Sean Williams and Zoe
Cunningham are two fast improving backgammon players from the UK.
Whilst they are not two of the best players in the world (yet!),
they are two of the nicest, most interesting, and most
involved players in the world. They are one of the few
husband/wife Open Level players in the world, and they both have
great attitudes and interesting perspectives I thought would be
great to share with the entire backgammon community.
Where do you guys live, and
what do you do for a living?
Zoe: Sean and I live in London, England in a small
flat in Bloomsbury. I am a Software Engineer at a bespoke
programming house called Softwire. We pride ourselves on our 100%
record of delivering our software projects on time and to budget.
I also run a small media company –
Mind Engagement Media that
specialises in broadcasting intellectual gaming events. Sean has
just been appointed Managing Director of G4S Welfare to Work. He
is currently serving a six month ‘gardening leave’ notice period
from his previous employer.
Tell us a little about how you each got into backgammon, and
what paths you each took to becoming an Open player?
Zoe: We started playing backgammon at university. We
played a lot of games there including Bridge, Canasta, Chess,
Settlers of Catan and any other games that we could get our hands
on. We didn’t play backgammon seriously though until after we left
university. Sean found Gnu on the internet and started playing
against it. We both started going to the Fox Reformed Wine Bar in
North London. They held a regular Monday Night Tournament that had
some of the best players in the UK playing in it. We went along,
got beaten and wanted to get better so that it wouldn’t happen
again. We started playing in BIBA tournaments and Mike Main’s
fantastic London tournaments. Then we attended a couple of
international tournaments and it grew from there. We are fortunate
to earn enough money to be able to compete in the Open Division
and both believe that you should always play against the very
strongest players that you can. This makes us bad gamblers but
better games players.
Backgammon couples where both are Open level players is kind of
rare. Which of you is the better player or are you about even?
Sean: Zoe is much, much more naturally gifted at the
game than I am. Zoe is a mathematician and that often goes
hand-in-hand with an extremely good positional memory and general
feel for the game. Zoe is able to frame technical backgammon
problems in the right terms. She will often see things that I
I work at the game. I study, I read books, I learn reference
positions, I analyse my matches.
If you work harder than someone you can overcome a deficit in
Zoe: i.e. Sean’s best but he wasn’t to start with.
Did you guys meet through backgammon? Was it love at first
sight, or did it take a while?
Sean: Zoe and I met eleven years ago at Trinity
College, Cambridge where we were both undergraduates. Zoe was one
of only eight women studying Mathematics and I studied Philosophy.
We met on the third day queuing to get our Student Cards and
became best friends. We shared a sitting room in our second year
and started seeing each other at the end of that year. We have
lived together ever since and got married in August 2008.
How often do you both play, where do you play mostly?
Sean: I play on Dailygammon every day. I try to play
against Gnu or XG every day. We play fortnightly at
Backgammon in Camden
Zoe: I mainly play live at Mike Main’s events though
I am increasingly moving away from playing at live events to
helping televise them. My company,
Mind Engagement Media has worked
World Series of Backgammon and
Backgammon Live in London. Mind
Engagement Media will be filming
Denmark Vs the World at the Nordic Open
in a couple of weeks’ time.
What activities other than backgammon do the two of you enjoy?
Are there any other games or activities where you excel?
Zoe: We enjoy playing board games, sitting in cafes,
walking, eating, socializing, reading, discussing ideas, watching
murder mysteries and sleeping. I also enjoy singing and
performing. We play a lot of games to a reasonable standard.
Sean: In addition to the above, I enjoy running and
Do you play doubles together in tournaments? Have you had some
Zoe: We always play doubles together in tournaments.
We have had some small successes including being runners-up in the
first ever Fox Reformed Doubles Tournament that we played in.
How would you like to see the game changed?
Sean: At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I
think that the game has survived for so long because it is pretty
good as it is! That said, I am 100% in favor of compulsory clocks
and no right of veto on video recording matches.
Zoe: Variable Pools are a great way of allowing
people to play at a level they feel comfortable with whilst
increasing the prize pot for bigger money players.
What are some of your pet peeves about backgammon players or
Sean: Most backgammon players and tournaments are
fantastic. For me, Mike Main’s tournaments exemplify what a great
tournament should be like: they start on time, they finish on
time, everyone knows who and when they are playing, the rules are
crystal clear, players know what standards of behaviour are
acceptable, sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct are de rigueur,
the emphasis is on everyone playing backgammon and having a good
My ideal backgammon player is courteous, gracious in defeat and
would much rather lose a match than play dishonourably.
Two behaviours that I think are unacceptable:
1) Deliberately not telling your opponent that their time is
2) Losing to a weaker player and then telling everyone how
appalling your opponent was and how you should have won. Possibly
recreating some of your opponent’s misplays on a nearby board for
Zoe: I hate people criticizing things without
lifting a finger to help out.
What advice would you give to a new player that wants to become
a top player some day?
Sean: Play the bots on tutor mode. Read and study
backgammon books. Analyze every match you play. Review your
mistakes and understand why they are mistakes. Get lessons from
good players. Play in chouettes with better players.
Zoe: I agree with Sean.
Have you ever had a big fight over backgammon?
Zoe: No – we don’t really fight about anything.
