10 questions about backgammon

Bernhard Mayer interviewing Richard Mate

How did you get to know and love backgammon?

About 18 years ago at the theatre – with a fellow actor, Peter – in a nice pub in Györ, Hungary. We met two backgammon-playing dancers from the famous Györ Ballet. At that time, I didn’t know anything about world championships, thought it was just a game. The game fascinated the two of us and in the next years we recorded the results of thousands of games in a notebook. I was leading against Peter 9834 – 5422 😊

Things like 61 in the first move we learned by doing – and without cube of course we always played to the end and saw the many swings that make the fun of the many ups and downs… playing was the most important thing.

2. if you were to organise a backgammon student olympiad, what would be the mode, the course of the tournament?

Even now I look for tournaments where you can play as much as possible and not be eliminated after two losses. For the entry fee, I want as many games and as much fun as possible… that’s how I would organise a Student Olympiad!

3. Where did you first teach backgammon?

My wife who I brought to backgammon probably doesn’t count, but she was the first step! When I left theatre, I started teaching the game as an elective at university.

4. When teaching, it’s easy to overwhelm the beginner. The game is abstract like GO or Checkers. Much of the beauty of the game for us advanced players is not visible or understandable for beginners. Do you have a step-by-step syllabus worked out or do you proceed spontaneously?

I had to change my starting strategy. First I started with Magriel… photos of positions… that didn’t work at all.

Monday, Wednesday 20 students each for 3 months I have now: 2 to 4 hours each week. (In the context of the technical university, sport is important and with the four compulsory hours, they also have the choice to choose backgammon. At the beginning, an easy way to collect hours with games.)

I now always start by “randomly” choosing a student and playing a game with him or her in front of all 20 students… move by move… explaining for about 40 minutes. Then everyone learns the starting position. Then at the end the surprise – the randomly chosen student is my wife 😊.

Over time, some students catch fire and we play small tournaments. Things like Race Blitz Prime I only discuss with those who show interest on their own. I want them to play a lot, learn to love it and participate in the university tournaments. I also discuss positions online with the eager ones. Of the first 20, 11 have already played in the unit tournament!

5. You have the same number of female students as male students in your backgammon courses. At tournaments, there are currently only about 10 to 15% ladies. Are there different wishes, interests? Do women love the game more than the competition in BG?

In my case, male and female students start 50/50. Those who stay are then about 30% women. The first winner of the final tournament is Christina – what does she bring from home? In her family there was always a lot of playing, the talents are encouraged. Parents often deal with girls differently.

6. Do you take part in international student tournaments? Is there an exciting scene?

Six students have participated in a big tournament; one making it to the top 4. We also plan to go to tournaments together. Competition is part of it. By the the sixth class we play a tournament. At the end of the course there are cups and certificates.

7. Is backgammon recognised as a mental sport in Hungary? Is BG promoted as a sport?

Not yet, but that is why it is good news that we can teach backgammon at the Department of Physical Education. The president of the Sportverien was also present at the award ceremony.

8. You travel a lot with your wife – also on business. Do you play backgammon everywhere? Where was your best backgammon weekend?

My wife is a photographer, so we look for tournaments that are great to photograph… Iceland, for example, at the tournament in Rejklavic. At the European Championship we had a wonderful time. These were exciting matches for me and the northern lights is a fascinating nature to photograph.

During an American TV series, two of us went to Monte Carlo for the World Championship. We stopped quickly… and I discovered that there are also championships in backgammon! So I started searching and found the Budapest backgammon scene. These were small tournaments where I had my first successes and first experience with the cube.

9. How do you think backgammon has changed in the last 20 years?

I have been playing for 20 years 😊, professionally for about 10 years. We are going in the direction of sports, which is good. Whoever plays the better PR wins more. Only with equally strong players does luck have more influence. Learn to win and lose.

10. Because of probability, backgammon is a game of wisdom and humility – you can’t force luck. What saying would you recommend to your students?

My saying: “Backgammon is very simple, you only need one thing: to practise rolling the dice!”.