On Sunday, April 24th, at about 10:30 PM, the final consulting match between Denmark and the Rest of the World began. The backgammon teams of seven faced off in a corner of the ballroom of the Scandic Hotel Copenhagen, site of the Nordic Open, with a crowd of about forty standing-room-only spectators on hand and many more watching the action on a streaming internet feed. Denmark’s comeback on the previous day from an initial deficit had given it a 26-23 lead going into this 35-point match. There was, in addition to pride and prestige, a considerable amount of cash on the line. It had been a stipulated condition of contest that each participant in the event bet a minimum of 1000 Euros on his team; but that had hardly satisfied the gambling appetites of a few of the more enterprising competitors.
Nor was there any escape from the action. The very first backgammon game of the match was an extremely difficult and challenging one; and it was a great thrill for me to be able to consider its problems in the company of such a host of backgammon wizards.
With one of our checkers in the air against a four-point board and a 28-pip race lead, Denmark doubled us at move ten:
A nasty situation, and one none of us enjoyed confronting this early, but we were able to reach a consensus pretty quickly. Because we have no more blots and some solid structure, this double must be taken. It would, in fact, be a small take even in a money game or at an equal score in a long match; but because we were already trailing in a relatively short match, the take is clear:
Abracadabra! We rolled a few nice numbers, and the game turned around ... somewhat.
When you are down in a short match, it is usually right to be aggressive with the cube – but how aggressive? We all had to take a long look when we reached this position. We have an attack, and we’ve escaped all of our checkers. We have some gammon chances, but we have a blot, we’re only five pips ahead in the race, and Denmark has a solid board. Most of the team: Wells, Mochy, Michy and Cohn-Geier, immediately voted for the redouble. But Falafel was reluctant. “It’s awfully early,” he said. “That’s not usually my style. How can they pass?” This was all true, but not very good poker. Eventually I spoke out for the redouble as well. “I can’t overrule all of you,” Falafel said. And he did the deed.
And rightly so; the match score is a huge consideration here: and though this position would have been a clear non-redouble in a backgammon money game, the re-cube is just right here:
The Danes took, of course, but our bravado turned to consternation a moment later when we rolled one of our worst numbers, 6-3.
We felt our courage draining away, and most of the team started examining ways to play safe. At first 13/4 got the most consideration. Then David Wells found the creative play of 13/10, 8/2. The big play, 8/2, 8/5*, leaving two blots, looked too scary to the majority. But I thought we had to be consistent. “Let’s hit,” I said, “after all, we did stick the cube down their throat for a reason.” I found a few gammon - hungry converts, and then Falafel came around as well. We covered and hit. The Danes, thank the dice gods, rolled an anemic 6-1. We wiped them out and won a gammon. 8 points! We led in the backgammon match, 31-26.
This result was a huge confidence-builder, both for the team and for me; but it turns out that the 6-3 was a very close play indeed, with rollouts giving the big play only a slight edge over Wells’ more conservative one:
But now that we had turned the tables on the Danes, we faced a new psychological challenge. It’s easier to play backgammon from behind, when you have nothing to lose, than with a lead. In the same way the wealthy have to worry about having their riches stolen, the leader in a match has to take every precaution not to suffer a similar thievery. The next game immediately put us to that test.
We achieved a very strong opening, but the Danes began attacking. They put one of our checkers on the bar against their three-and-half point board. And then they spent three or four minutes considering whether to double us or not:
With their three checkers back, limited attacking force and half-formed board, the Danes do not have much of a real threat – and indeed, this position would be a quite healthy beaver for White in a backgammon money game. The match score changes the conditions radically, but not enough. We couldn’t understand what the Danes were saying, but in the end they correctly did not double:
But now they rolled their second-best number, a double three. They covered the five point, shifted 6/3*(2) and split from the 23 point. We came in with one checker on the six point – but was it enough? They doubled us instantly:
I must admit that this double threw the World backgammon team, and especially its captain, into a bit of a tizzy. Having been the aggressors, slashing and pillaging in the last game, we now found ourselves under attack, with the Danes poised, if we took, to collect a gammon (just as we had in the previous game) and effectively even up the match. And logically, or perhaps psychologically, it seemed that we should be passing. After all, our opponents, who were all world-class backgammon players, had thought long and hard about doubling us last roll. They had eventually refrained -- but, to give them credit, it must have been a close decision. And then they had produced a joker. True, we had entered with a checker after their play, but if they had anything on the previous roll, they must have a lot now.
