Raj Jansari v Sean Casey
These are some thoughts from my second round match against Sean Casey in the recent London Open 2014 Professionals’ Tournament on 10th May 2014 at the London Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square.
The match was recorded and live-streamed with commentary by Falafel and Marcus Wrinch. I obviously couldn’t hear what the commentators were saying at the time but I watched the video of the match a couple of days later (you can find it here if interested). Because of the strength of feeling of the expert comments about some of my moves I felt that I must have played terribly so undertook the game transcription into XG hoping to learn from my deemed mistakes (the match file can be found here). There were definitely quite a few mistakes and some areas in which to improve, but in fact I was quite surprised at everything I actually learned…
So, as early as the first game I thought I had a tough decision on my move 4 where I had a very strong position and was thinking about the double. The commentators were wondering why I was taking so long over such an easy decision and whether I was just trying to con my opponent into a wrong take or something. Anybody who knows Sean knows that he is a formidable opponent and not someone who can easily be tricked.
Actually, I was wondering whether the position was too good, which the commentators didn’t even consider! Eventually I doubled and of course Sean passed but a 1296 games 3-ply rollout on XG (which by the way I use throughout this article unless otherwise specified) confirms my suspicions and I am actually too good to double by 0.018.
In the third game the score is 1-1 and on my third move I have this interesting 65 to play. The commentators were in strong agreement that splitting to the 18 and bringing the 5 down to the 8 point was absolutely clear. I took a long while over this because although initially I did automatically make that play, I was concerned that I was only 5 pips down in the race after the roll so I’m not in huge trouble and can still consider a purely running game if I roll well. If I leave the blot on Sean’s 7 point he will surely be happy to hit with most of his 24 hitting numbers to try to ensure that he goes much further ahead in the race and a cube out could follow very quickly. So eventually I did play the admittedly strange-looking 24/13 and subsequently listened to the commentators lambasting me for this ‘rookie’ mistake (one of the politer expressions used!). In fact however, my play is second best by only 0.015 so still wrong but nowhere near as bad as one might have believed listening to the commentary. This is clearly down to the closeness of the race.
Another thing that came out while reviewing the video was that the commentators didn’t seem to take the time to perform any pip counts throughout the match.
This is of course not the be-all and end-all of backgammon but there were many instances in my match where the pip count was crucial to determine the right play and the commentators didn’t do one. Even Falafel admitted that he is fairly slow with pip counting. He is certainly not alone. Many people seem almost afraid of pip counting despite realising that it is important. I know more than one otherwise strong player who has problems with counting whether it is remembering the first count while doing the second or just doing the count itself at any speed and accurately.
I am certainly not the world’s fastest pip counter but I have developed several shortcuts which make the count very accurate and also pretty quick. I would say on average I can count both side’s pip counts precisely within about ten to twelve seconds. This really helps in general of course but even more so when matches are on clocks, which they increasingly are in most major tournaments globally.
I would seriously encourage anyone who has problems with pip counting to face up to their demons, try out new shortcut methods and keep practising. This can be done even when not playing by watching other people’s games and doing the counts from time to time. I have formed a habit that when I glance at someone else’s game I almost involuntarily perform a count just to give me some more information as to where a game is at, as well as to aid my own counting ability and keep it sharp. If you bump into me anywhere and ask I will be happy to show you several shortcuts that you may not be aware of.
Still in the third game and my very next (fourth) move gives me this tricky little 11 play where I decide to come up with 24/22 and 11/9 and thereby making a large 0.059 error. The commentators didn’t spot this one either. I find these types of play problematic obviously – I am assuming that I just shouldn’t be stepping up looking for trouble but it could also be that I stay back to ensure that he can’t just play behind me with a 65 or a 54 whilst also making a more solid looking structure with the 9 point or some combination of all these things but staying back being most important because I am still 8 pips behind after the roll.
Now we’re in the fifth game; I’m 1-3/11 and it’s my seventh move and a 43 to play. This turned out to be a contentious move with both commentators roundly criticising my preferred stepping up to the 21 point with the 3 (the 4 obviously being 5/1 to slot on the ace point). ‘The wrong idea’ and ‘weakness in his game’ were mentioned so I was concerned about this play while reviewing the match….especially as Sean’s next roll was 22 which pointed on me. In fact my play is clearly correct over the commentator-preferred play of 7/4 5/1 by a significant 0.044 which was somewhat gratifying although if I had known the 22 was coming…
So then I immediately fan and the commentators believed Sean’s position was too good to double and therefore a massive pass. ‘Ridiculous to take’ was mentioned. I really didn’t think so. For me the double was clear and I thought it was close but a take. In fact I was wrong and it was a pass of 0.033 so an error but nothing as serious as it was made out to be. My thinking was that I had a strong board and was favourite to come in for at least a couple of rolls hopefully and my 18 point blocker would ensure that Sean would have to play relatively carefully to bring his position home.
