Match Play
Two-Point Match Strategy
by Phil Simborg, 2005
Phil Simborg
Playing a two-point match is a fun and popular game, both on the net and as a side event at tournaments. I enjoy them because they are fun, but also, they are excellent practice for longer matches, as any time you play a match and the score gets tied where both players are 2-away from the win, it is the same as playing a two-point match. And this happens very often in major tournament play. (E.g., if you are playing a seven-point match and the score is five to five, you are essentially playing a two-point match.)

The interesting thing about playing at this score is that both your cube strategy and checker strategy are different from playing at any other score. And itís very difficult to talk about cube strategy without also talking about the checker strategy, as they are so closely intertwined.

The basic idea here is that if either player gets even a slight advantage, that player is supposed to double. The reason for that is because of this: If you are a slight favorite, say 51 percent to 49 percent to win the game, wouldnít you rather bet the entire match than bet just one game and, if you win, have to win yet another game? Sure you would. So from the getgo, if either player is right to double once they gain even a slight advantage, it is logical to assume that the cube is going to be turned pretty quickly by one of the players. It is also a pretty sure thing that the other player will take the cube (as Iíll explain a little farther down), so from the moment you start the game, you can usually assume that it will be for the match (or what we call double-match-point, or DMP).

So, if the game is going to be for the match, and the cube is going to be on 2, one thing we know right away is that gammons and backgammons donít matter. Either way. You gain nothing if you gammon your opponent, and you lose nothing if you get gammoned. It is the same as if the score is 6-6 in a 7 point match, or any match where you both need just a win to win the match.

So when gammons donít matter, that means you can, and should, take risks and make plays that you might not make otherwise when you have to worry about getting gammoned, and conversely, you can, and should make plays that are more sure to give you a win, and not take chances you might otherwise take to try to get a gammon.

That does not mean, of course, that you can just play wildly, or when winning, simply play ultra conservative ... you still need to make the plays that give you the highest odds of winning the game. But in other situations, you try to make plays that give you the highest odds of winning the match (not just the game), and that often means playing to get or prevent gammons and backgammons.

Now, why should you assume that most doubles will be a take? Simple math. If your opponent doubles, and you drop the cube, the score is now 1-0 Crawford. With the Crawford Rule, the cube cannot be used the next game, so if he wins the game, he wins the match, and if you win the game, unless you get a gammon or backgammon, you still have to win another game to win the match. So assuming you are evenly matched players, he needs to win one of the next two games, and you need to win both, so he is a 3-to-1 favorite, or he is 75 percent and you are 25 percent. Ah, but you might get a gammon the first game and win, and the overall odds estimates of that is about 5 percent, so we adjust the above to say that he is 70 percent and you are 30 percent.

So if you get doubled, you are better off taking the cube, even if you are losing, so long as you still have over 30 percent chance to win the game. If your opponent has made a mistake and waited too long before doubling, and you find yourself in a position where you have only a 10 or 20 percent chance of winning the game, then you are better off dropping the double and trying to win the next two games in a row.

So having said the above, if you watch any good players in a 2-away situation, or a 2-point match, you will always see a double and a take very early in the game. About the only exception to this is if one player gets a very quick, major lead, and is very quickly in a situation that has a strong chance of gammons. For example, letís say your opponent gets an opening 5-2 roll, and he plays one down from his midpoint (13 point) and splits one checker off of your ace point (his 24 point). And now you roll 5-5. The proper play for you it to point on him on both the 3 and 1 points. And now, letís say he doesnít come in on his next roll, and there you are with 2 checkers on the bar and three points in your inner board. Many players will not double here, and play on to see if they can get a gammon.

Now, let me cover one other situation. Letís assume that either your or your opponent has made a mistake and either doubled too late, or dropped a double that should have been taken. Now the score is 1-0 in a two-point match, and itís Crawford.

The checker play strategy here is pretty obvious, but a lot of people forget it. If you are the player who only needs one point, obviously, your strategy is to try to win the game, but at the same time, you should be careful not to lose a gammon or backgammon, as that would give your opponent the match. With that in mind, you should alter your checker strategy. One of the best ways to assure that you will not get gammoned in a game is to have an advanced anchor in your opponentís inner board. This means that if you can make your opponentís five or four-point, or even three-point, your odds of getting gammoned are much slimmer than otherwise. So, early in the game, fight for those points. With rolls like 2-2 and 3-3, instead of making your own bar-point and points in your own inner board, as you normally would, bring your back checkers up and make advanced points in your opponentís board. On the early rolls that include 3 or 4, instead of bringing a 3 or 4 down from your mid-point, move them up (slot) to your opponentís higher points so that you have a better chance of making that point on the next roll. And later in the game, if you are faced with a choice of plays, one very offensive, and one more defensive to prevent gammons, you might be wise to choose the less offensive play.

Conversely, if you are the player who needs two points to win the game, you need to remember that it doesnít matter at all if you get gammoned or backgammoned ... you lose the match just the same as if you lose a single game. So you can and should take more chances and play more aggressively. Also, if you can gammon your opponent, you win the match, so thatís another strong reason to take chances you would not otherwise take. If you watch the pros, you will see that in this situation, even their opening moves change, and they play very aggressively and take many chances to try to win gammons. They go for blitzes early in the game (try to make a lot of points in your inner board quickly), and they gamble to make primes (six points in a row), and when they bear off, they might take chances of leaving shots to get extra checkers off to increase their chances of a gammon, even if it increases their risk of losing the game.

If nothing else, I hope this article demonstrates to any beginner and intermediate players that there is a lot more strategy and complexity to backgammon than meets the eye. So often I see players complain about bad dice and wonder why they lost when in fact, their checker and cube play was very poor and in reality, they werenít unlucky at all. Remember, the better you play, the more good rolls there are that you can possibly get, and the less good rolls your opponent can get. So if you think you are consistently getting unlucky, more than likely, it isnít luck at all.

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
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