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How to Play Backgammon Chouettes – Part 2

Last time we talked about the history of backgammon chouettes and why they’re so popular. We also looked at three common situations that occur in chouettes and how they should be handled.

This time we’ll finish the discussion of chouette variations, and I’ll make some more recommendations about how chouettes should be structured and what rules work well in practice.

4. Can the box take a partner?

Most players are perfectly comfortable in the box against three or four opponents. What happens, though, when players keep joining the game? With 8 or 10 opponents, the box can be under considerable money pressure. One way around this is to allow the box to take a partner when the chouette grows large.

At what point should the box be allowed to take a partner? In practice, six players seem to be about the right number. In a five-player chouette, the box is playing for four times the nominal stake. Most chouette players are prepared for that much action. (Some, in fact, positively crave it.) As the chouette grows beyond that point, more and more players start to feel the pinch. Here’s a rule to handle the problem.

Rule 4: When a chouette reaches six players, the box can request to take a partner. When a chouette reaches 12 players, the box can request two partners.

In practice, games with 12 players rarely get started, as players always have the option of breaking into two or three chouettes. However, the legendary $25 chouettes at the Mayfair Club in New York back in the 1970s were famous for their monstrous Friday night games, when players would fly in from as far away as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington and play until dawn (and exhaustion) broke up the session. Stories were told of 19 or 20 players in a single game, and the really big players scorned the idea of taking a partner. With unlimited automatics, hundreds of points could swing on every game. It was backgammon at its best.


5. How should automatic doubles be handled?

When both the box and the captain roll the same die to start the game, the possibility of an automatic double arises. A variety of rules have been tried here, from banning automatic doubles to requiring them. Since chouettes are supposed to be exciting and entertaining, automatic doubles should be allowed. But since the box has much more at stake than the other players, the choice should be up to the box alone. In most chouettes, the following rule is the norm:

Rule 5a: One automatic double is allowed, at the discretion of the box.

If only one automatic double is allowed per game, what should happen if the players throw several doubles in a row to start?

One possibility is to just ignore all the extra doubles and keep rolling until the dice differ. In our conservationist age, however, such profligate wasting of doubles is properly discouraged. The best solution is the carryover. Each extra double is indicated by writing a ‘C’ at the top of the scoresheet. Beginning with the next game, the box has the option to take an automatic double and cross off one of the Cs on the sheet, or decline the automatic and leave the Cs unchanged. If the box uses a carryover and the players then throw doubles, yet another ‘C’ is posted.

Rule 5b: An automatic double, if declined by the box, goes into the carryover pool, indicated by writing a ‘C’ at the top of the scoresheet. In subsequent games, the box has the option, before rolling, of doubling the stakes and crossing off a ‘C’ from the sheet. If the players then roll a natural automatic, another ‘C’ is added to the sheet.


6. The box doubles all team members. Can a player take by himself?

Chouette customs are in general agreement that if, in an individual cube game, the box doubles a subset of the players, those players have unlimited freedom to take or drop. But what happens when the box doubles all the players, and only a few (or one) want to take, while all the others want to drop? Should a steamer be allowed to hold up the action?

How players feel about this depends, to some extent, on the number of players in the chouette. Most players would agree, for instance, that when the box doubles in a chouette with only three players, one player should certainly be allowed to take while the other drops. Here are the rules I like in this situation.

Rule 6a: [Contact positions] In a chouette with only three or four players, a single player can take an initial cube by himself. With five or more players, a single player can’t take an initial cube. There is no restriction on taking with recubes.

Rule 6b: [Non-contact positions] A single player can take an initial cube in a non-contact position.

Rule 6b is a good one because it works to everyone’s advantage. The box is happy because one player is taking what is presumably a big drop. The steamer is happy because he gets to do what he wants. (“Let the steamer steam!”) And the team doesn’t object because a non-contact position can’t take very long and in the next game they may be the beneficiary of the steamer.

For players who really want to jack up the action, take a look at an alternate rule, 6c:

Rule 6c: A single player can take under any circumstances. However, the other team members have the right to give him an extra (pay him half the cube and give him a new 2-cube, or a cube of whatever level the box’s cube is now on.) The single player must take these extras or drop the original cube.

This interesting variation was invented (so far as I know) in the wild floating Texas chouette of the 1990s. A player wanting to take by himself has to be willing to play the position as a one-game prop against the other players.

Here’s an example of how this works. The box plays against five players. The box doubles, the four team members drop, but the captain says “TAKE”. The four other players say “I’m giving an extra!” The captain says “Let’s go!” The situation is now as follows:

The box is ahead four points and is playing one 2-cube in play against the captain.

The four team members are down two points each – the one they lost to the box by initially dropping and the one they each paid the captain.

The captain is up four points and now owns five 2-cubes.

If the box wins a single game, he will be +6, the team members will have broken even, and the captain will be -6 (he lost five 2-cubes but was paid four points.)

If the captain wins, he will be +14 (five 2-cubes plus four points paid to him), the other four team members will all be -4, and the box will be +2 (winning four 1-cubes but losing a 2-cube).

I like this variation because it generates maximum action and excitement, letting the players play and the steamers steam. But it’s a wild game and not to everyone’s taste.


7. The box defeats some but not all of the team members. Does he keep the box?

There’s no problem if the box wins against everybody or loses to everybody. But what if the box wins against some but loses to others? Does he keep the box or not?

I’ve played in many chouettes, and rules differ on this point more than any other. In some chouettes the box retains the box merely if he defeats the captain. Other chouettes require the box to show a profit to continue. And a few require the box to defeat an actual majority of his opponents. The following rule gets my vote:

Rule 7: A player retains the box if he defeats the captain, regardless of the results of the other games.

I have a preference for this rule because it’s simple and easy (always a plus where rules are concerned.) It also forces the box to take the captain’s cube if he wants to hang around, giving the captain a clear route to taking over the box.

This rule also has an amusing side effect. It’s possible to have a negative box run, where you keep defeating the captain but losing to a group of the other players!
Chouettes are great fun, and essential to keeping a backgammon club vital and alive. If you’re setting up a new chouette, try using some of these time-tested rules as a guide and see how they work.

Posted: May 15, 2015 | In Backgammon Chouettes

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