Interview with Danny Kleinman, April, 2010
Danny Kleinman might be called “the Accidental Backgammon Author.” It was by accident that he learned to play at all, by accident that he began to play in chouettes, by accident that he was driven to learn the strategies of the game, by accident that he first played in tournaments, and by the accident of nobody else having written what needed to be written that he wrote several groundbreaking backgammon books.
When I ask experienced players to name the best backgammon books, at least one of Danny’s is often on that list. Though he hasn’t written a backgammon book for some time or played competitively for some time, he stays in touch with the backgammon community through articles and many friends and relationships made over the years.
If the game of backgammon itself doesn’t convince you that the improbable events occur more often than most people believe, perhaps some of Danny’s experiences will.
How did you get introduced to backgammon?
From my arrival in Los Angeles at the end of 1962 until the Cavendish West Club closed its doors in mid-1993, I frequented rubber bridge clubs. In the early 1970s, probably thanks to Billy Eisenberg who had recently moved here from New York, I saw some of the better young players playing backgammon while waiting for the evening bridge games to begin. In 1973 I began watching, and learned how to play that way. Occasionally, I would play a few games with companions for dimes (yes, the coins, not the $10 bills). I played very badly ... “without concept,” as Barclay Cooke might have put it.
One of my bridge friends was the late Stella Rebner (1910-1990), a great player who liked to hustle weak players. She didn’t want me in her bridge game unless there was nobody else to form a table. I would pick her up and drive her to the Cavendish West most weekday evenings after work (I had a job as a computer programmer).
On arriving early one evening in 1974, she saw two of her favorite pigeons waiting to form a game. Patti Medford, a staff member, was supposed to join them to start the game until others arrived. However, Patti was playing in a $2 backgammon chouette with Sam Wilson and Sylvia Cooke. When Stella asked Patti to form a bridge game for her, Patti demurred, “I can’t break up the chouette.”
Stella drew me aside and whispered, “Do you play that silly game, badminton or whatever it is called?”
“It’s backgammon, and I play, but not well.”
“I don’t believe you, Danny. Everything you do you do well. Cut into that game and I’ll back you, paying if you lose and sharing what you win.”
It was an offer I could not refuse. In those days, chouettes were consulting. When I was Captain, my Crew member, Sam (an excellent player) or Sylvia (not very good, but still a lot better than me), was all too happy to tell me what to play, and I always obeyed. Soon I won the Box and thought I was doomed. However, I won. How did I win? Well, Sam and Sylvia clashed. When one wanted to play a back game, the other wanted to go forward. When one wanted to blitz, the other wanted to prime. So they wound up following no one game plan consistently.
Soon I was playing for my own money in $1 and $2 chouettes with other beginners and slightly more advanced players. I had only two strengths as a backgammon player at that time, but they sufficed to make me a consistent winner. First, I did not make mechanical errors, such as failing to see a hitting play or leaving a blot unnecessarily. Second, I was not cube-happy, and in truly bad positions I was willing to pass cubes that others would take.
I played the game without any deep understanding until 1976, when I had to learn more about the game in order to program Jack Gammon, the first backgammon-playing machine. That happened because of a series of coincidences: I had been laid off from my previous computer programming job and was freelancing at the time; the computer programmer first approached to “make a Pong machine for backgammon” was a former colleague of mine who knew that he couldn’t do it but had confidence that I could and recommended me; the good backgammon player who was briefly a partner in the project soon got a paying job and backed out; the two other good backgammon players whom I approached to take his place both declined.
What was your most fun, exciting win?
My first tournament, late in 1976, which I attended purely by accident, at the not-yet-officially open Dirty Sally’s in the Valley, where a birthday party was being held for Barbara Eisenberg (Billy’s then-wife and also a backgammon enthusiast). Never in my life have I been “in with the in-crowd,” and that was no exception. Half the backgammon players from the Cavendish West had been invited, but of course I hadn’t, even though I had known Billy longer than any of the others had. One of the invitees was Alan Freeman, a pleasant gin rummy and backgammon player. Early that evening, Alan approached me for a favor. His car was in the repair shop: would I give him a ride to the valley?
We arrived just in time for some coffee and birthday cake, and as I indulged, Alan Martin, who was hosting the event, called out, “We’re having a backgammon tournament. Everybody put ten dollars into the pot!”
So I paid the $10 and played. I played four matches, one against the lovely and excellent Lee Genud (a backgammon author and future world champion). My last match was the final against Billy, who had won a world championship the year before. Leading the match at 4-away, 3-away, Billy doubled me; he had a keen nose for doubles at just the right time. I took, and managed to play a holding game with the best anchor on his 5-point. Just when I had built my prime and board, Billy was forced to leave a blot on his 8-point, giving me direct 3s and 2-1 to hit.
A throng of eliminated players had gathered to watch. They gasped when I redoubled as roughly a 13-to-23 underdog to win the game. But I knew something that they didn’t know. I had recently worked out match cube strategies and my charts confirmed my redouble as technically sound. I hit the shot and coasted to victory in the game and match.
What are some of your pet peeves about backgammon players or tournaments?
Attempts to influence the dice by hocus-pocus of any sort, whether incantations, silent meditation, “dice changes,” variations in the manner of shaking and rolling, or telekinesis have always bothered me. All are a waste of time if ineffectual and worse (cheating!) if effective. The dice should be viewed as merely a means of obtaining two independent random numbers from 1 to 6.
How long has it been since you wrote a backgammon book? Are you planning another?
I haven’t written a backgammon book for the last 14 or so years, except in collaboration with others: the fine gentlemen and keen students of the game, Antonio Ortega and Norm Wiggins. I do not plan to write more backgammon books, and with good reason. Having played no serious backgammon since Costa Rica After several years of gushers, my backgammon well began to run dry. I suppose that whatever I had it in me to discover and explain about the game, I have already done. It is for others who know more than I do to make further contributions to the literature. Moreover, as Jeremy Bagai detailed in his book Classic Backgammon Revisited, much of what we thought we knew isn’t quite so. Voluminous rollouts using fast and excellent modern backgammon programs have demonstrated this and have shown the unaided eyes of Barclay Cooke, Paul Magriel, myself and others who have analyzed backgammon to be highly fallible. If I were to go back and study the books I have written, I might find erroneous opinions, or at least opinions I would now change 1993, and not having watched any backgammon since the Cavendish West folded on June 30, 1993, I have not come up with the new insights that fueled my early backgammon writing.
Is your game sharp now?
I don’t keep my game sharp. Watching good players play could suffice, but since the demise of the Cavendish West Club I have not even done that. My backgammon game, which was never as good as that of top experts, has declined in the nearly 17 years that I have neither played nor watched serious backgammon, partly from lack of contact with the game except through reading and writing, but also for another reason. From 1993 through 2005, I was married to a woman from Europe who had learned backgammon on her daddy’s knee but did not play very well. She insisted on playing with me, and at first I would win at the rate of more than 1 point per game, e.g. 31 points in 23 games. Soon she started accusing me of dishonorable practices, e.g. “cowardice” when I passed her cubes, “greed” when I beavered or merely took and was able to redouble later, and a few other things that I don’t even remember. To keep her happy, I adopted special procedures, including always asking her advice (and taking it) on cube decisions (yes, simply by doubling and advising me to pass, she could have won 1 point per game) and also playing every game as a massive back game, leaving blots whenever possible (e.g. playing and opening 4-3 by slotting my 5-point and 4-point). As backgammon is more of a reflexive than reflective game, good moves residing as much in the fingers as in the head, my game slid downhill even more rapidly than if I had not played at all.
What do you, or did you do for a living?
I programmed computers from 1960 to 1980, and briefly in 1991. Since the mid-1970s, I have been a writer, an editor, a professional bridge player, an occasional backgammon director and bridge director (never “certified”) and mathematical consultant and proofreader.
You were very active as a player in the 70’s when backgammon was at its height. Who were the must fun and interesting characters in the game, and can you tell us an interesting or humorous story about one of them?
Strangely, I was very active as a player only as a beginner, in 1974, 1975 and the first half of 1976. By the time I learned to play well (mid-1976), there were no chouettes in which it was appropriate for me to play. I couldn’t afford the stakes in chouettes with strong and very experienced backgammon players at the Cavendish West (and having to figure out each play instead of making it quickly, intuitively and accurately, I didn’t figure to be a winner in those games). Neither did I have it in me to want to “hustle” the $1 and $2 chouettes I had played in previously. (Susan Alch, a staff member of the club for many years, used to call me the worst hustler she had ever seen. She was mistaken. I had ceased being a hustler at all in late 1963.)
During the time when I was most active as a player, the most interesting character was Gaby Horowitz. I liked and admired Gaby for his flamboyance, skill and (yes) charm. What could be more entertaining than to watch Gaby play head-to-head against one of his “pi-zhones” (as he called them in his Israeli accent)?
