This article originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of GammOnLine.|
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.
Finally, a late shot has been hit. You have been building your board as
carefully as possibly preparing for this moment, conserving your timing
and making key points in the most efficient manner. Ideally you would like
to have a full prime ready. Then you could almost certainly contain the
hit checker as you walk your prime forward, possibly jarring loose another
blot along the way.
Unfortunately, backgammon isn't always like that. The timing doesn't always work out perfectly. Quite often your board is in disarray when the shot is hit, either not put together yet or partially crunched. There will be several different things to be accomplished, and you have only 15 checkers to work with. Some of the priorities are:
1) Going after a key inside point. If there is a gap in your inner board, it is vital to plug it. Every builder is important. Also, if the opponent enters there, it is necessary to hit him immediately if possible. This can often have priority over other factors.
Blue should play 15/10, bearing down on the four point. Being six away from the empty point is ideal. Not only does this give Blue the maximum number of ways to get to the point from direct shot range, but it also covers all the territory where White might land. If White rolls 4-3, or 4-5, Blue's checker on the ten point provides an immediate direct shot.
2) Flooding the outfield. Experts have known for years about bringing in builders to aim at the key points. The problem is that they have been overdoing it. They have been rushing to make the key point as fast as possible, even with insufficient ammunition. As a result, they lose outfield coverage which is disastrous if the opponent enters and escapes into the outfield. For most positions, slow and steady is the guideline. There isn't a rush to make the point -- the key is to make sure that White can't get away. For example:
The standard play in this sort of position used to be 15/9, rushing a new builder into position for the four point. The checker on the nine point isn't nearly as well-placed as it would be on the ten point. If White bounces out with a 6-4, Blue will have only one direct shot. A better approach is to play 20/14. This gives Blue great outfield coverage. If White rolls 6-4 or 5-4, Blue will have a triple shot at the fleeing blot.
3) Slotting a key point. The fastest way to make a point is to slot it. If the open point is a deep point, slotting is not too necessary in the early stages. A simple priming and bringing in the builders approach is usually sufficient. However, if the open point is a high one, it may be right to slot into the direct shot. It is difficult to get enough builders into position to make the point without slotting it, and if you wait too long the opponent may simply run away. The old conventional wisdom is that you should slot as soon as you have a builder in direct cover range, but this is often overdoing it. Outfield control is still important. Also, if you slot and are hit that increases the gammon danger.
Blue could slot with 12/5, but it isn't worth it. Only 11 cover numbers, and if White hits and bounces out Blue has nothing left to hit back with. It is better to focus on builders and the outfield. The instinctive play looks to be 18/11, getting six away from the key point. In this position, however, it is probably a bit better to play 18/13, 12/10. If White rolls the 5-5 joker Blue would rather be in the way so he gets a double shot at the White blot, and if White rolls 6-5 Blue of course would rather not be hit. Also quite reasonable is 18/16, 18/13, not bringing a builder to bear on the five point but getting the best possible outfield coverage. All of these plays look better than slotting with 12/5.
If the builder situation is better, then slotting becomes more attractive. Contrast with the following position.
If Blue slots with 15/13, 6/5 he can cover with 6's and 8's -- a lot of cover numbers. In addition, if White hits Blue has good outfield coverage to prevent White from getting around. This time, slotting is clearly correct.
4) Slotting the front edge of the prime. If you have plenty of prime, it is not necessary to slot the front edge of a five-prime. The high priority is to make sure that White doesn't get away. Making the prime immediately isn't necessary. For example:
Slotting the two point is wrong. Instead, Blue should apply maximum pressure to the eight point with 16/11, 15/14. Blue will have plenty of time to maneuver to complete his prime on one end or the other. What Blue can't afford is to be on the bar when White rolls an ace (particularly if White rolls a 1-6).
If Blue is starting to run out of time, it may be another story.
If Blue doesn't slot the two point now, things could get quite sticky. He may wind up never making the two point, which would reduce his winning chances considerably. Even if Blue does succeed in making the two point in a couple of rolls it may then be awkward for him to walk the prime home for the closeout. It is better to slot the two point now. Blue has plenty of builders ready to cover next turn, or to hit back if White rolls an ace. Probably best is 7/2, 5/4, so Blue will have a return two if White does hit. Otherwise, Blue won't be able to hit back with any two.
5) Slotting the back of the prime. If the enemy checker is not at the edge of your prime, it is always correct to slot the back edge of your prime if you can. Even if you don't have any builders in place, the slotted point also serves as a builder for the front of the prime. Building the prime from the rear is the safest way to complete the prime, since you don't have to worry about a direct shot. If White rolls the 17 to 1 joker, you just pay off.
If White is at the edge of the prime, it is another story.
Slotting with 11/8 is wrong here. It might win more often then a quieter play, but the gammon danger when White hits is much greater. Blue should just play 18/15, guarding the outfield if White makes a run for it. If White is unable to jump the prime, Blue may have a chance to make progress next turn.
6) The cube. In most of these positions, Blue simply tries to make the best overall play. However, if Blue can make a play which leads to an efficient cube in a lot of variations, that play may be best even though it wouldn't be best without taking the cube into consideration. For example, let's look at a variation of the previous theme.
