Golf, bowling, and many other games have developed handicap systems so that players of unequal skill can compete. In backgammon, there is no formal handicap system. The problem is that in backgammon, we really don’t have a very good method to determine just how good one player is vs. another.
Even the play sites that have ratings for players are very misleading. One player may have a much higher rating than another simply because he has been playing longer, or maybe because he has been player only weaker players. (And of course, there is no way to tell, on line, if a player is getting help from a better player or even using a computer program to help make the tougher plays and decisions.)
The best way I know to gauge the comparative skills of the players is to actually play games and matches on Snowie, or run the matches through Snowie (or JF or GNUBG) and see what the ratings of the players are. Even that method is not particularly accurate unless you do it many times, as a small sampling of games could be very misleading.
Over the years, however, I have employed various handicaps to use when we know each other and want to compete, and it is clear that one player is better than the other, or one player is consistently beating the other. Following are the ideas we have found work best.
- If you are playing for money, set a stake, but at the end of the day, let the weaker player only pay 75 percent of the loss. If you do this a few times and one player is still losing a lot, you could reduce his payment to 60 percent.
- Give the weaker play the opening roll.
- Let the weaker player start the game with an advantage. The advantage might be that his 5 point is already made. According to Snowie, this would give him an immediate 10 percent edge in the game. If that works out to be too much of an edge, then start with the bar (7) point or the 4 point. Of course, if the weaker player gets ahead a set number of points, the handicap could stop.
- Give the weaker player one “roll-over” a game. Usually this is only allowed before the doubling cube is turned. A variation on this is to give the weaker player the option of making the other player roll over once a game. (If once isn’t enough to even the playing field, allow it twice.)
- In match play, give the weaker player a spot. If you play a match to 7, let the weaker player start with 2 or 3 points.
- Here is my favorite spot…the one my wife and I use. We play all of our games on the computer, using Snowie. We do this so that we can look at our mistakes after every game and learn from them. However, twice every game my wife is allowed to “cheat” and see what play or cube decision Snowie recommends before she makes her play.
I hope some of these ideas will be helpful to you, and hope it will keep you playing more backgammon.
(Note: Phil Simborg is the Play65 resident Pro. Phil posts many interesting positions on the forum at www.backgammon.org, in the “Simborg’s Blunders” section. Phil is also available to lessons on line and has been teaching for over 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
HANDICAP SYSTEMS: When one player is clearly better than another, there are all kinds of handicaps which might be used to help even the game. Golf and bowling and other games have handicaps…why not backgammon? Here are a few that I have tried: give the weaker player the opening roll, regardless of who has the higher die; let the weaker player start with his 5 point made (or 4 point or bar point); give the weaker player a dollar adjustment at the end of the day (i.e. the weaker player would only have to pay 75% of what he loses but would collect 100% if he wins); when playing a match, spot the weaker player points (for example, in a match to 7, let a far weaker player start with a 3-0 lead); give just the weaker player one roll-over a game (before the cube is turned); in match play, give which every player is behind in the score the opening roll; and here is one of my favorites that I my wife and I use: twice a game she is allowed to consult Snowie before she makes her play or cube decision.