London Open 2014 – Match Analysis

Hippodrome Casino

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…

Position 1

Score tied at 0-0 to 11; Raj (Red) on roll – cube action? Red 129, White 147

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.

Sean Casey at the 2013 Irish Open
Sean Casey at the 2013 Irish Open

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.

Position 2

Score tied at 1-1 to 11; Red to play 65; Red 155, White 139

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.

Position 3

Score tied at 1-1 to 11; Red to play 11; Red 144, White 132

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.

Position 4

Red to play 43, trailing 1-3 to 11; Red 112, White 113

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…

Position 5

White on roll leading 3-1 to 11; cube action? Red 109, White 105

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.

Position 6

Red on roll trailing 1-3 to 11, cube action? Red 18, White 17

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.

Position 7

Red to play 44, leading 5-4 to 11; Red 190, White 147

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!

Position 8

Score tied at 5-5 to 11; White (Sean) on roll – cube action? Red 162, White 142

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!

Position 9

Red on roll trailing 5-6 to 11, cube action? Red 132, White 150

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!

Position 10

Red to play 54, trailing 5-6 to 11; Red 122, White 130

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.

Position 11

Red on roll holding a 2-cube and trailing 5-6 to 11, cube action? Red 119, White 140

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.

Position 12

Red on roll holding a 2-cube and trailing 5-6 to 11, cube action? Red 113, White 137

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.

Position 13

Red on roll holding a 2-cube and trailing 5-6 to 11, cube action? Red 110, White 128

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++).

Position 14

Red to play 44, trailing 5-6 to 11; Red 110, White 128

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!

Position 15

Red to play 43 from the bar, leading 9-6 to 11; Red 141, White 157

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…?

Position 16

Red on roll leading 9-6 to 11, cube action? Red 66, White 65

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.

Position 17

Red to play 21, leading 10-6 Crawford; Red 149, White 153

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…

Position 18

Red to play 43, leading 10-6 Crawford; Red 140, White 130

…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.

Position 19

Red to play 66, leading 10-6 Crawford; Red 116, White 118

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!

Position 20

Red to play 21 from the bar, leading 10-6 Crawford; Red 101, White 109

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.

Position 21

Red to play 41, leading 10-8 post-Crawford; Red 117, White 118

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…


  1. Wayne Felton says

    Great article Raj.

    Paul – Peter won his award a while ago and has subsequently modified his behaviour to avoid a repeat win!


    • says

      I was tempted to trash your comment Wayne but, as you imply, I can’t win the award again, so what the hell!
      And in the absence of any communication from you to disturb my slumbers at your preferred time of 2am I infer that you were unsuccessful in the tournament last night? 😉

  2. Paul Money says

    Two lessons to be learned here in general.
    First, the pipcount usually provides a clue and often the answer to a position. If you can’t do it, you are conceding a huge advantage to the player who can. Learn it, practise it, do it.
    Second, a commentary team, however didtinguished, will always be improved if they are assisted by somebody simultaneously entering the play into XG, even if all they got was the pipcount! I once heard Falafel say, “Ah, well now I know the answer I understand the position!” He was partly being amusing and partly revealing a truth. I always want to hear his opinion, even if he is wrong, but his explanation of why a play is correct is bound to be better. Thanks for taking the trouble to do this Raj, very informative.

    • Timothy Chow says

      I have to say that I strongly disagree with Paul Money’s second remark. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to replace honest commentary with slavish, sycophantic just-so stories invented to justify the bot play. It is a huge but extremely common misconception to think that just because you’ve come up with some hand-waving “explanation” that happens to yield the bot play as a conclusion, that you have correctly analyzed a position. i very much doubt that the accuracy of the analysis would be improved by giving the commentators access to bot info, yet it would carry a veneer of authority. You would also lose the sense of what plays are difficult, because everything looks easy for the computer.

      • Paul Money says

        I don’t want to see that either Timothy, but this is 2014. A commentator on any game or sport that I can think of these days benefits from computer analysis, replays and slow motion. He gives a better commentary with that help. Falafel, as one of the great modern thinkers, would be an even better commentator with a little help from the bot. I don’t believe that he would be reduced to facile reasoning to coincide with the “right” answer. I like to think that we would see his opinion and the “right” answer compared when they differed and that would make for a fascinating insight into the thought processes of a modern master.
        I had a lot of thoughts about this match, perhaps I should revive dorbeldaily to makle some comments. I know that if I do I can rely on some perceptive and helpful remarks from TC, even though we’ve both seen the rollouts!

        • Timothy Chow says

          I’ve listened to one of Falafel’s commentaries where he had some access to bot info and in my opinion the commentary suffered as a result. See here for another concurring opinion.

          Paul seems to be trying to flatter me to get me to agree with him, but to the extent that I am able to offer helpful remarks despite seeing the rollout, it’s only because of studying not just the bot verdict but doing some real analysis, such as looking at the temperature map, forming theories and testing them by varying the position, etc. This can’t be done in real time. If I were forced to comment in real time with just the bot’s verdict as oracle, I would also be reduced to stammering sycophant trying to invent a just-so story on the spot to appease the gods (I mean, the bots).

          No bot info contaminating live commentary, please.

  3. David Jones says

    I enjoyed the match and thought the commentary added to that enjoyment as it was uninhibited and provocative, something I doubt it would have been had XG been on hand as the final arbiter of any controversy.

