Notes from Larry:
- Think you’re a great player and can beat the best? Matt Cohn-Geier a/k/a Genius, a/k/a MCG, begs to differ. In this interview, he tells you why – and what Falafel innocently said one day that caused Matt to go pro.
- It’s an honor to receive Phil Simborg’s permission to reprint this interview. Phil does so much for the game as a prodigious author (see http://www.bkgm.com/articles/authors.html#simborg_phil), teacher (see http://backgammonlearningcenter.com/), and player. If you like this interview, please visit Phil’s website and follow him on Facebook #PhilSimborgBackgammon.
- Phil did this interview in 2011. MCG is still playing, last seen in Monte Carlo.
- Matt just won the 2017 Colorado Masters
Phil: Tell us a little about your background and family.
Matt: I grew up in Evanston, Illinois. I have no siblings. I played games a lot growing up and was an avid computer and video gamer.
Phil: Tell us a little about your college life.
Matt: I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied philosophy. My grades were decent, better than they had been in elementary and high school, where I didn’t really care. Early on, I spent my spare time getting drunk and playing chess. Later, I spent it getting drunk and playing backgammon. Still later, I gave up drinking altogether and just spent it playing backgammon.
Phil: How did you get into backgammon?
Matt: I started playing chess when I was 15, at Evanston Township High School. I had some moderate success in chess, winning the HS State Championship in 2002 when I was 17.
I continued playing chess in college, but I didn’t really have the same kind of success with it that I did in backgammon. One day, in 2006, the local backgammon club was playing in the student union where I usually played blitz chess games (they didn’t normally play there, but had a special session that day). I watched with some kind of amazement. Everyone had their own cube and they seemed to be playing at a much faster pace and much stronger than I could ever have imagined. Looking back on it it’s kind of funny how differently I perceive things just a few years later. Eventually, I burned out on chess and took up backgammon as my new game of choice.
Phil: What was your biggest backgammon victory?
Matt: I played in the Intermediate in ABT events for a couple years and had only marginal results. My first time playing in the Open was Madison 2008. I went 7–2 to reach the Swiss knockout playoffs and played Neil Kazaross. That was a very tough match for me, maybe mentally and emotionally the toughest match I have ever played, and eventually I won. I lost in the next round to eventual winner Tim Mabee and ended up with 3rd place. This was not such a bad result for my first time playing Open, but I still lost money due to travel expenses. Neil ended up winning the side pool.
My second tournament was Las Vegas 2008, 2 months later. I was very strapped for cash at the time and almost didn’t go because of the expenses. But when I did decide to attend, I learned from my previous mistake in Madison and bought into the side pool. I ended up losing to Stacy Turner in the finals, but I won the side pool and got 2nd place.
One lesson I have learned is that if you are a strong player, the money will follow. At the time it seemed like a bad result for me in Madison to play well and outlast 45 other players just to end up with a financial loss, particularly at a time in my life when that money would have made a difference to me. But I learned from my mistakes and made it all back and a lot more two months later. After Vegas, I went from being broke to bankrolled.
Phil: So you became a professional backgammon player?
Matt: About six months later, I quit my job. I consider myself a true professional player. On the other hand, I don’t think it is really a viable profession in today’s atmosphere. I only know a tiny handful of professionals and 90% of them are playing poker now. Backgammon players are a dying breed.
It’s sad to me that the game has declined to this state. Things were different in the 70s when backgammon was more popular than poker. Most top backgammon players today have a “real” job. Top chess and poker players make millions and are idolized as celebrities. I’d like to think that spectators and fans could appreciate the degree of tremendous effort and skill that goes into playing at the top of the game, but that only happens when a player can devote his life to his craft.
Phil: Is there a solution?
Matt: I don’t know. I am mostly known as a tournament player, even though I prefer cash games. I have been lucky enough to do better than break even at tournaments but I couldn’t come anywhere close to covering my living expenses. I would like to think that there could be enough interest, players, sponsors, and added money to make things closer to chess or poker, where top players can earn a living just from playing tournaments and of course everyone else wants to get their shot to beat some world-class players and win a tournament.