Well I got lucky in that same game and rolled a couple of big doubles to reach the position above on my move 21 after I’ve just rolled the first of two consecutive 55’s. I thought about this for a little while as I wasn’t quite sure if this was good enough to redouble as it was a 9 checker vs. 9 checker position and those are generally not doubles. I did consider the fact that I was trailing 1-3 in the match and the huge market loss if I rolled a double so eventually I redoubled but I was uncertain that it was correct. The commentators were convinced that it was a clear redouble and weren’t sure why I was taking so long. Well, it turns out that this is a correct redouble but only by 0.022 (XG Roller++). For money, or at a score of 2-3 or better, this would not be a redouble, so it was far from clear but I got it right luckily.
Now we’re in the seventh game and the score is 5-4/11 to me and on my fifth move I have this tricky 44 to play. One of my weaknesses which a few people have recently pointed out is stepping up. Although making the 4 point with two of the 4’s is obvious, the correct play with the other two is not 24/16 (which I played) but rather 24/20 and 13/9 as the commentators this time correctly called. My play was a 0.033 error.
I really need to try to understand the stepping up theory a lot more. Please do give me lessons anybody who knows more about this as I clearly don’t get it!
Ok and now what I feel ought to have been my very worst play of the entire match considering the strength of feeling from the commentators. It’s the eighth game, the score is 5-5/11 and Sean doubles me on his seventh move. Now Falafel is clear that this is a very easy take and it turns out that it is a fairly clear take and passing is a 0.042 error but not quite the howler that I had been expecting. I have to say that I had at first thought it was an easy take but then because I had danced twice on a two point board from a super strong position and the game had radically turned around I think I made myself think irrationally and eventually passed. It gives me a sick feeling now but there we go and hopefully I will learn. I do note that it is nowhere near as big a take as the commentators were suggesting!
But now for one of my actual very worst plays of the match and certainly in the most significant game of the match as it later transpires! It is the very next (ninth) game, I’m trailing 5-6/11 and it’s my third move. What do I do? Well I do nothing and just roll. What should I have done? I had a huge double which was a 0.122 blunder not to double. Look at my position – I have an 18 pip lead in the race, I’m aiming at two blots in my home board and Sean has no board. A complete dummy not to double, I just rolled. I can only think that I glanced at my own non-existent home board and then stopped thinking. Falafel called this correctly and commented that I didn’t even think about it and routinely rolled. He was spot on. Lesson to be learned – always stay alert!
Ok anyway…same game and a nice 54 to play on my eighth move, and one that caused the commentators to launch into a lot more loud criticism when I played bar/21 8/3*. They favoured instead the quieter bar/16 and I did think about this play for a while. I was fully aware that it was not pleasant to get a second checker hit, and playing the otherwise quieter move put me 17 pips ahead after the roll, but I was concerned that I was giving Sean 22 shots if I played to the 16 point whereas after hitting there are only 13 shots at my 3 point blot. Ok, Sean has a further 12 shots to hit on his own 4 point but then he would be leaving me double shots from the bar and a carpet of other blots. A further advantage was that if Sean did roll badly, I could be in very strong shape for a potential double. Anyway, all of this wasn’t quite enough to make my play better than the commentator-preferred one. The difference was only 0.005 so I wasn’t unhappy with my choice but perhaps another lesson learned.
And once again the same game and my fifteenth move holding a two cube. The commentators strongly want to redouble. I did think about this but believed there was a little more work to do. In fact it was correct not to redouble by a tiny 0.008.
However, a move later (my sixteenth move) and the position looks similar but is in fact very, very different and, although the commentators also completely missed this one, I was ashamed to learn that I had missed a big redouble here. Failing to redouble here was a 0.091 blunder. The point here is that Sean no longer has a compact position but is rather disjointed and can unravel further very quickly even if he doesn’t get hit. If he gets hit then he could easily lose gammons too.
I am generally aware of the power of redoubles when behind in a match but clearly I have some blind spots although I was in pretty good company this time.
Right then, to prove I’m not a complete dunce it is the next move (my seventeenth) and although I take my time and the commentators are going crazy I get this redouble spot on! This is a 0.083 redouble (XG Roller++).
