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Beginners Please - Lesson 5
by Paul Money - September 2006
PAUL MONEY
Hello again and welcome to another of our lessons aimed at helping players starting on in this great game of backgammon - however, we do hope that players of all levels will find something of interest in these articles.

In the last two lessons we concentrated on cube play, with lots of technical stuff. I do want you to keep referring back to that until you feel that you have it all clearly understood, but this time, let’s take a look at some other aspects of the game.

Most players see improvement in terms of gaining more knowledge, but in fact all the players below the level of expert, which is more than 95% of the backgammon world, can take a big step up in the rankings just by making better use of what they have got. Here is how you do it. We’ll look at online play, where more games are played with the mouse than are ever played with the dice cups.

Here is your typical weak online player. With a few minutes to spare while he drinks his coffee, he logs onto his favourite server. While he plays, which he does quickly and mechanically without much thought, he chats to other players online and is probably either listening to some music or half watching the TV. Is this you? I would like you to make a little notice for yourself and pin it up above your monitor. It says something like this. “I am not going to play unless I am Prepared, Alert and Motivated.”  What does this mean? Let’s break it down.

Prepared - Make a time when you are going to play and get ready for it. Turn off the stereo and the TV, switch the telephone to voicemail and sit down at a clean and uncluttered desk. The point of all this, is to reduce the number of distractions to an absolute minimum. To play well, you need to be focussed and anything that takes your mind from the game is going to lower the standard of your play. You need to do this every time that you play, so that good habits become second nature. This is prepared.

 

Alert - If you are tired, don’t play. Hungry or thirsty, don’t play. Drinking adult beverages, don’t play. You have to be alert for every single roll of the dice. The chance to ship over a strong cube may come on the second or third move of the first game of a match. You must not miss it. The next roll may well need some careful thought to sort out the best of three or four candidate plays. If your brain is less than 100%, it will funk the effort at the crucial moment.

 

Motivated - Every match, every game, every roll, requires your best effort. Imagine that this is the final of a Million Dollar tournament and give it your best shot. Why do you need to do this every time? So that it becomes second nature. Brains are lazy, but they can be trained to work and they have to acquire good habits. They have to learn that faced with a board, checkers and dice, they must always give 100%. If you can’t or won’t practice this attitude, you won’t be able to produce it when it matters.

Think about this very carefully. All your hard learned knowledge is of little use to you if you can’t apply it. You must make the maximum use of what you have got.

Now let’s take a look at some plays. These are all positions that are commonly fudged in real play. Of course it will be helpful to remember them, but much more importantly, try to grasp the reasoning that motivates the best play. This is only partially a game of knowledge. Of far greater importance is understanding.

White has split to her 20pt with an opening roll of 5-4. How should Red play 5-3?

 

Did you select 8/3, 6/3? You won’t be alone for sure, but the best play is clearly 13/5*.

You must fight for your 5pt in the opening stages of the game. It is the key point on the board and making your 5pt or indeed your 20pt is a big step forward. Here, White will have 20 numbers to hit back from the bar, but you must embrace the risk, partially to try and make the point yourself and partially to try and prevent her from making it. Making the 3pt isn’t a bad play. It only costs you a small fraction of a point, but it exerts no pressure on White, who will then be able to play how she likes in reply. Hitting also has the effect of taking away half of the opponent’s next roll and when she can’t hit from the bar it gives her some awkward numbers and spoils some of her best rolls, notably of course 6-6!

Fighting for the 5pt often means sacrifices. In the next position White has slotted her 5pt with her opening roll of 2-1, a very good play. With your 3-1 you can hit or you can make your own 5pt. Which is correct?

Hitting is hugely correct. If you just make your own 5pt, then the game will be about even. That wouldn’t be bad of course, but there are two bonuses associated with hitting. As well as preventing your opponent from making her 5 point, you are slotting it yourself. Making the 20pt is very nearly as good as making your own 5pt, so slotting it while your opponent is on the bar is clearly right.

The other bonus is quite simple though often overlooked - it costs your opponent 20 pips in the race when you hit. This is the equivalent of two and a half rolls on average, a big plus for you. Of course the race is not yet the most important feature while you are engaged in a struggle for points, but it will be at some stage.

These features make it very right to hit. Should you hit if you roll 1-1? No, because you can use it to make your own 5pt and your 7pt, a very strong feature that is worth just a bit more than the hit. This is a vital three point prime that you will hope to stretch out into a winning five prime in a few rolls time.

Hitting is usually the right answer in the opening stages. It isn’t always correct of course, but the chance to put two checkers onto the bar is very seductive. What would you do here?

 

These opportunities come up often in the modern game, where it is fashionable to split the back checkers on the opening roll. Sometimes it’s right to hit both checkers, sometimes to hit one (always the one that is on the higher point in your board) but here it is correct to hit none at all! If you hit, the position that you are left with is so disjointed that you will find it very difficult to play even if White misses your blot. Every part of your board is weak. Your back checkers aren’t split, you have stacks of five checkers on your 15 and 6 points and you have wasted the builder on your 8pt.

There are two ways to play this. Moving 24/22, 13/8 is very good, splitting the back men and unstacking the midpoint or 13/8, 13/11, unstacking and aiming an extra checker at the vital 5 and 7 points. These plays are equally strong, although I personally like the first one more.