One evening at the Cavendish West I was among a throng of spectators while Gaby played Spencer Nilson. Now Spencer was a pi-zhone par excellence. I didn’t play well, but I thought I could spot Spencer an opening 3-1 and be a favorite. At first I was amused at some of Gaby’s antics. For example, when Gaby left an indirect shot and Spencer was lucky enough to roll a hitting number, Gaby would casually rest an elbow on the blot. It was less amusing when Spencer failed to notice that he could hit. When Spencer rolled a number that could make a useful point, Gaby would indicate some irrelevant point that Spencer could also make with the number. It was less amusing when Spencer took Gaby’s advice and made the irrelevant point.
Finally, in one game Gaby rolled double-6s when he had two men back and needed 5s to escape. Gaby had only two legal ways to play his double-6s, both crashing, with one play clearly inferior to the other. The “lesser-evil” play looked obvious to me, but Gaby, who usually played very quickly, studied the position for an inordinately long time. Suddenly a pretty lady walked by, and as Spencer diverted his attention from the board for a second or two, Gaby’s two back men sprinted all the way to his outer court, just as if he had played a 5-7 twice.
I knew that Gaby had deliberately moved illegally, and went promptly to report all that I had observed to Patti Medford, the director on duty at the club that night.
“The club will do nothing about it, Danny,” said Patti. “It’s your word against Gaby’s.”
However, it wasn’t. It was my word against nobody’s, for Patti had not spoken to Gaby about it. When Gaby left the club late that night, I followed him out the door. Without my saying anything, he guessed just what I wanted to talk to him about.
“You saw how I played that double-sixes against Spencer, didn’t you, Danny?”
“Tell me, Danny, where was the cube?”
“It was at two, Gaby.”
“And what do you think would have happened had I played the double-sixes legally?”
“You would have lost the game.”
“Would I have lost a gammon?”
“Yes, indeed. And tell me, how do you think I was playing?”
“And how was Spencer playing?”
“Now, answer me honestly, Danny. Considering how well I was playing and how badly Spencer was playing, would it have been justice for him to win a gammon? To make sure that justice prevails, I have special moves for special people.”
What logic! What candor! I was speechless.
How would you rate the top players of today against the top players in the 70's?
Some of the younger players today have had the opportunity to learn things that were unknown 35 years ago, from the advanced backgammon books of Cooke and Magriel at the start of the modern era down to the more recent books of Ballard and Weaver, with others including Robertie, Woolsey, Ortega, Wiggins, Bagai, Trice and I hope myself also advancing backgammon knowledge. So I would guess that today’s top players are better than those of several decades ago.
That is not to say that the old-timers were any less talented than the younger experts of the current era. It is hard for me to imagine talents greater than (for example) Oswald Jacoby and Tobias Stone, two enormously gifted players of both backgammon and bridge. In the 1980s, I had the sad experience of watching Stone visit the Cavendish West, where some of the stronger young players were waiting for him. Stoney played brilliantly for the most part, and I rated him as better than any of the others in the chouette---but then, unaccountably, he would blunder once or twice, and lose to his less gifted but less error-prone opponents.
Backgammon was tremendously more popular in the US in the 70's. Do you think it will ever become that popular again?
No. I suspect backgammon will shrink in popularity as more becomes known about the game and players will have to work harder just to keep up. There are parallels in contract bridge and chess. When the world and I were young, just yesterday, bridge was such a simple game a child could play, but now before sitting down to play with a new partner, a player has a zillion things to discuss: which jumps are weak and which are strong, whether to signal rightside-up or upside down, which conventions to play and which not to play. No wonder a newcomer to the game might be discouraged. In chess, there are other kinds of changes that make the game less accessible to most people. In 1950, when I was at the peak of my game, I favored the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense, for which the state-of-the-art book of chess openings listed about three columns. Thirty years later, I visited the home of a young chessplayer and saw an entire library of chess books with three entire volumes, each by a different author, all titled The Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense. It was then that I thanked my stars for the accidents of fate that steered me away from chess into bridge. So much tedious rote mastery had become necessary just to keep up in chess. If Nack Ballard and Paul Weaver ever complete their series on backgammon openings, they will not only have advanced backgammon knowledge, they will have made backgammon forbiddingly difficult. A paradox of sorts: the more that is known about a game, the less popular the game becomes.
How do you compare backgammon skills to that of bridge, gin, and poker?
