Early Strategy
A Common Problem
by Phil Simborg, 2007
Do you often have a problem about whether to split, slot, or play safe? I do. And I made the wrong decision here.

So I asked Perry Gartner for insight, and got tremendous insight; in fact, it will be an article on Gammon Village, but for those of you who may not be subscribers, I am giving you the benefit of Perry's wisdom.

First, what's your play?

Figure 1
Black to play 4-1

Now, for the right play, and Perry's insights:

The right play is to split the back checkers and bring one down. Even if you got this right, you would do well to read on.

I asked Perry if he could give me some general guidelines about when to split, slot or play safe. Here is his off-the-cuff response:

You are asking a question that needs a long article or book chapter to answer fully. I haven't written that chapter yet, but neither has anyone else although there are lots of kernels out there that could be put together to answer this question. I will give some general guidance in discussing this problem.

Let's look at the considerations and virtues of the game plans.

  1. Racing. Black's pip count is close to even. Racing is viable if it can be consummated. Freeing the back checkers from being primed is essential to advancing the racing game plan. When checkers are in your opponent's home board, RGP (racing game plan) can be initiated by 4 potential directions of play: Priming, attacking, holding, and running.

    1. When you prime your opponent you commit part of your resources to containing him and this effort enhances your prospects for escaping. That's because at least some of his checkers are not available to stop your advance out of his home board and if he wants to thwart your prime he usually needs to play to confront your prime on your side of the board. You are constrained by your structure to making immediate priming moves. The six-point and three-point need a lot of help; slotting is very dangerous and this roll doesn't create conditions that allow you to catch up quickly enough.

    2. The same can be said for attacking. In this position you are way behind in the priming battle and your potential for attacking in your inner board is not present.

    3. Advancing your anchor puts you in a position to run with the right double or escape one at a time under the appropriate conditions.

    4. Escaping into the outfield, and hooking up to points made in the outfield is another way out.

  2. Priming and attacking game plans. At the early stages, making inner points (depending on the order of course) advances both these game plans. You are behind in this aspect.

In this position the best anchor possibilities are the bar-point or the 22-point. I think of the 22 as a borderline advanced anchor. We are tending more to not being satisfied with it as it generates powerful double/takes where your equity is close to as bad as it gets without passing. But even the 23-point beats the 24-point.

Splitting has enormous defensive contact potential. Any single checker builders brought down from the opponent's midpoint are subject to many more hitting numbers you get compared to when not split.

The play of coming down to your own eight-point also has defensive value in that your eight-point can remain made when the third checker leaves it. The eight-point is a conduit to bringing checkers into the zone; a way-station, so to speak, is one of its central roles. The eight-point is a landing point for advancing checkers and, particularly when fortified with a third or fourth checker, it inhibits movement of the opponent's checkers in your home board. That's why coming down to the eight-point is the second best play.

When your opponent's home board is much better than yours, splitting and slotting at the same time is massively wrong, as your forces are just too weak to contend with his power. Your home board is not enough of an inhibitor, nor will it exact a sufficient price for his going on the attack and hitting loose wherever he can. You need to hoard your rolls for use in his home board and not worry about what's happening to your forces on the other side. Your goal in splitting is to bite the bullet now rather than waiting for later when it promises to be more dangerous. You're not looking for a confrontation with you on the short end of the stick.

Would you have preferred 5-1 to the roll of 4-1? The answer is yes, despite the enormous value of the nine-point if it can be made and the large number of points it can participate in making. But the danger of another blot, even an indirect at this juncture is just too much. That's why nine and 23 points are the wrong way to go.

There is the concept of equalizing positions before you split. It means focus on making a strong home board and later on splitting, where a hit back will extract a price or his home board will disintegrate before yours does. This theory is most practical when you are significantly down in the race. It isn't usually as good when you are even in the race and when your opponent's structure is far superior to your own you are a big dog to equalize positions. That would be demonstrated in this position by either just coming down to the eight-point or going to the nine-point and slotting the five.

The checkers on your opponent's eight-point and six-point are the only potential attackers, other than some doubles. Eight checkers in the zone are two less than ten, which is used as signal of extreme danger. There are twenty-seven 4's and 6's, but not enough ammo to have a robust follow through. The mid-point is too far from the action to have its checkers play a significant role in the early exchanges in most variations of this position.

The blot on the eight-point is a condition that your opponent wants to remedy. He needs to make it or hit you. If he makes it, his prime and attacking chances are enhanced, so don't let him have it on a silver platter. If he hits you, you can hit back, come in on the 23-point, or remake your anchor on the 24-point. It's well worth the risk.

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
You can contact Phil at: psimborg@sbcglobal.net or visit his
web site: http://www.thebackgammonlearningcenter.com

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