This position nicely demonstrates a way of looking at positions that is typical of expert play. The expert will always have it in mind to address the weaknesses of his position as a priority. The beginner won’t see any danger in those stacks for example, but the expert knows that they must be developed.

The great teacher and two-time World Champion Bill Robertie calls them “the silent killers”, destroying your possibilities with their inflexibility. You have to get them moving as soon as you can. Sometimes of course, the dice give us a great number that obviously makes a point or hits somewhere or escapes, but most numbers are like this one, rather ordinary and with no obvious point. These rank and file numbers must be used to improve your position so that you have more good numbers next turn.

Beginners like to hit and this instinct is good. Backgammon is a game of aggression and the most aggressive player is the favourite. However, as we saw above, there is a time and place for everything. In this next position, Red has two good ways to play the roll. It’s worth pointing out here that in real life, Red was so pleased to be able to point on White’s head, that he didn’t even see an alternative play.

 

TIP - When you throw a great number, check all the alternatives as there might be a move that is better than the one you are considering to make!

 

As you may have guessed from my not very subtle hints, 24/18, 22/18 is by far the better play and 8/2*, 6/2 is a blunder. You have to look ahead a bit to see why. Red can’t win this game until he fills in his 5 and 4 points, or at the very least has a strong threat to do so. The only builders that he has to do this with are the two on the 6pt and the one on the 8pt.  He can’t waste two of these making the 2pt, although he might do it if there was no real alternative.

Here Red does have an alternative - to make the 18pt. With this powerful anchor, Red will be able to play with a lot more freedom in the next few rolls, activating the spares on the midpoint and attacking White’s back men if they dare to move up into the firing line.

Another feature of beginner play in the opening is the dislike of taking risks. Experts take a lot of risks and you might think while watching them, that to play a risky, open sort of game is all that is required for success. Of course the really strong player will always be balancing what he will gain against the level of risk, sometimes taking a big risk to make a big gain, sometimes settling for a smaller gain if he can get it cheaply. Here are two nice examples. Look at this position:

 

Red can (option A) make his 4pt, big gain but sizeable risk of being hit, he can try (option B) 14/10, 13/11, safer with good chances of making a point next turn, or he can play (option C) 14/8, very safe (for this turn) but no gain at all. Making the 4pt (A) is an excellent play, much better than the others - he gain is clear cut and worth the risk of being hit. Moving 14/10, 13/11 (B) doesn’t gain enough to be worth even the smaller risk, as there is no guarantee of the plan working and producing a point next turn and finally playing 14/8 (C) gains nothing and gets nothing, a nothing play.

We can learn two things from this. First, making a point is better than threatening to make a point. Second, it is usually worth leaving a blot in your opponent’s outfield in order to make a good point. Not invariably though, the next position shows a typical exception.

 

Now Red can (option A) make his 4pt with some risk or (option B) he can make the inferior 11pt with no risk or (option C) he can play 15/9 with a small risk. Making the 11pt is the play here, gaining a reasonable point at no cost whatsoever. It’s like buying a car. You may like to get a Jaguar, even though it is expensive, but it can’t be better than getting a Ford for nothing at all! The third alternative, buying a used Lada cheaply isn’t worth considering.

Now here is the next chart in our series of responses to opening plays.

Responses to 6-4, played 24/14

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

24/18, 13/9

24/18, 13/9

8/2, 6/2

24/18, 13/9

6-3

24/18, 13/10

24/18, 13/10

24/18, 13/10

24/18, 13/10

6-2

24/18, 13/11*

24/18, 13/11*

13/7, 13/11*

24/18, 13/11*

6-1

13/7, 8/7

13/7, 8/7

13/7, 8/7

13/7, 8/7

5-5

8/3(2), 6/1*(2)

8/3(2), 6/1*(2)

8/3(2), 6/1*(2)

8/3(2), 6/1*(2)

5-4

24/20, 13/8

24/20, 13/8

13/8, 13/9

24/20, 6/1*

5-3

8/3, 6/3

8/3, 6/3

8/3, 6/3

8/3, 6/3

5-2

13/8, 13/11*

13/8, 13/11*

13/8, 13/11*

13/8, 13/11*

5-1

24/18

13/8, 6/5

13/8, 6/5

13/8, 6/5

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

24/20, 13/10

24/20, 13/10

13/10, 13/9

24/20, 13/10

4-2

13/11*, 13/9

24/20, 13/11*

13/11*, 13/9

24/20, 13/11*

4-1

13/9, 6/5

13/9, 6/5

13/9, 6/5

24/23, 24/20

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*

24/23, 13/11*

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.

That’s enough for this lesson. I hope that you are enjoying these lessons, as you are far more likely to learn from them if they are fun. I know that some of you will be thinking, “Well really this is obvious, I already know this” and some of you will be thinking, “This is too advanced, surely we should do simpler stuff first?”

The problem of course is that everybody learns in different ways, none of which are linear, so we all have some areas that we have mastered and some that we haven’t and no two of us are the same. Bear with me, we will cover it all in the end.

Your homework this time: If you have never done so, download and try GNUBG. It is a free backgammon trainer and analyzer and can undoubtedly help your game. There is an excellent guide to using it on this site at this link: www.gammonlife.com/gnu/index.htm

You will find it a great help once you have learned how to use it, and we will be referring to it in later in these lessons.

Until next time, enjoy the game!

 

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