This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of GammOnLine.
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.

The Art of War: The Tao of Backgammon

By Mark Driver
"Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult."
—Karl Von Clausewitz 'On War'.

"The game's apparent simplicity is its initial attraction. But its simplicity is of infinite variety, and is an amalgam of science and art"
—Barclay Cooke 'On Backgammon'.

Introduction: Race or War?

Although backgammon is generally placed within the family of board-games known as 'race games', in theory and practice, backgammon shares many similarities with members of the 'war games' family, such as chess. The definitive characteristic of race games, is the reliance on random number generators employed to govern the movement of the gaming pieces. The engines of backgammon are the dice, which introduce a significant element of chance throughout the conflict and ultimately bear great influence on the final outcome of the duel. Dice are also a common feature of many war games (for example Risk). In these games their role is not to govern movement, but to introduce elements of chance into local conflicts within the overall structure of the game. The classical game of chess, is arguably the flagship of war-gaming. The player acts as the general, instructing his legions to advance, fall back, assault, retreat, thrust and parry. Despite the absence of dice, the final outcome of the game does not lie beyond the omnipresent influence of the goddess Fortuna, or Lady Luck, as she is known today. Chance factors such as who plays White (the advantage of first move), or the psychological and physical wellbeing of a player on the day, provide ample avenues for chance to stamp her authority on the outcome of the battle. In games and war, chance remains a nebulous element of reality, a force majeur to usurp the best-laid plans of mice and men.

"I govern innumerable men but must acknowledge that I am governed by birds and thunder claps."
—Julius Caesar

"All action in war is directed on probable not on certain events."

The Backgammon Battlefield

In 17th and 18th century Britain, players of backgammon often had to resort to clandestine measures to hide their affinity for the game. Periodically laws would be passed outlawing games of chance and society often regarded the backgammon player with disdain. Local artisans crafted boards of wood and leather designed to appear as scholarly texts: their true contents discernible to the cognosenti by their apposite titles. "Like a shallow pedant - has a learned air, but no lore within; it is entitled the History of England Volume 1 and 2. Open it and what are the contents? Men of two parties and the means of combat. What better epitome of history can there be?" (Waller Lewis, 1844).

Numerous authors have employed the analogy of battle to instruct their readers in the art and science of backgammon. During the 18th century, avid gamesters such as Waller Lewis recognized the close similarities between the battlefield and the board. "The men of each party are arrayed in the same order of battle, occupying precisely the same points of vantage or danger."

The military theme continued during game's renaissance in the early 20th century - quaintly illustrated by Leila Hattersley's advice on playing opening doubles: "1-1, two musketeers to your five-point and two guardsmen to your bar-point." Contemporary authors such as Cooke and Bradshaw perpetuated the concept during the 1970's heyday of the game - " If he is swifter, craftier, and more ably understands the art of war, this general will, barring untoward accidents, tend to defeat his enemy".

Perusing the works of Barclay Cooke, the reader cannot fail to note the author's proclivity for the analogy of the battlefield. Cooke's checker play mirrors the lines of communication and supply between two opposing armies on the march. Points in the outfield represent outposts, which the commander abandons at the peril of marooning his stragglers behind enemy lines. Anchors become vital bastions of defense against marauding troops. Game plans flux in tune to the beat of the march, and checker skirmishes flair as territorial campaigns within the structure of the war.

In 'Backgammon: The Cruelest Game', Cooke and Bradshaw make judicious use of the military tactical advice of Karl Von Clausewitz to illustrate backgammon concepts and strategy; ranging from the opening moves to more complex cube theory. Perhaps, like generations of backgammon players before them, the modern student of the game may discover in gems of military metaphor, refreshing inspiration to augment hours of study with Snowie.

The classical Taoist text of Sun-tzu - 'The Art of War', may provide much inspiration for your next game. I have compiled and edited the following exerts from various editions of 'The Art of War'. In my opinion they are of significant relevance to many aspects of our favorite game.

The Art of War: The Tao of Backgammon

Sun-tzu said: The art of war is a matter of life and death. A road either to safety or ruin. Hence, it is a subject of inquiry, which can on no account be neglected. Know your enemy, know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts. Then, until death itself comes, no calamity need be feared.

Before doing battle, in the temple one calculates and will win, because many calculations were made. Before doing battle, in the temple one calculates and will not win, because few calculations were made. Many calculations, victory; few calculations, no victory; then how much less so when no calculations?

Without constant practice, the officers will be nervous and undecided when mustering for battle, the general will be wavering and irresolute when the crisis is at hand. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes win, sometimes lose. One who does not know the enemy and does not know himself will be in danger in every battle. Knowing the enemy enables you to take the offensive, knowing yourself enables you to stand on the defensive. Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.

