This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of GammOnLine.
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.

Beginners and Bots

By Steve Flanagan

Being a beginner/intermediate myself, how should someone like me tackle playing against the bots?  Hopefully, this article will provide some pointers (from a beginner’s point of view), but how did I stumble across bot playing programs and backgammon in general?

I can’t remember the year, but I can remember how I started getting interested in backgammon.  During my final Primary School year (for US readers, a British Primary School is the equivalent to your pre-High School) our class used to go to the library once a month and were allowed to borrow one book.  During one of these library trips I stumbled across an Oswald Jacoby book explaining the rules of this mystifying game.

I had seen backgammon boards before, usually on the back of draughts (checker) boards, but had no idea how to play.  Once I borrowed Jacoby’s book I sat down and taught myself how to play going through his example game numerous times (incidentally White beat Black by a single game on an 8 cube after Black had mistakenly taken a 2 cube instead of passing).  I then played against myself and, thanks to the form of notation given in the book, was able to record these games (although they have been lost in the mists of time).  I have to admit that at the time, although the board itself looked mystifying, the game appeared to be very, very easy.  I have subsequently found out that the rules a very, very easy, but playing the game isn’t!

Not long after this interest was sparked my mother and father bought me a proper felt and leather backgammon board on which me and my father, who had also learnt the rules, played many, many games.  At that time I had no concept of matches or that points could be added up in “money” games – basically it was who beat who at a single game irrespective of the doubling cube value just for bragging rights.  I do remember one of these games where we blindly kept turning the cube at various junctures (usually when blots got hit) and ended up with a 256 cube!  I won.  If only we had been playing for money.  Basically our premise was that if we hit a blot in our opponent’s home board we cubed.  Most of the time we took these cubes – probably more to do with ego than knowledge.  Games were fun and my only regret is that I didn’t record them and keep them for now, even it was to see just how badly (or good) we actually played.

My backgammon obsession then lulled as other things took over (mainly women and alcohol) – but the advent of connecting to the internet re-fuelled that original obsession from twenty years previous.  I was astounded to find that an opening roll of 53 should be played 8/3 6/3 rather than the suggested 13/8 13/10 from my original book – which had gone back to the library many, many years previous.

The internet was searched thoroughly for every scrap of new information and games were played against a low-level freeware playing program which started off beating me resoundly to the results turning the other way around!

I had been reading about Snowie and JellyFish and how these programs could provide you with analysis of your plays and provide suggestions as to what you should play.  This appeared a godsend until I saw the prices which were way out of my pocket money league at the time.  Then I found GNU Backgammon and, basically, haven’t looked back.

I could now perform rollouts, analysis, and everything else all the “experts” were telling me.  I started playing against the program set on intermediate at 11 point games and I carried on playing these merrily with the occasional money session thrown in.  The 11-pointers didn’t go too badly in which I usually ended up winning on average 1 out of every 3 games.  Forays into matches against Advanced and World Class usually produced humiliating losses, although I did win a match 11-0 once, with the help of an 8 cube in one game!

I then posted on the message board, which is a great place to see problem positions and general backgammon tips, asking how I could improve my game further.  I got several replies telling me to play shorter matches or money sessions against the computer, as well as several other bits of advice (for which I am most grateful).

I’ve started doing this and have got to the position whereby I now regularly beat GNU Intermediate at 3 point matches about 4 times out of 5.  I also played a money session against the computer and was astounded to find that when I finished, several hours later, I had only lost about 8 points!  Better than the 30-odd I was getting beat by previously.  But how has this increase in my ability come about?  Hopefully the following lessons will help you non-expert players like me improve your game.

Lesson 1 – Slow Down!

