Backgammon for Tigers
<Backgammon for Tigers
How to survive in the Jungle>
A beginners guide for improving your game
by <Robert Hopwood>
Dedicated to Jonathan, Matthew and Emily who help to make sense of it all
and a special thanks to Nicky from Scrivener who provided timely and professional support at all times
All images and tables used in this book have been created by the author unless otherwise stated
Cover design by the author with thanks to ‘Tattoo for a Week’
CHAPTER ONE Forward
Forward - with heads held low
Spot the Author…
He’s probably the one scratching his head
The author has played backgammon for nearly 50 years. Not even close to being a professional player he settled for a grade that enabled him to claim to be a strong expert - many of his opponents would politely disagree.
When he first started playing backgammon he would have liked to have had a book which covered all of the basics and more to advance his game as quickly as possible.
The book would also have to offer solid advice and demonstrate techniques that would develop an early awareness of the tactics and strategies behind every strong player.
It would be just wonderful if there were plenty of positions shown that were analysed, and explanations given of just what was going on in the minds of the players.
The reader would end up with a set of straightforward tools and ideas to carry into every game with a growing sense of knowing what they were doing - more or less, or at least sometimes, perhaps...
This may be that book - it’s full of interesting stuff!
This book was written with every good intention of offering sound if not sage advice. Forgive any errors that you find because in all of the calculations I may have made the odd mistake - rather like my backgammon games.
This book will improve your backgammon
CHAPTER TWO Why Tigers?
Why Tigers - just a big kitten really
It was tiger or kitten - you choose.
Backgammon is a game of calculation and skill.
Stronger backgammon players play aggressively, are highly competitive and self-confident. It is the case that passive moves are generally not the best.
Lady Luck favours the well prepared, the skillful and the experienced.
Making the most of every throw requires effort and ability.
(this doesn’t sound like my backgammon CV so far)
Right from the start the beginner needs to obtain a feel for how the game is played at higher levels and to build a tool kit of ideas and skills that will enable them to continuously improve and strengthen their game.
We should try to set the bar at a high level and so some effort will be needed.
Backgammon is a battle and fortune does favour the brave but not the reckless.
The tiger isn’t king of the jungle, but you wouldn’t want to mess with one.
This book is an attempt to demonstrate the skill set required to advance your game and develop the understanding required to answer the ultimate question when you have just rolled the dice…
What do I do next?
CHAPTER THREE Introduction
Introduction - you’ve got to begin somewhere
This book is written for those who are relatively new to the game. You will be familiar with the initial starting position, the rules, and the the general aim of the game. You will probably play socially with friends or have ventured into the on-line experience via the Internet using one of the many sites available.
What you would like to do,
is to get better! That is winning more than you do now
become aware of where you need to improve
learn how to improve
develop a set of hopefully simple skills to enhance your game experience (that’s winning more again, but is also about enjoying this wonderful game)
understand the mysterious relationship between risk and opportunity (a life-skill in itself)
Achieving these aims does not have to be complicated. It requires a little skill and the will to learn. Learning can be from simply playing; all mistakes are an opportunity, but also from thinking through what can be done with every throw of the dice. You will always get both helpful and unhelpful throws and after the cursing dies down the BIG QUESTION hits you - what to do next? It’s at this time that better players make better choices. But it’s not magic. As to what it is, is what this book is about.
The book is presented in three main sections,
Beginnings. Trying to get it right from the word go. Early errors can be redeemed but playing catch-up is never about hoping for good throws (although ‘hope’ anyway if you think that might help)
Middle Game. A time when beginners (and experts) can flounder. The middle game is where ‘what to do’ increases in complexity and clarity may be hard to find. Rolling the dice and moving something is not the best Plan ‘A’ What you need is a few simple ideas or ‘tools’ to better understand the way ahead. How to help you choose between the array of possible moves your mind is trying to deal with. Improvements here will pay dividends when you reach the end game.
The End Game. Here you are so close and yet so far away from that win. Choices in the end game may seem more limited but there are still pitfalls. Sometime soon or, if you haven’t already, you will get to a position where your opponent has just won and you have one checker on your 1 point. Unlucky? Well maybe, but was there something you could have done during the game to have ‘gained’ a point or even a move?
Backgammon can be a cruel game with Lady Luck involved. ‘Certain’ wins can be lost and hopeless positions can be turned around. No two games are ever the same as there are literally trillions of possible positions that might arise in any one game. Don’t curse your luck (or not for long) because over time good and bad fortune will have a high tendency to even out. Learn from every game. Build up your knowledge base and your set of tools to handle key backgammon positions and all will be reflected in an increasingly enjoyable experience. It often seems that good players enjoy more luck - they don’t.
