Written by Robert Wachtel
Once upon a time, before the internet shrank the world to the size of a utility closet, you needed to place yourself in the physical presence of other human beings, complete with their appalling prejudices, superstitions, whining, personality quirks, shot-taking, slow-paying and stiffing, fashion disasters and body odors, just to play a simple game of backgammon.
Times have changed. We all now have easy access to online backgammon sites that provide us with an incomparably more efficient way to satisfy our competitive cravings. Our opponents are almost anonymous, and their ability to annoy us has been reduced to a minimum. Games go by quickly, with the pip count constantly on display, and are settled automatically. And of course, for those of us who care about such things, the sites save a record of every game or match to our computer’s hard drive, from which it can be which downloaded, at our leisure, to an analysis program like Snowie or GNU.
But there is a little bit of trouble in paradise. In contrast to online poker, which is played almost exclusively in groups (usually six to ten players at a table), online backgammon (except for tournament play of course) exists only in heads-up form. This shortcoming exists because no one has yet found a way to duplicate on line the vastly entertaining variant of backgammon played live in groups: the chouette.
“Chouette” is a French word. Literally translated as “little cabbage,” its colloquial meaning is something like “great” or “super.” With that introduction, is it any wonder that this social form of backgammon play is far more popular in live action than heads-up play?
A chouette is a gambler’s version of the kid’s game “King of the Hill.” It is one against many: the king of the hill, called “the box” plays (and bets) against a team consisting of the others in the group. When the box loses, the captain of the team becomes the new king of the hill (the new box) and the next player in line on the team becomes its new captain. The captain is the team’s representative, and has the final say as to what move the team will make against the box. To be in the box is the action player’s delight, for he is then playing for many times the basic stake. In a twenty-dollar per point 5-handed chouette, for example, the box is playing against the other four players, each betting $20 at the start. So he is betting $80, and of course that number will multiply geometrically each time the cube is turned.
In my next article I will examine the two forms of chouette play that evolved in backgammon’s formative era, the 1970s: the “full-consulting” high-energy New York version, and the laid back, non-consulting California version. As we shall see, each version has its benefits and drawbacks, and radically different skills are required to survive in each