Victor Ashkenazi, the #11 ranked Giant of Backgammon (as of 2013. In 2015 Victor was ranked #8 - Ed.), graces the cover of the March-April 2015 issue of PrimeTime Backgammon. Victor is off to a great start in 2015, leading in the newly-implemented USBGF Live Master Points System, with strong performances at both the New York Metro and the Texas Backgammon Championships, as well as the USBGF National Championship West. Having kept a low profile for years, Victor has emerged as one of backgammon’s superstars, winning a coveted place on the World Team in the Nordic Open’s 2014 event: The World vs. Denmark. In an insightful interview, Phil Simborg reveals the secrets behind Victor’s mastery.
Phil has interviewed many of the top players and organizers in the game. All of the interviews are archived on bkgm.com. Phil selects his interviewees on the basis of playing skill, sportsmanship, and overall contribution to the game.
Phil: Can you give us some basic biographical information about yourself?
Victor: I’m originally from Moscow, but traveled a lot in Soviet Union. I spent 10 years in the very north of Russia, near the Arctic Circle. Sometimes I played hockey outside when the temperature was -50C. I studied civil engineering at St. Petersburg Technical University. I moved to New York City with my parents when I was 25 — it was supposed to be temporary, while we
looked after my ailing grandmother. She passed away, but we decided to stay. I had learned French in school and university, but knew only about 10 English words. I now live in the New York City area. My 18 year old son, Max, is in college, and he is also studying engineering. I simply cannot win without my life partner, Alia rooting and standing by my side. I started playing backgammon at Times Square around 1998. Within a couple of years I had trouble finding people who would play me. It was a very lively backgammon scene then. By the way, Mochy was living in New York at that time, learning the game, trying to win some money in chouettes. I don’t remember him then, but he told me that he was warned not to play in any game I was in. He followed the advice. I began working as a computer programmer in January 1999. I got my M.S. in Financial Engineering from NYU Poly in 2005. I am still working.
Phil: I understand you had a background in chess before playing backgammon.
How good were you, how good are you, and how did you get into chess?
Victor: Chess is more of a childhood love. My career was very short. I started playing in tournaments when I was about 12 and quit serious chess at age of 15. I won a junior regional tournament in Russia, became an expert, then had to concentrate on finishing school, and stopped playing competitively. After moving to New York, I started playing speed chess again. I was playing at around 2300 Elo in blitz. (That is what they call “master” level, I believe.)
Phil: What made you give up chess for backgammon?
Victor: I started playing backgammon in New York City, well after dropping serious chess, no connection there. I fell in love with the game and the more I played and studied the more I liked it. And I am competitive. Backgammon allowed me to express this aspect of my nature in an interesting environment.
Phil: How have you become such a top player? Have you read books? Taken lessons?
Do you have a mentor or teacher that has helped you? What do you do on a regular basis to improve your game?
Victor: About the only book I can remember reading was Advanced Ideas in Backgammon by Woolsey — many years ago. I did not take lessons. I watched people play on Times Square for a couple of months before starting to play myself — so I learned the hard way, through live play. After about a year, I bought Snowie and practiced with it for another year. I think it helped me to polish my game and gain confidence in my positional understanding. I have to say that Snowie was always kind to me, rated my game pretty high almost from the get go. After that training period, I played actively, both live and online. I played on all the major sites at the time (I believe I was the #1-rated player on every site at some point). People often knew my online nicks much better than my real name. I remember playing for the first couple of times in the Monte Carlo World Championship. My opponents never knew who I was until we talked about online play and I would reveal one of my nicks. And they would say: Oh, Socrat!
Phil: How many hours a week do you play or study backgammon?
Victor: I play matches online and analyze them. I do it more lately (a few times a week, a couple of hours a day) than I have in the last few years, when I almost exclusively played live. I believe that a very important part of my self-education is in reviewing my live matches. Thankfully, with the new trend of recording matches during tournaments and the great volunteer work done by several backgammon enthusiasts, a lot of my live matches had been recorded, analyzed, and published. I believe over 60 matches were posted just on the BGOnline forum. It’s a great source of information: you might think someone a great player, but there is a big difference between playing well at home on your personal computer, and performing at a high level in live matches against different opponents for high stakes. I always agree to be recorded and never block my matches from being published, regardless of the results. I think transparency regarding your live play is necessary if you want to be considered a top player. I know that most experts share that philosophy, though there are a few very notable exceptions.
Phil: I have to admit that I am really jealous of people like you and MCG and others who went from a total beginner to a Giant in a very short period of time. What’s the secret?