As an encouraging thought, what percentage of games do you think would reflect a good return for your backgammon efforts?
You may be surprised to find that the majority of best players on online sites for example tend to have a win percentage of less than 60%. In fact as the table below shows the top 20 players from one online site average no more than 54% of wins in their games. If you look at the top 100 players then their win average is just over 50%. These are not professional or strong tournament players but people who play backgammon on what is likely to be a daily basis and will have developed a strong and effective playing style and body of knowledge. A number of the players in the table shown below have played over 20,000 games - they are not just rolling dice. The table is ordered by the rank of the player in the first column.
Do not therefore set your sights too high. A gentle increase in skills will reap rewards over time and games played.
And play nice - backgammon etiquette demands respect for your opponent at all times.
CHAPTER FOUR Methodology
Methodology - not madness
Good advice on how to play backgammon is readily available online. The danger is that any beginner may be put off by the numerical and sometimes mathematical nature of the move analysis of various backgammon positions. It is true that at higher levels of play the best players may be capable of the type of mental gymnastics not available to many of us. It is good to know that even master players make errors and what is the best move choice in any complex position may be beyond even the best players.
So what hope is there for the beginner? There is plenty.
The number of possible positions that can be reached in backgammon is astronomically large so that no two games will ever be the same. What the expert players are doing is applying their experience with every dice role to similar positions they will have reached many times before. Added to their experience will be a number of techniques that will help them to calculate their current chances of winning (or losing). The technique will then help them to decide what is their best move that can help them to increase the odds of achieving a positive result.
A backgammon game will typically have three phases
The Beginning or Opening phase
The Middle Game
The End Game
This book will discuss the particular problems that face beginners in each of these phases. Moving from one phase to another is not necessarily a question of choice. Neither will it always be obvious when the opening phase transitions into the middle game. No matter. A solid set of backgammon ‘tools’ will help with most challenges that the beginner will face.
The techniques the master players use can be complex. The beginner need not and should not try to start at the top of the technique ladder. There are a range of straightforward tools that can be learnt and more importantly practised. Practising with a short-list of techniques will provide a means of evaluating positions which will offer insights into the best plays available in any given situation.
This book will therefore,
Examine over 100 backgammon positions and explain why certain moves are better than others
Suggest and demonstrate a number of techniques with which to evaluate positions and help with the ‘what next?’ dilemmas
Discuss the need to formulate a plan to follow as game-circumstances change
Learn by playing, but better still play better by learning
Your opponent’s face when you needed a double six to win and you’ve just thrown one.
CHAPTER FIVE Plan to get Ahead
Planning - worth a try
“Planning? - just can’t be bothered”
Playing to win is a plan
Playing to win by the largest margin is also a plan
Trying to play better is a plan
But none of the above ‘plans’ is worth very much if you do not know how to achieve the best outcome each position offers. There may be a number of ways of playing the dice that will all help but some moves carry greater risks than others - so how to choose?
Even the simplest of plans needs some thought(and many backgammon positions can be resolved by a simple plan). After all given the choices each throw will offer, any good plan can be destroyed by your next poor choice of moves.
For many positions your potential good moves will be easy to see and it will be obvious how the choice you make will get you closer to fulfilling your plan. However down the line a ‘bad luck’ throw or exceptional good luck from your opponent can scupper the best formulated plans of both the novice and expert player.
Therefore throughout this book any evaluation of a position will involve some consideration of how to move a plan forward or, as you will have to do, jump ship, change plans, cry a little as your great plan sinks but move on to plan B or however far down the alphabet you game has sent you to.
Backgammon can be frustrating and rewarding in equal measure but as your assessment of positions and planning improves so will your enjoyment.
No book on backgammon should be without a brief history of the great game you are beginning to learn to play.
Guess what the next chapter is about…
CHAPTER SIX History
A Brief History
“Please let us play indoors…”
It is possible to take up and learn a game without knowing anything at all about its history. With backgammon that would be a pity as the history of the game you are playing can add something to the richness of the experience of playing the game itself.
However let’s not overdo this! It’s a very brief history.
Therefore did you know that backgammon,
Is one of the oldest games in the world. Maybe around 5,000 years old. Just imagine players way back then cursing their luck then smiling with the joy of rolling those big doubles. The predecessor of backgammon is called Senet. A set was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun dating to BCE 3100. Presumably to wile away the hours travelling onward to the next life (makes you wonder who he played against).