Those skilled in warfare establish positions that make them invincible and do not miss opportunities to attack what the enemy values most, when they become vulnerable. Being invincible depends on oneself, but the enemy becoming vulnerable depends on himself. Therefore, those skilled in warfare can make themselves invincible, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be vulnerable. Therefore it is said one may know how to win but cannot necessarily do it. A victorious army first obtains conditions for victory, then seeks to do battle. A defeated army first seeks to do battle, then obtains conditions for victory.

In war, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns If equally matched, we can offer battle, if inferior in every way, we can flee. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. If he can fight, he advances and takes the offensive; if he cannot fight, he retreats and remains on the defensive. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him. If they have advantage, entice them; if they are confused, take them; if they are substantial, prepare for them; if they are strong, avoid them; if they are united, separate them. Attack where they are not prepared, go out to where they do not expect. Appear at points which the enemy must defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected. An army may march great distances without distress if it marches through country where the enemy is not.

Those skilled in warfare are like the shuaijan, a serpent on Mount Chang. If you strike its head, its tail attacks; if you strike its tail, its head attacks; if you strike its middle, both the head and tail attack. Ask: Can forces be made like the shuaijan? I say: They can. If the enemy is the attacker, we can cut his line of communications and occupy the roads by which he will travel. The highest generalship is to compel the enemy to disperse his army, and then to concentrate superior force against each fraction in turn. We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into factions. Hence there will be whole pitted against separate parts of a whole, which means we shall be many to the enemy's few. If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from attacking us, all we need to do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.

What enables an army to withstand the enemy's attack and not be defeated are uncommon and common maneuvers. Generally, in battle, use the common to engage the enemy and the uncommon to gain victory. In battle, there are no more than two types of attacks: Uncommon and common, yet the variations of the uncommon and common cannot all be comprehended. The uncommon and the common produce each other, like an endless circle.

He who only sees the obvious, wins his battles with difficulty; he who looks below the surface of things, wins with ease. A clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. He plans no superfluous marches; he devises no futile attacks. He wins battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. He who can look into the future and discern conditions that are not yet manifest, will never make a blunder and therefore will invariably win. He who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

If we wish to wrest an advantage from the enemy, we must not fix our minds on that alone, but allow for the possibility of the enemy also doing some harm to us, and let this enter as a factor into our calculations. In the wise leader's plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together. If on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.

Force is the control of the balance of power, in accordance with advantages. The force of those skilled in warfare is overwhelming, and their timing precise. Their force is like a drawn crossbow and their timing is like the release of the trigger. Even in the midst of the turbulence of battle, the fighting seemingly chaotic, they are not confused. Even in the midst of the turmoil of battle, the troops seemingly going around in circles, they cannot be defeated. Disorder came from order; Disorder coming from order is a matter of organization.

The victorious army is like pent up waters released, bursting through a deep gorge - this is formation. Those skilled in moving the enemy use formation to which the enemy must respond. They offer bait that which the enemy must take, manipulating the enemy to move while they wait in ambush. Those skilled in warfare seek victory through force and do not require too much from individuals. Therefore, they are able to select the right men and exploit force. One who exploits force commands men into battle like rolling stones. Stones are still when on flat ground, but roll when on steep ground. Square shapes are still, but round shapes roll. Therefore, those skilled in warfare use force where the troops in battle are like stones rolling down a steep mountain.

To be certain to take what you attack, attack where the enemy cannot defend. To be certain of safety when defending, defend where the enemy cannot attack. Therefore, against those skilled in attack, the enemy does not know where to defend; against those skilled in defense, the enemy does not know where to attack. Therefore, they are the masters of the enemy's fate. If he prepares to defend many places, then his forces will be few. Therefore, if he prepares to defend the front, the back will be weak. If he prepares to defend the back, the front will be weak. If he prepares to defend everywhere, everywhere will be weak.

In armed struggle, the difficulty is turning the circuitous into the direct and turning adversity into advantage. Therefore, if you make the enemy's route circuitous and bait him with advantages, though you start out behind him, you will arrive before him. Therefore, armed struggle has advantages, and armed struggle has risks. The intelligent general contemplates both the advantages and disadvantages. Contemplating the advantages, he fulfills his calculations; contemplating the disadvantages, he removes his difficulties.

Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. Do not repeat the tactics, which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances. So the student of war who is unversed in the art of varying his plans, will fail to make the best use of his men. As circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans. Those who are able to adapt and change in accord with the enemy and achieve victory are called divine. On the day of victory the wise man is not blind to danger.

Such is the art of warfare.

Such is the Tao of Backgammon.

Return to: