Forum Archive : Learning

Study Methodology

From:   Phil Simborg
Address:   psimborg@sbcglobal.net
Date:   20 December 2012
Subject:   Study Methodology
Forum:   BGonline.org Forums

> Is there a specific area of the game students should focus on first? For
> example, in chess they recommend starting with the end game and I know
> there are good conceptual reasons for this.  Is there an optimal learning
> order in BG?

I will give you my approach to teaching backgammon, and as I have some 20
years of experience teaching, and currently over 60 students, I am pretty
confident that this approach is very sound. I can also tell you that much
of my approach I have learned from many of the best teachers in the game as
well as my own experience, so I certainly do not take full credit for it.

Assuming the player knows the basic rules of the game and how to move the
checkers, I have found there absolutely is a preferred order to learn the
game properly. And I have found that whenever I get a new student, no
matter what his level of play or how long he is playing, it is necessary to
go through these steps, in order, as even the most experienced players have
some holes in their thinking in each area.

As a teacher, it is my job to fill those holes with concepts and strategies
and rules of thumb that they dont know, as well as to find out what
concepts and strategies and rules of thumb they are already using that are
either incorrect or inadequate compared to the latest and best available.

Initially I break down my lessons into two main areas: checker play and
cube action. And then we put them together for specific types of games.

Starting with Checker play, I like to say that you cannot write a book
until you have first learned the alphabet and the alphabet of backgammon is
the odds. So, relative to checker play, you must know the rolling odds, and
how many times out of 36 you can hit, make a point, come in from the bar,
leave a shot, run to safety, or bear off one or two checkers.

Staying with Checker play it is then necessary to learn the basic
principles of checker play, starting with early game play, and learn the
basic reasons why it is good to hit, make a point, or put your checkers in
strategic places, why we need to unstack, split, or slot in the early game,
and how game plan and cube strategy affect your checker play decisions.

At this point I generally switch to the cube, as you cannot really
understand advanced and later game checker play without understanding the
cube implications. Relative to the cube, again, it is important to first
learn the odds. What is match equity and where do take points and gammon
values come from, and then how to apply and understand those factors over
the board. Once the basic numbers are understood, then we get into tools
and strategies and shortcuts to make the best cube decisions.

For both Checker play and Cube action, it is essential to be armed with
some basic reference positions that provide a basis for knowing the
numbers. I start with essential reference positions such as the odds of
getting gammoned holding the ace point; the odds of gammons with two
checkers or one checker closed out, and 8 other essential reference
positions. Of course, as we study each area of the game, we add key
reference positions (e.g. the 5 major reference positions of blitzes).

And then we study each type of game and learn the special rules of thumb
and shortcuts and strategies that will help us with cube decisions and
checker plays for each of those types of games. Basically we look first at
races, then holding games, back games, primes, blitzes, bearing in and off,
and then more complex situations.

In order to teach all of the above to a single student, I have 32 lesson
plans, most of which can each be taught in 1 to 1.5 hours depending on the
students level of play and ability to grasp the concepts, and a few that
require two or three lessons to cover completely. In addition to the lesson
itself, I provide homework, positions to study, articles to expand on the
subject, and tips for using XG to further understand the concepts, that the
student does on his own between lessons.

In addition to the 32 basic lesson plans, I have another 20 more advanced
plans for high Intermediate and Open Level players to take their skills to
a higher level and also deal with advanced strategies of tournament play,
how to play your opponent, and money and chouette play for those interested
in that area of the game. Some of these advanced lesson plans include
positions and situations that test the skills already studied to help hone
those skills over the board. Some of these advanced lessons plans are
nothing more than exercises to show the student short cuts to getting to
the best decision more quickly, by learning how to ignore the noise and get
to the key element of the situation. And some deal with mental attitude and
tournament and money play strategies to help you deal with different kinds
of opponents.

An essential part of my teaching is to show students how to advance their
learning on their own, primarily by understanding how to use XG as a self-
learing tool, and how to tackle a checker play or cube error to determine
what they missed and what they need to understand in order to get it right
in the future.

Naturally, the above will vary some depending on the individual, but I am
very confident that this approach and order works well, and I have dozens
of testimonials and terrific results of my students, all over the world, to
back me up.

You cant really understand, for example, how to play or defend a back game
if you do not know the basic odds of the game and dont understand take
points and gammon values, game plan theory, and some basic rules of thumb
specific to back games. And even if you know all of that, there are always
one or two (at least) reference positions that will get you to a correct
decision far better and faster than any calculations you might do over the

[Because of the above, this is why I absolutely refuse to try to teach a
student who comes to me and asks me to just play with them or go over their
saved matches and discuss their errors with them. Not only is that approach
highly inefficient, but the first time we find a checker play or cube
error, we have to stop and go through the entire process above in order to
truly understand why one play is better than another.]

I hope the above helps and provides you with the outline and answer you
were looking for.
Did you find the information in this article useful?          

Do you have any comments you'd like to add?     



Advancing beyond intermediate  (James Eibisch, July 1998) 
Beginners' mistakes  (Alan Webb+, Nov 1999)  [Long message] [Recommended reading]
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Practice and preparation  (Ian Shaw+, Mar 2004)  [GammOnLine forum]
Practice/study plan  (Marcus Brooks+, Nov 1995) 
Reference positions  (Chuck Bower, July 1999) 
Study Methodology  (Phil Simborg, Dec 2012) 
Study method  (Jason Lee+, Jan 2012) 
Study plan  (Tenland+, Nov 2012) 
Taking your game up a level  (CW+, Aug 2002) 
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What more can I do?  (Alison Wylie+, Apr 2000) 
Zen in the art of backgammon  (Robban+, Aug 2009) 

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Extreme Gammon
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Match Equities
Match Play
Match Play at 2-away/2-away
Opening Rolls
Pip Counting
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Probability and Statistics
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Strategy--Bearing Off
Strategy--Checker play


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