But then what about my 44 play on the seventeenth roll after Sean took the redouble…?! Once again the commentators are (almost) calling me all sorts of names! Well ok, Marcus thought my play was right at first but Falafel vehemently called it “wrong” three times and this I think convinced Marcus to change his mind. Subsequently I rolled a shot-leaving 43 and again the commentators were quick to blame this on my “previous bad play”. So what was so wrong with me playing 17/9(2)?! as against Falafel’s much preferred 17/13(2) 7/3(2)??! Well nothing actually as my play was a significant 0.044 better. Why would I want to split up a lovely compact position into a disjointed split one? The short answer is that I wouldn’t and I was happy with my play especially with a 4 cube sitting with my opponent. Next time I see Falafel I’ll teach him about that sort of position… However, all joking aside, Marcus did make a valid comment which I think is important to note. He said that whether my play was right or wrong I could have looked more closely at the alternative play. This is very true and very correct and I think I normally would have done. What the commentators didn’t appreciate was that I had used up a lot of time earlier in the match. With just a few minutes left on the clock I felt confident enough about this play to make it almost immediately. You will note that I am forced to play the rest of the match relatively quickly from here on in!
Right it’s the next (tenth) game, the score is 9-6/11 to me and on my sixth move I have a 43 to play. The commentators didn’t express their preferred play but called my actual play of bar/22 6/2 garbage. They were right. The right play was actually bar/18 by 0.049 and once again stepping up (or not) caught me out. When will I learn…?
Still the tenth game and my fifteenth move and truly my very worst play of the entire match. Now I’m pretty seriously short of time but I did look at this for a few seconds to see if I had a double for the match. I must have thought not and note that neither of the commentators mentioned doubling at this point either. Not doubling here for the match is a 0.204 blunder! I was shocked to see that it was such a huge blunder especially as I am one pip down in the race and don’t really want to see a 4 cube come straight back at me. However, in the cold light of day and with no clock pressure it is clear that I have an extremely strong position. Any 2 apart from 52 hits and either covers for a close out or allows me to lift the blot but still with a 5 point board. Sean has three much longer crossovers to make and has slightly more wastage. Also I don’t lose the match even if I lose the 4 cube as I would be 10-9 down Crawford and retain approximately 30% match winning chances. The top end of my doubling window at this score (2-away 5-away) is 81% and I ought to be able to roughly work out that I am somewhere in the 70% area (in fact XG says I’m at 75%). A very disappointing missed double especially as I eventually won the game.
The next (eleventh) game with the score 10-6/11 (Crawford) and I make a couple of minor checker play errors: on my third move with a 21 playing 13/10 instead of 24/23 13/11 (a 0.025 error) and…
…on my fifth move with a 43 playing the insipid 13/6 instead of the more dynamic 7/4 7/3 (a 0.034 error) both of which the commentators were correct about, but for once were not particularly vocal. I guess they too were not certain.
On my tenth move I have a lovely 66 to play and play 22/16 13/7(2) and 8/2 which I believed gave me a lot of flexibility at the expense of leaving four shots. I just thought it was really worth it to bring the position home more safely subsequently. The commentators once again really disliked this play calling it “wrong” and “that can’t be right” and instead favouring the ultra safe 22/4 8/2. The problem with this play is that it is much harder to bring home safely with the mid-point still to clear. Well anyway, my play was best by 0.013 – not by much but still best and certainly not wrong at all!
My twelfth move and a great 21 from the bar to play. The commentators call this right and I get it wrong by staying back with bar/24 6/4. This is a big 0.047 error compared to the best play of bar/22 and, as Falafel pointed out, “you don’t stay back, you challenge!”. Noticing the theme…?! Once again another stepping up error.
And finally on my seventh move of game 12 a really testing 41 to play. I’m 10-8/11 ahead post-Crawford, holding a 2 cube and desperate not to be gammoned for the match. I’m considering 7/3* 23/22, leaving a second blot, but allowing my back checker to move up to give me escaping 6’s while Sean is on the bar. Falafel insisted it was the best play but he hated it. I hated it a lot more than he did as it was my match, but I forced myself to play it. This is because of the additional gammons that Sean has if he hits the direct shot on that second blot and which win him the match. This is truly a ‘cover your eyes while the opponent rolls’ type of play! Well, what did either of us know as it turns out to be a really big 0.068 error! Only Marcus called this one right initially preferring the safe 7/3* 3/2 and worrying about the back checker another day. Though even Marcus changed his mind subsequently after Falafel explained his thinking.
Well, despite Falafel making it sound like I had played the worst match ever, my PR came out at a fairly acceptable 2.98 but I certainly need to work on my stepping up frailties…