Forum Archive : Learning

How to excel in backgammon

From:   Max Levenstein
Address:   medl@umich.edu
Date:   3 August 2011
Subject:   Curious question: What is the difference between backgammon players?
Forum:   BGonline.org Forums

In my quest to become the best backgammon player I can be, I've sought the
advice of many a player.  "How did you become such a good player?" I would
ask, just anticipating with wide eyes, the secret answer, that I too, could
use to cash big in the chouette.

"Play, read, study, use software," were the usual suspect answers, and
although absolutely helpful and instrumental to where I currently am as a
player, there is so much more out there.

I am going to adjust this question just slightly to you: "In your opinion,
what is the difference between an intermediate, open, and master player?"

Justin N  writes:

This might sound overly simplified (I am a simple guy), but I've found that
reinforcing a solid foundation of basic concepts, and establishing good
playing mechanics and habits over the board, will take one a long ways in
ones development. It is easy to take these things for granted.

Here are a few things I try to execute on EVERY play:

(1) Factor the race into every position.
(2) Slow down, and play one number at a time, especially with doublets.
(3) Have a concrete reason (other than "it looks pretty" or "it feels
    right") for your actions.
(4) Identify your Plan B.
(5) Have a general game plan in mind (based on the score) before the first
    roll of each game.

When I'm away from the board, I try to solidify my basics by reading and

(1) Race formulas.
(2) Match equity concepts.
(3) Opening rolls, replies, and third roll replies, and the theories behind
(4) Equities of basic reference positions.


(5) Post positions you don't understand here, or share them at the next
    club meeting.
(6) Sharpen your skill at using the "case method" of solving position
(7) Use the player account manager in XG to track your progress, and
    identify your holes.
(8) Record and enter as many matches as you can (particularly between
    giants and masters).

Stick  writes:

I will try to organize my thoughts as we go along so bear with me as this
could turn into another mammoth post.

The Basics - master them completely. I chant this mantra with everything I
do. There's a reason my friends say 'he's good at everything he does'. It's
not that I'm naturally good at shit, I don't buy into that, but it's that I
do have an understanding of what it takes to be better than the rest. In
backgammon what I consider the basics covers a lot of territory. Off the
top of my head I would include the early game, every type of racing
situation under the sun, holding games of any flavor, early game blitzing
cubes, prime v. prime games, if you're into match play understanding match
equity, gammon values, etc... at all major scores, special interest to how
dmp is played, how to play out a blitz, how to play out a failed blitz,
bearing in, bearing off, at least a competent level of playing backgames
out and when to cube, pay now v. pay later decisions, and I'm sure another
100 things that I'm not going to take the time to think about right now.
You should become solid in all these areas so that when someone comes up to
you with a position and it falls into one of them you'd be ready to take
Falafel's money if his opinion varied from your own.

Deliberate Practice - As Phil mentioned. This is the big difference between
players. There are probably thousands of players who play more you do but
this doesn't matter in the least. It's how you spend your time when you do
work with the game. If all you do is show up at the local chouette every
day and play 4 hours whether you are making money or not you're hardly
going to improve. However, can you imagine how much improvement you'd make
if you spent even half of that time really studying at home? Phil mentioned
one book and I'll mention another that has been referred to before on the
forums, Talent is Overrated. In it you will basically see that it isn't the
person that makes one great, it's how much 'deliberate practice' they put
into it.

Use XG - Create a profile, only play on it when you're in the mood for
serious play. Play a session of whatever length. Immediately after that
session take the time to thoroughly go through the session play by play
(not error by error, you learn so much less). In the beginning I recommend
setting the blunder threshold high, depending on your level of play. The
first setting I recommend is having it at any decision that costs you .120
of equity or more. When you are going through your match and you run across
a blunder of this size copy the position over and save it to a separate
folder. I recommend making two folders, one for checker plays and one for
cubes. The object is not to collect a massive amount of positions, that's
why we set the threshold so high. What we want to do ideally is pick apart
your biggest errors. You want to gather up 10-20 positions and really
understand them. Roll them out, play them out, until you understand where
you went wrong. Review them and once you feel comfortable that if faced
with a similar decision OtB you would now make the correct decision, move
them out of that folder. You don't want that folder to accumulate too many
positions. You always want it to be a working blunder refectory. Now, once
you notice you're playing a lot and not gathering up enough positions drop
that blunder threshold down to .100, repeat. Next threshold .080, repeat.
Along the way you should pick up a lot of reference positions you may want
to save to a different folder. With any luck you'll also see your PR slowly
decline over all the sessions you're playing as you get better and better.

If you attend tournaments interact with other (good) players who are
discussing positions. Again you'll pick up on a lot of misunderstood
positions by humans, hear feedback from the best players and what they were
thinking, and before you know it you'll be confident enough to speak up and
say 'MCG, how do you make that play? It's so hopeless ... do you even know
how to play the game?'