The game may well have started in Iraq or Mesopotamia as it was known many centuries ago.
It is thought that as priests used to throw bones to predict the future it may well have been the case that dice evolved from around that ancient practice. Why six sides on a dice? - it’s an easy shape to make and rolls rather well - simple as that. Dice games of all types soon evolved rapidly. The joys of moving stones, shells or simply pieces of wood around dependent on the throw of dice soon caught on.
The game spread to Egypt and onward into Greece. Homer mentions the Greek game in the Odyssey! That is around the 8th century BCE
The Greek philosopher Plato mentioned the game in his writings and stated that backgammon represents the movement of the earth and planets. That might seem a strange claim but there are 24 points on a backgammon board (hours in a day) and there are 30 checkers on the board (the number of days in the month of a Persian calender)
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church banned backgammon and wanted to burn all of the boards. The population resisted and started to make folding boards that resembled books (you may well own a folding board). The 16th century is the time when backgammon started gaining popularity in Great Britain.
Here is a picture of two people about to enjoy a game sometime in the 13th Century. They really liked their large boards.
In modern times there are millions of players world-wide. A game that has lasted so long and is played by so many must have a good deal going for it!
The book continues with a number of short chapters that have the intention of mapping out the types of skills required to build an understanding of why one move may be better than another. We will then go on to look at many informative backgammon positions.
So let’s get into the heart of this game…
CHAPTER SEVEN Important Concepts
Important Concepts - a thinker’s paradise
“Who invented this damn game then?”
Before we move on to consider playing the game there will be a need to know a small number of terms which you will come across if you haven’t already.
Backgammon points are numbered from your home board. The number 1 points is the point nearest to bearing off one of your checkers. The number 24 point is the first point your checker would pass if it is coming back onto the board after being hit and placed onto the bar
A ‘made’ point is any point with 2 or more checkers on it. No one can take it off you - it’s yours to do with as you like
A golden point - these are your 4,5 and 7 points and also those of your opponent. They are key strategic points and improve your chances of winnings if you hold one or more of them
Primes - are several made points in a row. Typically 6,5,4 or 3 if you want to call it a mini-prime. They create an effective, powerful blocking mechanism. If you mange 6 in a row then your opponent cannot get past them. This causes your opponent real problems as their dice role possibilities are now far more limited. Another massive benefit is that your opponent may not be able to maximise their throws thereby wasting pips - a terrible sin!
An anchor - a point in your opponent’s home board with two or more of your checkers on it. It’s meant to be a total nuisance to your opponent in filling up and making point's in their home board. Some points are better than others. For example your opponent’s 5 point is really good then either their 4 point or their bar (7) point (nearest point outside their home board). The reason their 5 point is so good is that it can target your opponent’s 5 points in their outer board and any hit there is worth good points. Making the 5,and 4 point are similarly valuable in your home board and if you can add your 6 point to make a short prime then you have a strong position.
A builder. Its aim in life is to be a blot on which you hope to build (get it) a made point and a good made point at that. The process is known as ‘slotting’. Even if your opponent can hit the blot (hopefully at longish odds) then the gain is worth the risk. In some games you may want to make a strong point and even though the risk is high the pay-off is so valuable it is worth placing a builder - especially if your odds of making the point on your next throw are good.
There is a debate pending on risk versus gain of which more later. As a good general rule it’s best not to slot if your back checkers are split especially if the slotted checker is within a direct hit of an opponent’s checker. The reason is that even if they miss your blot they may well decide to hit one of your split back checkers (after all they have 2 to aim at) and if they do hit your back checker blot you will have to get it back into play with one dice and only have one dice left to cover your slotted builder.
The back game. This is a choice you make when you are definitely losing and it’s no use hoping for luck and many big doubles. Luck might happen - but don’t count on it. You decide to keep your checkers in your opponent’s home board while at the same time trying to make as many points as you can in your own home board. The idea is that you will hope to hit one of your opponent’s blots (they are likely to leave one)and then gain more points as they struggle to leave the bar (sounds like a lesson for life). Timing will come into the play as we will see later and you run the danger of not getting your ‘back’ checkers away and into your home board before your opponent bears off all of their checkers. That would be losing by a gammon or two points rather than the usual one point. Later in this book we’ll see it’s a simple enough calculation in determining when to ‘head for home’ and accept your losses.
Holding Game. This is similar to a back game but here you are not so far behind and have established a forward anchor in your opponent’s home board - the 5 point would be ideal as it aims at your opponent’s outer board and makes it far riskier for them to leave builders there.
