The 21pt is the weakest of these, so let’s look at that first. Usually, you don’t consider doubling against a high anchor until you have escaped your back men as far as the midpoint. Once that is achieved the race usually offers a good guide to the correct doubling strategy. If you have enough of a race lead to cash in a straight race, you are usually within range of an initial double. The position below is a good example of the sort of thing to look for.
Red leads in the race by 111 to 133. If it was just a pure race, White would have to pass, but Red may yet run into trouble as he clears the points in front of the anchor and White’s chances of getting a shot are reasonable. Very importantly, White has a strong home board already, so that if she does hit a shot it will be effective. This is a vital feature of every holding game. If the defender doesn’t have a board already in position, or good prospects of making one quickly, then her prospects are very much weaker. This position is an easy take, but the one below is not.
The pip count is identical, but now White’s board has a big hole in the middle, a hole that is unlikely to be filled. This position is a pass, because even if White hits a shot she has no board to contain the hit checker, nor is she likely to make one.
Train yourself to look at the position of every checker on the board when considering your cube action. In the above position, White’s spare checker on her 3pt is very weak. It is what is known as a dilly builder, one that is not likely to be of much use. Its only possible function is to assist in making the 1pt later on, whereas if it was back on the 6pt for example it could help to make the 5 or 4pts and would thus be a great deal more useful. Also, White has a spare on the midpoint that isn’t yet in a position to do anything useful. If you move the spare on the 3pt back to the 6pt and the spare from the midpoint down to the 10pt, so that they are in position to make the 5pt or 4pt, then this could just be a take.
Of course this type of observation isn’t easy but you have to start somewhere and a position like this is not too difficult to remember and compare with others later. Since they come up very often, it is very important to get the strategy right for these positions.
Sometimes you will be able to build a prime in front of a 21pt anchor. As before, a lead strong enough to get a pass in a straight race is needed to consider a cube, but the defender’s chances are very much reduced even if she has a strong home board. It is harder for her to get into the race and very much easier for the attacker to bring his checkers home safely, because he has no awkward gaps and has lots of safe places to land. This next position is a good example. It is a marginal take/pass, even though White is only five pips short of a race take.
The race is the big factor and the positioning of spare checkers on either side is not really important; neither side needs to do much more in the way of position building and there is not a great deal of skill involved once you have made your cube decision.
Red should always double of course and as White I would pass against a weaker opponent and take against a stronger one. As a general rule, if you are the stronger player, you only want to take marginal doubles if they have high skill content. As the weaker player, taking marginal doubles where the dice will decide is a much more attractive proposition, particularly if you have the will to redouble smartly if things go your way.
Another common variation occurs when your opponent has danced. These are often the opportunity for an aggressive double against a high anchor, even if you haven’t already escaped. In this next position, Red can offer a very powerful cube and White has a tough but correct take.
Nobody likes to take cubes when they are on the bar against a three point board and a lot of players will pass better positions than this as White. She should take this however, as she has a four point board of her own and is only 19 pips down in the race. Anything much worse than this and she would have to pass.
The 20pt is an excellent place to be anchored. It controls every point in the outfield and is very difficult to prime. As with the 21pt, it can’t usually be doubled until escape is achieved and you need a strong race lead to consider an initial cube. This next position is just about good enough for a double from the middle and is an easy take.
Red leads by 120 to 134, which is just about the point that White would have a marginal take/pass in a straight race. Here of course White can take very easily with the added chances of getting a shot later and because of her strong home board. The key to this position and so many others like it is that Red has a lot of spares to play while he waits for the good number that clears the midpoint. Look at this next position from a little later on in the same game. Red still hasn’t doubled and now he has used all his spares.
Although Red’s lead has grown to 30 pips, he still only just has a double and White still has a very easy take. As his race lead has grown, it has been counter-balanced by the possibility of leaving a shot, so he is no better off than he was in the previous position. However, he should have doubled then and should still double now, because he is about a 72% favourite to win the game and he will lose his market if he throws any double (except 1-1 of course) or 5-4. Also, just as important but rarely considered, he still has no rolls this turn that force him to leave a blot.
If you are ever in the position, as Red is here, of contemplating a double and being uncertain what to do, there are several things to remember. The first is that in any game against a human being there is a good chance that they will make a mistake if you give them the chance to do so. If Red leaves the cube in the middle, White can’t make a mistake, but if Red doubles then there is a very good chance that White will make a sizeable blunder and pass this. How likely is that to happen? In the game where I saw this position White, an experienced tournament player of advanced standard passed this.
A very useful rule, perhaps the most useful rule that you can memorise, is known as Woolsey’s rule, after Kit Woolsey the great player and teacher who first propounded it.
“If unsure whether to double, view the position from your opponent’s point of view. If there is any doubt as to whether a take is correct, it must be right to double”.
Phew! Let’s look closely at what this means and why it is correct. First, is there any doubt here as to whether a take is correct? Any doubt means any doubt at all, so if you can’t say that you are100% sure that this is a take, then it must be a double. Why? Because if it is close enough to being a possible pass, then it must be good enough to double. If you add in the extra equity from the possibility of getting a wrong pass, then the double is clear.
The reverse is not true by the way, as sometimes the take is 100% clear but the double is correct anyway!
The 19pt anchor is of course a very rare animal that we needn’t consider, so the last one for this lesson is the 18pt or bar anchor. Unlike the others, owning the 18pt is no guarantee against being closed out - but otherwise the same sort of rules apply. To double against it you need a very strong race lead and to have completed the escape of your back men. Some spares are also necessary to give you time to clear your midpoint.
Here is a position from Game One of the 2006 World Championship Final between Luigi Villa, a past World champion, and Philip Vischjager, who went on to win:
Villa is on roll playing the Red checkers.
Red leads by 105 to 126, and as we have seen before, this sort of lead is enough to consider an initial double. Although Red only has two spares to play in the outfield, White (Vischjager) is a bit short of spares herself, partly because she has already buried two checkers on the ace point and partly because one of her spares is still back on the anchor and not yet in the game.
These weaknesses and Red’s good home board indicate that Red should double now before he gets any better and in fact he already wins about 73% of the time from here! Again, note that he has no immediate rolls that leave a shot.
We’ve run out of space for this article I am afraid, but we’ll be back on anchors next time when I want to address one of the game’s most difficult questions - when to leave the anchor and when to stay.
In writing this column I learned a few things, as I so often do! Let me relate a little story that illustrates something important for you. Years ago I used to play 10-pin bowling and qualified as a Master Instructor. Along with around 20 others I attended a seminar given by the legendary American instructor Frank Klause. He marched into the room looking as smart as a drill sergeant, starched shirt, pressed trousers and shining white shoes and gave us an address that started something like this.
“Good Morning. You all know who I am. My name is Frank Klause and I have been inducted into the ABC Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the game. This ring contains eleven diamonds each taken from the diamond ring awarded for a sanctioned perfect game, my career average is 207 and I have bowled 61 sanctioned 700 series’ with a best of 798. He went on in this vein for about two minutes, detailing his career earnings, his tournament wins and the like and just at the exact moment when we were beginning to get very bored with this boasting, he stopped. “I know what you are thinking”, he said. “You’re thinking, Why is he giving us all this bull***? I’ll tell you why. Because even though I have done all this, I learn something new about this game each time that I walk into a bowling centre. Let this be you too.”
Let this be you too. I am no Frank Klause, but I still learn something new every day about this game that I love.
This article’s response chart isn’t ready yet. They take a long time to compile, but we will catch up with another one in the next article. Until then, enjoy the game!