A Well-Timed Disaster Can Turn Needed Trick
Paul Magriel, 1978
New York Times, May 11, 1978
Oswald Jacoby and Gino Scalamandre
Gino Scalamandre playing as Oswald
Jacoby and Jason Lester look on.
Gino Scalamandre, one of the world’s top-rated players, won the important Clermont Club spring tournament last week in London. His path to victory was unusually difficult. In several matches he staged dramatic comebacks to avoid being eliminated. For example, in his 17-point semifinal match against John Sterling he appeared to have little hope when he fell behind, 15 to 9. However, his luck changed just in time and he won all the remaining games.

Similarly, he was in serious trouble in the 21-point final against Raoul Rosenzweig from West Germany. Rosenzweig won 10 games in a row to take a strong 14-to-6 lead. Again, however, Scalamandre rallied to tie the score, 20 to 20. He then won the final game at double match point.

Scalamandre is known for his imaginative and daring style of play, which often borders on recklessness. Nevertheless he is unsurpassed in his ability to struggle in difficult positions and so give himself maximum winning opportunities. According to Scalamandre, this expertise has developed because he finds himself in such positions more than anyone else.

The diagram position illustrates how Scalamandre (Black) used this expertise to narrowly avert defeat in an earlier round. Here also, the score was tied at double match point, so there was no doubling and gammons were irrevelant. Black has resorted to a special strategy by playing a back game, that is, holding two points deep within White’s home board. The object of a back game is usually to wait until your opponent has begun bearing off and so weakened his position. You then hope to hit him and win the game. Because you own two points in his board, it is quite difficult for him to avoid leaving multiple shots.

Black to play 6-1.
A key ingredient, however, to a successful back game is proper timing. This means that you must be able not only to make a strong home board, but you must also have the time to preserve it. Unfortunately, as Scalamandre realized, Black is rapidly running out of time. If, for example, Black plays 7/1, 2/1, making his 1-point, he will have a strong home board but will not be able to maintain it. While waiting for White to leave a shot, he will be forced to continue moving forward in his home board and so irrevocably weaken his position. In this case Black cannot expect to win even if he later hits White.
(a) 23/16

Rather than allow his home board to deteriorate, Scalamandre correctly played 23/16, leaving a blot, a single man, on the 23-point. This play appears dangerous because White can easily point on this blot.

Black, however, will still own the 24-point — White’s 1-point — and, what is more important, will be able to preserve his own home board. Thus, Black voluntarily abandons his back game strategy by giving up his second point in White’s board and switches to what is known as a 1-point game. Scalamandre correctly judged that he had better winning chances with a well-timed 1-point game than a badly timed back game.

Black’s chances now are actually better than they might appear. Although such a game is sometimes derided as a “well-timed disaster” it is surprising how often a safe bearoff is impossible when your opponent owns only your 1-point. Especially in match situations such as this, where gammons are not relevant, playing a well-timed 1-point game can be an effective last-ditch strategy.

Indeed, in the actual game, White took off four men and then left a shot that Black fortunately hit. Because Black had preserved his home board he was able to close White out and win the game.

XG logo
Tom Keith 2013 
Match to 13
White 12, Black 12
Black rolls 6-1

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

6-1: Game BG   Equity
1 24/17 W
−0.5434 x 
2 23/17, 6/5 W
−0.5542 (0.0108) 
3 23/17, 3/2 W
−0.5546 (0.0112) 
4 23/16 W
−0.5556 (0.0122)  (a)
11 7/1, 2/1 W
−0.6281 (0.0847) 

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