By Robert Wachtel
The Cyprus Backgammon Open was immediately followed by the European Backgammon Tour Grand Finale, the season-ending 16-player, two-day elimination tournament in which the leaders in WBA’s Point Race, the winners of the earlier tournaments, and various regional qualifiers compete for a €20,000 prize pool. And once again, there were no Danes, Germans, or Israelis in the final – but no Turks either. We saw, instead, an Armenian-American, Stepan Nuniyats, victorious over an Armenian, Dmitri Harutyunyan. Nuniyats, by far the hottest player on tour, had just won the 99-player master’s division at Enghien Les Bains in November (as well one of the superjackpots), and had made it to the semifinal of the Cyprus Backgammon Openjust two days earlier!
Harutyunyan, winner of the Georgian Backgammon Open in August, had gotten to the final by beating Falafel in the first previous round. When he won, he immediately leaped up from the board, refused to shake his opponent’s hand, shouted a few curses in his native tongue, and strode away shaking his fists in triumph. As unexpected as it was intense, this display of raw emotion provoked a number of animated discussions well into the next afternoon on the importance (or unimportance) of civility in the backgammon game. I was surprised to find that the “sportsmanship is phony” viewpoint had a number of supporters. Falafel himself, who said he had no problem with Harutyunyan’s behavior, caught me off guard by revealing that he felt offended when an opponent said “Sorry” to him in apology after rolling a series of jokers to score a bizarre win. This is something I myself do on occasion, for I know from bitter experience how awful it feels to have a sure victory outrageously snatched away from you by the dice. But now I know that the former Giant #1, and probably many others as well, could not care less for my sympathy.
My own games from Cyprus all have a jet-lagged quality about them; so let’s look at some interesting backgammon positions instead. Current world #1 Mochy met Falafel in the quarterfinal of the main: a 13-point match, which we pick up at score 7-5 for Falafel.
Trailing in the match, Mochy, with the White pieces, doubled. After the match, Falafel expressed his indignation. “He can’t do this to me,” said the Israeli backgammon star. “I trapped him. After this I had him just where I wanted him, but he got away.” The double was, in fact, too optimistic, though I don’t know why Falafel took credit for Mochy’s inaccuracy:
And indeed, Falafel did not have much trouble turning the position around. Mochy rolled badly and he rolled well. Falafel completed the turnabout with a double six:
An interesting problem, but a clear one. It looks normal and natural for Falafel to make his four point on the head of Mochy’s blot, but there is no need to take the risk of leaving a deuce shot. With the safe play, which Falafel made, he will have a very efficient cube next roll on most of Mochy’s replies.
And so it happened. Mochy rolled a slightly-below average double deuce, and Falafel redoubled:
A very strong cube of course, and a very clear pass for money or in the beginning of long match; but if Mochy passes he will be down 9-5 to 13. He has only about 22% winning chances, but the bot says he only needs 19.5%! Of course his redouble, if he ever gets to that point, can be done very lightly indeed. As we shall see.
As the game progressed, Mochy was forced to break down to a four point board. But then, Falafel in turn was forced to leave a shot. Mochy hit it, Falafel came in, and it was Mochy on shake:
True, Mochy has a few “shots” at Falafel’s blot on the 6 point. But he is 8 pips down in the race and most of his hits leave Falafel with lots of return shots. A beaver in a money game, as Mochy has less than 55% winning chances. But the same logic that guided his take a few moves ago again dominates. Giving an 8 cube now brings Mochy, with perfect efficiency, to his goal of 13. As, to his credit, he recognized. An excellent decision, though of course an easy and obligatory take for Falafel:
There would be no more cube action in the match, but that did not make the action less interesting. Mochy was rewarded for his courage with a wonderful double five. He made the ten point and hit and lifted. Falafel danced. But now something less easy to play came out of his cup: a 3-1.
The eternal question: pay now or pay later? Mochy can play completely safe inside his board, leaving no shots; but after some agonizing, he chose 10/9, 10/7, the play that simply gets his last two checkers closer to home. The happy ending to the story (for Mochy) is that Falafel fanned again. Mochy brought his two blots to safety and won the match.
But that was not really the end of the story. Once the match was finished, several onlookers were critical of Mochy’s play — and one, Sasan Taherzadeh (Iran/USA) – who, playing alone, had beaten Mochy and his partner Walter Meuwis (Belgium) in the doubles final — offered to make a 500 euro bet that it was wrong. Sasan chose the safe play. According to Mochy, Mr. Taherzadeh would not agree to the stipulation, commonly accepted when these sorts of bets are made, that a small difference between plays (the usual agreement is .01) does not count. Mochy nonetheless agreed to the bet, and his play lost … by .004! He paid Sasan. Unfortunately, I was not present to witness the discussion that led up to the bet, but I suspect that there is a moral to the story – from Mochy’s point of view, anyway. The rollout results indicate that he had been right to decide to “pay now,” but had chosen the worse of the plays that did so (his play left 8 shots, whereas the alternative play, 10/7, 2/1, left only 7). The better of the “pay now” plays was indeed better than Sasan’s play. Perhaps if Mochy had negotiated more shrewdly, he could have made a “pay now” versus “pay later” bet instead of the one he did – and won!
If Falafel was a more of a bystander than usual in this controversy, he created his usual action later in the tournament. I noticed a crowd, and arrived on the scene with Falafel showing this position:
It is the Crawford game of a 7 point match, with Falafel having 5 points and his opponent 6: a “gammon go” situation. But Falafel (White), instead of having an attack, has gotten a lot of checkers hit, and has fallen into an almost-backgame. Now (as he told the story) he had rolled a not very remarkable 5-2, which he played remarkably: bar/18. I could not quite discern what the logic of this move was, but Fal declared that all other moves were “impossible,” including the one that most of the onlookers chose, bar/23, 21/16. I chose one of the other impossible moves, bar/23, 6/1* as better than Falafel’s and bet with him.
Falafel lost all of these bets, for both of these plays, says the bot, are better than his big play. But to be sure, there was something very strange about the position. For the move selected by the computer program, bar/23, 11/6, really does look “impossible” to most of us. One thing I can say is that no one looking at the position at the time even considered it!