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Giant 32

Who are the best backgammon players in the world?

People love lists, especially “best” lists: The Top Ten Movies of All Time; The 100 Most Beautiful People; etc. The idea of ranking the top backgammon players is decades old; various methods of realizing the idea have been tried.

The oldest method must be the issuance of “master points.” Originating at the club level, the most famous version currently is the ABT (American Backgammon Tour) list, which awards points using a formula that weights finish position and number of players in the event. There are two drawbacks: points are awarded locally (even the ABT is “local” when viewed from an international perspective) which leads to the exclusion of many fine players; long-term attendance may trump skill.

With the widespread use of computers came the next two methods. The first of these is “rating points.” Chess has used a rating formula successfully for many years, so in the late eighties erstwhile chess player turned master backgammon player Kent Goulding approached a friend of his, Larry Kaufmann, to modify the ELO (chess) rating system for backgammon. A fuller discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the backgammon rating formula may be found in Can A Fish Taste Twice As Good? For the moment let us acknowledge one drawback by recalling an article by KG in his late publication Inside Backgammon: “Who is Harry Zilli?” The answer was that Harry was the highest-rated player in the KG Rating List (pappy of all the online lists extant). That the question arose was because Harry, despite his gloriously high rating, was virtually unknown outside his part of the country, and with the demise of the KG Rating List has become a footnote to backgammon history, on a par with Chico Felberbaum and Charles Wacker at the top of the “who’s that!?” list. (Winners of the first Plimpton Cup and first World Championship respectively.)

The newest method is the use of a ‘bot,” mostly Snowie, to analyze and rate players’ matches. The merit of the bot is that to a great extent the playing field has been leveled: everyone is measured against one opponent (Snowie) rather than against an unknown crop of opponents at the online server du jour, or the entrants in the Podunk Open. Or are they? One of the arguments leveled against the Snowie rating is that the opponent’s error rating isn’t taken into account. Does it matter, you ask? There is a claim, subject to debate, but certainly not immediately dismissible, that some players are better at inducing errors in their opponents than others. Pulling numbers out of thin air simply to illustrate the point, suppose there are ten players numbered 1-10. Further suppose that Player 1 has an error rating of 2.5 against players 3-10, but against Player 2 his error rating is 4.3. Players 3-10 have error ratings of 3.0 against each other, 2.0 against Player 1, and 4.9 against Player 2. Player 2 has error ratings of 3.5 across the board. If my math is correct Player 1 has an average error rating of 2.7 against his nine opponents, Players 3-10 average 3.1 against theirs, and Player 2 has the lowest rating with 3.5. But if you look at win rates (which is what really matters) Player 2 will be on top, and Player 1 is a dog against all comers!

Less controversial is the obvious: player’s ratings may vary wildly from match to match. I know of a top teacher who claims to have recorded matches of one of his students, playing former world champions high stakes matches, in which his error rating was better than the champs’. This same pupil would then celebrate by playing 24-48 hours straight online, drinking hard liquor all the while. It would be those matches going into the player’s permanent record.

Which brings us to the final method, perhaps the most controversial of all, since it is clearly the most subjective: Yamin Yamin’s Giant 32.

Many years ago, even before Yamin conceived his list, I was talking with a strong player from a certain American city, home to one of the most famous players in the world. I remarked that the famous player must be the 800-pound gorilla of their local club. “Oh, no” said my friend, “back home he’s nobody; so and so (he named a much less well known player) is God!”

My friend was exaggerating slightly. Despite a temporary slide, the famous one’s reputation has justifiably endured. But the lesser light, while not eclipsing the famous one, has gone from local to much broader recognition. Clearly at the time the players in that city knew something the rest of us did not.

In 1993 Yamin Yamin, a civil engineer living in Chicago’s suburbs, was the founding director of the Illinois State Backgammon Championships. His dream was to make those premier events on the world backgammon calendar. That didn’t happen. Yamin retired from directing, and the event lives on as a pleasant regional meeting in downstate Illinois. But in the course of promoting the Illinois State Championships Yamin conceived of the Giant 32 list, perhaps intrigued in the same way I was, wondering to himself: “who is the best, and how can I find out?”

The premise is simple: ask the world’s players. Eligible voters include anyone who has played in or directed a live event, regional level and up, in the Open division or equivalent. Every two years the Carol Joy Cole mails out ballots, and posts them online. ( And every two years Carol and I go around twisting arms getting people to sit down and spend ten minutes filling out a ballot. The top name on each ballot is awarded 32 points, the second 31 points, down through #32 who gets one point. And then when all the ballots are in, those points are tallied. (By our tallymaster John Stryker – thanks John!) (The second slot, by the way, is reserved for the voter’s name. This was from a suggestion by Kit Woolsey, who has been a Giant on all the lists, and happens to be a bridge master. He was no doubt inspired by the story – possibly apocryphal – that many years ago they polled one hundred bridge experts asking “who is the world’s best player?” Suspiciously, there were exactly one hundred different answers. So they tried again, this time asking: “who is the world’s second best bridge player?” And all one hundred answered “Howard Shenken!”)

There is one other step in the process: auditing the ballots. This involves determining who the player had in mind when spelling or penmanship has made that obscure. Carol Joy Cole has been a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Noah Webster, and Professor Xavier in straightening these things out. The other auditing is of voter eligibility, which was done by Howard Ring and me, again with valuable input by Carol. I say “was done,” because Howard (a Giant himself) passed away last year after a shockingly brief battle with cancer. He was just forty-five, and left behind a wife and three young children. He is much missed.

The rap against the list has been primarily that it was and is biased towards American players. Perhaps so. But there’s a story with that. In 1997 Jerry Grandell was on a legendary tournament run. He vaulted from 56th on the 1995 list to 9th on the 1997 list. I was in Pattaya for the Thai Open in January of 1998, when the list was published, and got an earful from the Swedes there (Jerry is Swedish) because he was “only” number nine, and this “obviously proved” that there was bias, blah, blah. And my response was: in the fall of 1997 I was in Malmo, Sweden, playing in the Swedish Open. I brought ballots over, and practically sat on people demanding that they vote. Oddly enough, many of these players in Sweden were … are you sitting down? … Swedish! And not one of them voted.

Enough grumbling. This past year (2005) 45% of the voters were not US citizens, and coincidentally, 45% of the Giants were not US citizens. (And also coincidentally, Jerry Grandell, is 9th!) Is the list perfect? Probably not. But here is the strongest argument for it. Let’s take the top ten players, for brevity. Here they are:

1. Nack Ballard (USA)
2. Neil Kazaross (USA)
3. Francois Tardieu (France)
4. “Falafel” Natanzon (Israel)
5. Kit Woolsey (USA)
6. Steve Sax (USA)
7. Lars Bonding (Denmark)
8. Dirk Schiemann (Germany)
9. Jerry Grandell (Sweden)
10. Paul “X-22” Magriel (USA)

Perhaps you can come up with a stronger list. (Great! If you are eligible, we want your ballot in 2007!) But meanwhile we’ll stick with the public lists: the ABT; JBL; DBF; the online ratings at any of the servers (Games Grid, True Money Games, The Zone, etc.); top club points; the Snowie rating lists of Harald Johanni (obviously out of date) or Karsten Neilsen (current). Pick any one you like, and then ask yourself: if I had to back this top ten against the Giant 32 top ten, would I do it? For real money?

Case closed!

For a list of the entire Giant 32 see


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