This article originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of GammOnLine.|
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.
Most backgammon games are relatively simple in nature. Races, holding
games, and blitzes come to mind. More interesting are delicate priming
battles, and occasionally we see a complex back game or two which requires
a fair amount of skill. Usually games don't get very complicated. With
each side having only two checkers back, there just isn't too much which
is likely to happen.
Occasionally a game can get complex. If there is a lot of early blot-hitting, both sides may wind up with a bunch of checkers back with neither side having a strong board. These are the fun games. Experts love them, because they last longer, require more skill, and give the inferior player more chances to make a mistake. Sometimes experts will steer their early play to try to get to this kind of position, although if the dice don't cooperate they may wind up with the worst of it.
A good example of such a complex position can be found in Kent Goulding's excellent Backgammon with the Champions, Volume 2, Number 1, David Leibowitz vs. Mike Corbett. Here is the position, along with Kent's discussion of how to handle a complex game:
Kent's commentary is as follows:
Both sides now have advanced anchors with several checkers back. Many players are understandably confused as to how to continue in this type of position. I have three guidelines which I teach to handle this type of game:
1. Keep no more than three checkers on any one point if at all possible.
When in doubt about what to do, try to apply the above rules. More often than not, they will lead you to a reasonable play.
The above is as good advice today as it was 20 years ago.
A few years ago, Nack Ballard had an idea. Since we all like the complex games, let's modify the starting position so we are more likely to get into a complex game. He moved one checker from the midpoint and one checker from the six point to the defensive two point, reaching the following position:
From this starting position, normal play continues. This game was appropriately named nackgammon. It is quite popular, and a lot of fun. Gamesgrid has the ability to play a nackgammon game, and there are daily nackgammon tournaments (one-point matches with the nackgammon starting position) which are enjoyed by everybody.
It must be noted that the starting nackgammon position is likely to lead to the type of complex position Goulding is talking about. Both sides have several checkers back. An advanced anchor hasn't been formed yet, but the combination of having all those back checkers plus the opponent being short on attack material means that both sides are likely to get an advanced anchor quickly. Blitzes are almost impossible -- there isn't enough ammunition in front, and it is too easy for the opponent to form an anchor somewhere with all those checkers to play with. Similarly, neither side is likely to be able to form an effective prime -- not enough checkers to work with, and too many opportunities for the defense. Unlike normal backgammon where one or two back checkers often have to fend for themselves, in nackgammon having the luxury of four back checkers to play with means that the defense will almost always triumph at least as far as forming an advanced anchor and stopping an instant blitz or priming attack. The game is very likely to develop into some kind of a mutual holding game.
One thing which Goulding failed to emphasize in his analysis of the complex game is the importance of the race. This wasn't his fault -- this simply wasn't appreciated at the time Backgammon with the Champions was written. Once the game got complex enough, the race wasn't thought to be a major factor. Just throw those checkers where they belong, and good things will eventually happen. If a checker gets hit, it is simply recirculated so it can do good things later on. With the quality of competition those days, this wasn't such a bad philosophy. It was pretty difficult to lose a game once it got sufficiently complex.
Today, things have changed. Players have gotten better, so you can't count on them to automatically screw up a complex position. There is quite a bit of danger in falling behind in the race. If you think about it, once you get behind in the race there are only three ways to recover:
1) Roll big numbers and catch up in the race.
In a mutual holding game with both sides having advanced anchors, you aren't going to able to prime anybody. The advanced anchor puts an end to that game plan. Also, if you have an advanced anchor of your own and no checkers far back, this means that if your opponent gets his back men out safely you aren't too likely to get a shot from your advanced anchor. Most mutual holding games become simplified when one side or the other rolls doubles. If you are the one behind in the race when that happens, you are in trouble. The simple game plan in a mutual holding game, which most players can follow, is:
1) Hit a checker or two and get ahead in the race.
If your opponent is capable of maintaining a reasonable flexible position, there isn't much you can do to prevent this plan once you get behind in the race. You simply have to hope he doesn't roll those eventual doubles or that he finds some way to stub his toe en route to his victory. Even if you get that shot, you still need to hit it. The odds are against you. Being behind in the race is not a good thing.
What about backgames? You start with four checkers back and two of your opponent's points. Surely you can arrange to get a few more men back and play a decent backgame. The problem is that bad things can happen when you try a backgame. There is always gammon danger, of course. For a backgame to be adequately timed, you have to be way behind in the pip count -- usually at least 60 or 70 pips behind or else there is a danger of being forced to release an anchor prematurely or crunching your board. Since you start nackgammon with the race even, you have to go some to create a playable backgame. Of course, it is fun to try. Slot everything, let your opponent hit you, and have the backgame develop. An interesting exercise is to play GGraccoon a 1-point nackgammon match, slot everything you can, and see how many checkers you can have sent back. The racoon may stop hitting you after a while, but you should be able to develop a strong backgame. Of course human opponents may not be as cooperative as the racoon by hitting everything they can, but if they don't hit enough you may be able to build a strong board. Anyway, this approach can be a lot of fun, although it may not be a winning approach. The nice thing about the nackgammon game is that you can pretty much do what you want to do with the position -- you aren't as constrained by the dice rolls as you are in normal backgammon.