Without taking the cube into consideration, Blue shouldn't slot the eight point. The downside if he gets hit is too great, particularly the gammons. However, White has only four checkers off. If Blue does complete the prime he will have a recube which White should pass. Therefore, by slotting the edge of the prime, Blue puts himself in a position where he has a very efficient recube. I believe this is sufficient justification for Blue to play 11/8.
7) Don't let him escape in one roll. When your opponent's board is crunched, the number one priority is to prevent his back checker from escaping. You can probably stand being hit, but you can't stand it if he gets away.
Blue should definitely hit loose with the five. He can afford to be hit back. What he can't afford is for White to get away. Even though this involves breaking the five-prime, it is still the right idea. Probably 11/10, 7/2* is best, since this gives Blue threes and sixes to make the bar point and fives and fours to make the two point.
8) Big doubles. For the most part, one doesn't go through backgammon life worrying about 35 to 1 shots. When the swing from these shots is huge and the difference is small otherwise, the joker may be worth worrying about.
Blue could spread his builders out with 21/15, 6/5. However, the swing if White rolls boxes is enormous -- from being probably a favorite to likely being gammoned. Blue would rather be spread out if White rolls some other six, but it will just be the difference between a double shot and a triple shot. Gammons count. Also, after locking up the 14 point, Blue can sit on that point and keep White's 6-6 blocked not just next roll but in the future also while Blue tries to extend his prime. I think that 21/14 is the percentage play.
9) A second checker. It is important to try to pick up a second checker if it can be done safely. All good players are familiar with the following sort of position:
Blue should not close White out -- he shouldn't even hit loose. Blue should simply play 16/6 and force White to play. If White rolls a big number and a two he leaves a shot, and if White rolls a big number and an ace he is forced to strip the three point. Blue is a favorite if he closes White out, but that isn't good enough. Blue would love to pick up a second checker.
It should be noted that Blue's attempt to pick up a second checker isn't risk free. He might roll badly and never complete the closeout, or complete it at the last minute and be forced to bear in awkwardly. Also, suppose White manages to make his ace point safely. This helps White in the race, since he no longer has to worry about missing on aces. Therefore, going after the second checker is a double-edged sword. The conditions must be right. By contrast, consider:
Sure, Blue could try the recirculation route with 24/20, 7/1*. However, it will take quite a lot of good things to happen before Blue gets a shot. Meanwhile, he could fumble the ball along the way. I think Blue should just complete the closeout so he can give full concentration to a smooth bearin.
So far we have been looking at positions where Blue has all his checkers in play. What if Blue's position is crunched? Now we have some different considerations. The most important one is:
10) Save the gammon. When Blue has a crunched position and hits a late shot, he probably isn't going to win. His main goal should be to avoid getting gammoned. He wants to get his men around safely, hitting the White checker once or twice along the way to gain time in the gammon race. Blue can't afford to take chances and risk being hit. Every checker which is sent back substantially increases the gammon risk. For example:
Blue's best play to win is to hit loose, hope that White flunks, and hope to build up a board and have a few other nice miracles. However, this is also the best play to get gammoned, and that is a lot more likely to happen than winning the game. Blue should make the safest play of 14/11, 12/11. This blocks 4-4, keeps decent outfield control, and avoids most of White's indirect shots. Blue will probably get one more poke at White, and even if White gets by Blue will have a good chance to scramble off the gammon.
11) Make outer board points. The natural impulse is to spread everybody around. This just doesn't work when you have a crushed board. I have seen time and time again players spreading their checkers around as they try to contain the hit checker. They hit a couple of shots, but I keep bouncing out since they have no board. Eventually I roll a joker which hits one of their blots, and all the ground they have gained from the hits is lost. This is the route to getting gammoned. It is better to make points in your outer board while keeping spread out on the opponent's side of the board. The last position was a good example of this.
12) Use the random point. It is difficult to pick up a second checker when your board is crushed, but it is not impossible. The key is to plan ahead. For example:
The natural play is 24/13, putting all the guns on Blue's outer board. But wait! What about going after another checker? It seems impossible, but consider what might happen if Blue plays 13/7, 12/7. If White rolls 6-1 or 5-2 he is forced to leave a direct shot, and if he rolls 4-3 he is forced to jar two blots loose. If Blue can hit a second checker he has some real winning chances as opposed to the miracles he otherwise needs. I believe it is worth losing some outfield control in order to have this opportunity.
Blue sure would like to jar a second checker loose. Right now, White's only disaster roll is 3-1. Blue can help White self-destruct by shifting from the four point to the three point! Now White becomes unglued with 2-1 and 4-1. Naturally Blue will not advance from the eight point to the bar point. That open bar point is a potential land mine for White once he enters. Blue's best play is 14/12, 4/3(2). His next goal will be to make the ten point, creating yet another land mine for White on the nine point. If Blue is persistent with this approach, there is a good chance that eventually the ball will pop loose.
Making the most out of the late hit is one of the most difficult parts of the game. Every position has to be examined individually -- there are few general rules which will always apply. The above guidelines should give you an idea of some of the things which must be done and what the priorities are.