Considering All Possibilities
by Bill Robertie
A lot of backgammon positions are pretty simple: the right play is either forced or completely obvious. Many others involve a clear decision between two very different alternatives. These problems may be hard to solve, but at least the choices are clear.
Some positions, however, involve a lot of possible plays, all of which are somewhat reasonable. These positions can be very tricky, and one of the dangers is overlooking the best play altogether while sorting through the wealth of possibilities. Be alert, and try to enumerate all the plays before starting to rank them.
BLACK TO PLAY 5-3
Here's a choppy-looking prime against prime game, in which neither side is particularly satisfied with their position. White's not likely to fill in his 4-point, while Black has big gaps on his 4-point and 5-point. 53 is not an especially good shot, although Black can try a few things.
What to do?
Let's consider some of the plays that come to mind..
24/16 is a really bad idea. Black's 34 pips down in the race, so trying to disengage isn't a super plan to begin with. And suddenly, some really bad shots become great attacking numbers—51, 65 and the like. Throw this idea out.
9/6, 8/3 is safe, but that's about all. Black's still way behind in the race, and now his front game looks like it will never come together.
9/4, 7/4 is better—Black swaps the 7-point for the more valuable 4-point, and his position becomes a lot less awkward. But filling in the 5-point or the 7-point is now quite unlikely, so Black's game is probably as good as it gets.
If Black stops his analysis here, he'll likely play 9/4, 7/4. Not bad, but he won't even have considered the best play!
The right idea is 9/4, 8/5, the hyper-aggressive double-slot! Black seizes his last chance to get a really strong position. Suddenly the pressure is on White to throw a three or a four immediately. If not, Black's position will suddenly improve to a 5-prime or even a 6-prime, and White will be squeezed and crumbling. Even if White does hit, Black now has a pretty-good ace-point game with reasonable timing. The double-slot loses a few extra gammons, but picks up a new win for every gammon it loses. It's the clear winner.
By Bill Robertie
In this column, I'm going to explain some of the strategic and tactical ideas behind the modern style of backgammon. I'll try to make theseideas accessible even to relative beginners, but there will be plenty of material here that will be new even to experienced players.
We'll start with the opening, by which I mean the first three or four moves of the game. Understanding how to play the opening rolls, the replies to the opening rolls, and the next one or two rolls is absolutely crucial to succeeding at backgammon. The reason is simple: the opening occurs in every game, but types of position may not.
While it's nice to be a skilled backgame player, a true back game might arise only once every 50 or 75 games. But you'll have to play the opening every single game, so spending some time mastering opening ideas has a huge payoff.
The Opening Position
Diagram 1 shows the opening position with the points numbered fromBlack's point-of-view. Refer back to this diagram in the discussion that follows.
Basic Opening Goals
Correct opening play is dominated by a few key goals. In no particular order, here they are:
Advance the back men. In the starting position, you (Black) have one big strategic weakness: your back men (the two checkers on the 24-point in Diagram 1) are a long way from the rest of your little army, which forms a little group from the 6-point to the 13-point. That's a big problem, and you have to address it as soon as possible. One way to address the problem is to try to run your back checkers as far as possible into the outfield (points 14, 15, 16, and 18); a second (and more practical) way is to move the back checkers up a bit and try to make a defensive point that can't easily be blocked. This is called an advanced anchor, and making an advanced anchor before your opponent usually guarantees you a solid edge. The best points for this purpose are the 18, 20, and 21-points. From a good anchor, your back men are ready to make a leap to safety when a good opportunity arises.
Block your opponent's back men. Your opponent (White) has the same goals as you. Thwarting his goals is just as important as advancing your own. So making key blocking points (Black's 5-point, 7-point, and 4-point in the diagram) are a high priority. The more blocking points you make, the less chance White has to mobilize his back men on your 1-point.
Prepare to block your opponent's back men. There are only a few rolls that actually make a blocking point on the opening rolls, so bringing down builders from the midpoint is a way of creating more blocking rolls on subsequent turns. This strategy is double-edged, since these builders will usually be unprotected blots, subject to being hit with a lucky throw.
Hit your opponent's men. Backgammon is basically a race. If you can hit one of your opponent's men, sending him back while gaining ground yourself, it's usually critical to do so. Hitting is so strong that it's unusual for a hitting play in the opening to be a major error. Of course, neither side has a blot in the opening position, so hitting only comes into play on later rolls.
Unstack. Theoretically, the ideal number of checkers on a point is three: two to hold the point, and one to serve as a builder for additional points. In the opening position, however, you have five checkers each on your 6-point and your 13-point (midpoint). We call these heavy concentration of checkers stacks, and they're strategic weaknesses, because the extra checkers on the points do no extra work. Activating these extra checkers is a key goal.
Create problems for your opponent. If you're choosing between two plays, and you think the plays are about equivalent objectively, choose the play that presents your opponent with more difficult choices.
Backgammon Rules of Thumb
By Phil Simborg
Over the board we often have tough decisions to make. If we truly took the time to reason through all of the variables and consider all of the ramifications of every play, it would not only take hours to make a decision, we would probably end up being very confused.
Top players don't have a lot of really tough decisions to make during a typical game. And that's because they have thousands of reference positions in their heads that generally tell them the basic strategy and decision for given situations, but also because they are constantly applying Rules of Thumb that they have adopted over the years. These Rules of Thumb help them quickly rule out most of the bad plays and decisions and generally direct them to the right decision.
I have been giving lessons to beginner and intermediate players for about 20 years, and I am still taking lessons, myself, and getting coaching from some of the best players in the world. I have found that there are certain Rules of Thumb that keep coming up over and over again, and for your benefit, I thought I would simply list for you.
