This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of GammOnLine.|
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.
For a game such as chess, plans can be formed very accurately. You can
say: I move here, he must do this, I respond with this, he has to do that,
and I move here -- checkmate. This is the way chess experts (and chess playing
computers) analyze positions and find the best moves.
In backgammon, planning cannot be so precise. The problem is that you don't know what the upcoming dice rolls will be, and your possible moves are restricted by these dice rolls. Thus, it is impossible to plan exactly what your next sequence of plays is going to be.
Despite the luck of the dice, having a game plan is just as important in backgammon as in chess. It may not be such a precise plan, and you must be prepared to change your plan as dictated by the dice, but you should still have an idea of what you are trying to accomplish for a given position. This will help you examine the candidate plays to find the best choice.
You undoubtedly have noticed that top players are capable of playing almost instantly most of the time. As soon as the dice hit the table, they seem to know exactly what to do. This isn't a matter of lightning speed in their brains. The reason they are able to do this is because they have already pretty much planned things out. Certainly they haven't examined all 21 possible dice rolls and worked out how to play each roll. However, they have a general idea of what they are trying to do, and how various numbers on the dice can be optimally played. When the dice hit the table, they know where the checkers should be going for these numbers and they place the checkers there.
The ability to play fast does have some practical value if you can do it accurately. You may be able to get your opponent playing faster than he is comfortable playing, and so induce errors. However, this is not necessary. What is important is that you have an idea of what you are trying to do at all times in the game.
Let's first examine the simplest position of all, a straight bearoff, and see what our plan looks like:
What's the game plan? To get the checkers off as fast as possible. We know that if we roll an ace it is always correct to use it to take a checker from the ace point in a bearoff, so that is no problem. As soon as an ace appears on the dice, we know exactly what to do with it. Similarly for fours, fives, and sixes, we will use that die to rip a checker off. Threes obviously will be played 6/3, except 3-2 with which we will have to consider the merits of taking a checker off from the five point. Twos are trickier. We will have to decide whether it is better to unstack the six point and reinforce the four point, or to use the two to fill in the hole on the two or three points but risk later wastage if the four or five point gets thin. The key is that we know pretty much what we are going to do with all of the numbers, and most of them can be played automatically. We know what the game plan is.
The same thought of thinking can be applied to bearing in for a race.
What's the game plan? First, and foremost, we need at least a couple more checkers on the five point to have a smooth bearin. If we don't get some checkers on the five point and start to roll a bunch of fives in the bearoff, we will be forced to dump checkers onto the ace point which will result in potential wastage. If we can't bring a checker to the five point we want to diversify in the outfield, so we will have more ways to take checkers into the five point. Now that we know the game plan, the rolls will play themselves. If we roll an ace or a six, onto the five point we go. Otherwise, we will be grabbing checkers from the midpoint and bringing them into our outer board. No kind of calculations will be required. We know where the checkers belong. Our hand will be instinctively reaching for the checkers we want to move.
When we have a closed board, our goal is to take them off safely and win. Of course, speed may be a factor also. This will depend upon our opponent's position. Let's see what our game plan looks like for various positions.
The gammon isn't totally gin, but it is very likely that Blue will win a gammon if White doesn't hit a shot. Even if White barrels off the bar with 6-6 at his first opportunity, White has so many checkers in the outfield that he will still be a clear underdog to get off the gammon. This means that Blue's overwhelming priority is safety. Blue will choose his plays with that in mind. Ripping extra checkers off isn't so important, but safety is. For example, suppose Blue rolls 5-2. It will be safer to play 11/4 than 11/6, 8/7. Picture the resulting positions if Blue follows up with 6-6 and you will see why. 11/6, 8/7 will allow Blue to retain the closed board longer, but that is not a high priority here. The game plan is safety.
Let's change the position a bit:
Now the gammon race could be very close. In this position, it is important for Blue to hold as many inner board points as he can for as long as possible in order to keep White on the bar. If Blue bears in leaving only two checkers on the six point, then if he rolls a six he will be forced to clear the point, taking only one checker off in the process. For speed considerations, it is better for Blue to have a third checker on the six point. Thus, in this position I believe Blue is better off playing 11/6, 9/7, with the 5-2 roll despite the fact that the chances of leaving a shot are somewhat greater. The increased gammon chances more than compensate. While we aren't going to be taking reckless chances to go for the gammon, it must be worth taking mild risks in order to hold our board another roll. The gammon race is so close that our game plan puts a lot of emphasis on speed.
A further modification:
This time it would take a miracle to win a gammon. On the other hand, the game is virtually assured unless White hits a shot. Even if White rolls 6-6 at his first opportunity to enter, Blue will be a big favorite. Getting hit, however, would be the end of the world. This time safety has number one priority, and our game plan is to play as safely as possible. Our 5-2 roll will be played 11/4.
One more adjustment to White's position.