Victor: There is no one way to do it (and that makes backgammon even more fascinating). In fact, there are almost no similarities between top players in their approach to the game. I view backgammon as a positional, harmonic game. There are strong players who rely on hard work and technical analysis. There are many players (maybe the majority) who rely on remembering reference positions or trying to calculate equities. I guess the only thing we all have in common is we loved the game enough to put many other interests aside, and dedicate ourselves to playing and learning backgammon.
Phil: Where do you play live and online now?
Victor: I occasionally play in chouettes in New York City. Most of my live play is at major U.S. ABT tournaments and I make a few international events. Just about all of my online play is on GridGammon.
Phil: What advice do you have for a relative beginner to learn the game well?
Victor: I would advise not rushing and not paying much attention to your results in the beginning. Take your time when playing, make sure you analyze your matches with XG or GNU, and try to understand your mistakes. Seek advice from a professional teacher or online sources to help you work on the areas which you find most challenging.
Phil: What advice do you have for experienced players, such as a strong intermediate player (8.0 PR) to take his game to a higher level?
Victor: The better you play, the more difficult it is to improve your game. You need to work harder and go much deeper into positions to really understand what is going on. Anyone can make obvious plays and decisions, but to become a strong Open player, you have to learn how to make the tougher and closer decisions if you want to stay ahead of the competition.
Phil: Recently in a conversation with Mochy, he said that he agreed with me that any reasonably intelligent person can become a 4.0 PR player if they work hard enough and long enough and work smart. Do you agree with that?
Victor: I’m not positive about that. I think backgammon is a very complex game that doesn’t have too many standard rules to follow. Changing a position slightly — just moving one checker a little — often leads to a very different outcome in terms of what is the correct play. I think becoming a very strong backgammon player is based on developing inside the flexible tool that will allow a player to come up with the best decision-analyzing approach for each position. I’m not a big believer in remembering reference positions, as any memory lapses may result in big errors because the player believes that he “remembers” the position and doesn’t apply critical judgment. I think backgammon skill is a mix of a hard work and talent.
Phil: What are your greatest tournament results and backgammon accomplishments?
Victor: I have not played in that many tournaments. My busiest (by far) tournament year was 2012 when I played in around 10 ABT tournaments. I won the N.Y. and Tampa Opens that year, the Las Vegas and L.A. Masters, and cashed in few other events. I also won the Las Vegas Open in 2007 and the N.Y. Open in 2011 (I think it was 2011). [actually 2009 — Ed.] Both were very strong tournaments with a number of top players participating. Playing for the World Team in the Nordic Open in the last few years was a great experience and a proud moment. Biggest achievement...can’t think of one... would probably be online play over years (I was one of the most feared opponents in the world). I am also very proud of my level of play in live events, as proven by XG analysis. There is no question that XG’s PR rating is the best method we have right now of measuring playing skill.
Phil: Tell us a little about your experience on the World Team at the Nordic.
Victor: It was electrifying both times that I participated: the first year we lost a very close match. The entire event was decided on the last roll of the last DMP game when we had 5 numbers to win — double 2 or greater. We didn’t roll it. Last year we won by a big margin, and the last full-consulting team match featured a very exciting game that lasted several hours, in which the Danes recubed to 4 and had a chance to get back into the match. I think our team from last year was close to the best team the World could possibly assemble. It was a perfect combination of different styles and experience and the average strength of our players was exceptionally great.
Phil: Who are your heroes in backgammon — people you really respect for the play or their contributions to the game?
Victor: I don’t have heroes in backgammon, but I respect the game of lot of players. I admire Falafel’s positional understanding, Mochy’s technical knowledge, Sander’s talent, Akiko’s fighting spirit, and many other players’ qualities.
Phil: What is the weakest part of your game and what are you doing about it?
Victor: Not knowing match equity tables could be viewed as a weakness — though I never felt particularly handicapped by that. Coming up with the right cube decision at different match scores involves much more than remembering percentages. It’s more of a general positional understanding I believe that helps me to come up with correct answer.
Phil: Do you have a favorite tournament format?
Victor: I like Swiss movements.
Phil: What other games or activities are you good at aside from chess and backgammon?
Victor: I play soccer and volleyball pretty well and enjoy them very much.
Phil: What other passions and interests do you have?
Victor: My childhood passion was reading. I like music and movies. I try to see a new movie every week. I prefer independent and foreign movies to Hollywood productions.
Phil: We’ve talked a lot about tournament play, but I also know you have a fine reputation as a money player. Who would you rank amongst the best in money play?
Victor: Please keep in mind that I may not know or have seen many strong players, but from my personal perspective, in no particular order, I would consider these some of the best: Falafel, Wells, Trabi, Mochy, Sander, and Gus. Recently I really like Akiko’s game. She is a Judit Polgar of backgammon!