Doubling. At any stage in the game the player about to throw can offer to double the stakes (usually set at one point at the start of play), known as offering the cube. The opponent can accept (take the cube) and play on for double the stake and place the doubling cube on their side of the board or not take the dice (drop). If a player drops the dice then the game ends there and then and the player offering the double wins the stakes. If the cube is accepted it is only the player who holds the doubling cube on their side of the board that can redouble by offering the dice back to their opponent at some time in the future. There are no limits to how often the redoubling can go on for although with any serious player it’s not often you will see more than 4 on the doubling cube.
Match Winning Chances (MWC). If you are playing just one game - then almost self explanatory. You’ll find MWC’s on many backgammon software programs offered as useful information in evaluating your moves and position. Needless to say if you are sure of winning that’s a 100% MWC and in the opposite direction if you are sure to lose then that is a 0% MWC. Why are these MWC of interest?
In many games you will find it useful to know if you have the better chances of winning. That knowledge will help with the decisions needed on what to do with the dice throw and the strategy required to turn good MWC’s into wins. The MWC will vary with the moves available with your dice throw. Backgammon programs will list the choice of moves in order of highest MWC first as that is the move you are likely to be interested in. All well and good but you need to ask the question - why does the number one move offer the highest MWC? And the answer will be that the move follows one of the toolkit items that we are trying to find and build into our game play.
That is good news if we can derive the rule being followed. That is what we intend to do from position to position until at last we can decide that we have enough useful rules in out toolkit to play with far more confidence than before. New rules may be added as our experience and strength of play grows.
When playing across the board with a human opponent the calculation of MWC's are extremely difficult if you need any precision. When you have to take account of potential backgammon and gammon chances then the calculation of an accurate MWC for the moves available would be well beyond most players even experts. That is not to say that we can’t find a technique to estimate our chances. So the MWC is a wonderful aid when playing with the aid of a backgammon program but only if you can learn to interpret why one move is better than another. If you can do this then your rule-set and toolkit is expanding. This technique of learning from positions will form the backbone of this book’s approach to playing better backgammon.
Equity. Another term that features in backgammon dialogues and in backgammon programs. It is strongly associated with MWC’s. Like MWC’s equity is extremely difficult to calculate and is best looked at as a concept rather than an actual tool. Equity is described as follows. If you are playing a game where a win will give you one point and you are certain to win then your equity is 1 and your opponents is zero. But most games, especially in mid-game are not like that. An example often quoted is that in a position where you would expect to win 3 times out of four then your equity is the chance of winning minus the chance of losing. In this case 75%-25% = 50% or .5
If you are thinking ‘so what’ then all that can be said is that the .5 position is of great interest (mainly theoretical) when using the doubling dice which we will examine in a later chapter. Any positive equity value means that you have an advantage and conversely any negative value means you are losing. Differences in equity on move choices are therefore a calculation of by how much each individual move will either add to or reduce your winning chances.
For now it’s more than enough to remember you have met the term ‘equity’
All of the above is a good deal of information to place into the games you will play. It is now time to examine backgammon games to understand why some moves are better than others. This is how we will add to our rule-set and build up the tool-kit we need.
Just to complicate things - all rules can be broken as positions dictate - there is nothing set in concrete in any discussion within these pages. It is the skill in evaluating positions that is key. You refer to your rule-set and tool-kit as the game progresses. Eventually (maybe) you will become so familiar with the game that your assessments of positions and moves will become second-nature. I haven’t got there yet.
So let’s move onto thinking about thinking! And dig a little deeper into the game.
CHAPTER EIGHT Simple Tools
Tools of the Trade
“Now if only I knew how to…”
Every dice roll will offer a player choice.
Each choice will shift the odds of winning the game.
The differences between available moves can be difficult to assess. On the other hand some moves will be obvious enough to limit your choice to a simple decision.
The beginner will need to have a number of methods available to have at least some idea of how to choose when options are available.
The idea will be to offer a set of ideas that can be readily applied throughout a game. Practice eases the use of techniques and the time needed to assess any position.
As confidence grows a player can enhance both the set of backgammon tools they use and also add to their complexity
Few of us are likely to be world championship material and beginners should not be concerned if progress is slow. Tools are not an end in themselves; it is the insight they offer into how good players think that is the final destination of this book.
All you need to do is to try to think through the positions you reach that cause problems and make a decision. If you don’t choose wisely then congratulations, you’ve just joined backgammon players the world over.
So what will you need?
Backgammon positions will pose a number of recurring questions,
Who’s winning and by how much?
Do I have a plan?
Do I need to change my plan?
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Publication Date: 06-16-2018
All Rights Reserved