By Robert Wachtel
I got off to a better start in the consulting doubles event of the first Mallorca Backgammon Challenge, where I had cleverly chosen as a partner the fine German player Juergen Orlowski. There were only eight teams entered, so it was a matter of only two matches until we found ourselves in the final. Our opponents were two convivial Monte Carlo World Backgammon Championship finalists: Mario Sequiera of Portugal (2007) and Ricardo Malas of Spain (2010).
Controversy follows Mario wherever he goes; and this small island was no refuge from it. He has the habit (completely legal, according to the official rules of backgammon) of shuffling his checkers back and forth when he rolls an awkward number, trying different plays then placing the pieces back in their original positions. Except that they don’t always go back to the original. In his 2008 Monte Carlo final match against Lars Trabolt, he rolled a 6-6 and played five sixes when trying to run off the gammon. He also played an opening 5-3 as a 4-2.
Yet these “mistakes” occur quite often, even at the highest levels, when a shuffler is allowed to do his thing. Mario’s 2008 coups were an echo of those which occurred in the 2007 Monte Carlo final match, when Brazilian Alvaro Savio faced Argentinian Jorge Pan. Playing in a private room with a closed-circuit feed going out to a huge audience, Savio rolled an imperfect 6-3; and after a few minutes of trying various plays and attempting to replace the checkers back in more advantageous positions (and having his opponent repeatedly correct him), he at last transformed the ugly 6-3 into a beautiful 5-3. So rapidly and smoothly was the final rearrangement of the pieces done that both Pan and a referee overseeing the game missed the trick! The audience in the TV room howled to no avail; and it was only by a miracle that his opponent won the game and the event.
The better to avoid such accidents, it makes complete sense to record a match against checker-shifters like Mario as it happens. That way, if any question about the legality of a play arises, you can simply “go to the tape” to resolve it. And so I was happy to learn from my doubles partner that he had discovered that, by mounting a webcam on his notebook computer, he was able to make perfectly clear videos of the action on the backgammon board during his matches.
The only problem was that Mario objected to our using this equipment; and surprisingly, he found some traction for his case. Since time immemorial, the rules of backgammon have always prohibited players from using “mechanical aids” (such as calculators or computers) at the playing table. Mario insisted that it was “perhaps very likely” that Juergen’s webcam was not such an aid, but that he “could not be sure” that we would not use it to cheat him. “It’s only a camera,” we moaned, but Mario was adamant; and unfortunately Mr. Tafazzoli, the tournament director, thought his own rule ambiguous enough to admit that Mario had a point. Eventually we were obliged to hand-record the match (very distracting), though Mario sportingly offered us some extra time on our clock to do so. In my opinion, there should be a very clear provision in the rules allowing players to video their matches. Ideally (with the proper budget I suppose) this task should be performed for the players by the organizer himself.
The key game of our 9-point final match against Sequiera and Malas was the sixth one. We were down 2-3 when they shipped us a very early cube.
It is even worse to give “air cube” like this in a short match than in a money session, because the opponent’s redouble (if and when it comes, of course) will consume most of the remaining pointage, leaving you with very little re-redouble (to 8) leverage. And indeed, this scenario came to pass.
Juergen and I redoubled. This would be quite an easy take for money, but no, not now. Our opponents nonetheless took, and the game quickly got volatile.
Not a perfect roll, but then again: we are not far from winning a gammon – and the match. Juergen and I both realized pretty quickly that we had to hit on our deuce point with the four, but how to play the five? I was in favor of the huge go-down-with-guns-blazing 13/8. Juergen opted for the conservative 6/1. In the end I acceded to his judgement. Computer rollouts show that the two plays are virtually identical – numerically.
The subsequent evolution of the match demonstrated the wisdom of Juergen’s choice. Our opponents rolled a double deuce: devastating enough, but not the end of the world (as it would have been with my play). We got out of the game without being gammoned, so the score went to 2-7. We lost a single in the next game, bringing us to 2-8. We won the Crawford game, and then the fun began. The score was 3-8, and our opponents had a “free drop.”
A free drop is the option you have in a match when you are one point away from your goal and your trailing opponents are a (larger) even number away. Post-Crawford, they will naturally be doubling at every opportunity; and since the subsequent scoring will always be in increments of two, it will require exactly as many wins for them to win the match if they concede a point (in this example, if they drop and let the match go to 8-4) as if they do not (and, in this case, play from 8-3). This point which they can freely concede at an even-away score is called a “free drop.” Although there are some subtleties involved, it makes sense to use your free drop whenever you are doubled as an underdog in the game.
At 3-8, we won the opening roll with a 2-1. We carelessly made the normal play, 13/11, 6/5. But that normal play is wrong here, when the opponents have a free drop, because it makes the game too volatile (thanks to Frode Jaeger of Norway for pointing this out to me). Any time the Malas and Sequiera roll a four and hit us, they will have an easy take; if they miss, they have a big pass. The quiet 13/11, 24/23, which gives the opponents a lot of second-roll positions where their game is still just slightly inferior (and so must be passed) is correct under these match conditions. But look what happened! Our opponents rolled a 3-2, which they played in the standard way, 24/21, 13/11. Now we doubled.
Since we clearly have a solid advantage in the position (it is our roll, and we make our five point with most numbers), this is a routine free drop for the opponents. Yet they took, yielding (according to computer analysis) us an extra 2% match-winning chances. No big deal, since this only takes us from 18% to 20%, but these little edges can add up. Juergen’s conservative play with the 5-4, which kept us alive in the match, was looking all the wiser.
This game went well for us, and we had some real gammon chances. But it ended with us winning a single, making the score 5-8. And we won the next game, bringing us to 7-8! We were now only a free drop away from being even money in the match, making us only about 49-51 underdogs.
At 7-8, we won the opening roll, and it was a nice one: a 4-2. We made our four point, and the opponents rolled a 5-3, making their three point. We doubled:
Since we have gotten one of the best opening rolls, and the opponents have gotten a lesser one, we are 55% favorites to win this game. This is an even clearer free drop than the last one. But once again our opponents took, making us favorites, for the very first time, in the match!
We had a very interesting decision to make quite early in this game:
The minute we rolled this 6-3, my partner said: “I was just thinking we might roll that. Of course we would hit in a money game, but we are now playing a one-point match. Maybe it’s better just to make the bar point.” After a while I began to see things his way. We made his play. But the opponents rolled a very useful double ace a few moves later, and we lost. I was feeling rather regretful, but after everything was analyzed and rolled out, the play of making the bar point was vindicated. It gave us a full 1% extra winning chances – not that it mattered!
Oh yes, Mario won the singles tournament as well, besting Christos Groutsos of Greece in the final! The consolation was won by Konstantinos Mitrelis of Greece, the last chance by David Ablett of London.