Playing against a backgammon bot is like playing against a chess bot.  Due to processor speeds, and many other technical bits I don’t understand, computers play very, very fast (even at GNU 2-ply).  I fell into the trap of playing the computer at it’s own speed.  This was my first, and probably biggest mistake.  Because I was playing so fast I ended up rolling when I should have cubed as well as missing obvious plays because I more, or less, played the first move that came into my head.  That was my first lesson, slow down.  The bot doesn’t care how long you take.  When you analyse a match, it’s not the length of time that’s being measured, it’s the quality of your decisions.  Take your time, don’t get sucked into playing the computer at it’s own speed – you will always lose out.  There is a saying along the lines of “bad moves are often played because you didn’t see the best move in the first place”.  Take your time.

Lesson 2 – Backgammon is, essentially, a race.

My second mistake was forgetting this.  In my early bot-playing days I would end up with 2 men stuck behind a 5 or 6-prime, and usually lost because of this, because I was trying to make the “pretty” play.  This has even led to me changing my opening style to the point where an opening roll of 54 is played 24/15, to get the back man out (especially after a 61 opening by the bot).  Personally, I’m not sure how this sits with the “experts” but it has worked extremely well for me against GNU.

Lesson 3 - Experiment

Changing one of my openings, as mentioned above, leads me on to my third lesson of experimenting.  The bot is not going to continually harp on at you about how many times it has thrashed you out of sight.  Learn from your games, and try different things to see how they work, you might get a pleasant surprise!

Lesson 4 – Save every game you play

Talking about learning from games, I save every game I play against the bot no matter how badly I got beat.  You can always learn and analysing the match or session afterwards can reap huge benefits.  Combining this with experimentation (lesson 3) I always noticed that GNU hit me whenever it had 1 blot or less in it’s home board.  When it had 2 or more blots it would generally leave me alone, especially if my home board was well built.  What did this teach me?  I knew I could take risks early on when getting hit would not be such a massive problem.  However, in the latter stages of the game you need to look at the threats of getting a blot hit along with the strength of your opponents home board before deciding whether to move or not.  Funnily enough, this makes you take your time over a move.

Lesson 5 – Copy what the bot does in most situations.

To me bots play a very, very good game, even at 1-ply.  So, see what they do and when you are in a similar position, copy them!  Obviously bots tend to play some positions worse than others (in fact you could say that bots play all positions to a standard and it’s just that humans are better playing those positions – but that is a meta-physical question) but these have been substantially highlighted both here and elsewhere – so you should already have an idea of when not to copy what a bot does!  This lesson actually taught me to get my men out as soon as possible and as safely as possible, whilst also showing me when to double and when not to.  One final bit of this lesson is that if you play a money session against the bot and you double, if he beavers you, you’ve probably made a mistake (especially if there is no unicorn in sight!)

Lesson 6 (the most important) – Learn to use the cube properly!

The final lesson I have learned from my games against GNU is probably the one that will help you no matter who (or what) you play at backgammon.  Learn to use the cube.  Try and get to know when you should double, and when you should take or pass a double. From articles her in GammOnLine and elsewhere (on the net and in books) I have worked out a rough and ready rule for my doubling decisions.  If I have escaped my two back men fairly safely and have managed to contain my opponents back men, whilst providing some kind of effective blockade (at least three or four points) then I usually double.  I have been pleasantly surprised as to how often this rule of thumb actually works.  This shows you how experimenting can actually work in your favour.  Sometimes you happen on a general rule of thumb which works more often than not and which you can then use in the future, however, sometimes it doesn’t work and that can also tell you a lot of information.

You will have noticed that most of the lessons are combined.  For example, in getting to my doubling rule of thumb above I used the teachings of lessons 3 (Experiment), 5 (Copy what the bot does) and 6 (learn to use the cube).

So remember:

1 – Slow down

2 - Remember backgammon is a race

3 – Experiment

4 – Save every game you play and analyse it

5 – See what the bot does in certain situations a copy it

6 – Learn to use the cube

Once you beat a bot regularly, and then start beating the next level regularly, your enjoyment from the game increases greatly – mine has!

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