(Interview, January, 2010)
Many people consider Nack Ballard to be the greatest backgammon player that ever lived. There’s little doubt what the players think of him, as he has been consistently at or near the top of the list of Giants (an expert poll, taken every two years since 1993). Nack reigned for six years (2001, 2003 and 2005 cycles) as No. 1, and he was No. 2 before and after (1999 and 2007 cycles). No one else come close to these statistics.
As for career highlights:
1975 Nack learns backgammon and becomes a world class player in 3 month (pretty amazing accomplishment before there were any bots!)
1982 Nack wins the World Professional Championship in Las Vegas, the strongest tournament held in that era.
1984 Nack is voted #1 in the world in a poll conducted by Kent Goulding at the US Invitational in Washington, DC.
1985-1993 Nack takes a break from backgammon and becomes one of the best Caucasian Go players (5-dan). In 1990 Nack becomes one of the top few Scrabble players in the world, maintaining a rating over 2000 until he retires from Scrabble and returns to backgammon three years later. More recently, he became the top Color Lines player in the world.
1999 Nack crushes the strongest computer program in the world in a famous documented $200/point match (no tricks), netting 60 points in 300 games.
Nack has countless victories the world over. For just a few examples in recent history, he won three or four major events simultaneously at both the World Cup and in various Las Vegas tournaments and he won the prestigious high-stakes Pro-Am tournament three times consecutively.
Nack has also contributed several variants and adjuncts to backgammon, the most popular of which are:
Nackgammon (Link) Nackgammon
Nactation (link) Nactation
Naccel (link) Naccel
Kangaroo (link) Kangaroo
Nack was kind enough to answer many questions from me:
How did you get introduced to backgammon?
At the age of 17, I was hustling chess for quarters in the North Beach area of San Francisco. I discovered speed chess tournaments (with several masters) played in the basement of the Gambit Game store, I started directing them, and the owners made me proprietor of the game room in exchange for no gaming fees.
Among the tables where chess, Go and sometimes Scrabble were played, I noticed a weird game (that I had only seen on the back of a checker board) being played with checkers and dice. When I saw money change hands, I became hooked and started playing for 1 cent a point. Fortunately, I was still a kid, so people were very accommodating.
By the time I worked my way up to 10 cents a point, I was winning enough to support myself. (Hey, rent of $83/mo., $2 meals -- this was the 70s, man.) There was a wonderful German fellow with an unquenchable spirit named Klaus who smoked a constantly pivoting pipe and would sometimes drop a hundred points to me in his lunch hour; that went a long way.
What is your favorite tournament or type of game?
Go. I wish I’d learned it when I was younger. In Asia, kids learn it when they are four years old, become disciples, and turn into awesome professionals. Ah, in another life! I’m respected for my Go over here, but from the standpoint of the top players in Asia, I’m just another clown. That doesn’t stop me from playing over the games of the masters when I have time: that is my most pleasurable gaming experience.
What was your most fun, exciting win?
The last one, usually.
Thinking back, I suppose the most exciting was my finals win over Sandy Lubetkin in Vegas one year because not only was it close but it was on the heels of close matches with Kit Woolsey and Berj Abadjian (semis), where I was nearly drawn dead both times in key games before a combination of their dice and mine turned it around.
How would you like to see the game changed, and what are some of your pet peeves about backgammon players or tournaments?
(1) I support match-recording rights exclusively by TDs so that they can supplement their income by selling matches, and gain sponsorship through live backgammon broadcasts, etc. Gammon Million had the right idea here; they just didn’t stick around long enough for all of us to see the benefits. This would increase badly-needed TD incentive, helping to ensure the survivability and growth of backgammon, and eventually lead to added money.
At the same time, I believe that an individual should have the right to decline having his match recorded by anyone other than the TD – opponent or otherwise. At the moment, the latter issue seems to still be in a gray area, but I dislike the way the trend might be moving.
(2) Clocks. (a) To prevent time abuse, and (b) To aid the mechanics of playing with one set of dice, as two sets lead to more disputes. I have been lobbying for clocks for decades; I’m happy to say that great progress has finally been made recently.
(3) Breaks. When clocks are used, I think breaks should be factored into a player’s time. (Exceptions can be made for the physically challenged.) For example, instead of giving a player 22 minutes of reserve time in a 11-point match, give him 33 or whatever. Players should go to the bathroom and whatever else before a match begins, and if they need another break they can use the additional reserve time for that. Breaks are a hidden drag, causing the worst stalls in tournaments.
What typically happens now, clock or no, is that the player wants a break, and then another, and another – bathroom, smoke, phone call, bathroom again… Some tournaments limit the breaks to one or two per match, but even then each rule-stated 10- or 15-minute break can turn into 30 or 45 minutes (worse in some countries).
