When should you try to win a gammon?
One of the most difficult decisions in the game is deciding when to gamble to try to win a gammon, or when to play safe to simply try to win the game.
In match play, the decision is often complicated by the score. If winning a gammon wins the match, clearly there are more reasons to go for the gammon. Conversely, if losing the game costs you the match, there is a greater incentive to play for the single win.
Unfortunately there are few “rules of thumb” that tell you what is right. It all depends on the odds based on the particular situation. The major things that have to be taken into account are:
- the position of the cube
- the score of the match
- the particular roll involved
- the overall volatility of the situation
- the odds of winning a gammon when if you make the “big” play
- the odds of losing the game if you make the big play
- the odds of winning a gammon if you play safe
- the odds of winning the game if you play safe
- the odds of losing a gammon if you play big
- the odds of losing a gammon if you play safe
- the skill-level of your opponent and how that affects the decision
With all of those factors to consider, it is no wonder that even the best players in the world are often unsure whether to play for the game or play simply for the win.
For money games, there is one general rule of thumb: if your odds of winning a gammon are twice as good as your odds of losing the game, you should play on for the gammon. If not, and you can double, you should double.
Another general rule I live by is this: if you aren’t sure whether to play for the game or play simply for the win, play for the win. More times than not you will be better off taking the more conservative approach.
Now, back to the original question: how do you know when to play for the gammon or when to play for the win? And the answer is: you consider all of the variables above and then make your best guess. The difference between a pro and a novice, is that a pro’s guess is based on expertise and knowledge. The pro is not only better at estimating gammons and losses, he has more of a knowledge base. He has what we call “reference positions” in his memory bank that helps him decide in most situations. And these reference positions can only be learned from experience; from putting positions into the computer programs (Snowie, GNUBG and Jellyfish) and memorizing them; and from studying key positions in books that help us in this area.
For example. I happen to know that if I have a closed board and a perfect bearoff position, and my opponent has 2 of his checkers on the bar and the rest of his checkers in his inner board, that I will win a gammon 40% of the time. I also know that I will lose this game only about 5 percent of the time, even if my opponent has a closed board. So in this situation, I know that I win a gammon far more than twice as often as I lose (it’s actually 8 times as often), so I know I should not redouble if I have the cube in a money game situation, and even in most match score situations. With this as a reference point, I can then make adjustments for slightly different positions.
I know that if he has one checker on the bar and all the rest in his inner board, and I have a perfect bearoff, I will only win a gammon about 2.5% of the time. So in that situation, I know that if I have any roll that could possibly leave a shot, I should double and not risk trying to win a gammon.
How do I know these things? Experience. And I have studied these positions in Snowie and memorized them, because these positions come up often. I have many more reference points in my head, because I have been playing and studying the game for 40 years. My guess is that I have several hundred positions that I come up often where I pretty much know what the odds are of winning a gammon, or exactly what it is right to play for any given roll. In those positions, I do not have to spend too much time estimating the odds or using my intuition…I simply access my memory data base.
So my best answer to you is experience and study will give you the answers, but failing that, you must use your best judgment and stick with my two rules of thumb: go for the gammon when the odds are twice the odds of losing, and when you’re not sure, play safe.