Playing Backgammon Blind: Yan’s Incredible Story

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Learning backgammon strategy and improving your game can be hard enough when you are able to see. Now imagine you are playing the game without your sight! That is the incredible reality of Yan Kit Chan, a blind backgammon player who, amazingly, has found a way to play online and compete in tournaments with ease.

Born in Hong Kong, Yan went on to live in the UK and Amsterdam, and now resides in Singapore. He studied physics and philosophy at university in the UK, and then delved into digital marketing. He currently works at Facebook, helping customers understand how to improve their advertising. When he is not working at Facebook or playing backgammon, Yan practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He is also an avid writer who dreams of one day writing a novel.

Yan was first introduced to backgammon by a staff member at the senior school he attended in the UK. Drawn into the game, Yan looked for websites where he could play online. He found that he was able to play on DailyGammon, a turn-based version of backgammon where you take turns to play and submit your move. With the use of screen reading software, Yan was able to go through the board and hear how many checkers are in each of the positions.

After he left school and entered the workforce, Yan looked for opportunities in London where he could play in person. He found himself at a backgammon tournament run by Mike Main, and that’s where it all started. Yan wound up doing quite well at tournaments, taking second place and then winning intermediate tournaments at the UK Open.

When playing backgammon in person, Yan touches and memorises the position of checkers on the board as the game unfolds. How does he tell which are his checkers and which are those of his opponent? Sometimes the different coloured checkers in a backgammon set have a different feel, but not always. 

Over time, Yan has learned how to memorise the entire structure of the game and keep it in his mind, even when all checkers feel the same. When he is tired, though, he does make use of a set of checkers that have a different feel between the colours so he can play more easily. Yan also uses BGBuddy – an app that reads out loud dice rolls – while playing in person, so that he can play completely independently.

According to Yan, being blind can be quite restrictive when it comes to choosing board games to play, as not all are accessible. He says that many blind people play checkers and chess, which are perceived as being easier to play. However, with the use of technology and kind developers who develop accessible software and apps such as BGBuddy, eXtreme Gammon (XG) and Backgammon Studio Heroes, it’s never been easier for visually impaired people to learn and play backgammon. 

The developer of Backgammon Studio Heroes, Terje Pederson, collaborated with Yan directly to introduce changes to the website to make it easier for Yan to play. Yan and Terje first met at a Nordic Open Tournament. Yan later contributed ideas for some changes to Heroes, including voice descriptions of moves and improved shortcut key interaction. Another visually impaired player reported that the dice were too hard to see, so Terje added a “Big Dice” board setting. Terje is glad to have been able to introduce changes that make it easier for players like Yan to enjoy and excel at backgammon.

XG is another backgammon tool that Yan particularly enjoys using. The developers were able to make sure it could be used with screen reading software. When playing on XG, Yan moves the checkers around on a physical board next to him, then types the moves in and listens to the screen reader. 

Yan has never met another totally blind person playing at tournaments and he is not aware of any other blind backgammon players. Backgammon is thought of as being difficult to play – which may be a barrier to newcomers, especially those who cannot see. However, Yan asserts that even for those who are not mathematically minded, backgammon is still very fun due to the element of luck. 

Yan would love for more blind people to experience the joy of backgammon and to become involved in the community. As we have seen with the use of new technologies, there has never been a better time for more blind people to start out by playing online. Then, why not attend a tournament or two!? Yan shows us all that when you have curiosity and apply yourself, anything is possible.

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