Monitoring breaks has too many logistical problems, and no onus should be placed on opponents to continually lodge complaints. Putting breaks on the clock, therefore, seems to me to be the best solution, even if there is a liberal time allowance, or even if there is a clock function (or side clock) that runs at half-speed for breaks. The duration for matches would be more predictable, there would be a lot less waiting around for players ahead in their bracket, and more time for them to enjoy the sights, sleep, and/or participate in side events.
3) Touch move, as implemented in chess, or a slight variant I call “motion move.” For what game other than backgammon do you get to try a move on the board, take it back and try another? This is basically stealing a one-move look ahead at the expense of the other player who is no longer looking at the actual position, loses focus in his own strategic conceptualizing, and has to track your fake moves.
“Touch-move” means that if a player touches a piece he has to move it (if he legally can). “Motion-move” means the same except you are uncommitted until you put the piece into motion. Either way is fine.
A tolerable compromise or transition might be the one-shuffle rule: a player gets to make one complete (or partial) move, and once he has reset the original position, it then becomes touch-move. Also, whether it’s the one-shuffle or the (current) infinite-shuffle rule, a player should “offset” the checkers (move them to a high part of the destination point) to minimize the chance of a dispute.
(Phil, I know you are Chairman of the Rules and Ethics Committee of the newly-formed USBGF, and I hope you will use your influence to encourage acceptance of these recommendations.)
What advice would you give to a new player that wants to become a top player some day?
Read books and articles. Try to write one yourself. Listen to strong players discuss positions. Roll out positions. Play against bots and review your errors.
Most people find playing to be more fun, but they study too little as a percentage of their allotted backgammon time. At the beginning, 50/50 is okay. Later on, I think optimal is study/play of at least 95/5. That said, not everyone is like me; you also have to do what holds your interest.
How do you prepare for tournaments?
Do you have any special tips or strategies that you think have really helped your game?
What was the best lesson you ever had?
In Chicago, about ten years ago, I was captain in a strictly non-consulting chouette. I had hit two checkers and was on the way to a closeout. I needed a 4 to escape a prime with several rolls of timing to do it, but I didn’t get the 4 until I was close to cracking. Suddenly, I rolled double 4s, which escaped and hit a third checker outside, winning a likely gammon. However, I found a different play: I broke my 6pt and 5pt, reducing my five-point board to a crushed three-point board and turning my spare into a blot.
True to our chouette code, my team members Malcolm, Senk and Harvey (as I recall) conveyed neither the slightest sound or body language while I googol-whoppered our game away. KG’s only comment, as he redoubled (a cube we couldn’t take) was, “What number were you hoping for?” In a nightmarish moment of realization, I quietly excused myself and went to bed (btw, leaving behind my leather jacket in the bar area of the hotel, which I never saw again).
What was my lesson? Humility and humanity. I never again stayed up for 84 hours straight at a backgammon tournament. I had intended to print up a tee shirt with the double 4s position but never got around to it.
You are the highest-rated player on Gridgammon, currently with a rating of 2080. To what do you attribute your great success?
That’s easy: Nackgammon. The percentage chance of beating a lower-rated player is higher when games are more complex. To be clear, I don’t play Nackgammon to maintain a high rating. I just enjoy it more than backgammon so I play it more. Gridgammon probably has at least one Nackblitz a day—great fun.
How many hours a week do you play backgammon?
Play? Few. But I teach, write and study most of my waking hours. I basically live and breathe backgammon now. [I can personally attest to the effectiveness of Nack’s teaching—I took lessons from him myself some years ago and it raised my game significantly! Information on Nack’s backgammon lessons can be found at http://www.nackbg.com/lessonswithnack.htm.]
You have written a great book with Paul Weaver, Backgammon Openings, Book A, [http://www.nackbg.com/buynewbook.htm]. Are you working on the sequel?
Paul and I wrote on how to play an early game 31. It teaches you, in full color illustration, how to flourish your hands and puff out your chest as you are making your 5pt. (Just kidding. The content is vastly more comprehensive.)
In a divide-and-conquer strategy, Paul is continuing with the non-doublets (e.g., Backgammon Openings, Book B, on the roll of 42), and I am working on the doublets. I am also entitling my series: Backgammon: Early Doubles, to minimize confusion. (The title refers to both kinds of “doubles:” doublets in the early game, and cubes in the early game.) Volume 1 will be on double 1s, Volume 2 on double 2s, etc.
Aside from backgammon, what are your other hobbies or interests? What are your rankings or accomplishments in these other areas? How did you get into playing Go, Scrabble, Chess and the other games you excel at?
I started playing chess and Scrabble at the age of 8, though I was seriously starved for opponents. Instead I invented Super-Monopoly, twice the size in both dimensions and having additional paths through the interior, and found a few people to play it with me on both sides of the pond during some early years of travel.
I attempted to take up chess seriously when my folks moved out west to San Francisco in the summer of 1974 (at age 16), but I demoted chess to an occasional hobby when I learned how to play backgammon and Go less than a year later!
