Improving Your Game
Learning More and More From Snowie
by Phil Simborg, 2008
I know many people won't believe me, but I actually got into the position below in a real match (online). I was playing black, got all 15 of my checkers hit, and found myself with a double shot, wondering if I should cube.

I won't bore you with all the details of the match score, what I did, and how it came out, but suffice it to say that it turned out very badly for me.

Phil Simborg
As I do with every position that baffles me, I put it into Snowie and took a look at what Snowie said about the equities. And as I always do when I don't believe Snowie's evaluation, I do a rollout. And as I always do when I don't believe or understand the rollout, I send the position to some of the best players in the world to get their advice.

By the way, a Snowie rollout indicates that at DMP black wins this game about 52% of the time. As for money game situations, it's important to note that he gets gammoned about 38% of the time, and backgammoned a whopping 10%, so almost all his losses are gammons and backgammons in a money game.

Several players I sent this to immediately responded that you just can't trust Snowie to understand complex, unusual positions like this one, and you can't even trust the rollouts because Snowie will probably make a lot of wrong plays along the way.

One expert, however, who has given me quite a bit of terrific coaching and advice over the past few years, disagreed. Perry Gartner responded that even on positions like this, Snowie is probably a lot better than we think, and probably better than most humans. He suggested that I could learn a lot studying how Snowie plays this game out.

I took Perry's advice, and started playing this game out against Snowie, with me playing black, assuming double-match-point, as that way I could concentrate strictly on checker play and every game would get played out to the end without being ended with a cube.

I found out that as black, I was not winning anywhere near the 52% Snowie said I should. I wondered why I was winning so few games, so I began evaluating my play with Snowie to find out if I was making what Snowie thought were major errors.

I found out that I had no clue how to win this game as black. I was making many, many blunders and had the totally wrong approach about how to win the game, even after hitting 2 checkers with my first roll.

I started playing more and more like Snowie suggested I play, and a funny thing happened—I started winning a lot more. In fact, I started winning about half the time!

I won't go into detail about the specific approaches where Snowie differs, but I did learn from Snowie that for black to win he needs to make a 6-point prime and snake it forward. I learned that if white anchors, you have to make him break his anchor with trap plays, and you have to do it very early. And I learned that often you have to forget about hitting or trying to get more checkers back in favor of improving your position. I learned that when you don't hit on the first roll, or if you only hit one checker, you don't open up right away to force a blot, but instead, you have to be patient and not give your opponent extra jokers to win.

Along the way, I began noticing more and more something else very interesting—the way Snowie played the white checkers was extremely different than how I thought they should be played. In fact, Snowie was leaving intentional shots and opening up his inner board at times I thought was ridiculous. I thought that was why I was able to start winning more as black—because of Snowie's stupidity in playing white.

So I started playing this game out as white, with Snowie playing the black checkers. And again, I found that I was not able to do as well as Snowie's evaluation indicated I should, until I again started playing more and more like Snowie. When I did that, my results went up. I found out just who the stupid one was!

Because I sent this position and some of the comments above to many friends on my mailing list around the world, there are many others who are also playing this position either for practice, or as props against each other at their clubs. Those who have reported back to me have reported similar experiences to mine. They have all found that they have learned much from Snowie about how to play this kind of game, whether they play as black or white.

Now, I am not saying Snowie plays every play correctly—as Perry pointed out in a later email to me, Snowie does have some flaws in several situations that are likely to come up in games like this—situations that the top players in the world would probably handle better than Snowie. But overall, you can trust Snowie, and probably GnuBG and Jellyfish, a lot more than your own intuition, unless you happen to be one of those few top players in the world.

The lessons I have learned by playing out this position and comparing my play to Snowie have been significant. I now know how to play complicated games like this a lot better than I did a month ago. I think it is mind-blowing, given that I have been playing backgammon over 40 years, to say that a single study of a single position has significantly improved my game in one month. I think that shows how much we all can learn if we open our mind, take a little extra time to think differently, and rely on our expert friends and Snowie to help us.

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
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