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Backgammon, Poker, and PRs

Posted By: Robert Wachtel
Date: Friday, 26 February 2016, at 6:02 p.m.

I think the recent discussions on this forum about the Giant’s List have been enjoyable and even therapeutic; but I wonder how many of us in the backgammon community have bothered to ask ourselves a basic question: why do we want so badly to go beyond results to rank current players?

Part of the answer, I suppose, is that backgammon is a game of mixed luck and skill, in which, everyone agrees, short-term results often don’t reflect a player’s true expertise. Once, when it was primarily a gambling game, the proportion of people whom this dichotomy bothered was quite small; but now the majority, it seems, longs for clarity and justice.

Poker is likewise a game of mixed luck and skill – but within the poker world there seems to be very little interest in determining who is currently “the best” -- or the second, third, fourth or ninth best. Instead, the magazines and reporters track current tournament performance – as reflected in year-to-date earnings. The results, not surprisingly, demonstrate that life in the fast lane is volatile and precarious. Players who top the list one year are low-down or absent from it the next – but both the fans and the players themselves seem to accept that these fluctuations simply come with the territory.

Backgammon differs from poker because it has been approximately solved by bots. To the extent that we trust those bots, we believe that their analyses -- summarized in “error (or performance) rates” -- provide us with a vision of the truth lurking behind “the chaos of the dice.”

This is a big difference. While poker players instinctively sense the futility of “who is the best” debates, our genius silicon helpers give us the confidence to believe that we are just on the cusp of nailing down a pecking order of backgammon-playing humanoids.

The traditional ranking methodology – of, as Matt puts it in his video, drawing upon the wisdom the crowd – is beset with structural problems that have been underscored in the controversy over this year’s process. It is, in short, subjective -- and vulnerable to the bugaboos of regionalism, factionalism, nationalism, favoritism, even terrorism. Should it be abandoned? No, but we should not expect miracles of it either. The Giant’s list has actually come a long way. It is far less provincial than it once was; and it could, if it continues to internationalize, evolve into a vehicle that unites, rather than divides, the backgammon world.

PR rankings, as a number of commentators have observed, may fall short of perfection. A common complaint, heard at all levels of achievement, is: “I play meta-backgammon. I know the ‘right’ plays, the ‘computer moves,’ but I deliberately deviate from them to give my opponents more problems. I bluff-double, I create complicated positions and pass clear takes when the position is too easy for my opponent to play. The bot cannot appreciate my strategy, and penalizes me for correctly taking advantage of my opponent’s weaknesses.”

In my opinion, claims of this type are usually highly exaggerated. In general their proponent grossly overestimates the return on investment (both in magnitude and in likelihood) for the equity sacrifices he (deliberately?) makes – and often his sacrifices are not deliberate! He is guessing – and blundering -- but once in a while, when he blunders, his opponent gifts him with a counter-blunder that he then takes credit for. And of course everyone, even the weakest of players, notices his opponent’s tendencies and adjusts his play accordingly; so is our complainant claiming that he that he does this more frequently or more effectively than others? How would he know this? Finally, people who talk this way would have us believe that playing “computer-perfectly” is a trivial exercise they mastered in grade school: they could, in other words, maintain a 1.0 PR if they cared to – but they prefer to win instead!

But these objections to PR ranking, to the extent that they do have merit, simply point the way to the development of more sophisticated PR metrics – those, for example, that gauge PR differentials instead of absolute PR. With enough work, I’m sure we can distill the essence of backgammon expertise into a single number and assign that number to each active player. Still, even a great PR metric is only as good as its implementation. To have results that really matter, you certainly cannot allow “cherry-picking” – but neither can you get by with recording and processing only a fraction of the games played in tournaments. Until the day that every rated tournament match is recorded, the PR numbers we have will be of limited significance.

Because people want to, and because we can, we are certainly destined to go down this road – but as we do, I would suggest that we make a deliberate effort to not allow “PR shaming” to become a part of our gaming culture. Winning is a simple – and primal -- pleasure, not the occasion to feel guilty that one’s inferior play has been unjustly rewarded by the dice. And for most of us, results matter. Like the poker players, we would like to know who is actually winning. For that purpose, let’s make sure to complement whatever PR measure we finally settle on with some sort of results-based rating system.

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