Backgammon, the USBGF, and You

Karen Davis, and an ambitious road map.
President's Corner with John Pirner

We are feeling good about the prospect of getting back to live play, throwing off many of the shackles imposed on us by COVID restrictions, and getting back together with friends. During the lockdown period, when most of us had nowhere to go, the U.S. Backgammon Federation leadership and staff took the opportunity to reflect on who we are as an organization and a community. We went through a critical self-analysis and somewhat of a reinvention. 

Growing backgammon is the heart of our mission, but we remain a bit hard to find.

We took a step back to scrutinize ourselves and asked some critical, big-picture questions. How are we meeting our core mission to bring more people into the game? How well are we meeting the needs of current players, tournaments, and clubs? 

The answers that emerged are that we need to do a much better job of making backgammon accessible to newcomers. Also, we need to continue our focus more on what players who know us value. 

Growing backgammon is the heart of our mission, but we remain a bit hard to find. Millions of people play backgammon on their phone, computer, or at home with family and friends, but only a tiny fraction of those is aware that our community exists. I am a distributor of expensive, high-end boards, and it befuddles me that most of my customers do not play with clubs or in tournaments. They appreciate the game so much that they will buy a luxury board to be enjoyed with their friends and family, but they will not venture to a local club. 

Few casual players have learned to play with the cube, and that is an immediate roadblock to entering our community. Even if they are invited to join a local club, or find marketing materials for a tournament, they will not be skillful enough to compete, and they will not come back. The same is true if they find our website. New people are confronted with a bewildering array of acronyms and confusing terms in our marketing materials. We look “clubby.” We do not make it easy for the uninitiated to join in on the fun. Learning how to use the cube should be a reason to join us, not a reason to avoid us! 

The first step to grow the game is to make ourselves visible, and smooth out our arcane and wonky tendencies. After that, we need to capitalize on any interest shown by giving newcomers the knowledge, tools, resources, guidance, and confidence they need to get and stay involved. Our retention record has not been good. 

Players who are already an active part of our community want access to top-quality play experiences. However, we have taken a one size fits all approach to what the experience looks like. ABT tournaments are generally held near airports, sometimes with an expansive view of the runways. These are not experiential locations, where a spouse or friend can walk out the front door and spend the day being entertained, while the other spouse or friend plays wall to wall backgammon every day, all day. We do not facilitate introductions for non-playing spouses and friends to connect with each other. There is little or no social time other than dinner breaks and breakfast. We have a sizable number of players who prefer the wall-to-wall experience, but who are we leaving out in this model? We are missing a market that wants a casual, slower paced experience, at bucket list destinations, and the opportunity to combine backgammon and socializing. We are developing the idea of “destination tournaments.” A boutique experience, if you will, where backgammon is part of the weekend, but so are other activities, like golfing, air boating, zip lining, trap shooting, sightseeing, dining out for the evening, etc.

Backgammon, the USBGF, And You 

Players want meaningful competition, at their level, and rewards for performing well. Players who want to work on their game appreciate both casual and intense educational opportunities. They want resources that can help them increase their skills at their pace and at their comprehension level. Again, that does not have to be a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Just as being successful in backgammon requires a combination of the strategies and underlying tactics, our growth plans for the community must employ the same. You may notice a different tone from us, one that is a bit lighter. Backgammon is a true mind-sport. But it is also an entertaining game,and our community is full of colorful and fun-loving people. Wherever you are on your backgammon journey – beginner, casual player, experienced competitor, or expert – there is a place for you here. You expect to have a wonderful time. You enjoy being part of the community. USBGF staff members remind us that our marketing messages and initiatives must focus on you, wherever your skill level is, and what you want from the game and the community. 

What is New and Evolving 

We have plans. Here is a shortlist of programs that are new or will be rolled out as they are ready. 

Video Streaming Initiative: We have assembled a team to coordinate a streaming product with a variety of expert commentators. The entire product must be consistent, from tournament to tournament, including the commentary, and the video and audio quality. We endeavor to have the same look and feel across all the ABT tournaments, live and online. Begun in March, this is a work in progress. . 

Backgammon 101: A new Sunday evening event led by Jeff Spencer for absolute beginners. Alternating weeks are lessons and live play. 

Pick A Pro: Enter a blitz to win a lesson with an expert, and win a beautiful Belair watch with the USBGF logo. 

OnlinePlay: The new Online Tournament Series(OTS) provides a variety of online events for flexible scheduling. Still evolving, board blitzes will be resuming soon, and Pick-A-Pro will be moving to this platform. Look for new events, too. 

NewWebsite: Designed to become Backgammon Central, with many features not available on the current site, including a social network, an interactive calendar, plenty of opportunities for community interaction, and educational articles and tools. The website will launch mid-year. 

ExpandedMarketing: Aimed to elevate our visibility, capture new player interest, and help existing players connect with the resources they value. 

Invest in the American Backgammon Tour (ABT): 

Provide expanded support for ABT tournaments and players. Ben Friesen is out front leading this effort. 

Investment in Staff: Recognizing that we need reliable and accountable staff to advance our strategies and tactics, and to provide consistent customer services, we have moved away from a mostly volunteer staff to mostly paid staff. 

Destination Tournaments: How about a long weekend at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs? Skiing and backgammon in Vail? The Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho? The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island or Hilton Head in South Carolina? Downtown San Diego? The Fairmont in Banff? Small groups, 16 to 32, designed for a gentle mix of backgammon and socializing. This is a concept that was put on hold due to Covid but is being resurrected. 

Invest in the Community: Provide support for clubs and players who may not have a club nearby. This is one of our most important tasks and the best opportunity to grow backgammon and our community. 

Educational Materials: Create materials and resources that are accessible to all skill levels. 

Where’s This Bus Going? 

Okay, we are nerds, not Merry Pranksters, and we are making points, not love, but this is an adventurous journey nonetheless. 

When embarking on an adventurous journey, like a cross country bus trip, planning is essential lest we run out of gas and enthusiasm. 

First, we must agree on our destination and then steer the bus in that direction. Second, we must have the right people in the organization who are excited about the destination and know how to keep the bus operational. Our exceptional team has the skills to perform their tasks. Our team works well together and knows their roles. Third, we need enough fuel in our tank to get there. 

For more than a year we have required USBGF membership, and a $10 ABT fee, to participate in our ABT Online! tournaments. We are now resuming live play, beginning in Michigan. The membership requirement and $10 ABT participation fee will be extended to live ABT tournaments. We need fuel to develop and support our programs. Paid staff care about the health of the bus. Would you hire a volunteer to do cataract surgery on your eyes? 

The USBGF has set our strategic priorities. We have built our team with qualified and enthusiastic staff to support those priorities. The ABT fee and membership requirement have not been universally popular, but I do not know where else to find sustainable fuel to support and retain our staff. I have heard some say that the fee is a tax. That is a straw-man fallacy, but I understand the sentiment. I hope that with time and results we will prove that the fee is an investment. 

I am incredibly grateful to all of you who support us and the mission through your memberships, contributions, and your time 

Please send your thoughts, suggestions, and participation questions to 

John Pirner brings extensive experience in business to his role as President and Executive Director of the USBGF. 

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