But that would be a valid way to analyze the position only if you could not open your eyes and see it. And when you do, it really doesn’t look that awful. The Danes have only a four point-board, missing their best point, the six. We have only one checker on the bar, and they can hit us on the six point only with fours and sevens. Our board is strong, our structure good, and they have three checkers back.
Most of us, including me, were having trouble shifting gears, and did not immediately (as Stick had feared) speak up. Falafel wanted very much to pass: “There are a zillion gammons,” he said. “All they need is to hit us, and for us not to roll a six,” he continued, “For sure [if I were in the Danes’ situation] I would want my opponent to take the cube. Wouldn’t you want the opportunity [if you were the Danes] to shoot it out in this game?” But eventually the team began piping up. Wells and Mochy led the charge, and I, along with the other Japanese star, Michy, eventually supported them. We pointed out that the nightmare scenarios that Falafel was envisaging did not occur that frequently, and that even after they did, we had plenty of chances to survive by making the Danes’ ace point. After a six-minute debate, Falafel finally took the cube. And that was the right decision -- by a lot:
But then Falafel’s nightmare began to come true. The Danes rolled a 5-2, hitting us from the midpoint on their six point – and we fanned! It looked like lights out: but then, in a scenario that Mochy had pointed out during the debate, they failed to cover! They rolled a 5-3, leaving us on roll, with two on the bar, in this position:
And now we were delivered! Falafel rolled a 6-1, the Danes danced on our board, and we rolled a 5-1, making the Danes’ six point and hitting another checker. We were jubilant. We consolidated our position further -- but in a couple of rolls Fate asked us another funny 6-3 question.
Imagine a man overboard in a shipwreck. He is sure he is going to drown, but then along comes a hunk of debris. He grabs onto it, happy to be alive – but even as he is counting his blessings, he spies a lifeboat in the distance. He is a good swimmer, and probably he can make it; but should he abandon the little slip of security he has attained to try and get home?
The natural, ordinary play with this 6-3 is to abandon the flotsam we are clinging to with 19/13, 19/16. This play preserves the integrity of our position. But of course it leaves us vulnerable to a few shots – and the nightmare closeout scenario we have just escaped. I suggested it, but no one seconded my opinion. The play would look like this:
Then Falafel found an alternative. He was positive that it was right; for his play allows us to hang on to the opponent’s six point: 7/4, 7/1*. This move, he pointed out, was a huge winner if the Danes danced; and if they hit us, well, we would still have an anchor. It looked like this:
“You’ll have to convince me that this wrong,” said Falafel, but nobody tried. In fact, his play appealed to us newly saved shipwreck victims. Everyone craved security, and I shut up, a bit embarrassed that I had even suggested running. Falafel’s play got a unanimous vote.
Interestingly enough, the two plays, though conceptually so different, are almost identical in value, with the anchors aweigh play having only a slight edge:
The Danes neither fanned nor hit us but (in a scenario we did not consider) came in on our deuce point, making a second anchor. Yet we maintained our advantage. Our backgammon position got better and better, until we came to the sort of situation that I always screw up:
When do you redouble positions like this? I always wait too long, so it was a comfort to have the fine technicians Mochy and Michy on our side. They informed us that the Danes’ take point was about 12%. Do they have that much in this position? We did not know for sure, but we figured we could not be too far off by redoubling. We sent the cube over: and Sander Lyloff, who was by then captaining the Danish side, passed. As usual, Sander, a truly phenomenal backgammon player, was right. The Danish winning chances are only about 9.5%.
With these two points we took a commanding 33-26 lead; and though the Danes won a few more backgammon games, it was not their year. The World backgammon team had gotten its revenge – but as you can see, it was hardly easy. Somehow, through all the emotional ups and downs, confusion and uncertainty, we had hardly made a significant mistake at all, achieving a terrific performance rating of .5. That result, as well as our win, was very gratifying: but more than that, it was great fun, for once, to share the experience of playing backgammon with my friends. Our victory, apart from the luck we enjoyed, was the result of some fine teamwork; and I must say that I enjoyed being part of that team fully as much as I have some of my individual triumphs.