Cheating at Solitaire

Yesterday’s post discussed why backgammon bots are widely suspected of cheating. It assumed that we know what cheating is. In that context, perhaps we do. But the concept of cheating can be a difficult one, not least because there no issue in the world of games and tournaments that’s so emotionally charged as cheating.

The word “cheating” has a special valence for games players. It is so strongly negative that most people avoid using it, at least until it’s clear that there will be no more games to play that day. People bend over backwards to find some other way to characterize the behavior they object to, and they’re usually wise to do so.

It is especially dangerous, then, that the word’s meaning is unclear. For some, cheating includes any willful breach of a game’s rules, or even of the background rules that constitute sportsmanship. At the other extreme, some hold that nothing is cheating if you don’t get caught.

One of the substantial divisions of opinion with respect to what constitutes cheating is whether the verb “to cheat” can be used intransitively. The test for this is whether it makes any sense to you to talk of cheating at solitaire.

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Your Cheatin’ Bot

This post will conclude, at least for now, my series of ruminations on the particular game of backgammon, which started with Skill and Luck in Backgammon, and continues with All That Luck and Learning Backgammon.

The backgammon world has been changed forever by the arrival of strong neural net backgammon programs, or “bots”, which play the game at a very high level. The best of these is Extreme Gammon, but there are a number of others that also play well, if not quite infallibly.

In this post, I’ll discuss some of these changes, with particular attention to the curious fact that all of the better bots are routinely accused of cheating.

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Learning Backgammon

In Skill and Luck in Backgammon, I described the process by which I settled on the parameters tourneygeek should use to simulate backgammon tournaments. The result was that the luck factor should be set to three, which implies that backgammon is 75% luck, and only 25% skill.

This does not mean, however, that backgammon is an easy game – a game in which a few small, easily learned heuristics will allow you to play at a high level. Open any of the many more advanced monographs on backgammon strategy and tactics, and you’ll soon see that there’s an enormous body of knowledge that expert players have and others do not. There’s plenty of skill in backgammon, it’s just that this skill is regularly overwhelmed because there’s even more luck.

How do players learn the game under these conditions? This post will examine two reasons that the high degree of luck makes good backgammon difficult to learn.

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Sports that Are Not Games

In defining “sport”, I’m mindful of the fact that it seems to be desirable to characterize an activity as a sport – so much so that there’s a distinct tendency for games with any physical component to claim to be sports. And even games with no obvious physical component, like chess, show an increasing tendency to characterize themselves as “mind sports”, and to dream some day of having their claim to sport-hood ratified by being included in the Olympics.

Thus, I’ve reconsidered my initial inclination to define “sport” strictly as a subset of “game”, knowing that would only enrage the practitioners of anything I didn’t admit to the pantheon of sport. But I still think there’s a useful distinction to be made between sports that are, and those that are not, games.

Though there are, as usual, difficult cases where the classification is arguable, I think it’s helpful to consider two kinds of sports that are not really games: artistic sports, and nature sports.

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Sports and Physical Games

In Playing Games, I offered a definition of game playing as the pursuit of arbitrarily-assigned value. In this post, I’ll offer a definition of the closely-related word “sport”.

Briefly, a sport is an activity that, like a game, is constrained by rules and limitations, and for which one of those limitations is a natural limitation on some extreme aspect of the player’s physical performance.

Most, but not all, sports are also games – I’ll explore the world of non-game sports presently.

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Measuring Competition

Measuring the competitiveness is, in some ways at least, easier than measuring fairness. Fairness is a complex notion, and even if you’ve clearly identified the aspect of fairness you’d like to measure, it may be difficult to know how fair a result is. Fairness (C), for example, is defined as rewarding merit. In my computer models, merit is simply a number, and so fairness measures relating to it can be calculated precisely. But in the world, what constitutes merit is not so clear.

Competition, in contrast, is more readily visible, though there are still some serious questions about how it might be measured. In this post, I’ll work through some of the issues, and suggest a couple of competition measures that I plan to test further. Continue reading “Measuring Competition”


Fairness is such a complicated and compelling topic that it seems to have a way of taking over tourneygeek. But let’s leave it to one side, at least for a post or two. Recall that fairness is only one element in the FEPS framework for the goals of tourney design: Fairness, Efficiency, Participation, and Spectacle. Let us, in honor of March Madness – that great annual spectacle of a tournament – shift attention to the fourth element, spectator appeal, and see whether we can reach into tourneygeek’s bag of tricks and find something that will help us design tournaments that are compelling to watch.

What can we do to make our tourneys produce close games? In particular, can anything be done about the NCAA basketball tournaments ridiculous tendency to produce blowouts in its early rounds?

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