One of the toughest decisions we often have to make is just how much we should gamble to try to win a gammon. As you know, a gammon doubles the points you win, so if you can win a gammon, it’s like winning two games at once. The problem is, a lot of the time the play that is more likely to get you a gammon is risky and often results in losing more games. This conflicting interest is just one more reason why Backgammon is such a fascinating, and complicated game.
There are two concepts that will help make the game less complicated and difficult, however, and I will give you the basics of those two in this article.
Understand the basic math.
Everything in Backgammon boils down to odds, and as you know, odds is all math. Yes, there is a human factor…knowing how to read your opponent and take advantage of specific weaknesses of each opponent, but underlying every checker and cube decision is the odds, or the math, and even reading your opponent simply causes you to change those odds one way or another to adjust. The math of gammons vs. wins is actually quite simple.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume we are playing a money game, and in most money backgammon games the Jacoby Rule is in effect. (The Jacoby Rule states that you cannot win a gammon or backgammon unless the cube has been turned.) So we assume that the cube is on 2 (if the cube is on 4 or 8 or more, the exact same principles and ratios apply, just double everything).
If you win the game on 2, you win 2 points. If you lose the game, you lose 2 points. If you win a gammon, you win 4 points. If you win a backgammon, you win 6 points. (Because gammons are relatively rare, and the math gets more confusing, I will only discuss gammon vs. winning odds in this article.)
Now here is the interesting part that most people either don’t realize or they tend to forget. If the cube is on 2 and you win 2 points, you have a net gain of 2 points. But if you lose the game and lose 2 points, you have a net loss of 4 points!
Now that concept baffles a lot of people, so let’s do the math. Let’s pretend you are playing for $1 a point. The cube is on 2, and you are winning, and if you go on to win the game you will end up with $2.00. But if you lose the game, not only do you not get that $2 your opponent would have paid you, but you have to reach in your pocket and give him $2. So you actually have $4 less than you would have had if you had won the game.
Let’s put it another way. Suppose you came to the table with $10 in your pocket. If you win the game, you would have $12 in your pocket, but if you lose the game, you would have only $8 in your pocket. So the point is, if you turn a game from a win to a loss, and the cube is at 2, you have $4 less than you would have had.
Now let’s look at what happens if you turn a winning game into a gammon. Instead of winning $2, you win $4. So your net gain by winning a gammon is $2 (2 more points at $1 a point).
The bottom line is that winning a gammon is only half as important as winning the game, and so in technical terms, we say that the value of a gammon is worth .5 in a money game. In layman’s terms, we say that you need to win twice as many games as you might lose in order for it to be right to make a play that increases your gammon chances.
This is a very important principle, and even if you do not carefully calculate the math over the board and you just make rough estimates, as most of us do, you need to know the basic risk/reward of going for gammons.
I said there were two basic concepts that will help you, and here is the second:
Having some basic “reference positions” and examples in your head that will help you when you play.
I have been playing Backgammon for over 40 years, and every day I see positions that are completely unfamiliar to me! I am sure that some of the time it is just because there are so many positions it is impossible to remember them all, but it’s also because there truly are millions of possible positions that can evolve on the board. With that in mind, it is not possible to simply memorize every position and the right answer, so the ONLY way to really learn to play Backgammon correctly is to learn the basic concepts and ideas and make your best guesses and calculations to apply those concepts when you are playing.
I have given you the basic math above, but how to apply them over the board is just as important as knowing the math, and that takes practice, but it also takes knowing how to do the math and how to apply it over the board. The best way to learn this is by taking the time to go through a few specific examples and then, because we have the benefit of very excellent computer programs today, we can check our math and our decisions using those computers. Once you learn how to do this using a couple of examples I will give you in this article, it will help you apply it over the board in other positions that will come up for you.