Phil: What are your plans for future tournaments and travel in backgammon?
Victor: I really don’t make distant future plans. In terms of 2015, I expect to play in N.Y., San Antonio, Nordic, Monte Carlo, and one (maybe two) of the new great tournaments in Cyprus. There could be 2-3 more tournaments depending on my schedule. I liked the Carolina Open last year around Labor Day, and may play there again. The Faster Masters is a fun event there.
Phil: If you could change any of the rules of backgammon, what rules would you change?
Victor: I definitely prefer legal moves and mandatory clocks. I am glad to see more tournaments requiring both.
Phil: Are you good at speedgammon? Do you enjoy it?
Victor: That is my favorite type of game. I would prefer all Masters events to have speed gammon rules — 10 second delay per move and 1 minute per point of match.
Phil: Some say David Wells might be the best speedgammon player....do you agree? Who would you rank highly in that area?
Victor: David was my teammate at the last World versus Denmark match. I didn’t know him personally before. I was most impressed with his game — speedgammon or otherwise. Others who are very strong that I have seen include Sander, Falafel, MCG, and Petko.
Phil: How do you think the top players of 20 years ago would stack up against the top players today?
Victor: I know very little about Nack’s game. Many say he is still very strong and I am sure if he and Grandell and Levermann and Scheiman and Snellings and the other greats of the past played today, they would do well if they studied. From that generation, and the players that I know well, I think Senk was one of the best, and one who managed to transition to the new game with his own style. Malcolm’s results and level of play are still amazing. Winning the Masters Jackpot in Las Vegas this year and a consistent strong showing in other tour- naments makes me a believer in Malcolm.
Phil: What players will you be putting near the top of the Giants list that maybe weren’t mentioned or weren’t as high as you think they should be?
Victor: I don’t think my Giants list would be too different than the actual one. Among players who are underrated on the Giants list, I would mention Wells, Kristensen, and Obukhov.
Phil: What other top players do you hang out with and who are your close friends, and could you share an interesting or funny
story about any of them?
Victor: I consider a lot of backgammon players personal friends. The entire list would be too long. As lawyers like to say, “included but not limited to”: Petko, Dima, Tuvya, Falafel, Arkadiy, Mochy, Akiko, Carter, Mark Brockman and Tomas Kristensen, Yaroslav Gusev, and many others. I think backgammon is blessed to have so many interesting personalities.
Phil: What do you think needs to be done to help grow the game and make it more popular around the world?
Victor: I think that the creation of a unified World Backgammon Federation should be a first step. Then: (1) a unified, Federation-approved set of rules; (2) a series of qualifying tournaments, leading in a logical and consistent way to selecting a true World Champion. All of that should help not only the players’ enjoyment of the game; it would also help to attract new sponsorship. We see pockets of backgammon growth in communities around the world. A global organization should help to direct this growth. I believe chess could be taken as a model.
Phil: I know you are a full-time professional in the financial field, but it appears you could make a living playing backgammon, if you chose to. How many people in the world do you think make a living playing the game...and by “making a living” I mean live comfortably?
Victor: If we take backgammon alone — then probably no more than 5-10 people can live comfortably off backgammon, and if we call professionals only people who live off their tournaments earnings — then number would be close to zero. It is not a smart career choice at this time.
Phil: Why do you live in New York? If you had to move, where would you live?
Victor: New York is my place of choice. I don’t think I could live that long anywhere else. This city (though crazy and stressful) offers great variety in culture, food, and personalities!
Phil: When you are playing an inferior opponent, which is mostly in the earlier rounds of a tournament and even in some later rounds, do you alter your game in any way based on the skill difference? Are you more likely to pass racing games and more likely to take and give cubes in complicated situations?
Victor: I do, but not too much. I think adjustments are overrated. I feel that sometimes people use them to excuse their mistakes. Of course, if an opponent is very weak, I may cube later in the race and may not take a close take in a race. But those things are easy to figure out for most players.
Phil: Will you share with us a huge blunder you have made in a tournament recently, and talk about why you think you made that error and what you have done to prevent making similar mistakes in the future?
Victor: I make way too many blunders to remember them!
Phil: Good answer! I like Dr. Livingston’s quote: “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.”
Most agree that eXtreme Gammon plays better than any player in the world. Do you agree? Do you have any records to show how you do against XG on average?
