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Skill vs. Luck in Backgammon

Backgammon combines strategic and mathematical skill with elements of chance. Even a novice can sometimes beat an expert. Multiple matches are the only way to fairly evaluate a human or computer opponent's level of skill.

Because Backgammon is a dice game, some people still think that it is primarily a game of chance. But if you have played before, you know that the deceptively simple rules hide an amazingly sophisticated game of skill. Luck will allow a poor player to occasionally beat a better one, but skill will dominate in a match of several games.

This greatly complicates any analysis, by humans or computers. Lively debate between experts continues over optimum strategy, even for what look like relatively simple positions. The element of chance actually means that an enormous number of possibilities have to be considered to look more than one move ahead. Rather than making all players equal, the chance element requires players to develop different skills than in a game like checkers or chess.

This presents difficulties for game developers trying to create a computer version of the game good enough to challenge expert human players. Traditional "rule-based" programming approaches so far have usually yielded computer opponents which even beginners can quickly learn to beat.

At Silicon Highlands, we tried a different approach, based on exciting new theories of machine learning.

The core of our program was grown rather than built. The strategy used in the seven levels of play was not programmed in at all. Instead, Silicon Highlands developed a sophisticated training engine using proprietary, genetic algorithm-based technology, which allowed intelligent computer players to evolve naturally from less intelligent ones. This process required months of round-the-clock training on the fastest computers available to us.

Although even the best of the players created by this process still make mistakes in certain situations, they usually beat most other players, whether human or another computer program.

Even if you are a beginner, the online manual on the Help menu will tell you everything you need to know to begin enjoying this millenia-old game and improving your skills. See how many of the seven computer-generated opponents (from Clueless to Master) you can beat, then watch your play improve with practice.

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