Interview With Backgammon Player Phil Simborg

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Hi Phil, thank you for accepting to be interviewed.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and when and how you began playing backgammon?

I am 62 years old, married to a wonderful lady (Randee) who is often my backgammon partner, and I live in Chicago. I am a sales manager and sales trainer in a print management company. I became a very excellent duplicate bridge player in college and began playing against some of the best in the world, including Oswald Jacoby. One day, Oswald showed me his backgammon board and I was addicted. Family, golf, racquetball, and business got in the way for many years, but about 20 years ago I started taking the game seriously again and was lucky enough to live in a city with some of the best players in the world who were also kind enough to help me with my game.

We have often seen you wearing what looks like a Cowboy (Texan) hat but you’re from Nebraska, please explain?

I lived in Dallas Texas for 10 years and went to the U. of Texas in Austin, and once you get some of that Texas S**T on you, it’s hard to get it off. So I still love my cowboy hats and some of my Texas habits. I was born in Nebraska but didn’t live there for long. A good Illinois friend once said to me: “You might have been bred in Texas, but around here you’re just another crumb!”

I like to say that when I moved from Texas to Illinois I lowered the average I.Q. of both states.

What were your first impressions on the game and how do you compare Backgammon to other games and life for that matter?

What first excited me about backgammon was the fun of gambling. I’d never experienced anything as much fun and as exciting as the doubling cube. In fact, some friends of mine and I have incorporated the use of the doubling cube in other games, such as gin rummy, golf, and pool. It’s truly a wicked tool that makes the game so exciting.

Did you take to the game immediately or did it take a while for you get into it seriously?

I took to the game immediately and got pretty good compared to the people I was playing. I found some friends and relatives I worked with to play for money in our spare time, at lunch…even in the car while we were waiting for appointments. We were playing for pretty big stakes…in fact, at times I was making more money at backgammon and gin rummy than I was in my job (at the time I was a commercial real estate broker.) I got pretty cocky, and actually thought I was pretty good. Then I started playing some of the buys at the Cavendish Club here in Chicago, and they taught me how bad I really was. I was determined to get better, and started buying books and reading about the game.

How did you learn and develop your game and which other players or friends, if any, helped you along the way, and how?

Like most tournament players, I got better and better gradually by reading and watching great players, but there were some “quantum leaps” in my game that I can clearly attribute to my association with better players. About 20 years ago, Joe Sylvester (Sly) came to Chicago, and he was, and still is, one of the greatest players in the game. He needed a place to live and I was between wives at the time and let him crash at my place. Instead of paying rent, Sly taught me backgammon, and he took my game to a much higher level. In a few months, with Sly’s help, I went from an intermediate player to an open player. Sly is a genius with numbers, and he made me understand how critical it is do to the math. You can become a good player with instinct and feel, but to be a great player, you must know and do the math.

I was also very lucky to have friends like Howard Ring, Dean Meunch, Neil Kazaross, Jake Jacobs, and David Wells to play with and who were very generous in helping me with my game, and I have paid for and taken lessons on line from Nack Ballard and Kit Woolsey, who I believe are two of the best teachers and minds in the game. More recently, Perry Gartner has given me a terrific amount of great help and advice that has raised my game a few more degrees.

Many players enjoy discussing positions, but since there are billions of positions in backgammon, and one may never face the exact position in discussion, please explain why it is a good exercise to discuss positions?

I am one of the most avid “position-discussers” in the game. Each week I send out at least 10 positions to my backgammon list for discussion, and my list is up to about 130 backgammon friends. The list includes, by the way, many of the best players in the world. I also post many of these positions on our backgammon forum under a section called “Simborg’s Blunders.” Virtually every position illustrates a major concept that is critical to understanding the game. That is what makes these positions interesting. Yes, it is an intellectual challenge to determine what is the best checker play or cube decision, but even more, each exercise in this process helps you better understand the underlying reasoning behind the game. To me, the process of studying and improving my game is as much fun as playing the game.

What’s the most important lesson you learnt over the board?

I’ve had hundreds of great lessons, but one clearly stands out above the rest. Kit Woolsey told me that on every play and on every cube decision I should put myself in my opponent’s shoes and ask myself how I feel about the play or decision. For example, if I am black, I pretend I am white and ask myself how I would feel about getting the cube, and that pretty much told me if I should double or not. Or I pretend I am white and ask myself which move I hope black doesn’t make, and that pretty much tells me which move to make.

How do you typically prepare yourself for an important match in a live tournament?

Before every tournament I study the match equity tables…that is the more complicated math that often makes the difference in major tournaments. Other than that, I believe the most important preparation is to relax. Live backgammon tournament is very intense…it takes great concentration and skill to play well. I know several players who are great players in a single match or at the beginning of a tournament that fizzle toward the end…and they fizzle because of the pressure and because they just can’t maintain that high level of intensity for that long. What helps me, and what I believe is one of my greatest strengths, is that I make sure to have fun when I’m playing. Yes, I concentrate, and yes I care about winning and I am fiercely competitive, but at the same time, I always make sure to remind myself that backgammon is just a game that I am playing because I love to play and I enjoy it. I smile, I joke, I have fun, and I don’t let my opponent’s great rolls and jokers bother me. I am glad I don’t have to play backgammon to make a living…that would take a lot of the fun out of it for me.

Do you think Backgammon is increasing in popularity? Do you believe it could ever reach the level of popularity that it enjoyed in the 1970s? What do you think it will take to attract more people to the game?

Backgammon is clearly growing and on the upward movement, and I am sure it will get bigger and bigger. I know this because I have played so many other games and sports including Bridge, Poker, Gin, Chess, Scrabble, etc. etc. Backgammon has to become more popular simply because it is so much fun and such a great gambling game…the same two reasons poker has become so popular.

The problem with the game right now is that it is primarily run by people who are most concerned with the gambling aspects of the game and with major tournament player. We don’t have an organization that promotes “grass roots” play for the masses.

Last year I played in the ACBL Contract Bridge Nationals in Chicago. There were 4000 people at the tournament, and there was not a penny of prize money. We were all there for the joy of the game and the glory of winning Master Points that we could wear like a badge of honor. Backgammon has no movement of this nature that organizes and encourages participation simply for the love of the game. In time, I know that will change.

You have written many articles on backgammon, on a wide variety of topics – what inspires you to write articles, do you get a lot of feedback from them and have any of them ever caused any controversy?

I write simply because I love to write about whatever interests me. I have written many articles that have been published on many topics other than backgammon, including real estate, ethics, philosophy, humor of all kinds, physics, marriage, children, golf, racquetball, tennis, and getting hair cuts. I love to share my ideas and thoughts with others; I love helping others, and it makes me feel good to think that some of my thoughts, ideas, suggestions, or lessons might help someone else, and frankly, it’s a real ego boost to see my name on a web site or in a magazine.

Yes, some of my articles do cause controversy. Most recently I wrote an article advocating that beginner and intermediate backgammon players would be better off not trying to study and learn the complicated match equity tables and take points. I argued that they would enjoy the game more, and actually play the game better, taking a less mathematical approach to the game. And I gave some suggestions as to what approaches might help them.

Some top players argued that my advice was the wrong advice, and that what I was saying was totally wrong. They argued that you have to learn and use the math, and I was advocating bad habits and bad practices for the players. They are certainly entitled to their erroneous opinions, but I believe the complicated math is simply not applicable to players who are lower than the expert level because even if they learned the math, they don’t have the skills or experience to apply them properly over the board. I also believe they will enjoy the game more approaching the game in a different matter, and I also believe that most players don’t have the kind of mind it takes to do all the complicated math properly in their head. I am not afraid of controversy, and I often write things that others disagree with. I recognize that there are many people in the world who are far less open-minded, intelligent, and cultured as I, who will disagree with me, and I welcome their criticism.

On marriage and divorce, you have been quoted as saying such things as:

“The two dumbest things I ever said were, “I do”.”
“Alimony is always having to say you’re sorry.”
“Being divorced means knowing how to maintain a rejection.”

We guess that must be from your first marriage, since it said that you are married – would you say that your first marriage was like rolling 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 in a race and that your second marriage is all sixes?

My first marriage was wonderful. And so was my second. And so is my third. I don’t regret any of them, even the ones that ended, and I am still friends with and greatly respect, and even love, my previous wives. By the way, I love what Zsa Zsa Gabor said when they asked her how many husbands she had had: “You mean, in addition to my own?”

What do you think about backgammon’s online version?

I love on-line backgammon. I probably play many hours a week on line. I play to relax; I play for a little money from time to time; and I also play to practice and improve my game. I only play on servers that allow me to download my matches into Snowie, and I download and study every game and every match I play so I can see if I made any mistakes and learn form those mistakes.

I believe the on-line servers are EXACTLY the same as playing live. I firmly believe the rolls are random, fair, and honest, and I think anyone who argues or believes the dice on line are rigged is simply crying about their own bad rolls which are probably the result of their many bad plays. These same people who suspect crooked dice if they played live. On line servers, and the bots (Snowie, Jellyfish and GNUBG) have done much to help bring backgammon to people all over the world and have united people from all over the world. Thanks to internet backgammon, I now have students from Turkey, The Czeck Republic, England, Israel, Russia, and all over the U.S., and I have played with people from everywhere. I love it!

What advice would you give to a newbie backgammon player asking for one?

I give advice to new players every day, and the advice is different depending on the player’s goals.

If they want to become a good player, they must get Snowie and learn how to use it (I will teach them). They must learn the basics…opening moves, basic checker play and cube strategy. But most of all, play a lot and always have fun.

I give almost every beginner a copy of my article called, “Complaining” that advocates never complaining or worrying about the dice or bad luck. Aside from the fact that everyone rolls the same and it’s a fallacy to think that you, or anyone else has worse luck than anyone else, it is rude to suggest that your opponent only won because he got lucky. But more important, if you focus on your bad luck, your bad rolls, or your opponent’s good luck and good rules, the game becomes less enjoyable for you. Backgammon is, first and foremost, a game. It is something you should do for relaxation and enjoyment, and even if you take it seriously, as I do, and even if you want to become as good as you possibly can, as I do, you should never stop having fun while you’re playing or learning.