Let's start with a multiple-choice quiz:
- Should Blue double? Should White take?
a) I remember this; this is position 201D from Bill Robertie's Advanced Backgammon
b) Money game or match? What's the match score? Cube in the middle, or on my side?
c) Hmm, I'm not sure. I know Blue is the favorite, but I have no idea how much of a favorite.
d) It doesn't matter, these crooked online dice will get you every time. If I double I'll get bad rolls, so I won't double.
- Do you want to be a better backgammon player?
a) Yes, I will pay any price, bear any burden.
b) This game is intricate and fascinatingI'd love to learn more
about it! But I'm not even sure what I don't know, and I'm not sure how
c) I'm never going to BE an expert, but I'd like to play better, it's worth some effort.
d) Nah, I just play for fun and an occasional round of drinks.
If you answered (a), or (d), this series probably will not be for you.
You (a)'s know far more than this series will cover. (d)'s will, I
hope, still enjoy backgammon, but this series is for players who want
to improve their game.
This series will be, as its name suggests, practical. We will
cover everyday situations that have practical solutions. The focus will
be on match play versus money play. We will also focus, where relevant,
on backgammon played on the internet rather than face-to-face! No, we
don't mean on how to play with "crooked" dice. But the internet has one
feature different from in-person backgammon. Most in-person play tends
to be betewen players of relatively
equal abilities. Weak players tend not to play for money, or in
tournaments with entry fees, against much stronger players. But a lot
of practical situations arise online where the players' abilities are a
Some of what we will do in this column is offer specific
advice. Other times we will offer practical ways to make use of other
important backgammon material. Some years ago Neil Kazaross wrote a
marvelous article explaining how to memorize a match equity table. But
how much use is that to a player who doesn't understand what match
equity is, or how to use it?
To kick off the series, I want to offer my thoughts on the
tools that an intermediate player needs to be able to compete with the
big boysand what you don't need.
What you need:
- An understanding of basic probabilities and the willingness to make use of them. Consider this situation that I encountered in an online match.
This is a simple position. Blue wants to hope his opponent
doesn't roll doubles, and then get all his checkers off next turn. What
is his best chance? With the 6 he will of course play 6-off? But where
does he play the ace? He can leave either of two positions:
There are three approaches to this problem:
a) Have all the probabilities memorized
b) Don't worry about it, just move a checker
c) Take the time to calculate.
An expert knows the right play. A casual player or a beginner
doesn't care. An advancing player takes the time to say to himself:
"I know I can have either a 5-2 position, or a 4-3 position. I know some basic probabilities:
11 rolls out of 36 contain 1 specific number
20 rolls out of 36 contain 1 of 2 specific numbers
In the first position, I lose anytime I roll a 1 or a 2, unless
I roll 2-2. That means I have 19 losing rolls. In the second position,
I lose anytime I roll a 1, or even when I roll a 2, I lose on 2-3 or
2-4, and I lose on 4-3. That's 11 losing rolls with the ace, plus 6
more, or 17 losing rolls. That's 17 losing rolls, so the second
position must be better."
You don't need to be a human computer to play backgammon. But backgammon is a game of playing the odds. The probabilities aren't hard. It's the willingness to use that that is important.
- You must be willing to do a bit of memorization. Backgammon
is a surprisingly simple game. Many types of positions all break down
to a few common themes. Like any learning process, you try to learn the
most important rules, then work down to the ones that come up less
often, or have less significance when they come up.
- You must be willing to get a thorough understanding of the
cube. Trying to play backgammon without understanding the doubling cube
is like trying to drive a car without understanding how to turn the
steering wheel. Actually, a lot of cube strategy is simpler than you
Unlike many other games, learning backgammon is almost linear.
Every position and every situation you understand will cause you to win
more games and matches. A lot of what we will cover in this series are
things you can put to work right away. Situations that come up very
commonly and have straighforward solutions.
What you don't need:
- A photographic memory. Oh, of course it helps. But there are
lot of situations in backgammon where it is not so much important to
have the exact correct way to play memorized as it is to just realize
that this is a situation you know the rules for. Misplaying a position
by 1% or 2% will not kill you. Making a checker play that hurts your
game-winning chances by 10%, or a cube play that costs you 5% winning
chances in the match; those will hurt you.
- To have read everything ever written on backgammon. For example, consider these two situations:
In each of these cases, you have a decision to make. In the first case,
it is to double or not; in the second case it is what play to make. The
difference between the best checker play in the second case and the
5th-best play will change your chances of winning the game by about 2%.
Knowing how to handle the cube in the first case will change your
chances of winning the game by 21%.
If you know the rules for the first case, you will gain a lot more than
knowing the rules for the second case. Focus on what's important.
- The desire to become a world-class expert. There's nothing
wrong with wanting to move up a bit in your game without devoting
endless hours to it. If a topic in this series seems too obscure or
complex, just skip it. Or come back to it another time and see if you
understand it better then. If you focus on what you can learn, rather than what you can't, you'll learn a lot more.
Next Article: Basic Probabilities, Dice, and the Doubling Cube.
Practical Backgammon is a column for beginning and intermediate
players. Its goal is to offer specific solutions to common backgammon
situations, and to provide the tools for advancing players to make use
of more advanced material.