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Beginners Please - Lesson 12
by Paul Money - December 2006
PAUL MONEY
In Lesson 11, we were looking at anchors and how to play against them with the cube. We didn’t need to think about checker play much. The attacker tries to get home safely without leaving a shot, while the defender sits and waits and hopes.

However, there are of course many situations where the checker play of the anchor holder is difficult and this week we’ll look at some of them. As usual, we’re not trying to remember specific positions, because backgammon can’t really be learned in that way. What we are trying to do is to learn what features of the position are important so that we can organize our thinking when we face a similar position over the board.

 

Some of the most difficult problems in backgammon occur in quite mundane games when we have to ask ourselves, “Should I run off the anchor this turn?” Even the bots sometimes struggle with these.

 

In the position below, both sides are anchored on the 3pt. They are playing what is known as a mutual holding game. The first thing to note about these is that the side that gets forced off the anchor first is usually at a disadvantage because the other side will attack the checker that is left behind.

 

Red leads 2-0 in a 3-point match and has a 6-5 to play – they are in the Crawford game so neither side has much to gain from winning or losing a gammon.

 

The race is close; Red trails 125-124 before the roll. He has a reasonable way to play the roll by making the 2pt, but should he run out 22-11? Yes he should. If he just makes the 2pt, then he risks being unable to run next turn as White can keep all her blocking points with every number except 4-4, always a notorious prime buster. If he runs now, then he has a better board and a better prime to fight a blot-hitting contest. It’s all about flexibility next turn. Running keeps all his checkers available for play, whereas making the 2pt reduces his playable checkers to 13.

 

What if the positions were reversed? Look at this next position:

 

Now Red leads 124-125, but running would be a clear error. If he plays 22/11 White can attack with almost every number and her stronger board and longer prime will make her the favourite in a blot-hitting contest. Red should just make his 1pt and wait for a better opportunity. It’s true that he will still be behind a five prime next turn, but he will at least still be anchored.

 

After another turn the situation might look like this:

 

Both players have made another point inboard so one would think that the net effect would be a wash, but that isn’t actually true. White made her extra point by using two of her active builders, whereas Red used two spares that were surplus to requirements anyway. He still has three active builders which can make another point inboard or be used for attack if he gets the chance. White now only has one spare, reducing her attacking chances considerably. Red should take his chance and go now, because if he doesn’t he will have to bury two more checkers on the 1pt and that is a concession that he just can’t afford to make.

 

The play difficulties in these situations aren’t restricted to deciding whether or not to run. Once one player has broken the anchor, the question of how to respond is often far from straightforward. In this game, Red then faced this tricky roll:

 

The first option to discard is 8/2, 8/7. Red’s 5 prime is his most valuable asset right now and he has to keep it. The move of 7/1, 2/1 is a decent play and would be clearly best if it was a game where gammons counted. However, at this score, both sides can effectively disregard gammons, so Red needs to step out with the 6, playing 22/16, 22/15. It isn’t often that you choose a play giving your opponent almost every number to hit and/or escape, but Red has to try it here. It’s risky, but there is more danger in playing passively. This is particularly true when playing a fallible human being as the passive play means that White in her turn won’t face so many difficult decisions.

 

Weighing up the possibilities of two entirely different game plans is extremely difficult even for the very best players. This is why I recommend that you play out positions like this, by yourself or with a partner, so that you find out the sort of thing that can happen as the game unfolds further. The experience that you will gain and the confidence that comes from it when you encounter a similar situation another time are immensely valuable. Try playing from this position, 7/1, 2/1 and then 22/15 about 50 games each, and record your results for your homework. It won’t take too long with the game this near to the end.

 

Run or stay problems often occur from the 20pt anchor for some reason and are invariably difficult. Here’s one faced by Luigi Villa in the 2006 World Championship Final. Villa is trailing 13-7 versus Philip Vischjager of Holland at this point. Should he think about running here?

 

Red is 1 pip behind 121-120 and will only lead by 6 pips after the roll. Human beings at all levels will wait here, treating the only issue as being whether Red should keep the midpoint for another roll and the bots will do the same, but running 20/13 may well be the  best play.

 

Why should Red even consider running into a race that is so close? Well, White’s attacking chances are not too good just yet because of her very weak board and Red does have 14 rolls that complete his escape next turn. If he waits, White’s board will certainly get stronger and she will usually be able to bring more checkers into position to attack a straggler. If Red was much behind in the race that wouldn’t be so important, but with the race so close he may roll well enough to be forced to leave at just the time when White is strongest. If White rolls large numbers that clear her midpoint and take a good lead in the race, then she will be able to double Red out whether he is anchored or not. This position will give you some idea of how hard the decision can be and some of the things that you should be considering!

