Mastering Backgammon

Two Opening Problems
by Bill Robertie
This article originally appeared on, November 8, 2006.

Although the first roll of the game is pretty well understood, backgammon gets much more complicated as we get a little deeper into the game and positions get more complex.

Both positions in this article occur at the third move, after Black wins the opening roll and White responds. Try your hand at these commonplace and apparently simple situations, and see how you do.

Position 1.
Black to play 4-3.

When you have a choice between an offensive or a defensive point in the opening, you need to ask yourself two questions:

  • Which point do I need more? If your home board is stronger than opponent's, your need to be defensive is minimized and you want instead to build on your advantage by making another offensive point. If his home board is stronger, you need defense and will make a defensive point.

  • Which play leaves me with a better structure? Good structure, meaning strong points and a smooth distribution of builders, is an important consideration. If one play leaves substantially better structure than the other play, factor that into your decision.

In Problem 1, both questions point in the same direction. White's home board is stronger, so Black prefers making the defensive 20-point to the offensive 5-point. Making the 5-point leaves Black with a weaker structure—the 8-point is stripped, and there are no builders remaining in the outfield to make new points in conjunction with the stack on the 6-point. By making the 20-point instead, the spare on the 8-point and the builder on the 9-point give Black a lot of rolls to make an offensive inner point next turn.

Position 2.
Black to play 4-2.

This position hinges on a cute tactical idea that's common to a number of opening situations. In general, it's better for Black to have the 4-point made with the 5-point slotted, than just to have the 5-point itself. The reason seems to be that the formation with the 6, 5, and 4-points all made, while the opponent has no development, is so powerful that it's worth taking considerable risks to achieve it. So here the right play is the cute 8/4*, 6/4 rather than the solid 11/5.

For a related position, suppose that White opens the game with 4-3 and choose the Middle Eastern split—24/20, 24/21. Now, if Black rolls 4-4, the right play is not 13/5*(2) but 13/5*, 8/4*(2).

The merit of the play just depends on the positional structure, not on potential cube turns or gammon possibilities. It's true that if Black makes the 4-point and White fans, he has an initial double, whereas there are no upcoming doubles after 11/5. However, that's not what is driving the play. It's also the right idea at double match point, and by a lot.

Back in the 1970s, Paul Magriel made this play, but although he was the strongest player of his time, he couldn't convince anyone else of its correctness. Even in that wild era, making the 5-point just looked too strong with no immediate risk.

Next time:  Duplication.

See:  More articles by Bill Robertie

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