The Cube: Tournament vs. Money Play
Barclay Cooke, 1980
Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine, June 1980

Barclay Cooke
Comparatively unknown backgammon experts are cropping up everywhere these days. But while they become more and more proficient in moving their men, many still don't take time to study the vastly different tactics that should be used in tournaments as opposed to money games, especially in the use of the doubler.

Suppose you have eleven men off and four men remaining on your one point. Your opponent has the identical position; it is his roll and he turns the cube. Should you take? The chances are the every knowledgable player would answer, "Of course not. You shouldn't consider accepting; you're too much of an underdog."

Now say that A enters a tournament. The match is to nineteen and he falls far behind, 11–3, to B. The next game turns into a slugging match and, with B owning the cube at 4, the following position is reached.

 19 11 3
 B (8 away) B on roll. A (16 away)
It is B's roll, he doubles to 8, which would win the match, and of course induces a drop, making the score 15–3 in his favor. Is anything wrong here (aside from the fact that A is way behind)?

Yes, plenty. What are A's chances of winning a nineteen-point match from being down 15–3? My mathematically-inclined friends say the odds are astronomical, something approaching 40-to-1. This figure seems to me too high, so lets cut it in half and make B a 20-to-1 favorite.

Now determine what A's chances for winning were had he accepted that "untakeable" double to 8. For him to win, his opponent would have to roll a non-double and he would have to produce a double. The odds against this parlay are only 6.2-to-1, but most importantly if A brings it off he wins the match! Why? Because if B fails to roll a double, A of course turns the cube to 16 and is only a double away from winning the match 19–11. Isn't it better to be approximately a 6-to-1 underdog that an 20-to-1 one or more? Of course it is. So all of a sudden this mandatory money drop becomes a mandatory tournament take. The only reason to drop would be to hang in there a little longer, but that would be small compensation for not grabbing your best shot to win the match.

I know it's irrelevant but I can't help noting that every big league baseball manager, if he played backgammon, would fold here. All they think about is the crisis at hand. "Just get me by this inning" is their philosophy. They are simply unable to see the whole picture and as a result lose countless games they might have won.

Another situation: you are in a match to seventeen points and lead 15–13. The next game is complicated and gradually you forge ahead. It is your turn to roll; you look over the position, like your chances, and realize that if you double and he takes you can win the match in this game. You double, and he decides to accept.

Now something dramatic has occurred even before you toss the dice. No man has been touched, but do you see what has happened? Remember that you are ahead by two big points late in the match. However, by his having accepted your double here you have actually given up your lead before you roll! The match is now tied.

How is this possible? Because unless he is an idiot, your opponent, having accepted to 2, will promptly turn the cube to 4, whatever you roll. He has all to gain and nothing to lose by doing so. This game is therefore for the match, and your lead has vanished.

This could never happen in a money game. Two points can't disappear by themselves. Your opponent might win a gammon at 4 but you would be credited with those two points you already have on paper and be minus six rather than minus eight.

In a money game each point has the same value; not so in tournaments. Sometimes a single point is vital, as when the score is 14–14 in a match to 15; in other circumstances it can mean virtually nothing — for example, when you lead 14–12 in a 15-point match with the Crawford Rule game coming up. If you lose this game, a gammon against you is hardly worse than a single game. But don't lose a backgammon!

The two examples I've cited merely scratch the surface in showing the subtleties of the doubler in tournaments. Remember that in any match your only goal is to win it; the amount by which this is accomplished is unimportant. Try to use the cube with this in mind. Be wary of doubling, and especially of redoubling if you have a substantial lead in the match, as B did in the first example, regardless of how far ahead you are in the current game. You don't want to supply leverage for your opponent which he could use against you.

The more one studies the doubler, especially in tournaments, the more complex it becomes. It remains the single most challenging aspect of the game, and so far nobody has succeeded in mastering all its ramifications.