I feel almost obligated to become the best backgammon player I can be, to identify myself as a “professional”, and to attend as many tournaments as I can because of the state of the game. But I know fads and trends are beyond the scope of any one person.
In Japan, Mochy invited me to come to a high school where he helps out with running a backgammon club every once in awhile. It was amazing. There were probably 16 kids there and several others who didn’t show up that day. Some of them were quite strong, better than the average competition I face at ABT events. All of them had at least an intermediate knowledge of the game. Although there was a pretty large language barrier, everyone there seemed to be genuinely interested in backgammon.
This group meets every day. It was not organized by Mochy or by a teacher interested in backgammon. There were enough students playing backgammon on their own so much that they collaborated to create the group themselves and found a teacher to run it. This scene was really inspiring to me. But it’s also something that I don’t think can happen in the U.S. under the current conditions.
Phil: What would you suggest to make backgammon more popular and exciting?
Matt: TV coverage would be a huge start. Another big improvement would be sponsorship for bigger tournaments with added money. Things were going in the right direction with the PartyGammon Million in the Bahamas, but the legislation really crippled the game in the U.S.
I think speedgammon is probably the way of the future, which is fun for spectators and would seem to lend itself to better TV coverage.
Phil: You say you enjoy money games. Do you prefer heads up or chouettes? Do you enjoy the social aspects of chouettes or do you find that a distraction from serious play?
Matt: I like heads-up play since it tends to go much faster than chouettes and I always get to play, but I do enjoy the social atmosphere in chouettes. Interlocking chouettes, as played in San Francisco, are lots of fun. Everyone is in 2 chouettes at the same time and works as long as you have at least 5 players (though most prefer to do it with 6+). Everyone gets a lot of play in this way.
Phil: You became a world class player in a very short period of time—only 3 years of serious study. What books or lessons or individuals helped you the most?
Matt: There are a few decent books and articles. In particular, Robertie’s Advanced Backgammon was a launching point for my game, and I really started to understand things on a deeper level with Woolsey and Heinrich’s New Ideas in Backgammon. Woolsey’s article on the Five Point Match also helped.
The forums (first Kit’s forums, then Stick’s forums at bgonline.org) did more for my game than any book. It’s too bad Kit’s archives aren’t there because it would be interesting, at least for me if not anyone else, to look back over the way my thought process progressed. In the beginning, it was very clouded and I used to see lots of details that weren’t pertinent to the position.
Even more important than the forums was practice with the bots. Practicing with the bots was enormous for my game.
Phil: What was the best lesson you ever had?
Matt: I have had several moments of awakening and perspective shifts, but the biggest one for me came when I was talking with Falafel in New York, January 2009. I rattled off a list of top American players and Falafel shot them all down, finally saying, “They don’t want to play me because if they play me, they’ll lose.”
Falafel and I don’t always agree on everything but the realization I had in that moment shifted my perspective from an amateur’s to a professional’s. It’s one thing to play “on a world-class level” but it’s another thing to look at the entire world as your fish bowl. It’s the difference between looking at the Giants as your idols and looking at them as your customers. It’s the difference between lamenting your bad luck and knowing that you’ve seen it all a million times before and will see it all a million times again. It’s the difference between thinking that you can beat the game and have the confidence to stake your bank account on beating the game.
Phil: You just appeared on the Giants of Backgammon list for the first time, and in a very high spot—number 15. Do you believe you are as good as the top five players on the list, and if not, do you think you will be there someday? What separates you from the top five players?
Matt: Well, that was really incredible, since I had only been playing backgammon at all for three years and was only frequenting tournaments in the last year, 2009. My results haven’t been spectacular and I thought most people outside of the U.S. would never have even heard my name. The only tournament outside the U.S. that I went to was Paris 2009, and that was my biggest loss to date. I guess I am the youngest and least experienced player to crack the top 15 — maybe the youngest and least experienced player to make the list at all. So it basically all had to be based on the merit of my play, and I was surprised to hear that some Europeans voted me very high on the list.
