Rolling the Bones, Part II

Yesterday I opened a discussion of dice rolling in backgammon with a post about the dice themselves. Today I’ll move on to discuss some aspects of the way they are thrown.

The manner in which the dice are thrown in backgammon is of considerable concern. Simply throwing them from the hand is not permitted in a serious game. At a minimum, one uses a dice cup, and such cups should have a “lip” around the top inner edge to prevent the dice for sliding, rather than tumbling, out.

The dice cup is to be shaken vigorously up and down before the throw. Some players have a higher standard for vigorous shaking than others, and arguments over whether an opponent is shaking the dice hard enough, long enough, or vertically enough, are all too common. One suspects that, in many cases, the issue is raised chiefly in an attempt to put the opponent off his or her game.

Rolling dice from a cup, especially after vigorous shaking, is an imprecise operation that, by design, gives the thrower limited control of the way the dice emerge from the cup. Thus, it’s not uncommon for one or both of the dice to land somewhere other than inside the table to the player’s right. The rule is that any such throw needs to be redone.

At present, the backgammon world in the United States has been polarized by a new rule promulgated by the United States Backgammon Federation, or USBGF. As issue is whether a roll that results in a die resting flat on top of one or more checkers should count as a fair throw. Traditionally, a die landing on top of a checker was considered a “cocked” die, which voided the throw.

But dice landing on top of checkers is a fairly common occurrence, so that re-throwing those rolls slows down the game. This is worse when the game is being played under time control. Standard time control for backgammon gives each player twelve free seconds for each play before their reserve time begins to run, and needing to re-throw dice landing on checkers consumes a good part of that twelve seconds. Worse still, the need to re-throw dice landing on checkers tends to penalize one player more than the other, as one player is always throwing into a part of the board that tends to have more checkers than the other side, where the opponent throws the dice.

Some backgammon rule sets used to allow the player who would otherwise have to throw into the cluttered side of the board to ask the permission of the opponent to use the less-cluttered side, but in 1990, for some reason, that option was removed from the tournament rules.

In any case, in 2016 the powers that be in American backgammon decreed that henceforth dice landing on checkers are not to be re-thrown. And there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the backgammon community. It is probably the most contentious issue we face.

Some see the new dice-on-checker rule as a useful innovation, one that ameliorates a well-known problem with the way the game is played. Others see it as a needless change that can only cause chaos when long-time players reflexively scoop up dice landing on a checker to re-roll, leading to arguments about what numbers the dice were showing before they were picked up. Feelings run high. At the recent Michigan Summer Championship, the chair of a rules committee suggested that tournament directors be allowed to revert to the old dice-on-checker rule – he was cheered by some and booed by others.

Let’s pause here and consider what rule you might come up with if you considered the problem unencumbered by any knowledge of the traditional rules and practices of the backgammon community. Here’s the rule that seems obvious to me: A throw of the dice is not good if one or both of the dice lands outside the board, or if a die lands in such a way that it’s not entirely clear which side is uppermost.

If this rule sounds reasonable to you, that’s a pretty clear indication that you know nothing about tournament backgammon. This rule, sensible as it may appear to the outsider, would offend the sensibilities of virtually all tournament backgammon players. We are so accustomed to the kabuki elements of backgammon’s dice rules that it seems outrageous to discard them all together.

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