Utterly different, except in one respect. Neither Diana Dialacube nor Colonel Whiteflag can become very good at any of these games. Diana will go for large penalties, and the Colonel will miss excellent games and slams, at bridge, because one is a “gambler” (i.e. gambles when the odds are against her) and the other is too cautious (i.e. bets only one what is almost a sure thing) in all games. Temperament conquers technique.
What advice would you give to a new player that wants to become a top player some day?
Practice. Play. Play with stronger players, but only if you can play for shamelessly low stakes. Tournament play is best, because you can play against the best while risking only your entry fee. Watch. You don’t have to play with stronger players to learn from them. Read. Study.
Do you have any special tips or strategies that you think have really helped your game?
A couple. First, do not attempt to follow algorithms (“If you can do X, do it. If not, do Y if you can. If neither, maximize W or minimize Z.”). Instead, compare alternatives. Second, do not underestimate the importance of strong boards, something emphasized in Boards, Blots and Double shots, the book I edited (well, practically rewrote) for Norm Wiggins
Do you have any philosophies of life you care to share?
Well, though I never formalized any of the following as “philosophies” of life, here goes.
“BACKGAMMON OR LIFE: Concept precedes, temperament conquers technique; vision laughs at counting.”
There are of course, ways in which backgammon and life are similar. In each, chance and probabilities play a large role. You can make right decisions and wind up losing in consequence, or wrong decisions that work favorably. Anyone who reflects on his experience playing backgammon, or for that matter bridge, another complex game that combines skill and luck, will realize that immensely improbable events occur regularly. An expert at chess or checkers (100% skill games) will probably also have some flair for backgammon, but may be hampered by a false expectation that technical skill will always win.
In other ways, however, I regard backgammon (along with other games) and life as opposites. In games, I play to win---or rather, to maximize winning chances---and each competition is “zero sum,” meaning that for me to win, an opponent has to lose, and wins and losses must balance out. Life is not zero-sum, meaning that (a) some actions benefit everyone involved, (b) other actions harm everyone involved, and (c) still other actions benefit some while harming others. I seek actions of Type (a), try to shun actions of Type (b), and try to handle Type (c) by making sure that all honorable people with whom I deal come out “ahead of the game” by dealing with me. I look for “plus-sum” games, opportunities to do good for others at little or no cost to myself.
In games, I try to get the better of opponents. In life, as far as possible I want to avoid dealing with dishonorable people, but in dealing with honorable people, I want to make sure they get the better of me. I am responsible for what I give to or do for others; they, not I, are responsible for what they give to or do for me (to quote from Tom Lehrer’s great song of the same name, “ ‘That’s not my department,’ says Werner Von Braun.”).
Other points worth stating:
*The less you need, the richer you are. So many of the things that people think they need are mere wants.
*See clearly what is good and what is bad, but do not dwell on the bad. Ignore the bad unless you think you can fix it. Try to fix the bad if you can, but focus on and appreciate what is good.
*Realize that you cannot make everything perfect. Insistence on perfection impedes progress. Seek improvements, no matter how small. Look for niches, opportunities large or small, to make things better.
*Do not consider any useful task beneath yourself. Suppose, for example, you are at a club and not currently involved in a game or match, and one of your companions says, “Would you please fetch me a cup of coffee?” You have every right to decline, thinking and perhaps saying, “Who do you think I am, your servant? Why don’t you get it yourself?” You will be happier, I suggest, if you ask, “Cream and sugar?” and when you return with the coffee say, “Thanks for the opportunity to do something nice for you. I so seldom get the chance.”
Have you read any recent books or seen any great movies lately that you would recommend?
I see very few movies nowadays. The last movie I would recommend as “great” was Forrest Gump. The books I read nowadays are mainly new bridge books (I “coordinate” book reviews for The Bridge World magazine and occasionally write reviews myself, sometimes as a reviewer of last resort when somebody else turns down a reviewing assignment) and old books that I did not read at the time of acquistion. One recent bridge book I would recommend, even for those who have relatively little interest in the game itself, is Bobby Wolff’s The Lone Wolff, a bridge memoir that sheds considerable light on the politics of organized bridge and may contain lessons applicable to other organized groups.
What’s the best backgammon book or article you’ve ever read?
Paul Magriel’s Backgammon, despite the errors found in it by Jeremy Bagai.
Aside from backgammon, what are your other hobbies or interests?
