This article originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of GammOnLine.|
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.
Deciding whether to concentrate on offense or defense in the early stages of the game can be a tricky business. While maxims such as "offense before defense" are applicable most of the time, each position is unique. Failure to pay careful attention to the strengths and weaknesses of a position can cost surprisingly large amounts of equity.
Refer to the above position. Two reasonable-looking plays exist for Blue; 24/20 13/11, which goes after an advanced anchor, and 13/9 13/11, which concentrates on priming White. The plays may look close, but one of them is a major blunder!
It is critical to identify the correct thematic play in the opening. In the above position, Blue should see that he is doing well in the priming game. The priming points he holds are better than White's, and, the disparity in the race favors Blue's timing in asserting the priming game. When Blue splits, he gives White a chance to attack and steer the game away from a priming contest where White has the worst of it. These factors make 13/9, 13/11 the winning play.
Playing thematically keeps you consistent with your strengths.
Here, Blue is behind in the priming game due to his racing lead and his inferior priming structure. Blue should try to steer the game into a running or a holding game where his racing lead will give him an advantage. The two plays that do this, 24/21 13/8 and 24/16, are much better than the "obvious" 8/3 6/3.
Splitting is so important when losing the priming game, if Blue had a 4-2 to play in the above position, it would be just as correct to play 13/9 24/22 than 8/4 6/4, despite the value of the 4 point.
Here is another position where Blue is in danger of being out-primed. White is extremely prepared to prime Blue, while Blue has a lack of builders and connectivity. Despite the obvious risks, Blue's correct play is Bar/20. This play aggressively goes after an advanced anchor in an attempt to steer the game away from a priming game. Anything else passively lets White takes better command of a position where he is already a solid favorite.
If we give Blue better priming structure, he can hold his own in a priming game, and the dangerous Bar/20 is no longer necessary. The correct play here is B/24, 13/9.
When your opponent's checkers are stacked, his ability to build a prime is compromised. He has fewer rolls that make good priming points and leave a fluid position. In the above position, the fact that White is going to have trouble priming Blue argues for Blue to make a priming play with his 4-1. The thematic play is 13/9 6/5. If Blue incorrectly splits, 13/9 24/23, he gives White a chance to unstack those checkers on his head.
After playing 13/8, Blue has a choice of 2s -- 24/22, which tries for an advanced anchor, or 13/11, which creates a valuable builder. A quick look at the position shows White cannot effectively be primed due to his advanced anchor. Blue should take the opportunity to avoid being primed himself and try for an advanced anchor by playing 24/22 with his 2.
When deciding between a splitting or a priming-oriented play in the opening, take a look at who is currently winning the priming game. Being behind in the race, owning better priming points, or simply having a better priming structure usually makes priming your best option. If these advantages weigh in your opponent's favor, try for the split. This distinction will frequently be the key guideline when two plays appear close.