skill difference? Are you more likely to pass racing games and more likely to take and give cubes in complicated situations?|
I do, but not too much. I think adjustments are overrated. I feel that sometimes people use it to explain their mistakes. Of course, if an opponent is very weak, I may cube later in the race and may not take a close take in a race. But those things are easy to figure out for most players.
|Will you share with us a huge blunder you have made in a tournament recently? Talk about why you think you made that error and what you have done to prevent making similar mistakes in the future?|
I make way too many blunders to remember them!
Phil: Good answer. I like Dr. Livingston’s quote: “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.”
|Most agree that ExtremeGammon plays better than any player in the world. Do you agree? Do you have any records to show how you do against XG on average?|
I don’t play a lot against XG. I find it boring, so I pretty much use it just to analyze matches. My PR is somewhat flexible and depends on my current form. I average in the high 2’s when I’m in good shape and 3’s when it slips a little. I just try not to go much worse, meaning if I have a bad match, it’s usually still in 4’s.
I believe that my PR in live, recorded matches is the most important and I study those matches the most. That’s where you are on the spot, with a clock and distractions and pressure. And that’s when your true abilities and shortcomings really stand out. I’m one of the most recorded and analyzed players, and my results and matches are out there for all to see.
Phil: Many people get bored playing XG for the reasons you stated. It always doubles at the right time, so almost all doubles are takes. And it plays so well it is not like playing a real person.
I have a suggestion for you and all reading this: When you play XG, don’t play against the highest level. I generally play against the 4th level (Professional), which does make a few mistakes, and might double when it is not right and might slot wrong, etc., just like a human.
|When you are not being recorded, do you take pictures or record specific positions? After the match are you able to remember them and then analyze them?|
Thanks to a good memory, I don’t usually take pictures during the match. When I play an important match and spend a reasonable time thinking about plays, I usually remember it. Sometimes I can recall the whole match, but certainly, I remember the key positions.
Phil: Wow. I have seen MCG input an entire 9-point match after playing live and was, and still am, in complete shock. I have seen Jake recall many times when he played the same position 10 years earlier, and he could also tell you what the waitress was wearing (if she was attractive.) There is no question this kind of memory has to be a major advantage in your game.
|Do you read the latest articles online and in backgammon publications?|
I am a member and supporter of the U.S. Backgammon Federation and I read PrimeTime Magazine.
|What do you do between matches at major tournaments to relax? Or do you study?|
I enjoy chouettes when I am at tournaments. The stakes can be low or high — I just enjoy the game and socializing. That’s how I relax.
|I love chouettes too, but I find them too distracting for me during a tournament, unless I am out of the running. What do you find so much fun about them?|
Why are they fun? Well, it’s fun to turn the game around against someone like Carter and see his facial expression on the recube. Or hear Tuvya’s comment on my play: “This is an insane move!” Occasionally winning a bet on a play against the whole table is priceless.
And what could be better than winning few crazy back games against David Todd? Or hosting Akiko and MCG or Falafel in the New York chouette and gammoning them in the box, along with few mean members of the Downtown game.
That’s what gets my juices running. Most of all, backgammon is a really fun game and I love it!
|You have an interesting last name which clearly identifies you as Jewish. Do you care to talk about your family history and culture and/or your religious beliefs?|
I do identify myself as Jewish, but it’s more of a cultural aspect in my case as I’m an atheist. My family has been through a lot of adversity (as most Jewish families in 20th-Century Europe, and especially the Soviet Union) but we are still alive and carry the torch. And that, to me, is the most important thing.
I have become an American citizen and I couldn’t be more proud. I love this country and its people. Even the people in New York! I am also proud of my Russian heritage.
Now, having answered that question, I look in the mirror and ask myself: Who am I?
|When you have a particularly unlucky streak and the dice seem to be going bad for you, what are your thoughts? How do you handle it?|
Great question! How I handle it changes over time, and it depends on my form. I think over the last few years I have learned to take the dice as a given matter — it’s rolled, just play it.
This approach helped me to play well and achieve good results. If it looks like I am irritated it is probably not because of the dice but because I’m not on my game and not playing well.
|Most top backgammon players are very strong at math. Are you? Have you studied math? Are you able to easily divide by 1296 over the board and do you do that kind of math over the board?|
I was strong in math in my childhood and have an M.S. in Financial Engineering, where statistics play a big role. But I wouldn’t call myself a math junkie. I rely more on my memory and feel for positional understanding.
|If you had to pick out one trait of your personality or mind that has helped make you a great player, what would it be? (MCG said it was his ability to home in on the most important factor very quickly and accurately and ignore the noise, for example.)|
No, I could not isolate a single trait or approach. For me, improving in backgammon is finding out more about myself as a person. It is a little like playing musical instruments. When I find that inner harmony, I can solve most backgammon problems over the board.
Phil: Well, you may not realize how big an asset it is, but when you say things like, after a match you might be able to remember the entire match and every position, that is not something many people can do. So your memory might be a much stronger asset than you realize. If you had to play a year with, for example, my memory, you might realize what an asset you have there!
Good point. You not only have to learn something, you do have to remember what you’ve learned and been able to use it when you are playing.
Phil: You may not know this, but I chose to interview you because you truly are one of my heroes, and not just because of your skill, but because of your wonderful demeanor and good sportsmanship. Thank you for doing this interview and for your support of the USBGF.
Interviewed by: Phil Simborg