In the same year (1975, now), I was properly introduced to Scrabble by Lester Schonbrun, who kindly (and I mean that) trounced me regularly for very low stakes. I went on to play a fair amount of Scrabble during the couple years I was trading in Chicago (’76 and ’78), and then took it up again when I moved to Seattle in 1990. I wrote/published a Scrabble newsletter (entitled “Medleys,” which was also my phone number) from Jan. ’91 to Dec. ’93. My devotion to Medleys (which was profoundly time-consuming) probably broke my first marriage but otherwise it was loads of fun.
Meanwhile, I had been on and off again with Go over the years, with it always bubbling under the surface as my favorite game. Too bad life has to get in the way sometimes.
Other hobbies? Volleyball, cats, piano, Thai food (can that be a hobby?), and most of all spending time with my wife Hsiao-Yee for whom I’ll never be able to find enough superlatives. I also love racquetball, though I don’t play it like you do, Phil.
So many top backgammon players have gone to poker either because they like it or because there is so much money in poker. Have you considered that? How do you compare backgammon to poker?
I’ve been on the edge of “giving in”to poker for a few years now. I’ve had great advice from Dan Harrington, Bill Robertie, Jim Pasko, Steve Sax, Stick Rice, Wayne McClintock, Hugh Sconyers, (and I apologize for forgetting anyone on the fly). I have read a book and a half, bought several more (unopened), and registered to play online but I still haven’t played a single hand.
So, I’m rather unqualified to compare the games. I suspect I will like poker less than I like backgammon (which is much of the reason I’ve held off), but I can’t really make that determination until I’ve at least tried it.
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?
My, I’m really jumping around here. Perhaps my flashbacks and flash-forwards will keep things lively, though.
I was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, along with an older brother and two younger sisters, by Edith and William Joseph Ballard. My mom sang on the radio (mostly before becoming a mother); my dad was Director of Music at Northwestern University (and three other choral groups) for fourteen years, and later directed the San Francisco Boys Chorus for ten years. From age 7 to 13, I was a chorister, singing regularly in a couple of church choirs and three of the latter years in the Berkshire Boys Choir (centered in Massachusetts).
Though all four siblings have kept up with music in some fashion, I’m the only member of my family who chose to pursue games. Chris is a software engineer, Ruth is a molecular biologist, and Katie is a piano teacher. No doubt that makes them smarter than me, but I have to wonder if they’ve had as much fun.
My most interesting school experiences were in England, where I went to St. John’s College School for Boys at the age of 11 and 13 (two non-consecutive years). The quality of teaching was much higher than I had experienced in the states, and I loved playing the rough-and-tumble sport of rugby -- often in the mud and rain -- in the afternoons.
My three years of high school in the South (one in Vicksburg, two in Shreveport) were less glorious. On the one hand, skipping a grade (ninth) shortened my suffering, but it only increased my feeling of being out of place – I was known as the Yankee and everyone around me seemed a foot taller. (I was a late bloomer, and as you can see I never really bloomed into much.)
I was told I would love high school. I hated it. I was then told I would love college. I decided not to fall for it. As George W. once said in a speech, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice [awkward pause]…you ain't gonna fool me.” Or something like that. I found a more productive way to spend my next several years (between and sometimes during my game bouts): smoking pot.
You asked about the future. The only objective to which I aspire is catching up on my e-mail –in the last month I’ve fallen way behind.
What would you suggest to make backgammon more popular and exciting?
I miss the checker recirculation games of the 70s. In the hopes of bringing it back, I propose “slot-gammon.” The only rule change from backgammon is that you must give your opponent a direct shot with his back checkers on the opening roll. Slot-gammon leads to more exciting games.
I probably have little chance of getting slot-gammon off the ground if you keep pushing the Simborg rule instead. But some of our goals are shared.
Who are your heroes in backgammon…people you respect either for their play or for other reasons?
I have a lot of friends in backgammon who I would like to keep, so the safest answer is to mention someone who is no longer living. Chuck Papazian, who lived in the Bay Area at the time I learned backgammon, was something of a mentor for me. In part, I think it was because he looked like my hero: TV detective Columbo (link) Columbo -- played by Peter Falk.
For the other part, Chuck looked like the bulldog shooting pool in a famous picture hung on my wall. (link) Bulldog
What is your favorite side-event or alternative form of backgammon?
Of the ones currently played, Nackgammon. (link) Nackgammon
But I’d really like to see slot-gammon tried.
Do you have any other thoughts or views about any subject at all that you would like to share with my readers?
No, I think that covers it. What it boils down to is that I’m rather a dullard.
NOTE: I received the following email from Danny Kleinman:
Thanks for an outstanding interview with Nack. However, you forgot to add that Nack plays the game the way it should be played, honorably, and as a perfect gentleman without "shtick" or other offensive habits. That, besides his skill at backgammon, makes it a pleasure to draw Nack as an opponent in a match, win or lose.