Endangered Straggler Returns as Handy Club
Paul Magriel, 1977
New York Times, September 15, 1977
Lee Genud and Prince Obolensky
Prince Alexis Obolensky (right)
speaking with Lee Genud.
Two of backgammon’s best-known personalities, Prince Alexis Obolensky and Claude Beer, competed in the finals of the 1977 Annual Club El Morocco Tournament. Obolensky was the original driving force behind the current backgammon explosion.

Beer has long been one of the world’s top-ranked players. Opponents have sometimes underestimated Beer, because of his disdain for mathematical computations. But Beer, a strong positional player with a fine grasp of strategy, has an impressive series of tournament triumphs to his name. Most notably, he won the 1974 World Championship. That same year, in a match pitting the top six American players against the top six of the United Kingdom, Beer made a clean sweep, 6 to 0.

At the El Morocco tornament, Beer (Black) had fallen behind Obolensky (White) 16 to 12 in the 25-point finals match. Beer had already doubled and reached the favorable position shown in the diagram. Then he rolled a 6-3.

Black to play 6-3.
After much deliberation, Beer played 15/9, 4/1*, hitting unprotected on the 1-point.

Why didn’t he simply play the apparently safer move, 15/6, avoiding a direct return shot and leaving himself well ahead in the race? He recognized that both plays had merits. He also knew that there were other considerations besides immediate safety. As is often the case in backgammon, even at the highest levels, there was no clear-cut right or wrong. The best Beer could do was weigh the relavant factors.

(a) 15/9, 4/1*
(b) 15/6
The merits of the conservative play, 15/6, are clear. Black is a definite favorite to win the game because of his lead in the race. Black can begin bearing off immediately; whereas White must first escape from Black’s home board, bring both men around, and only then begin to bear off.

Yet White’s chances in a race are not insignificant. Such racing positions are often deceptive. Note that the pip count is identical before the roll. If White gets around the board quickly, he will have a reasonable chance of winning.

With the apparently more dangerous play, 15/9, 4/1*, Black eliminates White’s chances in the race altogether. If White fails to reenter immediately with a 1, Black will have an easy victory. But even if White reenters from the bar and hits on the 1-point, Black is far from lost. White will still have to escape from behind Black’s 5-point prime with a 6. Before he escapes, Black will have an excellent chance to reenter in White’s home board and hit White again on the 1-point. Furthermore, if Black can then close White out, Black might get a valuable added bonus — a gammon.

This final consideration swayed Black (Beer) to make the hit. White (Obolensky) next rolled 6-1 — his best possible number — and played bar/1*/7, not only hitting Black but also escaping from behind Black’s prime. Beer stayed out, so Obolensky redoubled. Beer was forced to pass and fell further behind in the match, 18 to 12. Obolensky maintained his lead, winning the match 25 to 16 for the club championship.

Immediately afterward, several experts engaging in the usual post-mortem analysis questioned whether the hit on the 1-point had been justified. Even though he lost, Beer’s instinctive grasp of strategy was confirmed: A few days later, an in-depth mathematical analysis showed that his play had in fact been correct.

XG logo
Tom Keith 2013 
Match to 25
White 16, Black 12
White owns 2-cube
Black rolls 6-3

1296 games with VR
Checker play: 2-ply
Cube play: 3-ply Red

6-3: Game BG   Equity
1 15/9, 4/1* W
+0.7554 x  (a)
2 15/6 W
+0.7304 (0.0250)  (b)

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