This article originally appeared in the July 1999 issue of GammOnLine.|
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.
In this series we are going to have three main goals:
In this article, we're going to focus on #1, and go over some basic probabilities, for the dice and the doubling cube.
Let me start with a rough copy of the page that was my first backgammon lesson:
To the backgammon expert, this iswell, less than trivial. But it's surprising how many beginning and intermediate players do not undrestand this display. Pretty much every player understands that it's much easier to roll a number of 6 or lower than one 7 or higher. But for many it ends there. I've had several players who think that the odds on a 6-2 or a 6-6 are both 1 in 21, because there are 21 different ways two dice can come up.
This display doesn't really require a lot of explanation. But let's look at a few of the implications.
Throughout this article we will refer to the number of rolls as the number of ways a particular number or numbers can come up on two dice. So, for example, if we refer to the fact that an 8 can be made by "6 rolls" we meanthat it can come up as a result of 6-2 (2 rolls), 5-3 (2 rolls), 4-4 (1 roll), or 2-2 (1 roll).
First, let's look at the number of ways a particular number can come up on two dice:
Do you need to memorize this table? Well, sure, it helps, but not really. The important thing to understand is that 6 comes up most often, followed by 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and then 8, 9, 10, etc. Just understanding that much will help you position yourself better in situations where you need to minimize the number of shots you leave, or maximize your chances of covering a blot.
Time out. Yes, 90% of the readers of this article will know what I mean by the terms shot and blot. But one of the principles of this series is to make sure that all our readers understand all the terminology. Hopefully many will want to read and understand the other articles in this magazine, or other backgammon resources. So even though this article is focused on basic concepts, let's take a moment to clarify a couple terms:
Let's also look at the number of rolls that result in at least one of two numbers:
Again, do you need to memorize this? No. But look at the implications. Suppose you have to leave a double shot, and you can leave shots either 2 and 3 pips away, or 6 and 3 pips. If you leave the 2-3 shot, there are 15 rolls that miss. If you leave the 6-3 shot, only 8 numbers miss. You almost double your chances of not being hit, with this one little insight.
The important thing is not to memorize these tables. It is important, though, to understand why there are 36 different combinations, and to be able to make use of this information.
Not that long ago I was playing a match online and a player criticized me. "You give up too easily" he said. "I never like to drop a double when I still have a chance to win."
I don't know what his threshold for "a chance" is, but I know he is giving away a lot of points to his opponents. A surprising number of players don't even know the basic equation for taking or dropping a double.
A very simple rule that will stand you in good stead is this:
This is really a pretty simple concept. Let's take a very simple position:
If you refer back to the dice table above, you will see that Blue has 27 rolls that will get his last checker off, and 9 that don't. He is exactly 25% to win this game.
If he doubles, and you pass, you will lose one point. If you take, then 25% of the time you will win the game, winning two points. Your average gain is a half point (25% times two points). You will lose two points 75% of the time, for an average loss of a point and a halfnet, loss of one point. You break even. So this position is right on the border. You can take or pass, and your long-run expectation is about the same.
Let's briefly talk about another one of our conceptsthat of "reference positions." Now that you know this position is right on the border, suppose you see this:
You could handle this three ways:
I suggest #3. Partly because it's a lot easier on the brain, partly because you'll get it right more often, and partly because the reason the expert knows this is a take is because that's how HE does it. He knows the 6-pip "reference position" and works from there. See - thinking like an expert isn't all that hard.
So, when should you double? That's actually a fairly complicated question, and it involves some theory we'll discuss in later articles. In general, though:
Many players are horribly afraid of doubling too soon. They worry that their opponent might take, and they'll lose the game, and why lose 2 points when they could have lost just one? Why not wait until they have a huge advantage and cash the game (offer a double the opponent would be foolish to take)?
Well, suppose you have bet on a football game. The teams are evenly matched, there is no point spread, and your team is leading by 3 points going into the final quarter. Would you double the bet if you could? Sure, why not? You have an advantage. You don't need to be up by 14 points with 3 minutes to go, do you?
This doesn't mean you should double with any advantage, however slight. It's a significant disadvantage in a game to have your opponent be able to double, but you can't. But you also don't need to be 90% to win. If you wait for those huge advantages, you will be giving your opponents a lot of chances to win games that they don't deserve.
Suppose you are (only) 80% likely to win the game, and you double. If your opponent drops, you win a pointyou've just locked in the other 20% of a game. If he takes, now you will win 2 points 80% of the time, for a net gain of 1.6 points, and lose 2 points 20% of the time, a net loss of 0.4 points, for an average win of 1.2 points. Either way, you're better off.
One excellent rule for doubling is called Woolsey's Law:
Consider the things that can happen if you double:
Advanced readers will very quickly notice that we've
oversimplified a number of important cube concepts. We'll deal with
them next issue.
Next Article: Doubling Theory and Market Losers.
Practical Backgammon is a column for beginning and intermediate players. Its goal is to offer specific solutions to common backgammon situations, and to provide the tools for advancing players to make use of more advanced material.