Originally published at BluffEurope.com – reproduced with thanks. We’ve previously featured Andy’s other articles from Bluff Magazine, Does playing backgammon make you a better poker player? and The Poker Link 2: Making bluffs in Backgammon.
Forget the WSOP – the serious action took place in Monte Carlo in the summer as the World Backgammon Championship came to town.
Poker has had an enormous surge in popularity in recent years, and whilst backgammon has had its moments, it has sadly not been on a similar scale. This may be because people think they’ve cracked the game. Meanwhile, the emergence of artificial intelligence programs means there is more distinct analysis of whether a move in backgammon is right or wrong. However, this is a flawed concept, as the number of positions available to play, the roll of the dice, and the state of the cube raises a massive range of probabilities.
The variables of play continue to make backgammon an extremely interesting game to play. Even the top players in the world – Mochy (Japan), Falafel (Israel), and emerging player, Seb Wilkinson from the UK – can still be flummoxed by positions and chequer play and may struggle to analyse how best to play their next move. The Backgammon World Championship traditionally offers varying skill divisions: the Championship, the Advanced, the Intermediate, and the Beginners. This sets up a pyramid of skill, but some players struggle to assess their skill level when entering a division. It was suggested to the backgammon event owner, the eminent Patti Rubin, to have a single division, which would be far more exciting as there would be a healthy mix of opposition. Weaker players would be pitched against stronger players, but unlike chess, a lucky roll of the dice could find a weaker opponent winning!
The Appeal to Poker Players
A single division backgammon tournament might also appeal to poker players too, as they may be tempted to exercise their backgammon skills in a more mixed playing field. This could present an opportunity to win some money, if not a once-in-a-lifetime backgammon win. Patti seemed quite intrigued by the idea, so shall we see?
Every year, backgammon’s best descend upon Monte Carlo hoping to clinch the title of Backgammon World Champion. This year was no different, and scattered amongst the field were many familiar faces including ex-world champions yearning to lift the trophy once again. One of those was Mochy from Japan – one of the most prominent players in the world. Mochy entered the Championship division again this year and during play faced the following considerable challenge, which provoked a mixture of opinions from other players.
Mochy and the 4-point Holding Game
Mochy picks up the action: “I was going to win a gammon but I got hit with his 4-point holding game. Then I was re-cubed. My gut feeling told me to take this cube, but after some thought, my logic and my calculation said otherwise. I was confused, but I decided to follow my initial gut feeling, as it is usually correct to take this cube. Also, I was down 10-5 to 15 points and it is 4 cube! How bad can it be? It turned out to be a huge pass, with only 13% winning chance for my side. The problem was my board. My board was very weak, so I couldn’t fight with only a 3-point board, which made it a tricky decision.”
From the UK Perspective
Seb Wilkinson (UK) also entered the Championship Division and made the following observations about playing the World Championship in Monte Carlo:
“With the sun shining and the atmosphere electric in the Fairmont Hotel, players tried to calm their nerves in readiness for the action. As tournaments go, the world championship has one of the best structures, but it is still a week-long marathon of a tournament that requires huge amounts of stamina, concentration and focus. The mental strain needed cannot be underestimated.
“Surrounded by people watching, the seconds on the clock counting down – the mind darts as your palms moisten: how difficult is it to think clearly under these circumstances? Who can stand the pressure and ultimately hold their nerve and bring victory home? Can you remember all you have learnt? The experience, rush and thrill of high stakes backgammon is second to none.” One of the positions Seb found most intriguing was from a match between Peter Jes Thompson (Denmark), a former World Champion, and Englishman Lawrence Powell. Seb explains:
“Peter and Lawrence had actually already played previously in the “Undefeated” bracket – a long and arduously fought contest, which saw Lawrence edge it in the closing moments. Now they are playing in the “Fighters” bracket and it’s a win-or-bust scenario. Peter has battled through since losing their first encounter and both now are in the cash rounds – could the stakes be any higher? (Watch the action unfold at tinyurl.com/LawrenceChance)
Lawrence had previously led 8-1 to 11 and as you can see Peter is now leading 9-8. 2 away/3 away is a very interesting score and obviously it’s very important what happens next in determining the outcome of the match. This is a fairly standard position, but it is made more fascinating by the fact that Peter has been forced off his mid-point and Lawrence now has 24 numbers (out of 36) which hit his blot. Does Lawrence have enough to double?
Even if Lawrence hits, there is that annoying blot on his 3 point. Good, you might think, as if Peter gets hit he can come in and pick up the other blots and win a gammon, thereby winning the match! It’s optimistic, but unlikely, as many of the entering numbers which contain a 3 improve Peter’s board considerably (the rolls 34 and 33, in particular).
So, what if Lawrence rolls one of those 12 missing numbers? He still wins some games from racing and Peter doesn’t always jump past Lawrence’s outfield points because he needs to roll a number totalling 7 or more pips and which is not blocked. If Peter fails to get home Lawrence will win a few more games as a result of residual hits. But the real question is, should Lawrence be doubling? Peter only needs 2 points to win the match, and with gammons basically out of the question, should Peter just take this cube? As Peter is 37 pips up in the race, this means he will have many chances even after being hit, to enter from the bar and come home. However, let’s step back for a minute and take a closer look at what is going on at this score (assuming no gammons):
- If Peter passes, the score will be 9-9 giving each player 50% equity (or chances of winning the match).
- If Peter takes and wins, he will be 100%.
- If he takes and loses he will be 9-10* Crawford behind for 30% in equity.
This means that Peter is risking 20% equity (the difference between 50% and 30%) in order to gain 50% equity (the difference between 100% and 50%). He will have to win the game close to 30% of the time to justify taking this. If Lawrence thinks he will ‘lose his market’ and miss out on winning 2 points maybe he should double now? This would get himself to the valuable Crawford score. This position is basically 50/50 – with the race deficit and poor board strength. Lawrence has a lot of work to do before bringing this home. However, there is always the pass equity!
In the actual match Lawrence doubled quickly and Peter passed even faster. Poor Peter, disgusted with the sequence which led to this position and in the process cost him almost an entire point in equity. Peter is a long-time, world-class player and known as a great guy, so this is just an example of what can happen at the highest level, under the most intense pressure, in the most crucial moments. Lawrence went on to win this match, but not the title this year, but there is always next year!
About the World Backgammon Championship
The World Backgammon Championships 2017 saw 187 entries from around the world including USA, South America, Europe and Japan. The €1,000 main event raised a €207,000 prize pool after €20k had been added. 56 players also entered the Super Jackpot, creating a €56,000 prize pool.
The world championship was eventually won this year by Frenchman, Didier Assaraf. An interesting final can be viewed on YouTube with commentary by super players, Falafel and Matt Cohn-Geier. (Watch it at tinyurl.com/AssarafWins)