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Luck Vs. Skill in Backgammon

Luck Vs. Skill

By Phil Simborg

 

People often debate the question of how much of backgammon is luck and how much is skill.  The answer is simple:  the closer the players are in ability, the more luck there is.  In fact, if you take two players of identical skill level, it’s all luck!

 

Take two players where one is slightly better, the slightly better will win slightly more games.  And take two players where one is very much better, the better player will win very much of the time.

 

Until the invention of the backgammon software programs, there was no way to really measure how much luckier one player is than other.  Snowie and ExtremeGammon and GNU (the bots) measure luck on every roll and reports which player got luckier and by how much.  While some debate the accuracy of the measurements, most agree that it is a reasonable measure of luck as it rates each player’s roll based on how much the roll improved his odds of winning the game or match.  They also tell you how many really great rolls, or “jokers” each side rolls in a game or match.

 

I have studied hundreds, maybe thousands of matches in the bots, and I have found it to be quite consistent relative to the results.  The luckier player will often be the one who won the match, but only if he is not significantly outplayed by his opponent.  I have seen, generally, that an expert player will often beat an average player, regardless of luck.  I have also seen that when two players who are relatively equal in skill play, it’s often the luckier player that wins.  But even then, the luckier player only wins a significant number of times when he is extremely lucky…say twice as many “jokers” as his opponent.  When the luck is fairly close and the skill is very close, the match could go either way.

 

The most misleading thing about luck is that better players usually are luckier.  The fact is, it’s true!  But the reason is this:  the better you play, the more good rolls you are likely to get, and the worse you play, the more good rolls there are for your opponent.  So if you’re one of those people who always thinks he has bad luck, the odds are it’s because you are playing worse than your opponent.

 

The conclusion is that yes, there is luck in backgammon, but in the long run, skill wins out.  In the short run, anyone can win, and that’s one of the things that makes the game more fun.   Of course, the longer the match, the less luck becomes a factor.

 

There is one HUGE luck factor in backgammon—who you are lucky enough to play!

 

[Note:  There is one other factor about luck that I think is important to note.  I have played many matches against players who are very close to me in skill, and often one of us will outplay the other significantly in a given match.  The difference is NOT that one of us was sharper that day, it is that one of us was “unlucky” enough to get a lot of tougher checker and cube decisions in that particular match.  So the biggest luck was not caused by dice giving one of us jokers, it was by the dice giving us tough decisions.]

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