Victor: I don’t play too much against XG...I find it boring, so I pretty much just use it to analyze matches. My PR is somewhat flexible and depends on the current form. I average in the high 2’s when I’m in good shape and 3’s when it slips a little. I just try not to fall too low, meaning if I have a bad match — it’s usually still in 4s. I believe that my PR in live, recorded matches is most important and I study those matches the most. That’s where you are in a live match, on the spot with the clock and distractions and pressure, and that’s when your true abilities and shortcomings really stand out. I’m one of the most recorded and analyzed players and the results and matches are out there for all to see.
Phil: FYI many people get bored playing XG for the reasons you stated...it always doubles on time so almost all doubles are a take and it plays so well it is not like playing a live person. I have a suggestion for you and all reading this: when you play XG, don’t play against the highest level...I generally play against the 4th level (Professional) which does make a few mistakes and might double when it is not and might slot wrong, etc. just like a human. When you are not being recorded, do you take pictures or record specific positions? After the match are you able to remember them and then analyze them?
Victor: Thanks to good memory, I don’t usually take pictures during the match. When I play an important match and spend reasonable time thinking about plays — I usually remember it. Sometimes I can recall the whole match, but certainly I remember the key positions.
Phil: Wow! I have seen MCG input an entire 9 point match after playing live and was, and still am in complete shock. I have seen Jake recall many
times, when he played the same position 10 years earlier and he could also tell you what the waitress was wearing (if she was attractive.) There is no question this kind of memory has to be a major advantage in your game. Do you read the latest articles online and in backgammon publications?
Victor: I am a member and supporter of the U.S. Backgammon Federation and I read PrimeTime Backgammon magazine.
Phil: What do you do between matches at major tournaments to relax? Or do you study?
Victor: I enjoy chouettes when I am at tournaments. The stakes can be low or high...I just enjoy the game and socializing — that is how I relax.
Phil: I love chouettes too, but I find them too distracting for me during a tournament, unless I am out of the running. What do you find so much fun about them?
Victor: Why are they fun? Well, to turn the game around against someone like Carter and see his expression when you recube; or hear Tuvya’s comment on my play: “This is an insane move!” And then occasionally to win a bet on a play against whole table is
priceless. Winning a few crazy backgames against David Todd — what can be better? Or hosting Akiko and MCG or Falafel in a New York chouette and gammoning them on the box, along with few mean members of the downtown game. This all gets my juices running. Most of all, backgammon is a really fun game and I love it!
Phil: You have a very interesting last name, which clearly identifies you as Jewish. Do you care to talk about your family history and culture and/or your religious beliefs?
Victor: I do identify myself as Jewish, but it’s more of a cultural aspect in my case, as I’m an atheist. My family had been through a lot of adversity (like most Jewish families in Europe, and especially in the Soviet Union) in the 20th century, but we are still alive and carry the torch — and that, to me, is the most important thing. I have become an American citizen, and I couldn’t be more proud. I love this country and the people, even the people in New York! I am also proud of my Russian heritage. I finished answering that question, looked at the mirror, and asked myself: Who am I?
Phil: When you have a particularly unlucky streak and the dice seem to clearly be going bad for you, what are your thoughts?
How do you handle it?
Victor: Great question! How I handle it varies, and depends on my form. I think over the last few years I learned to take the dice as a given — just play whatever is rolled. This approach helped me to play well and achieve good results. If it looks like I am irritated, it is probably not because of the dice but because I’m not on my game and not playing well.
Phil: Most top backgammon players are very strong at math. Are you? Have you studied math?
Are you able to easily divide by 1296 over the board, and do you do that kind of math over the board?
Victor: I was strong in math in my childhood and have an M.S. in financial engineering, where statistics play big role. But I wouldn’t call myself a math junkie. I rely more on my memory and positional feel.
Phil: If you had to pick out one trait of your personality or mind that has helped make you a great player, what would it be?
(MCG said it was his ability to hone in on the most important factor very quickly and accurately, and ignore the noise, for example.)
Victor: No, I could not isolate a single trait or approach. For me, improving in backgammon is finding out more about myself as a person. It is a little like playing musical instruments. When I find that inner harmony — I can solve most backgammon problems over the board.
Phil: Well, you may not realize how big an asset it is, but when you say things like after a match you might be able to remember the entire match and every position, that is not something many people can do, so your memory might be a much stronger asset than you realize. If you had to play a year with, for example, my memory, you might realize what an asset you have there!
Victor: Good point. You not only have to learn something, you do have to remember what you’ve learned, and be able to use it when you are playing.
Phil: You may not know this, but I chose to interview you because you truly are one of my heroes, and not just because of your skill, but because of your wonderful demeanor and good sportsmanship. Thanks for doing this interview and for your support of the U.S. Backgammon Federation.
- PHIL SIMBORG