I am not sure who can beat me on a consistent basis. No one has proven to me yet that he would be any kind of substantial favorite. My recorded matches have almost always been at a very low ER. Falafel and I play sometimes on GridGammon, and the error rates are quite close—I think his is slightly lower right now, but I’m not sure. We make a lot of bets on checker play and cube decisions (probably in the past year we have made maybe 100 or 200 bets). So far we are exactly even on the bets.
None of it really matters when it comes time to play over the board, though. I always prefer to do my talking over the board. I think if things continue at the current pace, in a year or two, no one will be able to beat me.
Phil: You distinguished yourself in the Denmark vs. the World competitions last a few weeks ago. What was your role on the world team; what was your record; and how did you play compared to others in the event?
Matt: I played DMP and doubles with Mochy. I went 5–2 in the DMPs and won the doubles with Mochy, trying to keep us alive while staring into the face of death. In the DMPs, I played quite well. The only player who played at a lower ER was Stick, probably because he spent every game closed out as he was losing 1–6.
For some reason, I really felt like I was going to win the Nordic. I’ve never had such a strong feeling that I was going to win a tournament, even when I was in the finals in Vegas. It sounds crazy, and it is, but it’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever been playing better than I am right now. Anyway, it didn’t work out and I failed to cash.
Phil: If I were to make up a tremendously complicated test of knowledge and skill, showing 10 very complicated positions and asking players to estimate exact percentage of wins, losses, gammons, and backgammons, and each player had 10 minutes to study each problem, which players do you think would be most likely to score highest on such a quiz?
Matt: My money would be on either Francois or Neil, but maybe some others like Nack, John O’Hagan, and Mochy would have a good shot. I have no idea how I would score and don’t know how relevant it is to measuring backgammon skill.
Phil: What advice would you give to an aspiring player that wants to become a top player someday?
Matt: Identify where your thinking is flawed (usually errors you made) and change it. Errors are wonderful things because they give you a focus to improve your game. A pattern of errors is even better than a single error because it suggests an easy way to break the pattern.
Most players are preoccupied with their ERs and with trying to look like geniuses. I learned very quickly it was better to look like an idiot and take all the money.
Phil: What are your plans for tournament play this year?
Matt: Well, I have already been to Nordic, and I will also play in Cyprus, London, Estoril, and Monte Carlo. After that, I’m not sure. Maybe a few ABT tourneys, and maybe the Japan Open.
Aside from backgammon, what are your other hobbies or interests?
Travel, food, philosophy. I love experiencing other cultures. I also love any kind of games, though not to the same degree as backgammon. I used to study chess far more than I study backgammon but that crashed and burned. I often read up on other games where the money is better, especially poker and stock trading, but haven’t been able to make the transition yet. They just don’t interest me enough.
Phil: What are some of your pet peeves about backgammon players or tournaments?
Matt: I’m tired of players (including, but not limited to, top players, weak players, serious players, casual players, and average players) complaining about their luck. In the end, everyone has the same luck. No one cares how many times you fanned on a 2-point board.
Phil: Who are your heroes in backgammon, people you respect either for their play or for other reasons?
Matt: I try to learn from everyone. I just take each person’s strongest points and try to imitate him exactly the same way. Once I think I have reached that point, I try to do it better than he does.
I respect Stick quite a bit. Even though an untrained monkey plays better than him, he rolls like a true champion. Neil Kazaross is a serious student of the game, knows as much theory as anyone, consistently plays well, and always has great results on the ABT. Falafel understands backgammon as well as anyone I have met and also has incredible results. Gus Hansen really amazed me in Copenhagen; he is probably the most talented player I have seen. Mochy studies the game very well. He doesn’t have the same natural talent for the game as the other players I have mentioned but he impresses me by being able to play at least as well as them, if not better, due to his work ethic.
Phil: What are your personal strengths that make you better than other players?
Matt: I want to win more. I am not a natural player but when someone has a greater desire to win it’s practically impossible to compete with.
I also have better judgment. Most players know just as much theory as me but have no idea how to apply it. I see only what’s critical in a position.
Phil: You have stated that you don’t believe you have to have terrific math skills to play backgammon. So what are the most important skills in order to become world class?
