A heads-ups between a backgammon World Champion and Eight's poker writerThe Players:BACKGAMMON:
Victoria Smirnoff started playing backgammon in 1997. Just three years later she won the Double World Championship
James Eastham is Eight's writer. He's played poker
for six years and is a keen amateur. He is new to backgammon
What's the difference between backgammon and poker? In terms of the rules and elements of the games the answer is obvious - but can the psychological strengths that make you a winner in one be applied to make you a winner in the other?
To find out, we set up a double heads-up experiment. We invited Victoria Smirnoff, 2000 Double Consulting World Backgammon Champion, to take on me, a keen amateur poker player and backgammon novice, over a game of backgammon and then heads-up No Limit Texas Hold'em Poker
. What better way to find out if the skills that help you in one game can also help you in the other?
Moscow-born Smirnoff (who's not related to the vodka brand) said she had a basic knowledge of poker but had never studied it, making her the ideal test case for our experiment. As for me - would I be able to hold my own with her at backgammon, and could I prevent this games master from picking up poker so quickly that she would destroy me on both fronts?
As I arrived at Victoria's luxury penthouse flat in Chelsea overlooking the Thames my opponent greeted me with a smile. She offered a drink and then the games began....
Part 1: Poker player plays Backgammon
Backgammon is the Dr Pepper of skill games - an acquired taste. Everybody from oil tycoon high-rollers to blue-rinsed 50 cent grannies plays blackjack and roulette. Backgammon is for a more discerning clientele.
I'd learned the game before playing Victoria and had practised online. I had a dismal record against the computer - I lost every time. On arrival Victoria said: "I'm better than the guy who won the World Championship in Monte Carlo this year." I was none too confident about my chances. The point of backgammon is to move your pieces or "checkers" around the board and "bear off" - remove them from the board.
The first player to bear off all their checkers wins. You can use your checkers to block your opponent or make them start again. You roll dice to work out how many points or "pips" to move. A doubling cube can raise the stakes.
My ex-world champ opponent passed on a few tips. "You need to build a strong house," she told me. That was a reference to getting your pieces round the board and into your home board. By doing so you are able to block your opponent whilst also getting ready to bear off. Advice dispensed, it was show time. Best of three - I guessed we'd play only two. I was right, but it was closer than I thought. I held my own in the first game. I managed to avoid a double gammon or a backgammon - in other words, all my checkers were in my home board when she beat me.
But there were differences. She blocked better, moved better, sent me back to the bar - the start-again zone when you get hit - time and again and played three or four moves ahead. It was like watching a chess champion.
The most difficult part was there was no bluffing. I wanted to try fooling her to make up for my lack of skills. But bluffing simply doesn't come into it.
This was a game of probability and odds. It was a mind-blowing feeling. The permutations about which pieces to move and when, where and how, plus dealing with your own checkers and your opponents at the same time, it can all be a bit overwhelming. Only maths geniuses need apply. In the second game I got backgammoned, the heaviest possible defeat. Victoria, finding her rhythm, moved pieces around the board with the fluency of a concert pianist, I played like I was learning to count. We looked at the same board but in different ways. She saw solutions quickly, I took two minutes a move.
No-contest. She had trounced me. Without the get-out clause of bluffing and kidology, I'd been totally thrashed.
Part 2: Backgammon player plays Poker
At last! This was more my thing. Victoria looked nervous. That was a good start. Hang on - was she really nervous? The game started with blinds 100/200 with 20k of chips each. "How do the blinds work?" Victoria asked. She seemed genuinely ignorant of the system. I grew more confident.
Play began. I made a couple of pre-flop raises from the small blind. Victoria folded immediately. I re-raised over the top and she folded straight away. She never bet pre-flop. Every raise caused her to fold. Stealing blinds was easy.
Then a pot came. I had 13k, she had 7k. The blinds were 150/300. I had K 6. Victoria called from the small blind. The flop came 9 10 Q. We both checked. The turn card was a 6. Victoria went all-in. I didn't expect that.
Did she have a hand or was this a bluff she thought I'd buy because her play had been uber-tight up until now? I asked for a chip count. Victoria gulped. "Are you going to play?" she said. Her body language seemed to give her away.
Why would she be so nervous? She must be bluffing. That's what I thought.
I called. She turned over 6 6 for three of a kind. Ouch. Only a Jack could save me. The river came a 9. "Sorry," she smiled.
Now she had 14k, I had 6k. But being chip monster did not alter her style one bit. She was still tight rather than bullying. Her heads-up style was unconventional. I began rebuilding my stack exactly as I had before.
Then another big hand. By now, the blinds were 300-600. I had crept up to 8.4k, she had 11.6k. I was small blind and called with Ace Diamonds and 4 Hearts. The flop came 3 Diamonds 2 Diamonds King Clubs. We checked.
The turn card came 8 Diamonds. Victoria pushed in 5k. I thought about it. If she were a top player, I would consider the bet strategically sized to suck me in, meaning she had a hand, But she had gone all-in on the previous occasion she had a good hand- wouldn't she do the same this time? She must be bluffing.
I had an open end nut flush draw and also a gutshot straight draw. So I went all-in. Now the action was on her. Could I scare her off?
No. She called. The cards went on their back. She had K K. What a hand! I needed a Diamond or a five. The river came 6 Spades. It was all over. I looked across. "Sorry," she smiled.
James's Verdict on Backgammon
I never felt like I could beat Victoria at backgammon especially with the lack of opportunity to use psychological skills. We played without the doubling cube. Once that's taken out of the equation, it's really just a board game.
The game's much quicker than poker. The lead can change more dramatically. One of your pieces can be sent straight back to the start of the board at virtually any point. In the poker I made the mistake
of trying to analyse a beginner too much. When Victoria looked nervous on the first big hand I thought she revealed a bluff. But maybe she was nervous because she'd gone all-in. On the second hand, I thought she would have followed her betting pattern from the first big hand. But on reflection this was me doing her a disservice. I should have focused on my own game and spent less time trying to work out my opponent.
Victoria's Verdict on Poker
The main difference between poker and backgammon is that in poker you use psychology all the time. It is nonstop. You have to analyse your opponent. Backgammon is different. There is no bluffing. You can see everything. I played poker against James like I played backgammon. In other words, no bluffing. I played only when I had a good hand.
In backgammon, psychology is only used sometimes. The doubling cube is how you manage to outwit your opponents if you need to.
Being a woman can also be an advantage. Some players believe a woman cannot beat them. Their friends will come over and say to them: 'What are you doing? I can't believe you're losing to a woman!' It can give me a psychological edge.
I fell into the trap once. I played against a good-looking Japanese woman in a tournament. She was so excited. I thought she was a tourist. She was brilliant. I found out later she was one of Japan's best players. I guess you could say I got a taste of my own medicine.