This is another story. Now the race is a very serious consideration. If White barrels out big doubles at his first opportunity to enter and Blue doesn't have some checkers off, White will be a very serious contender. Getting hit, while not a happy situation, is no longer necessarily fatal due to White's weak board. This time, safety is not the overwhelming priority. It is important to maintain the closed board as long as possible. that is the main game plan. Our 5-2 roll will now be played 11/6, 9/7.
Let's look at some middle-game positions. First, we'll examine a potential blitz.
The main plan is to attack. If we roll an ace or a three, it will be almost automatic to hit. If the only game plan were to attack, then we would automatically use the rest of the roll to bring more ammunition down. However, we must take other contingencies into account when we formulate our game plan. If White hits back, the blitz could blow up in our face. This means we would like to structure a good defense in case the attack doesn't work. If we roll something like 4-1 or 4-3 we will hit loose, but instead of bringing a builder down from the midpoint it looks more prudent to lock up the defensive anchor. In fact, if we roll 6-2 it might be right to switch plans somewhat and play 24/18, 20/18 rather than hitting loose with 13/5*. After all, we are currently well ahead in the race. The point is that we must be flexible in our thinking when we form a game plan. We don't know what the dice will bring us, so we want to do our best to keep alternative game plans open in case our main plan doesn't work out. This is especially true with blitzes.
Let's look at a typical holding game and see what the game plans for both sides are.
Blue's goal is very simple -- clear the midpoint. The first order of business is to come down to two checkers on the midpoint, so Blue can clear it completely with small doubles. As Blue is shaking his dice, he is mentally reaching for that third checker on the midpoint. Only if Blue is unable to move the checker safely will he not move it. Additionally, if Blue is able to stop on the eight point he will do so. Every checker Blue can get on the eight point gives him another six to play, which delays the evil day when Blue is finally squeezed off the midpoint and forced to leave a shot. The longer Blue can delay that day, the more chance he has to roll those game-winning doubles. Thus, if Blue rolls something like 4-2, he will not move the spare from the eight point. Instead, he will shuffle the checkers in his inner board as smoothly as possible.
How about for White? The first order of business is to make the four point, and to do that White needs to slot the point. Inner board blots are not a consideration, since Blue isn't going to be leaving a shot for a while. If White rolls a two or a four, he will be grabbing a checker from the six point or the eight point and slamming it onto the four point. White will not hesitate to break the eight point. That point is of little value to him. He needs to make inner board points. After the four point is secure, the next point in line is the two point. White will slot that as quickly as possible also. He will try to hang onto the midpoint as long as he can do so without making a mess of his board, but if his board is threatening to crumble he will give up the midpoint. Thus, White will get the spare off the midpoint as fast as possible so he will have the option of clearing the midpoint is that seems right. Most of the time White will be forced to break off the midpoint before Blue leaves a shot, so White will have to settle for a single shot from the defensive bar point.
As can be seen, these game plans make the play of the checkers pretty automatic for both sides. There is no calculation necessary -- both sides simply grab the checkers they want to move and put them where they belong according to the game plans.
Let's take a look at a potential backgame and see what the game plan is.
The number one priority is to activate the spare checker on the 24 point. Getting that checker out into the outfield is likely to make the difference whether Blue's timing will survive or not. As we are shaking the dice we are mentally reaching for that checker, and we know that if an ace or two appears we will grab that checker and ask questions later. So important is it to move that checker that even if we roll 6-1 we would play 24/17 rather than make the five point.
What about larger numbers. The idea is to slot key points, forcing White to hit and improve our timing or not hit and risk getting stuck behind a prime. With a three or a six we unhesitatingly slot the five point, and with a four we slot the bar point. We will try to hang onto our midpoint as long as possible, since that point is our link between the two divisions of our army. Once that point goes, our timing is likely to fall apart.
Now that we have the concept of a game plan, let's look at a typical early game position and formulate some ideas. As we are shaking the dice, we will be looking at where certain numbers play and have a good idea of what we are trying to do with most rolls. When the dice hit the table, it is likely that we will know exactly how to play the number rolled.
Our thoughts are as follows: We sure would like to take a poke at White's outfield blot if we can. On White's side of the board, we wouldn't mind making an advanced anchor. On our side of the board, we could build a new point someplace or perhaps attack White's blots in our inner board. There may be some conflicting priorities, but these are generally the things we would like to do. It isn't clear yet what direction the game is going.
Now, let's run through all 21 rolls and see what we come up with.
6-5: Easy, 24/18, 23/18. That was one of our objectives.
That covers all of the rolls. Naturally you may disagree with me on some of the closer choices -- that is not important. What is important is that by having some game plans and knowing what things we want to do, it is easy to spot the good candidate choices at a glance and make intelligent decisions.
These examples should give you a good idea of how to make a good game plan consistent with the position and the dice rolls. Of course every position is unique, and plans will have to be changed continuously as the fickle dice dictate. However, having a good game plan in mind facilitates the search for good moves.