Communication and Dys-communication
Danny Kleinman, 1982
Double Sixes from the Bar
Whether by impulse or analysis, good backgammon players appreciate the importance of keeping their men “in communication” — that is, at a distance of 6 pips or fewer from one another.

Communication helps in many ways. Backward men can advance safely to forward outposts. Forward blots may be protected, partly, by retaliatory shots from backward men. A forward blot is also a slot for which the backward man provides a builder. And two men communicating at a distance of fewer than 6 pips may be brought together to form new points; the closer the communication, the better the prospect for forming new points.

Because communication at a distance of 6 does not foster the creation of new points, it is often strained communication. Sometimes it becomes dys-communication, worse than no communication at all.

Position 1.
Black to play 2-1.

Consider the task of Black in Position 1. Having hit White’s blot in the bear-off, Black has a chance to win the game if he can restrain this blot. Black must focus on the 8-point, to where White threatens to escape with a 6-1. Black should try to maximize the numbers of his own which reach the 8-point exactly.

After taking the forced part of the move, bar/23, Black must search for the best ace. It is possible, of course, to count the number of rolls which reach to the 8-point after each alternative ace. But Black can use short-cuts far more easily. First, it is known that within a distance of 6 from the target, it is better to be farther away. So Black should not be tempted to advance 10/9. Beyond a distance of 6 from the target, it is usually better to be closer. This is also well known. In particular, 8 pips away is slightly better than 9.

Does this mean that Black should advance 17/16? No, because that brings Black’s men on the 16-point exactly 6 pips apart — in dys-communication. You don’t have to count numbers to note that if Black plays 17/16, he duplicates his own 6-2 and 2-2 next turn. Leaving his men 7 pips apart avoids duplication.

Therefore Black should leave his men on the 17-point and 10-point alone, and move either 22/21 or 20/19 with his ace. Black can spare himself the bother of counting if he sees a distance of 6 pips as “ugly” — as dys-communication.

Position 2.
Black to play 5-4.

Position 2 occurred in a recent chouette. Black, an experienced player, was playing a holding game and was so far behind in the race that his only real hope was to hit a shot. Then he would have to restrain White’s blot until he caught up in the race or built a prime by making his bar-point or his 1-point. Making the bar-point seemed unlikely, for Black was too far advanced. In fact, before Black could get a shot, he might have to start breaking his board or abandon his anchor on White’s 5-point.

As so often happens, Black was playing rapidly. After all, he didn’t have a shot yet, and he didn’t yet face the problem of restraining any hit blot.

Notice that this was a poor roll for Black. Not only was it a fairly large number — 9 pips — but it was the wrong 9 pips. A 6-3 would have been easier to play: 13/7, 9/6, bringing two more builders to bear on the 1-point.

Black moved 13/8, 9/5. I venture to say that most backgammon players would do the same. But Black has an alternative that looks very similar: 13/4. Black probably played out of habit, and it is a good habit in most instances — keeping spare men close together. In this case, Black viewed only his men which originated on the 13-point and 9-point as his spares.

Is there really a problem? Does it make any difference whether Black plays 13/8, 9/5, or 13/4? Neither the player who moved 13/8, 9/5 nor his even more experienced partner in the Crew saw the choice as significant.

But consider. Black has a spare on his 2-point, deeper within his home board than he would like, but still a builder for the 1-point. By bringing a man to the 8-point, Black creates dys-communication. Black can avoid dys-communication with the alternative move, 13/4.

Backgammon players love to complain about their bad luck. Black had some bad luck during the next few rolls. White rolled a 6-2, and had to strip his 8-point. The Black rolled a 6-3. A most unpleasant roll! Black could either pile five men inflexibly on his 2-point, thereby minimizing his chances of making (or hitting loose on) his 1-point, by moving 8/2, 5/2. Or he could break anchor, which he did by moving 20/11. Whereupon White promptly pointed on Black’s blot with a 3-1, playing 17/20, 19/20.

I won’t go so far as to say that backgammon players don’t experience incredible runs of bad luck. But they sometimes fail to notice the ways which they compound their misfortunes. Black contributed to his own defeat with his dys-communications play, robbing himself of good (in this case, diversifying) 6’s on his next turn. The better play of 13/4 would have allowed Black to play his subsequent 6-3 by moving 9/3, 4/1.

I do not ask that you perform elaborate calculations in apparently innocuous positions like Position 2. Save your energy for the clearly crucial decisions, or for leisurely analysis away from the backgammon table. What you can do, however, is incorporate the results of calculation and analysis in your vision. Learn to see the communication between your men as desirable. But also see dys-communication as undesirable, a reflection of how poorly men exactly 6 pips apart function together.

The Last Word

This last word belongs to Bob Wachtel, who pointed out my error in Position 2 above.

Position 2 repeated.
Black to play 5-4.

My play, 13/4, leaves more awkward numbers next turn than Black’s actual play, 13/8, 9/5. After his actual play, Black could have handled the following 6-3 by piling five men on his 2-point. But after my play, rolls of 6-4 and 5-4 would require Black to break either his anchor or his board. The extra number (1-1 and 3-1 instead of just 4-1) to make the 1-point isn’t enough compensation for the defect in my play.

The preservation of useful numbers (in this case, 4’s) overrides dys-communication in Position 2. I saw that Black can play a 4, 5, or 6 from his outer board after either play. I overlooked that placing Black’s spare on the 5-point rather than the 4-point lets him take a 4 by moving 5-1 when his other number is a 5 or 6 which he must play from his outer board. Thank you, Bob.

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