Improving Your Game
It Amazes Me
by Phil Simborg, 2007
Phil Simborg
I have been playing backgammon for about 45 years. And I have played pretty much consistently all of that time. It's not because I don't have anything else to do. I work, I have a family, I am a Life Master at duplicate bridge; I'm a pretty decent golfer, tennis player, racquetball player. I enjoy Scrabble, gin rummy, reading, movies, travel and dining.

But with all my activities and interests, backgammon has always been there. I sat down last night to think about why. And I came up with two reasons: (1) it's really fun to play, and (2) every time I play I learn something—the game is always challenging me.

But here is what amazes me. I play just about every Tuesday night at the Bar Point Club in Chicago, and I am very proud to say that we have many really excellent players at the club. If you win one of our weekly tournaments, chances are you've played some pretty good backgammon and had to get by some legitimate Open level players. But there are some players there who have been playing for 20, 30, or more years, who have not improved very little, if at all, in all those years.

How can they play good players week after week and not learn that it's usually better to make the 5 point than the bar point early in the game? How can they put up their money every week, sit down, and not double when it's post-Crawford?

It is not because these people are not intelligent—I know several of them to be very sharp people, both in business and personally. I guess they just look at backgammon as a relaxing and fun pastime and don't really think about whether or not their plays are right. I just don't know, and I can't understand it.

I have a good friend who has played backgammon longer than I have. Thirty years ago he was one of the best players around. Today, he is a mediocre player. And he plays no differently than he did 30 years ago. His game has not gotten any worse, its just that everyone else's has gotten better!

I am convinced that the invention of Snowie and Jellyfish and GnuBG, the backgammon software programs that show us with little doubt what plays and cube decisions are best, has made everyone who uses these tools better players. And I believe that almost every good player uses one or more of these tools often, or at the very least, they are getting coaching from someone who uses these tools.

Thirty years ago, if you got to be a pretty good player and wanted to improve, about all you could do is read and study a little more, and play a lot more and hope to learn from your mistakes. Today, you can sit down with Snowie and play hour after hour and get constant coaching on what you're doing wrong. In fact, I know several players who, in the last few years, have become among the best in the world doing just that.

It's not my place to tell people what they should do. If people want to play backgammon an never try to learn anything or improve their game, that's their business. But for me, learning more about the game, every day, is what makes it the most fun. That's what works for me. You won't see me near a backgammon board without my camera, so that I can take pictures of positions I don't understand so that I can put them into Snowie later and study them. Often, if I still don't understand the play fully, I email it to some of the best players in the world and they are kind enough to give me a full explanation about the reasoning for the play.

So my request to you all is this. If you are just playing backgammon and enjoying it great. I know some of you believe there is no point in really studying the game, because you don't want to spend the time and effort it would take to be a world-class player anyway, and you like it the way it is. But I suggest you open your mind, just a little, to learning more about the game. Why? Not so you can beat your husband or wife or the guy next door. Because I really think you might find that the learning process, itself, makes the game more fun. It has for me.

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
You can contact Phil at: or visit his
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