Sean: We don’t argue about very much at all. The
only time I can remember that we came close to falling out was at
Backgammon in London Doubles Match where we had a 55 to play in
the position below at 4-away 1-away Crawford.
How are you working to improve your game?
Sean: Currently I am reading and studying books,
playing Gnu and XG on tutor mode, collating my errors and
variations on those errors, revisiting those errors at regular
intervals, studying my DailyGammon errors, learning reference
positions, studying the 2nd rolls and trying to understand why
rolls are played differently. I am also giving lessons to a few
intermediate players. There is too much to learn and too little
Zoe: I wait for Sean to learn for things and then
try to learn by osmosis from playing him. He summarises for me!
Do you play on line? Where?
Sean: I play on
DailyGammon every day.
I don’t like playing online for money but will play qualifiers to
Zoe: I don’t play online at all other than a few
Have either of you ever had a major tournament victory—what’s
the biggest win you’ve ever had either together or alone?
Zoe: Probably my biggest tournament win was the Mind
Sports Olympiad Cambridge Tournament in 2005. I was Finalist in
Scope Charity Tournament at the RAC.
Sean: I was Champion of Champions at Backgammon Live
in London in
2009. I won the Cancerbackup Tournament at
the Reform Club in 2008. I was Runner-Up in the Consolation at the
World Series of Backgammon in Prague in 2009.
What are your plans for tournament play this year?
Zoe: My company,
Mind Engagement Media, is filming
the Denmark Vs the World event at the Nordic Open in a couple of
weeks and I will be producing and presenting. Unfortunately this
means that I won’t have time to play.
We hope to attend all of Mike Main’s Tournaments especially the
London Open in May. We play regularly at the RAC Club Quarterly
Tournament in Pall Mall. We hope to attend the BIBA English Open,
the Bristol Open, the Japan Open and the French Open later on in
the year although work may get in the way.
Sean: I am playing in the Nordic Open - I was
fortunate enough to win a seat through an online satellite. I will
be in San Francisco for the first couple of days of the US Open
although I have to fly to Vegas on the Saturday so cannot play in
the tournament proper.
In your recent travels to the US, what were your favorite
cities, adventures, or the most interesting things you saw?
Sean: On our last US trip we went to Santa Fe and
Hawaii. Santa Fe was beautiful in the snow and a great town all
round. We will definitely be back next year if we can get the time
off work. Hawaii had breathtaking views and scenery and we had a
great time there too. We love the States.
Zoe: We stopped off in LA for two nights on the way
back from Hawaii to the UK. LA was fabulous. The best thing about
the US is the food. We ate a lot while we over there.
Do you have any philosophies of life you care to share?
Sean: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world;
the point is to change it’! That said some of my favourite
philosophers include Plato, Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, Bentham,
Mill, Russell and Wittgenstein.
Zoe: Now that fit into succinct phrases!
How many hours a week do you play backgammon?
Sean: At the moment I am on a period of ‘gardening
leave’ before taking up my new job so I can devote many hours to
studying and playing. When I am working this becomes impossible.
Zoe: Probably 2 or 3 hours a week.
What’s the best backgammon book or article you’ve ever read?
Sean: Can I pick 4? Trice’s Backgammon Boot Camp,
Kleinman’s Vision Laughs at Counting, Magriel’s Backgammon and
Lamford’s Improve Your Backgammon.
Zoe: I prefer Lamford’s ‘Starting Out in Backgammon’
which is a great beginner/intermediate text.
Tell us something about your youth, where you grew up, where
you went to school, your family, where you live now, what are your
plans for the future?
Sean: I grew up in North West London in a town
called Ickenham. I went to secondary school in Elstree before
going to Cambridge to study Philosophy. My youth was spent playing
guitar, playing games, hanging out with my friends and not working
as hard as I should have. I have a very close immediate family
including my Mum, Dad and my brother who is just starting to play
Zoe: My life story is far too long to put on paper.
My plan for the future is to make backgammon as big as poker.
What would you suggest to make backgammon more popular and
Zoe: More television coverage.
Sean: I think that backgammon is already a hugely
popular game. It’s just not very well organised. Whenever Zoe and
I play in a pub in London three or four strangers will come up to
us and say that they play at home, or that they used to play and
that they love the game. The challenge is getting these players
into the wider backgammon community. I would estimate that well
over half of all homes in the UK have a backgammon board. I don’t
know what this figure would be in the States.
I think that backgammon will only become really popular on TV when
interactive TV makes it possible for people at home to bet live on
the game in real time with fluctuating odds. You guys might need
to repeal your gambling laws to make that possible over in the US.
Who are your heroes in backgammon…people you respect either for
their play or for other reasons?
Sean: Great players who are prepared to share their
knowledge of the game with others.
Mike Main for his tireless devotion to running absolutely
brilliant backgammon tournaments and for trying to bring new
players into the game.
Phil, I think that you are doing a great job of popularising
backgammon, injecting fresh thinking into the game and bringing
the community together.
Do you use Snowie or ExtremeGammon or GNU or some other bot
Sean: Yes – I use Gnu and ExtremeGammon. I bought
Snowie but found it cumbersome to use.
Zoe: No – but I know that I should.
What is your favorite side-event or alternative form of
Zoe: Gang Tournaments: