Author Topic: Backgammon for Losties  (Read 950 times)

Offline ericd543

  • Red Shirt
  • **
  • Posts: 490
    • View Profile
Backgammon for Losties
« on: May 11, 2010, 04:45:43 PM »
I've been thinking about the backgammon analogies with Lost. Locke once told Walt that "it's a much better game than checkers" and of course the ol' "one side is light, the other side dark". I've played a bit of backgammon and see some connections to the themes of conflict, choices, and chance in Lost, and so I am intrigued.

Backgammon has some relatively simple rules about rolling the dice and moving your men. The objective is to get your men home before your opponent does and there are some strategies and situations in the game that might have some parallels with what is happening on the island.

I tried writing it up but it turned into a HUGE block of text, so I decided to make a video instead. I've played backgammon, but even better than that I know some very good backgammon players and so I interviewed two of them on video about the game and about Lost while we enjoyed some frosty adult beverages at a local watering hole. It was fun to do but ran a little long, about 80 minutes in total. I will post it on Youtube (part 1 is up now) but because it is so long (perhaps unwatchably so) I'll give you a rundown here.

In BG you roll dice and move your men around the board. Each of the Lost numbers could be a roll of the dice. Looking at the sum of the dice a 2-2 is 4 and 4-4 is 8. For the rest of the numbers we can read them like as they appear on the dice: 1-5, 1-6, 2-3 and 4-2 are all possible rolls of the dice. It's a bit of a stretch, but they numbers are in there. For example, any number above 66, or a number like 27 could not be represented by a backgammon roll.

The Board is a Battlefield
The board is like a battlefield with two armies of 15 mean each. From their starting positions they try to occupy points on the board as they fight their way home. Two or more men on a point and it belongs to you meaning your opponent cannot land there. If your man is alone on a point (a blot) he can be hit and have to return to the beginning point. The phrase "Live Together, Die Alone" could be used to describe this fundamental rule of backgammon.

Symmetry and Mirror Images
Backgammon has a lot of symmetry. Two players, one plays light the other dark. On alternating rolls a player rolls two dice (there are 4 dice used in total). The board has 24 points on it that the men (also called stones) can occupy. One player moves from point 1 to point 24, while the other moves from 24 to 1. The board is divided into 4 quadrants with 6 points in each. In the initial setup of a new game the men are placed on the board in a mirror image of the other side.

As your two armies of 15 men clash you will hit your opponent's men and they then have to return to the starting point and are placed on the bar. We often say "kill him!" when we want a roll that will hit a man back. Men are recycled (reincarnated?) in this way throughout the game and recycling men plays into the different strategies.

In the beginning of a game there is contact (hitting) between the two sides as men are hit and have to "go back". Primes are built (owning a few points in a row makes it hard for a man to escape) but eventually the armies move past each other and it becomes a race to get your men off the board first. Rolling doubles is special. On a regular roll like a 6-5 you get one move of 6 and another move of 5, but if you roll double sixes, for example, you get four moves of 6. This is great in the end game when you are bearing your men off the board.

There is a priming game where you get your men together to block you opponent from getting home. There is always a race at the end of the game when contact is lost and you are bearing your men off the board. Other strategies include a blitz where you just hit the other guy as much as possible while building your inner board to prevent his men on the bar (in the air) from coming back into the game. And sometimes you are stuck in a back game where you have a few men back, trapped behind his prime (a blockade of sorts) and you build your own inner board until he gives you a shot (a blot) and if you hit that man you can win. But a back game has only a 20% to 30% chance of being successful. Timing, being in position once you get your shot, is important.

The Doubling Cube
During the game your opponent may think he is ahead and offer to continue playing at twice the stakes. This is called doubling or cubing. You then have three choices -- continue, drop, or re-double (if you think you are ahead).

Why would you ever take a double if you have less than a 50% chance to win? Because you minimize your losses if you play games where you have at least a 25% chance of winning. It may sound strange at first but it's true.

Like all dice games there is an element of luck in backgammon. I also found it interesting while researching philosophy that the Wikipedia entry for Divine Grace mentions used to mention luck. It is interesting to me that some backgammon players, who have have a deep understanding of probabilities, believe in luck.

Each time it is your turn you roll your dice and then have a choice in how to move your men. Each roll of the two dice has 36 possible outcomes. It takes just 4 rolls (36x36x36x36) to reach a condition that is one in 1.6 million. With each move a BG player makes a choice and tries to increase his odds of winning the game. As a game develops your history looks like a big decision tree. Each game is destined to end, and win or lose, it will be the result of the choices you have made. Also, making all the right plays is no guarantee that you will win.

I can imagine an interesting conversation between Walt and Locke about this aspect of the game. Choices matter and the game, like life, is a product of the choices you make while playing it.

There are some very good computer programs out there that play backgammon. They explore the decision tree and find the best move by looking at a huge number of possibilities and their outcomes. BG players use computers to analyze their game to double-check that they made the best play "according to the computer". Snowie and JellyFish are two of the top BG programs. Computers are very good at predicting the outcome of a backgammon game.

A Little Philosophy (of course)
Existentially, it helps to see the game from The Other's point of view. One side is light and the other side is dark is an arbitrary designation. In backgammon your opponent is just another guy who is playing the game too.

