Oh! Calcutta!

I’ve just returned from a backgammon tournament in Chicago. The format was a modified Swiss system. I will write more about Swiss tournaments soon – there is much to recommend them.

I did well in Chicago. I tied for second place in the open devision of the main event, and came within a single game of the overall championship. So, despite the fact that I, of all people, know how very much luck there is in backgammon, I’m tempted to think of myself pretty highly as a backgammoner just now. And, while it’s undoubtedly true that I wouldn’t have done so well without some measure of skill, I have to keep in mind that however good (or otherwise) I am, I haven’t gotten materially better since the last tourney I played in Minnesota, where I failed to win a single match.

In All That Luck, I offered some thoughts about how backgammon players deal with the fact that their game is so heavily dependent on chance. But there were on display in Chicago some additional ways that backgammon players have devised to recognize skill when actual match results are so capricious. One of these is the Calcutta auction.

Calcutta auctions are betting arrangements akin to the pari-mutual system. Punters bid on lots consisting of players in a tourney about to be run. Calcuttas can be run in different ways – there were even two different systems in use for the two divisions of the main event in Chicago. But here I’ll describe how a the auction for the open division was handled, which happened in a way typical of other backgammon Calcuttas I’ve seen.

The names of the 52 entrants were listed on a sheet in two groups. There were 17 players in “column A”, who represented the organizers’ plausible selection of the best third of the field. Five of the “Giants of Backgammon”, an honorific based on a bi-annual poll of active players, headed the list in order of their giant ranking, followed by twelve others, most of whom had won major tournaments in the past. The other 35 players were listed alphabetically in “column B”. Each auction lot consisted of one player from column A, together with the purchaser’s choice of two players from column B, except for the last lot, which had the remaining three players from column B.

It’s common for the auctioneer to be an active bidder. The auctioneer “makes the market” – the value of each lot depends critically on the anticipated size of the prize pool. The hammer price of the first few lots tends to define a rather narrow range of values for the others. In Chicago, the lots were in the range of $250 to $525, and in the intermediate division the spread was even narrower from $160 to $260. This suggests that the bidders are well aware that chance will play a large role in determining the winners, but it’s also true that the system offers bidders who know (or think they know) which players are better (or worse) than their reputations to profit from that knowledge.

But even for those who have no interest in bidding, the Calcutta auction is a fascinating proceeding. The level of the bidding, and the order in which the less elite players are chosen from “column B”, are indications of the reputation of the individual players. I expected to be one of the last chosen, and was pleased to be chosen about three-quarters of the way through the process instead. And the purchaser, no doubt, was glad of the choice. My lot that contained the 23rd best player in the world according to the Giants list, but it was my success that made the lot pay off.

After the auction but before the draw for the first round, each player has the right to buy back a fraction of the lot that includes himself or herself. And it’s not uncommon for other shares of the Calcutta interest to change to be bought and sold informally as the tournament develops. Those who own Calcutta shares in players doing well are interested in the results – the person who bought my pool came to watch parts of my matches in the last few rounds to follow his investment.


In the past few years, some major backgammon tournaments that used to feature Calcuttas have discontinued them. Perhaps the fact that the city once called Calcutta is now called Kolkata makes them seem old-fashioned – a vestige of the past. Whatever the reason, I think it a shame.


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