Rolling the Bones, Part I

As discussed elsewhere, backgammon players have varied reactions to the enormous role that chance plays in the game. Among the interesting implications of this are the elaborate, and sometimes contentious, practices that surround the rolling of the dice. In serious backgammon, rolling the dice is not just a convenient way to inject a chance element into the game – it has grown into a kind of kabuki theater.

This post begins a short series on dice rolling in backgammon with a consideration of the dice themselves. 

Ordinary dice of the sort widely available in shops are not considered suitable by serious backgammon players. It is a rite of passage for new players to acquire a set of “precision” dice, which cost about $15 a pair, and can be obtained from specialty backgammon suppliers, or bought at major tournaments. In Europe, most precision dice bear unique serial numbers, but American precision dice do not. When I played in Switzerland, some of my opponents doubted whether my un-registered American dice could be considered precision dice.

Precision dice differ from ordinary dice because they are, at least in theory, manufactured to higher standards. The pips that mark the number for each die are not drilled out and painted. This would make the one-pip side of the die very slightly heavier than the others, and so make it minutely more likely for the die to roll a six rather than some other number, especially the one. The volume occupied by the drilled-out spots is replaced by material of a contrasting color that is supposed to be of exactly the same density as the material that was removed.

Most precision dice are at least somewhat transparent, supposedly to make it more difficult for a dice cheat to hide a “load” – a bit of high-density material that’s introduced to unbalance the die. Transparent dice are, however, somewhat more likely to be mis-read because pips on sides other than the top side may be visible through the die. So opaque precision dice are increasingly fashionable.

Unlike the dice used at the craps tables in casinos, precision dice have rounded corners. Casinos use dice that are very nearly perfect cubes, but this gives them sharp edges, and prevents them from rolling easily. At craps tables, the player has to throw the dice a considerable distance and bounce them off a wall with an irregular texture. But this will not do for backgammon, where the roll needs to be made within the part of the backgammon board to the player’s right.

Now, it makes perfect sense for serious backgammon players, who often spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a backgammon set, to want to play with good dice. But the abhorrence of ordinary dice is still a bit hard to understand. Well made conventional dice are pretty darned fair – it would probably take thousands of dice rolls before one could confidently conclude that a given pair of dice are not exactly fair.

Tomorrow I’ll move on to consider the use of dice cups and the rather odd rules about what kinds of throws should be allowed.

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