What should one really be trying to do in nackgammon? A look at the opening moves might give us some idea. I asked Snowie how it thought the various opening rolls should be played. Here are its opinions. In no way should these be taken as gospel. Remember that the bot is not very backgame oriented, so it will tend to slot less than we like. But its answers may give us some idea about what is going on.
2-1: Snowie likes 24/22, 23/22 best, although it thinks other plays with the back checkers such as 23/20; 23/21, 23/22; and 24/21 are pretty close. It definitely does not like slotting the offensive five point, and it is reluctant to bring a precious builder down from the midpoint into double indirect shot range. The entire emphasis is on defense.
3-1: Make the five point. This is no surprise. The five point is still the five point, whether playing nackgammon or regular backgammon. Nothing else is close.
4-1: Snowie's preference is the spread-em-out play of 24/20, 23/22. This might look risky, but it does make sense. It is almost impossible for the opponent to carry out a blitz, despite all those juicy targets. There just isn't enough ammunition, and with all that flexibility you are almost guaranteed to make an advanced anchor someplace. Second choice is the more conservative split of 23/18, which seems reasonable. The third choice is the ultra-conservative 13/8. This ranks considerably higher than the seemingly normal building play of 23/22, 13/9. It appears as though the double indirect shot is too much to concede. Also, with the lack of ammunition up front, having that fourth checker on the eight point is more valuable than in normal backgammon.
5-1: It is a photo between 23/22, 13/8 and 24/18. Once again, Snowie really likes having that fourth checker on the eight point in nackgammon. However, the split to the enemy bar point is also productive.
6-1: No surprises here. Making the bar point is far better than anything else.
3-2: As one might expect, making the enemy four point is the clear winner. Grabbing that advanced anchor to start things off makes sure that nothing bad will happen. All the also-rans involved moving the back checker, not touching those precious spares on the midpoint. That seems to be the theme of opening play in nackgammon, at least according to Snowie.
4-2: Making the offensive four point is the clear winner. It does go a bit deep, but it is still an important point. Nothing else is particularly close.
5-2: It is a 3-horse race between: 23/21, 13/8; 24/22, 23/18; and 24/22, 13/8. The spread-em-out play once again is pretty good, as is the split and bring a builder down to the eight point. Interestingly enough, 23/18, 13/11 is in a close fourth place. I guess the idea is that if your opponent hits the indirect shot you can probably make an anchor on his bar point and play from there.
6-2: Almost anything is okay here. Five plays: 24/18, 23/21; 23/15; 24/18, 13/11; 24/16; and 24/18, 24/22 are all too close to call. These plays follow the themes we have seen before, of spreading the back checkers out so as to try to form an advanced anchor.
4-3: Gold is gold. Making the enemy five point is way ahead of anything else, which is no surprise. This sort of opening play isn't available from the standard backgammon start, but it is available with nackgammon and should be taken advantage of.
5-3: Making the three point is not Snowie's first choice, although it isn't terrible. Snowie prefers 23/20, 13/8, with 24/21, 13/8 in second place. I guess the three point is a bit deep for a nackgammon game, and working with the back checkers is more important. However, the spread-em-out play of 24/21, 23/18 was in fourth place here. That extra checker on the eight point really is important.
6-3: This time the spread-em-out play of 24/18, 23/20 wins out, probably more by default than anything else. Both single checker runs of 24/15 and 23/14 are a bit behind, and 24/18, 13/10 is farther behind still.
5-4: 24/20, 13/8 is a fairly clear winner over the alternatives. Again, the power of that spare on the eight point is significant.
6-4: The simple running play of 24/14 wins out narrowly over the double-split of 24/20, 24/18 and the split and build play of 24/18, 13/9. This is one of the more awkward opening rolls, since the checkers on the defensive two point are frozen so there aren't as many options as there are with the other opening rolls.
6-5: Making the defensive bar point is clear -- no second choice.
Just to give us more of an idea of things, I asked Snowie how it would play doubles from the starting position.
1-1: 23/22(2), 6/5(2).
2-2: 13/11(2), 6/4(2) just about tied with 23/21(2), 6/4(2).
3-3: 23/20(2), 13/10(2).
4-4: 24/20(2), 13/9(2) just about tied with 13/5(2).
5-5: 23/18(2), 13/8(2).
6-6: 24/18(2), 13/7(2).
From the play of these opening rolls, it is clear that there is a strong emphasis on defense -- grabbing an advanced anchor. Dropping a builder into the outer board is usually not a good idea. If both players take this approach, we are very likely to lead to the complex mutual holding game such as the one in Goulding's Backgammon with the Champions.
So, what advice can one give for nackgammon? Basically just play good backgammon! All Goulding's philosophies are good, but do keep our old friend the race in mind. Just grab that advanced anchor and take it from there. If you want to play loose as a goose and possibly wind up in a backgame that is up to you, but be very careful with this approach. Winning a nackgammon game usually doesn't take any extra special tricks. The position is complex by necessity -- you won't have to do anything fancy to create complexity. All you have to do is outplay your opponent, and in a complex position you will have plenty of opportunity to demonstrate your skill. With the right combination of luck and skill, you may be meeting Nack himself in the finals of one of the Gamesgrid nackgammon tournaments.