If you already know all of these rules of thumb, great—just remember to use them. And if there are some you don't know, at least maybe now you know something you don't know and you can get some help from an expert or a good backgammon book and learn about it.
One of the first things a beginner learns is that the game is all about the race. So they learn, in effect, a rule of thumb that they should be aware of or know the pip count and adjust their play and cube decisions accordingly. They also learn that there are opening moves that have been proven to be best, so as a rule of thumb they will make points with 3-1, 4-2, 5-3, and 6-1, and there are rules of thumb about all other opening rolls.
Of course these rules do not apply in every situation, and if applied at the wrong time they could lead you to the wrong play or cube decision, but overall, I guarantee you that knowledge of these rules will greatly help and simplify your decision-making process.
Checker Play Rules of Thumb
1. Always consider: Can I hit? Can I make a point? Can I safety checkers?
2. If I have to leave blots, can I use duplication to reduce risks?
3. Can I hit and make a point?
4. Can I hit two checkers?
5. Can I make a 6-prime, and if not, can I make a 5 or 4 prime?
6. Most of the time, in the early game, if you can make your 5 point, it's the right play.
7. Try not to stack a lot of checkers on the same point.
8. Try not to put checkers out of play.
9. Try to leave indirect shots instead of direct shots.
10. Offense/offense, defense/defense (when you are in an offensive position, tend to make the more offensive play, and when you are
in a defensive position, tend to make the more defensive play).
11. If you fear being doubled, which play is least likely to get you the cube?
12. If your opponent is on your 4 point or higher, the game is predominantly a race; if he is on lower points, the race is less of a factor.
13. In the early game, if he has 2 checkers on his 8 point, be more inclined to split your back checkers; if there are more checkers on
the 8 point, be less inclined to split.
14. If you have more inner board points than your opponent, be more inclined to get into a hitting game, and conversely, if youhave fewer points, be less inclined.
15. If you are up in the race, be more inclined to play safe and to run. If you are behind in the race, look for blocking and hitting opportunities.
16. Generally, it is good to slot the back of the prime. Try to make your points in order and make points together.
17. Generally, if your opponent is at the edge of your prime, that's an invitation to hit him.
18. If you make your ace point early in the game, tend to play a hitting game.
19. If you are bearing off against a 2 point back game, peel.
20. At double match point, be more willing to take a big risk if the odds are in your favor and success means you probably win the match.
21. If you are at a score where saving gammons is important, making an advanced anchor is a priority. Avoiding back games is also a priority.
22. If you are at a score where winning gammons is important, attempting to blitz and hit is a priority even if it risks your getting into a back game. Try to keep your opponent from making an advanced anchor.
23. Any time you are not sure which move to make, put yourself in your opponent's shoes and ask yourself which move you would hope your opponent would not make.
24. When considering alternative moves, think about what gets you not only the most wins and losses, but also the most gammons and backgammons.
25. When considering moves, think about how your move might affect his or your cube decision on the next few rolls.
26. Avoid getting into back games; try to get your opponent into back games.
27. It is better to take risks early in the game. If you don't take risks early, you will probably be forced to take risks late in the game, when the downside can be devastating. ("Sometimes the greatest risk is to take no risk at all.")
Cube Decision Rules of Thumb
1. Think about your cube strategy, match equity, and take points, given the score, before each game begins.
2. Think about whether or not you should be doubling before every roll.
3. Major things to consider about doubling are race, opportunity, and threats. Assess all three in your decision-making process.
4. If you are thinking about doubling, apply Woolsey's Law: Put yourself in your opponent's shoes and ask yourself if you are sure if it's a take or sure if it's a drop, and if you're not sure, then for sure it's a double.
5. If you are thinking about doubling, apply Simborg's Law: Put yourself in your opponent's shoes and ask yourself which decision causes the most pain. Would you love to see the cube or hate to see it? (The goal, in Backgammon, is to cause as much pain as possible to your opponent.)
6. If you're not sure about giving the cube, ask yourself how you would feel if he takes it, and how you would feel if he drops it. That should give you some direction on whether or not to give it.
7. When you are thinking of doubling, always ask yourself if you are too good to double.
8. If you are thinking about doubling but are not sure, ask yourself how many market losers you have if you don't double to help make your decision.
9. When you're not quite sure whether to give the cube or not, give it. You might be making a mistake not to cube, and you might be making a mistake to cube, but you only give your opponent a chance to make a mistake if you do cube.
10. If your opponent is in a back game, and it's a money game, it's generally right to double to activate gammons. In matches, the decision is trickier.
11. At 2-away/2-away, double as soon as you are up even slightly. If you're not sure, double anyway.
12. At 2-away/2-away, take any cube if you think you can win 1/3 of the games or more. (Gammons and backgammons don't matter.)
13. If it's post-Crawford and you are losing, give the cube on the first roll if you have an odd number of points (and you need an even number to win the match). If you have an even number of times, you might wait to cause your opponent to drop in error (but don't wait too long if there are gammon chances).
14. If it's post-Crawford and you are winning, if your opponent is an even number away from winning the match, you might have a free drop. Drop even if you are behind only 1 percent.
15. Don't forget that you are playing a human being. Take into account what you know, or think you know about that person's tendencies relative to taking and dropping cubes.
Neil Kazaross has a method of estimating match equities using the following chart.
Trailer's Points to Go
Take the difference in the players' scores, multiply by the appropriate Neil's number, and add 50 to get your match equity in percent. For example, suppose the leader in the match has 3 points to go, and the trailer has 8 points to go. The difference in the scores is 5; the trailer's Neil's number is 6. Multiply 5 times 6 to get 30, add 50, and you get 80 percent winning chances for the leader.
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
10 9 8 7 6 5 4