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A Short History of Backgammon 6.0

A Short History of Backgammon 6.0

Willy Chaplin's backgammon program was born of a back injury. That is, when Willy was bedridden with a severe back problem in 1978, he set up a small table on the bed and proceeded to sandwich a completely functional backgammon program into the 7K of RAM available on his Commodore PET computer, one of the very first "personal" computers ever made. To accomplish this, he wrote the program in 6502 assembly language and used many of the BASIC routines (contained in an additional 32K of ROM) to support it, especially the floating point arithmetic routines. The resulting program, with its "character" based graphics (similar to the widgets contained in the upper 128 bytes of ASCII on IBM compatible computers), LOOKED like backgammon and played an interesting, if not too proficient game as well, complete with clicking pieces and dice.

After recovering enough to move about, he traveled to California and attempted to sell the program to Commodore. However, that firm was already preparing the Commodore 64 (and thus ready to abandon the PET) and did not appear to be that interested. So, as an afterthought, Willy decided to drop into the offices of Personal Software (later to become Visicorps), which then published the amazing program MicroChess which actually was designed earlier to run and play chess in only 4K of RAM on the very first "hobby" computers! In fact, Willy had been inspired to write a backgammon program in so little space by MicroChess. P.S. loved his backgammon program and, until they eventually abandonned it for their MUCH hotter VisiCalc, the very first spreadsheet software, published and sold over 100,000 copies of Willy's program as Gammon Gambler (yes, the original version had a doubling cube!). When VisiCorp abandoned game software for "productivity" applications, Willy took the program to a company in Illinois called Odesta, who had him port it to the (then) new IBM PC and sold a few tens of thousands more copies before they too eschewed game programs in favor of a MacIntosh database manager (which did VERY well). Since that time, board game software moved from the arena of commercially viable software to the giveaway novelty item category. However, Willy's wife Gypsy had meanwhile become a backgammon addict and spurred him to develop version after version strictly for her benefit. Each new version played better and better, especially in match play, her favorite brand of competition. To this day, she spends nearly an hour a DAY playing against the machine (entering into at least one, sometimes three or four 25 point matches) and STILL loses an occasional match although she wins about 75% of the time. Machine play just gets too predictable over time...but not so predictable that she no longer enjoys her matches.

Having such an on-site dedicated tester enabled Willy to hone the user interface to an optimum state of playability. Using either the keyboard or a mouse (the keyboard is actually faster once you get used to it), the user can play an astonishingly rapid game of backgammon. Also, as computers got faster and faster, the machine's play easily kept up to the fastest human (and GYPSY is VERY fast). Willy's early technical experience had been in the defense industry, developing so-called smart bombs and other projects using what was then known as artificial intelligence. This expereience served him well in developing backgammon. The software uses an advanced (at least for its day) pattern recognition algorithm which depends not only upon calculated probabilities of "winning" (harder to define than you might imagine), but also other aspects of the game, especially the betting strategies. Early versions relied on about 5 variables, but later versions expanded this to about 20. The playing parameters (weights) for the various variables were determined pragmatically. Slight variations in the parameters were made between the two sides and they were then played off in 10,000 game matches by having the computer play both sides, one with the "best" values to that time, the other with the new variation. If the new version beat the old significantly often (say 60-40), it was then incorporated as the new standard. new variablews were also introduced this way, to compensate for one or another perceived flaw in the computer's play. Repeated applications of this method led to the increasingly proficient versions. One caveat is in store for others who wish to try this methodology. If you just have the computer playing against itself, mechanically replacing each bested variation with its "better," the algorithm will begin to wander off into La-La land, where only another machine could appreciate its play. That is, the play would get so bizarre and dependent upon computer specific properties, that a human...almost ANY human...could easily defeat it. This is where Gypsy's incessant testing came in. periodically, Willy would give the iteration procedure described above a rest, an see how Gypsy would do against the "latest and greatest." This often led to backtracking, but eventually always led to bettter play on the part of the computer, at least where Gypsy was concerned.

(Editor's note: at the time of this writing, the JAVA version of the software lacks one important aspect of the MSDOS version...namely, stochastic lookahead when considering doubling or whether or not to accept a double, which was one of the very last features added to previous versions. That is, the MSDOS version, when doubling or contemplating issuing a double, plays ahead, using random dice throws, about ten moves to make the final decision about what to do. This aspect of the betting game dramatically improves gambling behavior, but is currently absent from the JAVA version. Willy wishes to improve this still more before implementing it in version 6.0, based upons Gypsy's recommendations.)

After commercial sales of backgammon collapsed, Willy was forced by circumstances (he and Gypsy share 15 children) to rely on his programming expertise to make an adequate living. He could no longer afford the luxury of the R&D necessary to develop innovative software, but had to rely on development contracts from other companies to put bread on the table. Only recently, spurred by the renewed interest in computer backgammon generated on the Internet, did Willy get back to the game. Willy's and Gypsy's children are now all adults and they are free, for the first time in 42 years for Willy, of obligations to support offspring.

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