Rolling the Bones, Part III

The first two parts of this short series called attention to what I called the “kabuki” elements in the rules and customs surrounding the throwing of the dice in backgammon. This was perhaps, a little unfortunate. Recent figurative use of the term “kabuki” seems to be intended to be derisive, and often in a way that’s rather offensive to Japanese culture.

Most of the kabuki elements of the dice-throwing rituals in backgammon are said to be in aid of deterring dice cheats. And some, but by no means all, of them are actually useful for this purpose. In this post, I’ll discuss the extent to which the dice rituals of backgammon relate to cheating.

A good deal of money changes hands at backgammon, and where there is money there will always be some cheating. The rules and customs associated with throwing the dice at backgammon are most often justified as expedients that discourage cheating.

It’s well known that, with practice, a “dice mechanic” can greatly affect the results of thrown dice. This can be accomplished by tampering with the dice themselves, or by rolling the dice artfully.

Dice can be altered in a number of ways that affect the randomness of results. The classic concern is for “loaded dice”, usually dice for which the center of gravity is not in the center of the dice themselves. Sometimes the dice have a side that is magnetic, and so can be attracted (or repelled) by hidden electromagnets in the board, which can be activated with a hidden switch. Or the dice can be mis-spotted, for example, by duplicating some numbers and omitting others.

Moving unfair dice into and out of the game requires only a modest amount of slight of hand. It is particularly easy where each player has their own pair of dice, so that a player has sole possession of the pair they are about to throw at a time when the opponents attention is elsewhere. It is slightly more difficult when a single pair of dice is shared between the two players.

This is the modern trend, especially where time control is used. Traditionally, one signaled the end of one’s turn by picking up the dice, but where there’s a clock, you leave the dice on the table and touch the clock instead. This leaves the dice face up, so that quarrels about what number was actually thrown are much reduced. This one-pair procedure is often resisted by traditionalists, and tradition offers some cover for dice cheats who need a moment alone with their dice between throws.

Before clocks came into use, single-pair games were uncommon. There were instead rather elaborate rules that governed the “mixing” of the dice, which allowed (with some limitations) a player dissatisfied with the way the dice were behaving to require the dice to be redistributed.

Usually a backgammon set will have four dice, two each of two different colors, often matching the two colors of the checkers. Novices tend to assume that dice colors should be associated with checker colors, so, for example, that the player playing the black checkers plays the black dice, and the opponent who plays the white checkers plays the white dice. But experienced players almost always choose to play with one die of each color. This is supposed to make things more difficult for the dice mechanic, but the habit is so strong that it is the rule even where there is no thought that anyone might be cheating. For some time, I used a board in which all four dice were the same color, and some of my opponents were put off by their inability to select a pair of different colors, sometimes insisting that we use their own multi-hued dice instead.

The rules and customs that address the problem of artful rolling are the ones mentioned in the last post. Players are expected to use lipped cups, preferably with irregular inside surfaces as well as lips, to make it hard to control the dice within them. They are to be shaken vigorously, and shaken up and down rather than sideways so that the dice don’t simply slide about in the bottom of the cup.

One clever, if rarely used, method of deterring cheating is to have each player roll three dice – two of one color and one of another. The odd-colored die is ignored – it’s there simply to jostle the others and make the throw more difficult to control. The other two dice count for the roll.

There is more to say about cheating with the dice at backgammon, both in term of the psychological and social aspects, and some more elaborate technology for ensuing fair dice. These will be considered in a future post.




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