Contract bridge, my main activity as writer, teacher and player nowadays. Psephology, the study of election systems, to which I have contributed in my little book ONE MAN, ONE VOTE: A Ballot for Americans. Songs, which are in the back of my head even while I’m busy doing other things. I’ve written many hauntingly beautiful songs, which I sing from time to time at small gatherings of musicians.
Tell us something about your youth, where you grew up, where you went to school, your family, where you live now, what are your plans for the future?
About 13 years ago, I wrote a long memoir, Everybody’s Out of Step But Johnny, that answers most of these questions in detail. Anybody interested can buy that book from me. I don’t believe in brief answers to large questions, as summaries without details illuminate little, but if you want a short answer, visit my website, www.dannykleinman.com, and read my “bio” there.
What would you suggest to make backgammon more popular and exciting?
Backgammon is exciting enough as it is. Adding courses in backgammon to high-school curricula might make it more popular, and would be beneficial to students in general if taught from a perspective of probability theory, psychology and sociology. And I should like to see emphasis on the sport instead of the money: instead of chouette or ordinary head-to-head play, tournaments just for fun and prestige, matches just to see who buys dinner for the other.
Who are your heroes in backgammon…people you respect either for their play or for other reasons?
Paul Magriel, perhaps the only person who might qualify as a backgammon genius, for his fine textbook. Nack Ballard, the best player I ever faced, not only for his skill as a player but for his poised and polished manner of playing, and for his excellent book with Paul Weaver. The late Barclay Cooke, despite the multitude of errors unearthed by Jeremy Bagai (and even before then, by others, including me), for the grace of his writing (but let’s give some credit also to Joe Fox, his editor at Random House) and his emphasis on concepts and insights. Neil Kazaross, for a keen analytic mind matched by equally gifted play. My wonderful co-authors, Antonio Ortega and Norm Wiggins. Bill Davis, for his editorship of The Chicago Point and his efforts as a director to improve the rules and make fair rulings. Phil Simborg for his excellent backgammon website and postings. Lee Genud (but why did she marry the men she did instead of marrying me---was it because I was too shy?).
Do you have any other thoughts or views about any subject at all that you would like to share with my readers?
Well, thoughts come and go in my head about many different things. Since I began to write in earnest in the late 1970s, I have tried to put my thoughts in writing and then gone on to something else. Your readers are welcome to correspond with me about things (other than games) that interest or concern them.
Note from Phil Simborg:
I would like to add to what Danny pointed out about the game being less attractive to new players than it was in the past.
I was a life master in bridge at age 21 (in the 60's). I lived in Dallas and played often with Oswald and other legends of the game and held my own.
I stopped playing for a few years because of family, work, backgammon, and other interests. 10 years later I got back into the bridge and within about a week with a little study I was a top player again and even did extremely well in The Nationals in Chicago in the mid-70's. Then I stopped playing again and went back to backgammon and other interests.
4 years ago because of Norma Gartner and my sister-in-law (both top bridge players) I was encouraged to get back into bridge. As Danny pointed out, the game had become so complex with so many new bidding systems and conventions that I quickly realized that if I wanted to play at a high level again, I would have to put in a tremendous amount of study, and I realized that I would have to give up backgammon and maybe one or two other interests to do that. So I forget about bridge.
This clearly proves Danny's point, and I can see how this applies to competitive backgammon as well. To do well today, even in a chouette, you have to know and study a lot more than you did in the 70's when the game was at its peak. The computer programs, which Danny didn't specifically mention, is the main reason in my opinion. We now know enough about many moves and positions that give us an additional 4 percent here and 6 percent there that, when we add them up, the player who studied has a 20 percent advantage right off the bat over an equally-talented player who has not studied. Again, proving Danny's point that the more we know and more sophisticated we get, the less attractive it is for entry level players.
This might be a most important lesson for the USBGF and those of us trying to grow the game, and I think it also goes along with some of the things I have been advocating relative to the rules and tournament play. There are all kinds of rules and procedures that make the game better and fairer for top tournament players, but these same things (clocks, touch-move, The Holland Rule, etc.) would be a real turnoff and intimidating and complicated for new players. That is why I advocate a separate set of rules for the Open and Masters, and I would make the rules and formats for those divisions even more skill-oriented so that we truly do award more for skill. But for the lower levels and entry levels, we need to keep the game simple and more about the fun of playing and the excitement of rolling 6-6 or hitting a shot. That's what initially attracted me, and most people to the game. Only later did we find out what a prime was.