Ship me off to the front lines; I'm a graduate of Backgammon Boot Camp! Before proceeding with a review of Walter Trice's new book, disclosure is in order. Approximately nine years ago this month Walter and I began a collaboration that resulted the following year in Can A Fish Taste Twice As Good? (still available from Flint Area backgammon suppliers everywhere!). Co-authorship is not always synonymous with friendship; Gilbert and Sullivan didn't speak to each other during the later years of their collaboration. Walter and I though have remained friends, so I am predisposed to look favorably on his efforts. That would have presented a dilemma had Walter's book proved mediocre, but fortunately it is excellent, so I don't need to find diplomatic ways of burying it with faint praise.
Backgammon Boot Camp was set up on the Internet, specifically on Gammon Village, a site where Walter and I were featured columnists. I don't know if Walter ever poked his head in the door of my cyber cubicle to scan the articles I had posted on the walls, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not read his. Gammon Village Editor Michael Strato proposed that Walter do a regular column for beginners, hence Boot Camp. Early on I read one, deduced that the columns would be pitched to entry level readers, and never went back. My embarrassment is not because, as an erstwhile collaborator, I owe Walter the courtesy of reading his output. (We had no such agreement, spoken or unspoken.) My embarrassment is because I owed it to myself to read him. Why? Because reading fine writing is a pleasure in itself, regardless of content, and Walter is a fine writer. His clarity is such that he can unravel the eleven dimensions of String Theory for a seven-year old, or even teach your grandmother to program a VCR, and he is so precise that if a comma is out of place you may be sure it was moved by the maid while dusting.
Luckily, thanks to Jeremy Bagai, I've gotten a second chance. Jeremy (smart enough to have followed Walter's chronicle from the beginning) has launched a new backgammon publishing venture, the Fortuitous Press. Jeremy edited Walter's sixty Boot Camp columns into a fifty-seven chapter book. (The book is a very attractive paperback running nearly three-hundred and fifty pages, which makes its $40 price tag a bargain.)
The first ten chapters are indeed basic, but with Sergeant Trice putting the recruits through their paces, by Chapter Eleven they are ready for slightly more advanced material. Here is Position 2-1 from page 78, the first position presented in Chapter Eleven.
I would have gotten this wrong. My impulse was to enter on the twenty-point and hit White on the three; maximum builders remain aimed at the gap in the prime, and most of White's entering sixes are awkward. The right play is to enter on the twenty-two, and quietly bring down a builder to the eight-point. Perhaps that was obvious to you from the beginning, but fear not, Walter will find something to test you.
How about this? Position 7-26 (page 290) is one of a series Walter has taken from Bill Robertie's 1981 classic Lee Genud versus Joe Dwek. In the actual match Joe Dwek opted for 18/16*, 6/1*, a play Walter describes as: "a rather suave bit of '70s/early-'80s purity." He adds that "the play may look weird to a modern player, but it really isn't so bad!" I don't know whether to feel weird, or rather suave, as this would have been my choice. But I am a weirdly suave player who learned the game during that era. Let Walter explain the best play: "Position 7-26 shows off the normal correctness of the primitive approach. Hit blots. Make points. 18/16* hits a blot. 7/2 makes a point. Any questions?"
Got that, recruit? If not, drop and give me fifty!
Position 7-15 (page 276), White on roll leading 15-14 to 25. Should White double? After you've tortured yourself calculating the match equities to determine whether or not White's lead makes a difference I'll 'fess up: the question was deliberately misleading. Not only should White double, White is almost too good! I would have snatched this cube. (Joe Dwek correctly passed.)
By now it should be apparent: this is a book for players of all levels.
I have been giving you content up to now, denying you (for the most part) Walter's analysis. Here is a longer quote, the opening to the chapter entitled "How To Win Four Points."
In the chapter, Walter discusses proper play when you need all four points in a four-point match. Understanding of the paragraph above (and those of you who don't understand it don't know who you are) will add the equivalent of fifty to one hundred rating points to your match play. That much from five sentences; figure for yourself what you can gain by reading this book!
It is no secret you can win four points in a single game of a backgammon match. Nonetheless, many players seem to forget this at key moments in their matches! The procedure has two parts: first you double, then you win a gammon. Both steps are essential, and they must be carried out in the right order. It does no good (less good at any rate) to get a powerful game with gammon chances when all you do with it is to collect one point!
Having given Walter his due praise, I'll mention a few items he should take up with his maid. First, Position 6-3 (page 231) in the box listing the ranking of plays according to Snowie, he seems to have rolled out the best play against one of the worst. There are various explanations possible, but since he does not even mention the candidate that he apparently rolled out an explanation ought to be supplied. Next, Position 7-12 (pages 273 and 274). Walter faults Dwek's pass. I would too, since based upon the score and color scheme it is Dwek doubling!
There is also a Final Exam, and the maid's duster must have been in a flurry back there. After each question Walter supplies the number of the chapter you should consult if you are not sure of the answer. Questions 2-4 all claim to be drawn from Chapter Ten. I did find the answer to Question 4 in Chapter Eleven (though annoyingly, the question is a fill-in-the-blank, and there seems to be no actual sentence that matches exactly what Walter calls for). I know I could find the proper chapter to answer Question 3, but I stopped looking. It was Question 2 that drove me nuts! "What are the three ways to win a game of backgammon?" Sounds like a bit of baseball trivia: how many ways are there to get to first base? There are about twenty-seven, as I recall: base hit, base on balls, hit by pitch, dropped third strike, Abner Doubleday's birthday, catch her under the mistletoe, France invades Luxembourg, ... But the three ways to win a backgammon game? I can think of these: bearing off your last checker, opponent drops your double, opponent concedes, opponent's flag falls in a clocked match, opponent picks up the board and hurls it through the window of Jay's Bar & Grill out into the middle of State Street! Actually, that last one won't apply again until 2006 (at the discretion of the Illinois State Parole Board). Walter doesn't discuss most of those. Three ways? Maybe it is something really obvious, like: plain game, gammon, and backgammon, but good grief!
There is one more tiny error. Walter compares backgammon to Roller Derby, which he describes as "defunct." Not in Tucson, Walter! (And if Tucson has discovered Roller Derby, let's hope backgammon isn't far behind!) Why is backgammon like Roller Derby? Because both are races, where, if one is ahead, one strives to break contact, but if one is behind, one tries to mix it up. How apt! And the next time you run with an opening 6-5, and Mary Hickey body checks you into a wall, you'll know who to blame!