Internal vs. External Risk in Backgammon: Precision Dice, Dice Cups, and Rigged Dice.

Posted on Jan 20 2010 by Zontik Games in Backgammon
A spattering of precision dice

A spattering of precision dice

Most of this post was originally penned by our great friend Robert, a backgammon player and collector in the Pacific Northwest. We thought that it would be useful to our readers to share some of Robert’s extensive knowledge. What follows are pieces of an exchange we had with Robert back in November of 2009. We hope you enjoy it.

Here we will address precision dice, dice cups and rigged dice, because in a fundamental sense they pertain to the same issue, which could be characterized as minimizing “external risk”, to be distinguished from “internal risk”.  First, a word about “internal risk”.  Backgammon, at its core, is the challenge of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty and in the face of the inevitability of risking having a checker or group of checkers hit at some point during the game.

It’s barely conceivable that if a player threw nothing but the appropriate doubles on each and every throw of an individual game, then as to that specific game the player might possibly be able to run his 15 checkers around the board without ever leaving any individual checker exposed.  The possibility could, in practical terms, ever exist, but even so it is so remote as to never be a factor over a series of games. A player must determine when and to what extent he will accept the risk of being hit (and thus sent back to the bar) in exchange for the potential to advance the balance of his checkers, confine his opponent’s checkers, and possibly hit one or more of the opponent’s checkers.

These are the risks that are inherent in the game, and hence (in our parlance) the “internal risks” of backgammon.  Expertise in backgammon consists in managing those elements of internal risk.  The players who pride themselves on their backgammon skills revel in those elements of internal risk, and insist of doing everything in their power to assure that the dice produce utterly random rolls.

More after the jump!

As many of our readers may be aware, a great number of backgammon games are played for money, or for a money prize in a tournament setting.  It should come as no surprise that when money is at stake (and occasionally, considerable sums of money), some players will resort to devious tactics to enhance their prospects for winning.  This brings us to “external risk”.

There are well-documented instances in international competition of individual players playing with doctored dice.  In one of the best introductory books on backgammon every written, “The Amazing Book of Backgammon[,] Learn How To Play This Classic Game of Speed, Skill and Strategy” (Chartwell Books, 1995, now out-of-print), the British professional magician Jon Tremaine devotes an entire chapter to well-known cheating techniques as well as an introductory essay on “The Facts of Life”.  Here is a pertinent extract (from page 18):

“Before we go any further there are one or two facts of life that you should know about.  Dice can be ‘manipulated.’  There are a handful of people around who can throw dice ‘to order.’  I am not joking . . . it’s a fact.  As a member of the Inner Magic Circle of London you can take my word for it.”

Tremaine then gives “three simple rules” to keep the novice out of trouble:

“Rule One:  Never allow your opponent to throw from his hands.  Insist that he uses a dice cup or shaker.  If he refuses . . . find another opponent. [Italics original]  Rule Two:  Use shakers that have a ridge inside about half an inch (12 mm) from the top edge.  The ridge effectively trips the dice as they leave the shaker, making manipulation from the shaker impossible.  Oh yes! I know people who can even manipulate out of a shaker, but not if it has a ridge.  Rule Three:  Use small dice.  They ‘mix’ better in the shaker and roll further.”

Now precision dice, as we expect you know, have each of their six faces filled with material of the same weight as the matrix of the dice themselves, in consequence of which each face weighs the same as every other face.  Precision dice also feature rounded, “ball corners” to promote better “action” as they roll across the board playing surface, thereby promoting truly random rolls.  (Even precision dice are not “proof positive”.  Some tournament directors have reported instances of doctored precision dice, some with extra weights embedded into one face or another, or in a particularly notorious instance, where the “2-face” was doctored to become a “5-face”, thus investing the particular dice in question with two “5-faces” each and no “2-faces”.  In a bear-off race, how would you like to face those particular doctored dice?)

The bottom line is, for casual play among friends, any dice will suffice and dice cups are nice but non-essential.  But for anyone contemplating serious backgammon play, even if not for a money stake, no serious opponent will agree to play with you if you do not have (or agree to use) precision dice and dice cups with trips.  Only with such equipment can the “external risk” of cheating be discouraged (if not entirely eliminated) and the game confined to addressing the manifold elements of “internal risk”.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2010 January 27
    backgammon permalink

    Any truth behind the rumor that in non precision dice the “higher” sides are heavier, thus naturally breaking the randomness?

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