The Backgammon Masters Series (BMS) Group organises and facilitates live tournaments in which all matches are clocked, recorded and transcribed, conferring mastership titles and certifying proficiency levels with the fundamental goal of promoting Backgammon as a leading international mindsport. BMS (UK) under the direction of Rick Janowski is the UK branch of this international group and is supported and promoted by the UKBGF. Contact Rick for more details of these tournaments (the next of which is the weekend of 6-7th June) at firstname.lastname@example.org
At the end of last month I attended my first Backgammon Masters tournament. The format of the tournament is to have 16 players who each play six matches over the weekend. Each match is recorded on video and subsequently analysed using Extreme Gammon.
There are two ways to win. You can win more matches than anybody else or you can achieve the lowest Performance Rating (PR). Your PR is determined by XG where the lower the number the better the player you are. A PR of zero would indicate you are a perfect player (they don’t exist!!). Realistically if you can play to a PR of around 4.0 you are a very good player. If you can play to a PR of around 3.0 you are a very strong player indeed – world champion material. I would estimate that there are no more than ten players in the world who can consistently play to a PR of 3.0 and it may well be fewer than ten.
The tournament format is excellent because even if you are losing matches (as I did) you can still play for your PR rating and thus interest is maintained for everyone throughout the weekend.
The one problem with PRs is that they take no account of the disparity in skill levels between the two players. Occasionally your checker plays and, more importantly, your cube decisions should be tempered by the difference in skill level. This then puts you in a quandary – should you play technically correct backgammon or should you make the play that gives you the best chance of winning the match? It is only at this point that you realize the two objectives of the tournament can give you a conflict of interest.
I am going to provide you with two examples where the technically correct play is likely to be wrong. After that we will look at a couple of plays that separate the PR 4 player from the PR 3 player.
In our first position Mochy, arguably the best player in the world, led Peter Bennet of the UK 9-7 to 11. After long thought Mochy doubled and Peter took. Mochy rolled one of his three immediate shot-leaving numbers (62, 52 and 65). Peter redoubled, hit the shot, closed Mochy out and won game and match.
Technically this is only just a double and a trivial take, and between two equal players those are the correct actions. BUT as World #1 Mochy is risking a lot here in what is basically a no skill position. Just the sort of situation he should be avoiding and Peter, as the underdog, should relish. Most of the post-match analysts agreed that Mochy should have held the cube here, waited for some improvement and then doubled Peter out. If, as in the actual game, he is hit and closed out then he will still be leading 9-8.
Of course Mochy’s PR would have suffered by missing the double but that would have been less damaging than losing the match and a small price to pay.
In our second example Wayne Felton (UK) led Mochy 4-0 to 11 when this position arose. Should Wayne redouble and if he does redouble should Mochy take?
For money it should be clear that this is a huge redouble and a mega-drop – far too many gammons.
At the match score it is also very clearly a redouble but surprisingly it is also a very clear take because of the strength of White’s redoubles to 8 and also because Red doesn’t get full value from his gammons as it gets him to 12 points. It is perhaps hard to believe that a quadruple blunder for money can become a take at this match score because of these small differences but that is the case here.
Wayne redoubled and time stood still as Mochy thought for six minutes before taking. Should Mochy have taken? Again this is largely a no skill position (it more or less plays itself) so warning lights should be flashing in Mochy’s head. Should Mochy risk the loss of the match in such a position? I think it depends on what he thinks the ELO difference is between himself and Wayne. He must have decided the difference wasn’t enough to pass but I think he should have passed.
After Mochy took Wayne rolled 63, played 14/8*/5 and won a gammon and match.
Interestingly, technically 14/11/5 is better than 14/8*/5 because if you crunch the win/gammon percentages through a Match Winning Chances equity table Red ends up with 2% more Match Winning Chances by not hitting, as then White’s board often crunches before he gets a shot, reducing his game winning chances.
