Rolling the Bones, Part IV

In casino craps, there are specific requirements for a throw of the dice to be considered valid. The details vary a bit, but in all cases, the dice are thrown a considerable distance, and required to bounce off of a wall. This is impractical for backgammon because there are only a few inches of space to deal with.

One method of ensuring fairer rolls is the use of a device that attempts to ensure that the dice bounce around a good deal within a limited space. Such devices are generally called “baffle boxes”, though they are also sometimes called “dice scramblers” or “dice towers”. These devices have been used for many years, but have recently become more fashionable, and perhaps also more controversial.


baffleboxThe baffle box is generally perched on the side of the board in such a way that dice emerging from it are deposited in the outer table, which usually has fewer checkers in it than the inner tables. Only one baffle box is used, and generally it us used with a single set of dice. If a clock is used, it’s put on the other side of the board for balance, so that both players reach for both sides of the board in each move.

The dice are delivered to the top of the box, tumble through it, and land in the playing area. How the dice are best delivered is a matter in dispute. No one would allow the dice to be carefully lined up and placed in the box – they should be thrown into the box, or at least dropped in. But some insist that the dice should be delivered into the box from a dice cup.

Those in the cups-into-the-box camp cite experience that suggests that a skillful dice mechanic can control the dice, even through the baffle box. The extra layer of randomization is needed to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

But feeding the baffle box from a dice cup is a belt-and-suspenders rule. It may have been needed in the bad old days, when baffle boxes were home made, and didn’t tumble the dice as thoroughly. Modern baffle boxes (like the one pictured above) are much better, and it has not been demonstrated that anyone can control the dice through them.

Further, using cups to feed the baffle box is difficult. Dice emerge from a dice cup in unpredictable ways – that’s the whole point of using a dice cup. And fairly often the dice scamper out across the table and onto the floor rather than falling into the box. The current official USBGF rules mandate the use of cups to feed the baffle box, but that rule is widely ignored. Most players prefer to simply drop the dice into the box with their fingers.

Those who favor baffle boxes cite several advantages. There is less quarreling over the way the dice are thrown. It speeds up the game because one doesn’t need to shake the dice, and because the dice very rarely leave the board, or land on top of checkers. The dice do, occasionally, get stuck in the box so that they need to be shaken out and re-thrown, but invalid throws are still much less common with baffle boxes than they are with dice cups.

But not everyone like baffle boxes. To some, shaking dice in the cup is an important ritual, part of the rhythm of the game. And being asked to use a baffle box, especially when one is not accustomed to one, seems to convey the message that you’re suspected of cheating.

And that may in fact be the case. The backgammon club in Indianapolis adopted a baffle-box-preferred rule, such that either player could insist on the use of a baffle box if one is available. And while there were some in the Indianapolis club that liked baffle boxes anyway, the immediate impetus for the change, it is said, was the appearance of a new player who was not particularly skillful, but who had an improbably high winning percentage.




3 thoughts on “Rolling the Bones, Part IV”

  1. Here is another advantage to throwing dice into a baffle box with your hands. When dice are thrown from a cup, there may be a difference of opinion on what constitutes a vigorous shake. The player that spends more time shaking the dice (the more responsible vigorous shaker) is punished in clocked matches. Directly putting dice in a baffle box with hands equalizes time spent rolling the dice.

    “was the appearance of a new player who was not particularly skillful, but who had an improbably high winning percentage.”

    It was not just the player’s improbably high winning percentage. He rolled a 22 perfecta against me. Before this, there was no strong suspicion from me that he was cheating. I noticed that the dice softly hit the board surface and did not tumble at all after hitting the board. I also noticed that they seemed to hit the board directly under the cup. I didn’t see how they could have come out of the dice cup and land where they did. This is all consistent with the “Hold Out” method of dice manipulation (you pretend to put the dice in the cup, but keep one or both dice in your hand and set the dice on the board as you want them. This takes considerable skill). My best estimate is that my opponent was playing at about a 30PR and had won 2 straight weekly tournaments. I didn’t say what I suspected, but I gave him a stare and from then on in the match I watched very carefully as he put his dice into the cup and rolled the dice. He knew I was watching him carefully. His rolls normalized, except for one roll. A player from another match came over to report a result I wrote the results on the drawsheet. When I looked back to the board, there was 66 on the dice, his best. He exclaimed, “I rolled double 6s!”. I did not hear any dice being shaken in the cup or hear any dice tumbling on the board as I looked away. This is enough, but there is more. I will say that I am 99.75+% sure that the guy was using a hold out. He stopped coming after we started using baffle boxes.


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