Take chances, fight the uphill battle, because sometimes it will turn around. Long shots are probabilities -- they're  just numbers. Miracles happen. You can not expect to win every game or every match because sometimes you just don't get the numbers you need.

It seems to me that a backgammon game could go on forever. (I haven't research this tho) Each player could hit the other back and the battle could be endless, until at least one of the players has the will to win. If one player wants the game to end, it will end.

A Prediction
There is something special about Walt. We've seen him roll doubles like nobody's business which is a great thing to be able to do in the end game. (it's not always good during the battle) So I will predict that Walt is coming back to the island and will play Locke/MiB in a match, hopefully backgammon, and will emerge victorious. Wouldn't it be cool if they shot these scenes years ago so Walt's age is right for the timeline? Why would Walt come back to the island? Because last he heard his dad was there. Oh yeah!

Another important aspect of backgammon is escaping and running away. Who do we know that likes to escape and run? Kate! She might be a hero in the final conflict. Shoot, I'll make that part of my prediction -- Kate's ability to escape and run will help Walt win.

Other Games
Any game with dice or an element of luck has some of these qualities but backgammon has been called "The Cruelest Game" for a reason. Your fortune can change in one roll, and just when you thought you would win the situation can be reversed and you are holding the short end of a now-purposeful stick. But as long as you have contact with your opponent you still have a chance. There's always hope.

Editing this mess
I shot this BG video weeks ago and have bitten off a bit more than I can chew. I used four cameras to make it visually interesting but it has been a real pain to edit. I finally got Final Cut Pro working on my mac mini and am learning it as I go along. It has a Mutliclip feature that is definitely the way to edit something like this. I added a few title cards to the edit when the onscreen explanations were unclear. Re-watching the footage I find myself cringing when I miss an opportunity to let the experts talk, but we had fun and it turned out okay, if kinda long. It would have been great to get it out two weeks ago when we had a break, but I can be King of the Procrastinators(TM) sometimes. I see that there might be some backgammon in tonight's episode so I wanted to get this posted before then. It's not much of a theory after the show explains it! ;-) It's definitely a rough edit right now but here it is. I might post it elsewhere to get some views but I made it for SWLS. It's kinda long but I hope you enjoy it.

YouTube - Backgammon for Losties - part 1

YouTube - Backgammon for Losties - part 2

YouTube - Backgammon for Losties - part 3

Here's a short video of the shoot's setup. I've heard some folks talking here about video production on the chat, so any questions, tips or advice is appreciated. The various formats became a problem that I still haven't solved.

YouTube video - quick look at the 4 camera setup I used for shooting the Lost-backgammon video

More Stuff
There is a real documentary on YouTube about Falafel who is one of the best backgammon players in the world. I think it captures what is special about the game -- the characters, the community, and the obsession. It's an interesting doc, so if my video gets boring or you just want to know more, check this one out.

"Backgammon is trying to guess how the world will go. The way it moves, the way the dynamics of the world work." -- at 5:22 in the video below

YouTube - Flafel's Game

Here is interesting teaser trailer that focuses more on BG tournaments. It's for a documentary called "The Cruelest Game".

YouTube - Backgammon the Cruelest Game

Want to know a secret?
Here's a link to the scene from S1 (Pilot part 2) where Locke talks to Walt about backgammon. I think the secret Locke refers to is about how life, like a game of backgammon, is defined by the choices we make. Sure luck comes into play but you have to know and accept that going in. Remember that no position is hopeless. You always have a choice in how you play your next move so make each play, each choice, to optimize your probabilities for success. "How do you do that?", one might ask.  Take a good look in the mirror, and be true to your self.

YouTube - backgammon scene, Walt and Locke, S1 (Pilot, part 2)

"Get away from my boy!"

Just trying to help. ;-)
« Last Edit: May 11, 2010, 08:30:38 PM by ericd543 »

Offline ericd543

  • Red Shirt
  • **
  • Posts: 490
    • View Profile
Re: Backgammon for Losties
« Reply #1 on: May 21, 2010, 05:37:24 AM »
Adam Shelton wrote a nice blog post about Senet.

He points some interesting Lost parallels with positions on a Senet board. I won't repeat them here, but here the names from the rules are intriguing:

  15 : House of Rebirth, starting square and the return square for the pawns reaching square number 27.
  26 : House of Happiness, a mandatory square for all the pawns.
  27 : House of Water, a square that can be reached by the pawns located on squares 28 to 30 which moved back when their throws did not allow them to exit the board. They have to restart from square 15.
  28 : House of the Three Truths, a pawn may only leave when a 3 is throw
  29 : House of the Re-Atoum, a pawn may only leave when a 2 is thrown.

He points out the interesting pictographs used on a Senet board too. Here are a couple of pics I found.

This article lists the rules of Senet and more

Quote from:
The oldest known reference to Senet is in a wall painting in the tomb of the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Hesy (c. 2650 BC), which shows the game being played with seven pawns per player (sets and paintings have been found with as many as ten pawns per player). These first paintings show Senet being played between two players, but later paintings show a single player playing against an invisible opponent. From these two different depictions, it is very possible that Senet began as a game, but later acquired a magical or holy quality and became something of a ritual in and of itself.