88 Park Avenue, Suite 302 | Arlington, MA 02476 | 781-641-2091

How to Play Backgammon Chouettes – Part 1

Back in the 1920s, backgammon went through its first great revival. After decades of stagnation, the game suddenly blossomed in popularity. Clubs were formed, books were written, and thousands of new people learned the game and started to play. It was a mini-version of the backgammon craze that started in the 1960s and 1970s.

Conventional wisdom holds that the source of the first backgammon boom was the invention of the doubling cube by some unknown New Yorker in the early 1920s. And indeed, it’s hard to imagine backgammon catching on in the modern world without the excitement of a bouncing cube ratcheting up the stakes. But there was another factor at work, at least as important as the doubling cube in making backgammon the gambling game of choice among the chic set of the Roaring Twenties: the invention of the chouette.

The word “chouette” derives from a French card game called ecarte, played around the turn of the last century. Ecarte was a two-person game in which the players bet against each other. On occasion, however, a player could make a side bet against a spectator. This situation was known as playing “la chouette”. The players who gambled in card clubs at ecarte were probably the very same who took up backgammon when it started to become popular. Imagine two club members playing backgammon when a third member asked to place a bet on the game. Eventually the third person, annoyed at seeing his chances frittered away by what he perceived as inept play, demanded to assist the player on whom he was betting, and backgammon chouettes were born.

Chouettes offer many advantages to heads-up play in a club setting. They’re more fun, more sociable, and more exciting. It’s possible to take a brief break while turning your cube over to another player. You can win a lot of money while on a hot streak in the box. More important, you can walk into a club and always be sure of getting a game, which wouldn’t be the case if the members were paired off in heads-up games.

The very first book published during the 1920s backgammon boom, Modern Backgammon by Grosvenor Nicholas, attributes backgammon’s then-soaring popularity to the birth of chouettes, and gives this amusing account of their virtues:

It [chouette play] includes all modern youthful virtues or vices, whichever they may be regarded. The game requires no knowledge of science or of the arts and hardly any mentality beyond that pleasant quality which we still prefer to designate by its proper English name, ‘alertness’. Nowadays this is generally referred to as ‘pep’ and seems to be in fact the only quality necessary to the fulfillment of our modern ideal of social life.

There is also the excitement of an unlimited game and the illusion of at least taking unlimited chances, so fascinating to youthful cigarette smokers, while actually the danger of anything tragic can generally be avoided. In this game there is always action. The more rapid the moves the better, and there may be unlimited noise. Indeed, if the rattle of the dice is drowned by ukuleles, water whistles, saxophones, radios, Victors, or a whole jazz orchestra, this can hardly affect the players or the outcome of the game. Where there is no mental concentration there can be no distraction.

Clearly Mr. Nicholas didn’t approve of chouettes, but the rest of the world got on board and chouettes quickly became the default in clubs around the country.

Early chouette rules were a simple business. You had the box, the captain, and the team; one cube was in play, and the captain had the final word on all decisions. No problems. Nowadays, however, it’s a different story. Rules have proliferated, every club has its own set of variations, and a newcomer to the game is well advised to make sure he understands just what the rules are.

In this post and the next I’m going to take a look at the different chouette situations that can arise and the different rules that clubs use. I’ll look at the pluses and minuses of each rule variation, and give my vote as to what the best rules are. Read the discussion, see what you think, and perhaps you’ll come away with an idea or two for your next chouette.
1. Use one group cube or individual cubes?

In the beginning, chouettes were played with a single cube. This was fine for the box, but sometimes created a problem for the captain and the team members. If the box doubled, team members could take or drop on their own. But if the team got the advantage, some team members might want to double but others didn’t. The captain was the final arbiter, and ultimately everyone had to accede to the captain’s wishes. If the captain was steamed and insisted on doubling early, everyone else had to go along for the ride.

Some years ago, chouettes in California adopted a new idea: individual cubes. Each player now had his own individual cube, and could double whenever he wanted, regardless of the action of others. The box, when doubled, could take all, some, or none of the cubes.

The individual cube variation proved incredibly popular and swept through the backgammon world in a few years. No club that instituted the individual cube rule ever went back to the old way. Here are my two recommendations for handling individual cubes.

Rule 1a: All players on the team have their own cube. Each can double at any time. When doubled by the box, each can decide whether to take or drop.

Rule 1b: If several players double the box, the box can elect to take all, some, or none of the cubes. If the box elects to take some but not all cubes, he must take at least half of the offered cubes.

2. Should the team members be allowed to consult?

Consulting was an accepted and even desired part of early chouettes. Players argued, wheedled, and cajoled with abandon. In fact, having the presence and gravitas to sway the team to your point of view was a key skill. As time went by, sentiment moved against consulting: too many arguments, too much acrimony, too much shouting and not enough moving. Still, a no-consulting chouette moved too far in the opposite direction: too quiet, too dull, too mercenary. A good compromise rule slowly evolved:

Rule 2: Consulting allowed, but only after a player’s cube has been turned.

Rule 2 not only eliminated long arguments over how to play an opening 2-1, but also created an unexpected bonus. Bossy players would double prematurely just so they could tell the captain what to do!
3. Can an individual pass the box?

Many years ago in Boston, a woman wanted to cut into the regular $20 chouette. She was, in fact, weaker than any of the players in the game, and said she would only play if she could pass the box. Most of the players voted to let her play; whether their motive was chivalry or greed wasn’t clear.

Although she may not have been a top-flight player, she did have an excellent understanding of the dynamics of chouettes. As a team member, she copied the actions of the strongest player still in the game at that point. As the captain, she took the advice of the best players. And if she won as captain, she passed the box and went back to the bottom of the rotation. For the few months she played, she was a steady winner.

Make no mistake, the box is at a small but constant disadvantage in most chouettes, because the ability to consult on plays and listen to other ideas is a real edge. If you let players pass the box, you are giving them free money. Hence Rule 3:

Rule 3: No, you can’t pass the box.

Next time I’ll finish this article with some more recommendations for common chouette situations.

Posted: May 13, 2015 | In Backgammon Chouettes

Share this post: