Former World Champion Zoe Cunningham on The Pedagogical Power of BackgammonMizban Host
Sports Editor Joseph Powell sits down with 2010 Women’s World Backgammon Champion and Trinity alum Zoe Cunningham to discuss Monte Carlo, the educational power of the game and octopus banquets with David Cameron.
oe Cunningham is a real renaissance woman. When we meet on a cold Friday afternoon in London (a day after the General Election and it’s roller-coaster all night coverage, which she sensibly didn’t bother with), she’s on her lunch break from a day working at home in her capacity as a managing director of a software firm, where’s she’s been since graduating from Cambridge.
This is, however, only one of a broad collection of hats she wears. When she’s not software-ing she’s acting, when she’s not acting she’s producing, and when she’s not producing she’s writing. Despite this, it is another pursuit entirely I meet with her to discuss today.
Ten years back, Zoe was mingling with the Bond villains and billionaires of Monte Carlo at the 2010 World Backgammon Championship. “It looks very glamorous from the outside”, she says of the tournament venue, “but you’re just in some big room in a hotel with lots of boards so it really just feels like a school hall”.
“It looks very glamorous from the outside, but you’re just in some big room in a hotel with lots of boards so it really just feels like a school hall”.
Setting was to prove no distraction, however. After multiple days of play Zoe was able to channel her mind – and her dice – to return to the UK with the World Women’s Title, a sizeable trophy and a slightly less sizeable prize for her efforts.
For any unaware, backgammon is a millenia old board game which see’s players race counters round a board – as determined by the rolling of dice – in an attempt to be the first to ‘bear off’, or remove all of their counters.
“The women’s tournament was much smaller than the main competition and I got lucky to get through the draw”. As she states, however, backgammon, as a dice based pursuit, constitutes a game of 50% skill and 50% luck and, as such, the emergence of good fortune is always a possibility.
She describes the final that secured her eternal Backgammon glory to me in what sounds like it could be a scene from any of the most gripping sporting epics. Having ably sidestepped the competition all over the ‘school hall’, she found herself in the final up against the wife of one of the main mixed gender competitions leading participants. Playing to seven points, her opponent managed to establish a six point lead at 6-0 leaving Zoe staring down the wrong end of a whitewash.
That was, however, until the psychological battle shifted in her favour. “You see it in all sports and particularly in those like snooker for example, when you’re about to win and all those thoughts start going through your head you actually play worse”.
Particularly so when external agents start helping the opposition. The aforementioned husband, clearly valuing his backgammon acumen above his wife’s, opted to make his thoughts known on a game his side was on the verge of winning
“He obviously felt this moral imperative not to help her but he kept walking over and tutting or nodding at all of her moves”. This was a sure fire recipe for a ‘psyche out’, and after losing several points Zoe witnessed the start of a ‘tilt’ in her opponent, a term most frequently used in poker to describe frustration at how the game has gone and a resulting anger which results in a player operating more emotionally and less rationally.
Before long, the cracks started to show and the points tumbled with them. From the edge of glory, her opponent went on to lose seven points without reply and Zoe walked away victorious and into the backgammon history books. As well as receiving the prizes, she now occupies a position few other Cantabs have reached as a former world champion of her discipline.
And yet it is a status that few in Cambridge and in the wider country would likely recognise her for. Backgammon does not enjoy the same standing in the U.K as it does in those countries geographically closer to it’s origins, such as Iran, Turkey or Lebanon. Further afield, Japan and Ukraine have recently contributed world champions, and Denmark, Zoe informs me, now has a burgeoning backgammon scene as the result of a Carlsberg promotion which saw branded boards sent to pubs across the land.
“I think backgammon is even more beneficial because it revolves around managing probability, risk and reward”.
I ask why it seems this lag exists, asking if a sense of inaccessibility surrounds the game whose rules and scoring are sometimes seen as alien to UK crowds. “It’s just like anything, until you have someone to show you how to play it you won’t pick it up”.
For her, this came during her time at Trinity, where she and her sci-fi/board game-loving peers spent most evenings hunched over one game or another in the corner of a pub.
For many players of a new generation however, this familiarisation has come through online videos and computer programmes which have bought this millennia old game through 21st century media.
It’s exactly amongst this next generation that she sees the game holding the most potential for. “There’s a great organisation called Chess in Schools for Communities and chess teaches some really useful skills”, she says, careful not to denigrate another member of this ever so tightly knit board game community. “But I think backgammon is even more beneficial because it revolves around managing probability, risk and reward”.
It’s a convincing argument. While ambitious parents, keen to give their kids an initial push in life, have long looked to the perhaps more outwardly intellectual game of chess, backgammon can offer practice in the management of unknowns and external forces invaluable in any business, she says.
“You can also pick it up much quicker as it’s essentially like Ludo when you first play”, a comparison which provides me with fond flashbacks to the ‘popping’ dice of my childhood set. “And in chess you will always lose to a stronger player, whereas in backgammon luck means you always have a chance”.
One important aspect of backgammon’s DNA complicates this task however. Much like Poker the game is most frequently orientated around gambling, but when the game is played without any kind of wager it’s players and processes function quite differently.
“When you play for money every point matters, and as soon as you don’t have that, accumulating lots of points means very little”. This can be countered by a modest wager of the gold bullion of children’s currency, some sweets, in order to ensure minds are focused.
These considerations are however no longer at the top of Zoe’s to-do-list. After a fateful reassessment of what she was doing and what she wanted to be doing at age 35, she threw herself into her childhood passion of performing. Fast forward to now, and after numerous screen performances and shows, the latter of which frequently involved her booking a venue herself and filling in the blanks later (“If you book something you’re committed and you no longer have the choice not to do it”), she now looks forward to a busy 2020 which will include a run at the Edinburgh fringe and two feature film releases as both producer and actor.
In this realm, she’s keen to emphasise the importance of building connections and networking (on which she’s quite literally written the book, ‘Networking Know-How’). “Work breeds work, so when you’re working you meet more people and you’re able to get more work again in the future”, skills presumably honed away from a backgammon environment she describes as frequently terse and ill-tempered.
Before we part (and before I try and leech some of her wisdom through some speedy games of backgammon on her iPad at my insistence, in which I unsurprisingly fail to register a point) I ask her about one of the quirkier aspects on what is an already eclectic CV. What was it like flying to China as part of a trade delegation led by then PM David Cameron as part of her software work?
“I didn’t really get the chance to speak to David that much amidst many people sucking up to him” she says, evoking an image one can visualise without struggle. “But I did get to share in the experience of a six course Chinese delicacy buffet of pickled octopus and squid”. On this resplendent image we head our separate ways.
Alas, one for my next backgammon lesson perhaps.
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