USBGF at Museum of Mathematics

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A dozen volunteers, led by Jason Lee, Online Match Series Editor for the U.S. Backgammon Federation (USBGF) and Giant of Backgammon Bob Koca, introduced visitors to the mathematics of backgammon at the new National Museum of Mathematics on April 6, 2013. At the invitation of Cindy Lawrence, co-Executive Director of the new museum located at 11 East 26th Street, New York, NY, the USBGF arranged to expose young and old alike to the fascinating mathematics behind the game of backgammon. The event was organized by Perry Gartner, USBGF President, with help from Phil Simborg, Education Adviser to the USBGF.

The afternoon at the Museum began with a PowerPoint lecture by Lee and Koca that interspersed the rules of the game with mathematical concepts. The focus was not on the right move, but the thought process undergirding play. The lecture was projected on a large screen using eXtremeGammon software screen shots of the backgammon board and various positions. Participants quickly grasped the importance of counting shots, covering numbers, and ways to make points.

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Volunteers including Giant of Backgammon Richard Munitz, New York City players including Antoinette-Marie Williams, director of the Pair-O-Dice Club in New York City and organizer of events at the World Backgammon Championship in Monte Carlo, Julia Sommer, organizer of the NYC Backgammon MeetUp group, Bob Bieder, Michael Cazel, Melvin Chin, Ross Gordon, Eva Mitter,  and Michael Pustilnik brought backgammon boards and played with participants.

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Munitz tantalized the crowd by asking a lot of questions, and patiently letting the participants find the right answer. And the assembled crowd gasped with surprise at the smashing ending to the evening’s festivities when Rich rolled a 1-6 from the bar, coming in against a five-point board, hopping out, and hitting to win the game, demonstrating that unlike in chess backgammon players can win or lose at the whim of the dice gods.

His opponent, a brother of a MoMath employee, said: “I had a fantastic time at MoMath’s Backgammon master class. Before that night, I had played a lot of backgammon, but never really thought about any of the mathematics behind it. My teacher that night (who turned out to be a national champion!) really took the time to map out every move with me. In three hours, we only got through one game, but by the end, the whole room was crowded around our table cheering or groaning with each roll of the dice. I think the best part was that a MoMath special event was a place where I could really nerd out with people who appreciate it.”

Lawrence thanked Perry Gartner, President and Executive Director of USBGF, for sponsoring the session. She commented: “My reaction: Everyone who attended seemed to have a great time. The pros walked around providing helpful tips and explanations–we all learned something new. A few attendees asked if we would host another such evening–I hope we will. Thank you!

On the preceding evening Lee and Koca explained backgammon to donor VIPs gathered at the Science House at 122 East 38th in Manhattan, whose CEO James Jorasch serves on the Board of Directors of the Museum. They attracted a steady stream of interested attendees — despite stiff competition from some of the leading lights of the worlds of scrabble, poker, and chess including Annie Duke, American professional poker player and author who holds a World Series of Poker gold bracelet from 2004 and is the leading money winner among women in WSOP history, and Joe Edley, the first Scrabble professional to win the National Scrabble Championship three times.  

The Museum of Mathematics mission states:  “Mathematics illuminates the patterns that abound in our world. The National Museum of Mathematics strives to enhance public understanding and perception of mathematics. Its dynamic exhibits and programs will stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of mathematics. The museum’s activities will lead a broad and diverse audience to understand the evolving, creative, human, and aesthetic nature of mathematics.”

The National Museum of Mathematics which opened its doors on December 15, 2012, began in response to the closing of a small museum of mathematics on Long Island, the Goudreau Museum. A group of interested parties (the “Working Group”) met in August 2008 to explore the creation of a new museum of mathematics – one that would go well beyond the Goudreau in both its scope and methodology. Led by hedge-fund analyst Glen Whitney, the group quickly discovered that there was no museum of mathematics in the United States, and yet there was incredible demand for hands-on math programming. Accomplishments to date include creating the popular Math Midway exhibition, which is currently touring museums throughout the United States; leading math tours in various U.S. cities; the Math Encounters presentation series; delivering programs for students, teachers, and the public to increase appreciation of mathematics; and raising over $22 million to date. The Museum contains 19,000 square feet of interactive, often awe-inspiring exhibits driven by mathematical concepts.

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