 

There were a number of these decisions in that match and Villa faced something similar in the first game. It looked like this:

Villa leads by 13 pips in the race, White’s home board is a mess and Red’s own board is very strong. This all seems to argue for running, 20/16, 13/11 but it is probably a small error. It exposes two blots rather than the more usual one, and this is not only more vulnerable to attack but much harder to tidy up next turn. Also, unlike the previous position, it isn’t just a question of escaping and getting into the race, it’s converting from a mutual holding game, 20pt v. 18pt, to a game where he has to bear in safely against the bar anchor, so clearing the 20pt anchor is far from conclusive. The best play here is probably 13/9, 11/9.

 

A master player analyzing this position will notice straight away that White’s structure is unusually brittle. Her checkers are widely separated and don’t combine well to make points. She has no chance of building a prime and although she has slotted two points in her home board, they are less threatening, lower points.

 

The best way of developing positions that lack good structure is to hit blots, so Red should deny White that opportunity, make the 9pt and allow White’s position to disintegrate further. Basically, you oppose weak structure with good structure. This concept is not something that you are going to grasp in the space of one paragraph, so for the moment just be aware that it exists.

 

You will find this and similar themes developed more fully in Bill Robertie’s excellent volume Modern Backgammon, not really a beginner’s book but one that you will want to own one day. It also contains a superb annotation of a long match between the two strongest players of the modern era, Jerry Grandell and Nack Ballard and you will find this wonderfully instructive. Studying annotated matches is a great way to learn and Robertie is a master of the art.

 

After Red made the 9pt, he cleared the anchor in the next two moves to arrive at the position below. Would you double this?

Red will win the game 73% of the time from here, quite enough to double from the middle. Players of all standards will tend to wait with the cube in this position, afraid that they will be unable to clear the midpoint without leaving a shot. The things that you need to take into account are these.

 

Firstly, Red’s spare checkers will buy him at least two rolls grace before he will be forced to break a point. Secondly, White’s board isn’t much of a threat as it stands and she will have to roll very well to complete it. She has only 13 checkers to play with, always a handicap and one of those is the spare on the anchor that may yet have difficulty getting into the game. Red must double now as he can lose his market by throwing a double that clears the midpoint or by leaving a shot and being missed.

 

Once again we have run out of time, but I hope that these positions have demonstrated a few of the things that you need to be thinking about.

 

To finish here is another in our series of charts designed to show you how to play the response to the opening roll. You can’t really learn these unless you are the Miraculous Memory Man, but every time you have to play a response and are not sure what you should be doing, make a note and check later on the chart.

 

Responses to 5-3, played 8/3, 6/3

Roll

Money

DMP

GammonGo

GammonSave

6-6

24/18(2), 13/7(2)

24/18(2), 13/7(2)

24/18(2), 13/7(2)

24/18(2), 13/7(2)

6-5

24/13

24/13

24/18, 13/8

24/13

6-4

8/2, 6/2

24/14

8/2, 6/2

8/2, 6/2

6-3

24/15

24/18, 13/10

24/18, 13/10

24/15

6-2

13/5

24/18, 13/11

13/5

13/5

6-1

13/7, 8/7

13/7, 8/7

13/7, 8/7

13/7, 8/7

5-5

13/3(2)

13/3(2)

13/3(2)

13/3(2)

5-4

24/20, 13/8

24/20, 13/8

13/8, 13/9

24/20, 13/8

5-3

8/3, 6/3

8/3, 6/3

8/3, 6/3

8/3, 6/3

5-2

13/11, 13/8

13/11, 13/8

13/11, 13/8

13/11, 13/8

5-1

24/23, 13/8

24/23, 13/8

24/23, 13/8

24/23, 13/8

4-4

24/20(2), 13/9(2)

24/20(2), 13/9(2)

24/20(2), 13/9(2)

24/20(2), 13/9(2)

4-3

13/9, 13/10

24/21, 13/9

13/9, 13/10

24/21, 13/9

4-2

8/4, 6/4

8/4, 6/4

8/4, 6/4

8/4, 6/4

4-1

24/23, 13/9

24/23, 13/9

13/9, 6/5

24/23, 13/9

3-3

24/21(2), 13/10(2)

24/21(2), 13/10(2)

8/5(2),  6/3(2)

24/21(2),  13/10(2)

3-2

24/21, 13/11

24/21, 13/11

13/10/13/11

24/21, 13/11

3-1

8/5, 6/5

8/5, 6/5

8/5, 6/5

8/5, 6/5

2-2

13/11(2), 6/4(2)

13/11(2), 6/4(2)

13/11(2), 6/4(2)

13/11(2), 6/4(2)

2-1

24/23, 13/11

13/11, 6/5

24/23,13/11

24/23,13/11

1-1

8/7(2), 6/5(2)

8/7(2). 6/5(2)

8/7(2). 6/5(2)

8/7(2). 6/5(2)

 

Note: The moves suggested above are the #1 results of rollouts, however, sometimes other possible moves for a dice roll may have been listed as very close or as a reasonable alternate.

Until next time, enjoy the game!

 

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