Now let’s go back to the real world. I would wager that virtually nobody would find 14/11/5 over the board and again the ranking difference comes into play. With two equal players not hitting is correct but given that Wayne was undoubtedly the weaker player I think he was absolutely right to hit.
So here are two examples where the technically correct play is not the right play because of the skill disparity. Those two judgement calls helped Mochy’s PR rating but cost him the chance of winning the tournament. Thus we need a future version of XG to take account of skill differences when calculating PRs. Backgammon truly is a very difficult game.
So now to my second area of discussion: what separates a PR 3 player from a PR 4 player?
Anyone who can play to a PR of 4 is a very good player and certainly technically competent. I can play to around 4 on a consistent basis. I know this because over the last year I have analysed every match that I have played on GridGammon.
That analysis has also identified that while I have a PR around 3.5 for checker play my PR for cube handling is not as good and it is the area that I need to improve if I am to improve my PR. I suspect that this is true for a lot of good players. The more I analyse matches the more I understand just how complex cube handling (sometimes combined with checker play) is, particularly towards the end of a match.
The second thing that makes a difference is simply application and practice. Malcolm Gladwell’s famous supposition in his book “Outliers” is that you need to put in 10,000 hours practice to be great at anything is certainly true for backgammon. In the words of Gary Player the golfer: “the more I practise the luckier I get”.
PR 3 players make fewer blunders than the rest of us. Countless hours of practice and study, allied in most cases with the ability to concentrate effectively, eliminate the blunders and errors made by lesser mortals.
The final area where the PR 3 player excels is in vision and to know when not to play the ‘obvious’ move but to look deeper and further than his PR 4 counterpart. I am indebted to Gaz Owen (who had the best PR rating – 3.89 – of the UK players) for two positions that ably demonstrate this point.
Red was Michy and White was Gaz with Michy trailing 0-2 to 11. I was watching this match and I along with others expected Michy to move either 17,11, 13/11 or 17/13, 7/5(2).
However Michy thought for a long time before finally moving 13/9(2)!! He voluntarily exposed two blots against a four-point home board. After 64 from Gaz, correctly played 13/9, 7/1*, Michy doubled. Gaz took but in fact he should have dropped.
Broken primes with many checkers trapped behind them are much more powerful than many players understand and that is what makes 13/9(2) such a strong move. Michy understood this and was ready to take the necessary risks to make the right play.
Given this position as a quiz problem I suspect that many good players would find 13/9(2). The difference is that Michy found it over the board and had the courage to make the right move under tournament conditions. Another lesson is that he took the time to find and make that move. Effective use of one’s clock time is another key attribute of very strong players.
This position is from Gaz Owen against Jon Barnes. If you play on automatic then you quickly move 7/5*, 6/5 and pick up your dice.
However, in any position you need a plan. After 7/5*, 6/5 White will have a well-timed 3-4 back game and, crucially, he will have an escape hole (the bar-point) through which to recirculate his spare checkers. The correct plan is to build a full prime in front of White’s anchors and try to get him to crash his home board.
The best way to do this is 13/11*, 6/5*. Now Red has real chances of building that prime and if White rolls hitting numbers then Red can recirculate the hit checkers without too much difficulty. Note that the move also makes effective use of one of the spare checkers on Red’s 6-pt. In a back game it is very important to make all your checkers work effectively.
Gaz found the second best play, 13/12*, 13/11* which has the same ideas but is not quite so effective because the 5-pt isn’t slotted. Again, given this as a quiz problem, you may well find the best move but be honest, would you find it over the board under tournament conditions? I would think that a Mochy, a Michy, a Kazaross or a Falafel might do so but not many others. This type of vision (and execution of that vision) is what separates the great from the merely very good.
So with four positions we have merely dipped our toes into Master level backgammon but I hope the analyses have made you think about the game in a different way and have given you some pointers as to how you can improve your play.
For more challenging positions from Chris see the ‘Position of the Day’ on his website and also his weekly column in Saturday’s Independent Newspaper.