    Following up the match with an analysis, as Raj has done, gives the best of both worlds, with its verdict not just on his own plays but on the verdict of the commentary team.

    From my own, blunder-riddled, perspective, the quality of the play is astonishing. It will take me some time to appreciate fully the nuances of the analysis Raj has provided but all credit to him for playing so well and for providing his thoughts on some of the plays.

    A good job all round.

  4. Bob Koca says

    Great match and analysis.

    In the match file the 6-5 was not rolled out very many games. I did 10368 games and it looks like
    24/13 is indeed the best play (confidence 92.6%)

    24/13 -.3644
    24/18 13/8 -.3684
    24/18 11/6 -.3707 (Why is 13/8 better?)
    11/6 11/5 -..3735 (An unmentioned candidate at less than .01 back).

    It makes you 2.94 instead of 2.98 so moving towards kind of good range (from fairly acceptable)

    In the 2a 5a missed cube the opponent’s take point is 23.5% and not 19%. Another factor there that I think many overlook is that the worst racing rolls of 11 and 12 are among the hitting rolls.

  5. paul weaver says

    Thanks to Peter Bennet for thanking me.

    Congratulations to Peter for winning the award recently of nicest guy on the UK backgammon scene!!!

    Happy Birthday to Peter!!!

  6. Graeme Turner says

    I watched the match and Falafel did give the impression that you were making some blunders; however as a spectator I found myself disagreeing with his comments and I am pleased to see that the XG analysis has proved you right with a great PR rating. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as this gives a good insight as to how a strong player thinks in a match.

  7. Timothy Chow says

    This is an exceptionally entertaining and instructive match analysis! Well done.

    Regarding the commentary, it’s important not to take it too seriously. The commentators’ primary job is to provide “entertainment” for the spectators. I put that in quotation marks because obviously a commentator should not just clown around and make silly comments just to provide a spectacle. But I think it is perfectly reasonable for a commentator to take a relaxed attitude and give their intuitive assessment of the position, rather than hunker down over each decision and count pips and go through every roll and compute takepoints, as they probably would do if it were their own match. The spectator can always use the computer to get the pipcount or the “right” play, but the intuition of a strong player is something that is not available except through commentary. By voicing their intuitions without (in most cases) calculation, the commentators not only make life more interesting for the spectators, but also help themselves recognize circumstances where their intuition needs to be tempered by calculation, or perhaps needs to be overhauled entirely.

    Regarding the “theme” of stepping up, I have found that this is a very difficult type of decision in general and am somewhat surprised that there is not more literature about it. I have collected a large number of stepping-up errors from my own games and have found that they are extremely varied and difficult to categorize. As this is a weakness in my own game, I have no magic bullet to offer, but the one general principle I have extracted is this: If you find that you systematically tend to err on the side of not stepping up enough, then that probably means that you tend to (1) underestimate your racing chances, (2) overestimate your opponent’s attacking chances, and/or (3) underestimate your opponent’s priming chances. In Position 3, for example, I would explain it by saying that the danger of getting attacked when you step up outweighs the danger of getting primed if you stay back. Similarly in Positions 4 and 20, you would like to race, and the straggler is in more danger of getting primed than attacked, so you should step up. Of course there is still a judgment call involved but I believe that this is the primary tradeoff to be assessing.

    In Position 6 I think you meant to say that five-roll positions are generally not redoubles, but at a normal score they are initial doubles.

    Position 7 I wouldn’t call a stepping-up decision; it’s a stepping-out decision. My guess is that with so many checkers back, you should be aiming to make an advanced anchor rather than running.

    In Position 9 it is certainly an error not to stop and think, but for money this is only a borderline double, so I don’t think it’s so ridiculous not to cube here. The match score makes a significant difference, of course, but the blot on your ace point means that this shouldn’t be a reflexive double.

    In Position 14, clearing the midpoint in a holding game is a more important strategic goal than many people appreciate. There was a nice example of this recently on Chris Bray’s blog.

    In Position 15, which I’d also call a stepping-out rather than a stepping-up problem. In a straggler-vs-anchor position, there should be a strong bias towards running the straggler in order to convert to a holding game, especially when you’re ahead in the race.

  8. paul weaver says

    Great article! Well done! I would not be making any suggestions if Raj had not specifically requested that I do so. I would like to see the pip count appear above, below or beside the diagram. Also, by email, I am showing Raj a compact and neat way to present the rollout data, which I think should appear somewhere below the diagram.

    • says

      Hi Paul and thanks for your comments. Pipcounts have been added as requested! That was the easy bit. Rollout data may follow, although it is now probably too late for the several hundred readers who have already looked at the article!

  9. ross knipe says

    great to see you thoughts … such a coincidence as being a relative bg newbie i’d just stumbled across these Falafel commentaries and was halfway through my first one (Mik vs Witt Cyprus 2014) when i went to bed last night – this morning arrived an email linking to your post here :-) . Although I’ve not XG analysed anything that Falafel said in that match I did find him quite overly forthright in his condemnation of certain moves/playing styles but then again it was quite entertaining :-) . He is also up against a lot of pressure having to analyse and vocalise positions quickly and clearly before the clock is punched and the dice are rolled again. Thanks again, it’s great for me to hear great players analysing matches