Matt: Desire is far more important than anything else. This is why I play backgammon and not poker or stocks. I just haven’t been able to really focus on those things because I don’t find it interesting enough. Even chess I couldn’t keep up with because, in the end, I didn’t have the passion for the game.
Of course, you will still need to learn how to count pips and count shots and so on (match equities also help, etc.), but this can all be learned very easily if the interest is there. I am not sure if motivation can be learned.
Phil: Do you have any special tips or strategies that have helped your game?
Matt: I made a vow to myself that I will not make the same mistakes twice. Maybe I will overcompensate and I might make other, much bigger mistakes, but for damn sure I am not going to repeat the same mistake I made before.
Bots are great tools for identifying mistakes but you need to be self-aware. I don’t cling to my judgments so I can change my thinking quite easily if I turn out to be wrong. Again, I don’t try to be a genius, I just try to be right. And I don’t have to be right all the time, I just have to be right more often than my opponent.
Phil: You have been writing many articles for Gammon Village, so you obviously believe you have things to tell the world that others have not or are not writing. There are some who say we know everything there is to know about backgammon except for small changes that might come from better rollouts. Do you believe that statement is correct, or do you believe there are new ideas, concepts, and strategies yet to be found?
Matt: I think almost all of the strategical and tactical concepts are known. Most of them were discovered in the 1970s, some weren’t well known until the 1980s or after the bot revolution in the 1990s. But there really isn’t much about the game to know. That’s one thing that makes backgammon such a beautiful game.
The problem is judgment. Where I differ from most players is that I have a feel for the right play or the right concept. I don’t distract myself by looking at things that don’t matter. Maybe I remember a position I’ve seen somewhere before, maybe I am able to reason through it with some kind of analysis, maybe I haven’t seen this position but I’ve seen a similar one, maybe a mix of the above. Most players know all the theory behind backgammon but they are completely in the dark when it actually comes time to make a decision.
Backgammon is a game of technique, and I am a technician and a perfectionist. I reveal all my secrets. I don’t do anything new or profound or brilliant; I don’t do any crazy calculations or have some secret set of position cards. I just do what other people are doing, except I do it better than them. If someone thinks they can do it better than me then I welcome the challenge.
Phil: Can you give us an example of some new thinking that has surfaced in the past couple of years that the backgammon players of the 1990’s didn’t know?
Matt: In particular the understanding of match play and recubes is something that has only evolved within the past 10 years. Match equity tables and the theory were widely known but the practice is more complicated than the theory suggested.
Also, the play of back games has become more sophisticated with the advent of stronger bots.
Phil: Do you know, from memory, most of the take points and MET’s, or do you figure them out in your head at the table?
Matt: For a 5-point or 7-point match, especially on initial cubes, I know most from memory. I am a big fan of memorizing rather than calculating because it makes the rest of it so much easier. For something longer, where one side has a big lead, on recubes, or in a rather unusual situation (for example, in Denmark I had to figure out what the gammon value was on a 4-cube at 2-away 7-away), I have to figure it out over the board. But I have certain methods that I use that are very accurate most of the time. I laid these out in my Match Equity 201 column on GammonVillage. I am working on a couple refinements so that it will be razor accurate in the near future, but I haven’t gotten there just yet.
Someone started a rumor that you were gay. Others said you were not gay, but just very shy. Care to comment on this? Do you have a significant other and if so, who is he or she? (There was even a rumor about you and Stick Rice, but several said that is impossible because Stick is so ugly.)
I am straight, single, available, and unusually good-looking. I am very shy but that is an important part of my charm. A girlfriend probably wouldn’t do for me because I travel so much and play so much backgammon, so I guess I need to start setting up harems in my travels.
If I were gay I think I could do much better than Stick. That’s probably why he started the rumor, but I don’t think anyone believed it. I am sure that there is a great guy out there waiting for him though.
Phil: In recent years you have lived in San Francisco, Chicago and now Tokyo. Do you enjoy living in Tokyo and will you be there very long?
Matt: Japan is a wonderful country and Tokyo is a wonderful city, but I love to travel too much. I want to experience the rest of the entire world. Right now I am in Western Europe and will be living here for the next 3 months (Athens at the moment). When I return to the U.S. in July, I would like to go to New York.