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US Backgammon Champion 2010

By Mary HickeyWhat are the odds that the same player would win a seat at a backgammon championship in an online qualifier and then outplay eight matches in a row to triumph the championship itself?

“It is a highly improbable sequence of events” said Mary Hickey, also known as “mamabear64″, who had won both the Play65 US Open qualifier and the 2nd US Backgammon Open championship itself, “winning eight matches in a row, not a likely occurrence on any given day or weekend.”

“Sure, it rates to happen if you play long enough, but the eight in a row you win might happen in online matches of no consequence or in local coffee-shop tournaments where at most you might get your achievement mentioned in the club newsletter…”

Backgammon Sci-fi Soap Opera

Before her double US Open victory, Mary Hickey, a professional writer of Ohio, has celebrated one Ohio State Backgammon Championship, three Ohio Masters wins, and lately the release of her new book Chouette and More: The World’s First and Only Backgammon Sci-fi Soap Opera, available now (on CD) at the GammonVillage store and at Carol Joy Cole’s “backgammon boutique”.

“In the first few chapters of the book, I present some basic principles for chouette, and then, in Chapter 11, the soap opera part begins, with the reader as part of the ongoing story. Sometimes you play with millionaires in the mansion of a cast-off heir of an industrial robber baron, and other times at a coffee shop where quite a few of the players are fish.

You visit the scary slum where an ever-nameless good player lives because he is trying to make a living from the game, with the usual result. Another time, you get set up to play against a fearsome Dane named Lars Balrog. For a couple of chapters, you deal with an obnoxious accountant everyone hates to lose to, so they sabotage themselves, and proceed to lose to him all the time!

The sci-fi part of the story happens when you fall into a time warp back to the 1970s, and play backgammon there knowing what you know about the game today.”

Playing backgammon in the 1970s

“I learned the game in 1977 or 1978, on a business trip to Texas. I then slowly became more involved with the game, but attended only one big tournament “back in the day” (in Las Vegas in 1980) because it was too difficult to get away. First, there was my work as a chemical engineer, and then I had children at home making travel a no-go. I gave the game up entirely for many years, and then restarted playing once or twice a month at the end of 1995.

So I skipped the mid-80s through mid-90s, and when I returned to the game, backgammon was a whole new world. What an eye-opener that first decent commercially available bot was! Bearoff positions that used to require laborious hand calculations could now be solved in seconds. We still had to use some caution as the positions’ complexity increased, but it made rapid progress possible just the same, for players of any level.”

Backgammon Champion Life

“I try to make it to at least one in-state tournament a month now, but seldom have any opportunity to play live outside of that and the ABT events I attend. For several years, we had weekly chouettes here in the Columbus area, but now the players have drifted off in various directions and we seldom get together any more. I think chouette is one of the best ways to learn more about the game, and also one of the most fun!”

“I play backgammon online at several sites, including of course Play65, maybe two or three times a week on average, for lengths of time that vary from getting knocked out of a tourney in the first round, to long sessions with opponents who want to keep playing awhile. Other times, I analyze matches I have played and look not only for errors but also plays I got right but had a hard time with, and also at what my opponents did both right and wrong.”

- How do you get ready for backgammon tournaments?

“I review what I already know rather than study new material in the week leading up to a tournament. I find it takes time for me to absorb and integrate new information, so it is better to learn new things a month or more in advance of when they will be needed. I also try to keep my pre-tourney review quite general rather than focus in on specifics, so that I won’t overemphasize those specifics when playing and miss other concepts that apply better to the actual positions and games.”

- What about backgammon books?

“My first backgammon book was Jacoby and Crawford, followed by Magriel. I would still recommend those books, in that order, for a player getting started. I would like to mention another author who has been largely forgotten–Barclay Cooke, whose book Paradoxes and Probabilities is now hopelessly out of date. It helped me at the time because of the principles it teaches, even though many of the examples he chose were wrong. I sometimes wrote to him asking him about particular problems in his book, and he always wrote back, using a different color Flare pen each time.”

Back to US Open

The same as the first US Backgammon Open champion, Carol Joy Cole, this year’s champion, Mary Hickey, is a woman player. This unlikely occurrence in the male dominated world of backgammon had brought up some inevitable jokes (should it be renamed “US Women Open”?) and also hope for the future.

“I think Carol and me winning this event may encourage more women players to make a bit more effort to improve, and discard cultural baggage that says it will be more difficult and less rewarding for women than for men… And who knows, as the bias against women fades in backgammon and also the wider world, maybe other forms of hatred, fear, and prejudice will also be recognized as the maladaptive qualities that they are. Maybe we will all recognize that we are all the same people, no matter where we live, what we believe, and how we appear, and there will finally be lasting peace in our world. That is a lot to ask, isn’t it? But we can start with ourselves and the small community of the game that we love, and hope it spreads from there to the larger world that surrounds us.”
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