Books? Articles? Lessons? Post Whoring? - There is no shortage of bg
information out there available to you but with all this media I think it's
up to you to decide what helps your game the most. For example, I still
read everything about poker that ever passes in front of me but most of the
time when I'm done with a book I don't feel I've learned a thing and think
that my time would have been much better spent elsewhere if I was trying to
improve. Now with backgammon you aren't as likely to have that happen as
most books at least have interesting problems you can learn something from
but still, decide if that's a good avenue for you to take. Some people love
lessons and they really help, especially if you have a good teacher. Other
people don't take so well to lessons.

A few random things of note ... it depends on whether you really want to
get better or it's an idea floating in your head that sounds good in theory
but who wants to put in the time? You can put in what I see as a minimal
amount of time and become what is seen as a 'competent' player. Maybe
someone who averages a 5 PR? The amount of work required for this isn't all
that much in relation to how much work it takes to go from a 5 PR to a 4 PR
and from a 4 PR to a 3 PR is even a bigger allocation of time and work.
It's not exactly fun, you won't reap many rewards from it in your actual
results and this is the main reason I think bg players are such slackers to
begin with.

Try not to burn yourself out too if you decide you do want to invest a lot
of time into bg. Getting burnt out is the worst. It's supposed to be as fun
as you can make it and if you hate what you're doing, aka if you're only
trying to do it to become better and there's no other enjoyment in it, then
you aren't as likely to absorb the information. I've taken large chunks of
time off in the past from backgammon and poker because I'd had enough for a
while. It's not the end of the world if you skip out on 3 months of
backgammon, it's not like being in good physically fit shape. You can come
back 3 months later and still be in good form whereas if you were a runner
and took off 3 months you'd have someone to answer to if you tried to go
out and perform as you did before.

David Rockwell  writes:

There is a slogan which I love which emphasizes Stick's 1st point.

"Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until
they can't get it wrong."

This concept creates an issue for those who would like to improve at
backgammon, but have limited time to devote to the game. Mastering Stick's
list of 100 things cannot be done overnight. When I play a match with an
embarrassing number of blunders, I usually want to correct all of my
misconceptions. However, I do better when I pick one and learn that lesson
very well rather than trying to plug all of the leaks at once. I
concentrate on one thing until I can't get it wrong.

I would also recommend systematic study. This is entailed in Stick's
deliberate practice concept. Systematic study means taking a day or a week
or a month and trying to go deeply into one aspect of the game. (Don't stop
practicing the rest of the game - The point is to emphasize one thing.) An
example of this would be cube actions following an early 55 roll. Another
example would be contact bearoffs facing an ace anchor. Systematic study
works best for me if I aim a little beyond my current competence rather
than shooting for the moon. Don't move on to something new until you can
articulate what you have learned.
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]
Best way for a beginner to learn  (Koyunbaba+, July 2007)  [Long message]
Committing to memory  (RobertFontaine+, Feb 2011) 
Getting better than "awful"  (Morph+, May 2004) 
How to excel in backgammon  (Max Levenstein+, Aug 2011) 
How to improve  (N Merrigan, Jan 2007) 
How to improve  (Albert Steg, Feb 1996) 
How to improve cube handling  (RealNick+, Jan 2011) 
How to learn and improve  (Hristov, Aug 2005) 
Lowering your error rate  (Stick Rice+, Apr 2009) 
Maintaining your game  (Robert-Jan Veldhuizen, Apr 2005)  [GammOnLine forum]
Matchqiz and Jellyfish  (Gilles Baudrillard, May 1997) 
Missing candidate plays  (Klaus Evers+, Apr 2009) 
Most efficient way to learn  (Stick+, May 2007)  [Long message]
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) 
Taking your game up a level  (Ron Karr, Aug 1996) 
The backgammon cake  (Daniel Murphy, Nov 1997) 
The best way to learn  (Chuck Bower+, Oct 2003)  [GammOnLine forum] [Long message]
Three steps to better play  (David Montgomery, July 1998) 
Using Jellyfish tutor  (Stephen Hubbard, Sept 1997) 
What more can I do?  (Alison Wylie+, Apr 2000) 
Zen in the art of backgammon  (Robban+, Aug 2009) 

[GammOnLine forum]  From GammOnLine       [Long message]  Long message       [Recommended reading]  Recommended reading       [Recent addition]  Recent addition

  Book Suggestions
Computer Dice
Cube Handling
Cube Handling in Races
Extreme Gammon
Fun and frustration
GNU Backgammon
Luck versus Skill
Magazines & E-zines
Match Archives
Match Equities
Match Play
Match Play at 2-away/2-away
Opening Rolls
Pip Counting
Play Sites
Probability and Statistics
Source Code
Strategy--Bearing Off
Strategy--Checker play


Return to:  Backgammon Galore : Forum Archive Main Page