Backgammon Articles

Key Skills to Being a Top Player
by Bill Robertie
Posted on the Two Plus Two Backgammon Forum, December 20, 2009.

What are the key skills to being a top backgammon player? I'd evaluate them as follows.

Skill 1: Technical knowledge of the game

The best players know more about their game than lesser players. This is true of all games, and it's far and away the most important factor, dwarfing all psychological considerations. To be a top player, you have to put in thousands and thousands of hours of study, until you can find the right move, quickly, in all sorts of positions.

Attaining this kind of knowledge is much easier than it used to be because of the bots. In the 1970 to 1995 pre-bot period, there were just a handful of players who clearly knew much more than their peers. Now there are dozens and dozens who have a high level of knowledge. But it's still the number 1 factor.

Part of this skill is a great memory. Today the fashion is to denigrate a good memory as simply an odd little talent, not nearly as valuable as creativity.

I've always been fond of reading biographies of people who were very good at highly technical disciplines (physics, mathematics, chess, etc.). One characteristic of all these folks was that, almost without exception, they possessed astonishingly good memories. The biographers would usually note this as an interesting but unimportant fact, but I think that a superb memory is a prerequisite for the kind of skill we're talking about. If you can remember thousands and thousands of positions quickly and easily, creativity will magically follow.

Skill 2: Discipline and single-mindedness

This skill is partly a precursor to acquiring skill #1, but it's also essential to maintaining consistently good results once your knowledge of the game has been acquired. Not only do you need to work on the technique of the game on a regular basis, but you need to do all the little things that make success possible.

One example: in the 1980s and 1990s I traveled to Europe on a regular basis to play in tournaments. I developed a nice routine for these events. Arrive a couple of days early, get plenty of sleep, get used to the time zone change, find a couple of good restaurants convenient to the playing area. Each day I was playing I would get up at the same time, eat at the same time, and in general try to keep to a familiar routine. This had the effect of allowing me to play in a relaxed but completely focused mood. I'm sure this made a difference in my results, although there's no way to say exactly how much.

Skill 3: Psychological resilience

This is usually thought of as avoiding tilting or steaming, but I like to think it's a little different than that. What's important is to always bring a complete focus to the board, so that while you're playing you're thinking of the match, or the chouette, and really nothing else. If you can maintain that focus, steaming becomes really a non-issue.

If you lose an important game or match, shrug your shoulders and move on. If you're playing a cash game and you find your focus is slipping, announce, "Last 3 games" or whatever, finish the session, and quit for the day. To maintain a high level of play, this sort of focus is extremely important.

Good players tend to have better results in the later rounds of tournaments even though the opposition is generally a little stronger, largely because they focus better when the stakes are high, while less experienced players tend to get overwhelmed by the tension.

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