Forum Archive : Etiquette

Am I too slow?

From:   Daniel Murphy
Date:   23 June 1997
Subject:   Re: Time to play

> I recently played in my first live bg tournament.  It was enjoyable and I
> did well.  My question is this: How long should I be able to take to
> decide on a move?  The obvious moves I played quickly, but I wanted to
> take more time than I felt I could to study more complex positions or
> rolls. Everyone at the tournament seemed to play their rolls in like 5
> seconds. If I take 30 seconds to a minute to study a roll occasionally,
> am I going to be snickered at?  Can top payers evaluate all
> positions/rolls in 5 seconds?

You didn't mention which division you played in.  Most tourneys grant
a little more slack in the Beginner or Novice division.  In most
tournaments you risk a time penalty if your slow play delays the

Yes, top players (and payers too, most of them) make most moves in 5
to 10 seconds.  Sometimes they take a little longer -- not so often
for plays but for cube decisions.  Top players will occasionally take
30 seconds to a minute (and, rarely, more) for a really tough decision
-- but the beginner's "occasionally" tends to be a lot more frequent
than an advanced player's.

So all these top players have super calculating brains?  Maybe, but
they don't have to be.  Of course they know a lot more, so what's
obvious to them might not be obvious to you; but there's something
more important going on here.  Top players have a way of thinking
about backgammon that lets them make most decisions quickly -- even

Top players don't roll the dice and *then* stop to evaluate the
position, if that means comparing all the likely moves, computing all
the shots and blots, and determining that move X is 1.435% better than
move Y.  Once in a while there may be a close decision which needs
some thought, but this is not what backgammon's all about.

Try to develop the top players' habit of looking at the position
*before* you roll (like chess with a clock, do your thinking on your
opponent's time), deciding what your objectives are, and thinking
quickly through what you would do to accomplish your objectives with
whatever you might roll next.

Your objectives are strategic and tactical.  Strategic: you're
winning, losing, trying to win, trying to win a gammon, or just trying
to avoid getting gammoned.  Tactical: you want to make an anchor, make
a prime, escape a checker, hit a blot, safety a blot, make a point,
create a builder, hold an anchor because you're losing the race, break
contact because you're winning the race, turn the cube, decline or
accept the cube if it's given.

Usually you have several competing objectives.  Knowing which ones are
most important is something you'll have to learn at home; don't do
your studying at the tournament, it's too late then.  But, if you know
what you'd *like* to do, then once you roll you simply do whatever you
*can* do with the roll you get.  After a while, you'll get the hang of
it, and the checkers start moving themselves to where you know they
ought to go.

Here's one top player's opinion:

"I would like to inject an observation here: Going through this type
of [very long, mathematical] thought process does not guarantee
selection of the proper move at the table. That depends upon how often
the given depth of analysis makes the answer obvious, the honing of
one's knowledge/intuition and concentration, and how much time one is
able/willing to sit at the table and delve further. Personally, I
believe it is extremely rude to one's opponent and to the tournament
staff to think as long as many players do, so I do not wish to
encourage it.

"I recommend study at home, and from that source allow most of the
reward to be reaped. When at the table, think a bit only on the tough
moves and then be ready to wing it. If by that time the best move
doesn't seem obvious, then in my view either you have not yet earned
the right to know the answer through enough experience or study,
and/or the answer is close, which means there is little equity to give
away. Time to make a move."  -- Nack Ballard, Backgammon By the Bay
Annotated Game 7,

I like that -- "think a bit only on the tough moves and then be ready
to wing it."  Being able to do some math quickly in your head can
certainly help you play better (and yes, most but not all of the top
players do this), but "backgammon is emphatically *not* a game of
mathematical calculations; it is a primarily a game of position and
strategy -- a game of recognizing and anticipating visual patterns."
(Paul Magriel, Backgammon).

Now, I'll make a prediction:

When -- through study and by adopting the top players' method of
positional analysis -- you find yourself playing at the same speed of
most players, take a look at one of the slow ones.

What you'll find is that the slow player tends to take an
excrutiatingly long time agonizing over "Play X or Play Y" when it
hardly makes any difference at all which one is chosen -- or, just as
likely, Play Z, the best play, is completely overlooked.  And novices
are constantly asking something like this: "Move 14 was tough -- did I
make the best play with that 63?"  And the answer is frequently
something like this: "Forget about that move; you lost the game on
moves 8 and 9 that you made quickly with insufficient thought for what
you needed to accomplish."

So, keep studying; the more you know the less you have to think about.
And a lot of what may now be tough decisions become easy ones if you
keep in mind what you'd like to do, and then roll, and then just do

Daniel Murphy    San Francisco, California
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Am I too slow?  (sevenout+, Apr 2004) 
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Am I too slow?  (Daniel Murphy, June 1997) 
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Moving hit checker first  (Timothy Chow+, Oct 2009) 
Premature shaking  (Paul Epstein+, July 2005) 
Rolling the dice  (Julius Selbach+, July 2005) 
Rude conduct  (Igor Schein+, Mar 2003) 
Under resigning  (Bob Newell+, Aug 2004) 
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When to quit  (Albert Steg, Nov 1998) 
Why I never complain about the dice  (Phil Simborg, Mar 2004) 

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