Let me start off this article by dispelling a myth that many people have about backgammon. The myth is that once you learn the backgammon basics and study the game, you will pretty much know the right plays most of the time. It’s simply not true. No matter how long you play this game or how much you study the game, you will often come across situations where you are simply not sure of what to do. Even worse, you may often come across situations where you ARE sure what to do, but you are wrong!
I have been playing backgammon over 45 years, and teaching for over 20 years, and every day I find myself in a position where I am not sure of the right play. I don’t feel too bad about this, because when I share these plays with some of the best players in the world, they often have the same problem I have! This game is simply more complicated and diverse than meets the eye.
The position below is an excellent example. It is a match to 9, and the score is 0-0. Black has doubled White and White holds the 2-cube, and Black has rolled a 5-3 and must play. What play do you make here?
Most people would make the “logical” play here of moving two checkers off the 10 point and not leave a blot, and simply hope White does not roll a 6. It’s a very reasonable play, and it is the play I made when this came up in my match in a major tournament, but I found out from Snowie (backgammon bot) that my play is not only wrong, it’s not even one of the top 15 plays!
The point of this position, and many positions you will come across in this game, is that you have to “project” into the future and see if you can envision what is most likely to happen as this game progresses. If you simply clear from the back and try to win a straight race against White, you are clearly a favorite. You will win most of the time if you do that, because White does not always roll big numbers right away; White has to bring his 4 checkers all the way around the board before he can start taking off checkers, and by then you will probably have a few checkers off; and White is no more likely to roll big doubles than you are. In fact, if you make the safer play and clear from the back, according to Snowie, you will win this game about 92 percent of the time. Snowie also projects that if you play that way you will even win some gammons…about 9 percent of the time.
But the computer is smarter than most of us…in fact, most agree that Snowie is better than all but the very best players in the world, and some even debate that. Snowie says that in this situation, you are better off leaving a blot and risking getting hit than giving your opponent an immediate chance to roll 6-6 and become a favorite to win the game. Snowie suggests that if you leave shots and don’t get hit, that’s great…you’ll probably win the game and race without problem, but if White does roll the hitting numbers, something else very interesting happens. What happens is that you have a chance to hit White back, and that not only hurts White’s chances to win the game, it could get him gammoned a lot more often.
So Snowie recommends moving 7/2 6/3, which leaves a blot on your bar point. Yes, your opponent could roll 3-3, and that would hurt, but it wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as the possible 6-6 if you broke your 10 point, and again, if you get hit you stand a good chance to hit White back. When you have a far superior inner board, as you do in this situation, getting into a hitting contest is very much in your favor.
But what if White doesn’t roll a 3-3, and he just rolls a 3 and something else? Again, you have an opportunity to hit back, and even if you miss the first checker he gets out, you will probably have a shot at the second or third.
What is the net result of playing the more “risky” game? According to Snowie, if you make the shot-leaving play, you actually do reduce your odds of winning the game. Instead of winning 92 percent of the time, you will only win about 90 percent of the time. But here’s the kicker: with the shot-leaving play, you will win gammons about 25 percent of the time!
Are you willing to give up a win 2 percent of the time in return for winning a double game 16 percent more often? It doesn’t take much of a mathematical genius to figure out what a great tradeoff that is.
I also showed this position to 2 “world-class” players…people who rank amongst the best in the world. Both of them said they were not sure what the right play is, but both agreed they would not simply clear the 10 point and play safely. One of them got the best play, while the other two chose plays that were very close to as good as the best play, but still far better than my play.
I also showed this position to 3 very excellent Open-level tournament players and they all made the same, incorrect play I made. But after showing them Snowie’s numbers, they readily agreed that Snowie is right and they were wrong, and they all said that they would probably remember this position and make a better play in the future. I hope this article does the same for you.