The Pro-Am Tournament
Kit Woosley, 2001
GammOnLine, March 2001
The Pro-Am tournament is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world. Professionals and amateurs play together in consulting doubles. The entry fee this year was $13,000, and the caliber of play is always very high. Of course sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish the pros from the amateurs.

The four semi-finalists were:

  1. Nack Ballard — Harvy Huie
  2. Ken Arnold — Kit Woolsey
  3. Mike Senkiewicz — Mike Sherman
  4. Malcolm Davis — Talmadge Tinsley

In a hard-fought and well-played match, Ballard-Huie triumphed over Arnold-Woolsey (we may be seeing this match featured soon on GammOnLine). In the other semifinal match, also a close one, Senkiewicz-Sherman topped Davis-Tinsley. The finals was a 23-point match.

Senk-Sherman pulled to a 13–7 lead, but Ballard-Huie were able to come back and close the gap. With Senk-Sherman ahead 15–14, this pivotal game occurred.

Senk-Sherman (Black) Ballard-Huie (White)
1. 2-1: 13/11, 6/5 5-3: 8/3, 6/3

Black to play 2-2.

2. 2-2: 13/5

This is the conservative approach. There is nothing wrong with the play, but I prefer the more dynamic 13/11, 8/4, 6/4. Black will be a big favorite to make his five point next roll and have a commanding advantage if the blot isn't hit. If White does hit, Black has the 11 point nailed down as a backup, and has plenty of return shots.

2. . . . 5-5: 13/8(2), 13/3

Should Black double?

Black has a positional edge, but he is nowhere a double. White is ahead in the race, and White has as many inner board points as Black does.

Black to play 4-3.

3. 4-3: 13/9, 8/5

Splitting the back men would be wrong here. White is already over-extended, and he would love to have the chance to activate his advanced checkers to pound away at Black's blots. Black is behind in the race, which translates to ahead in a priming battle. Thus Black is correct to leave the back men alone and concentrate on building up his board.

White to play 6-1.

3. . . . 6-1: 8/2, 3/2

This looks better than making the bar point for several reasons. First of all, making the bar point loses the midpoint and leaves a direct shot. Secondly, White gets to activate the dead checker on the three point. Thirdly, a priming game is not White's game plan since he is ahead in the race. Inner board building in preparation for a slugfest is much more accurate.

4. 5-5: 13/3(2) 6-1: 13/7, 8/7

Black to play 5-4.

5. 5-4: 9/4, 8/4

Plugging the gap on the four point is far more important than escaping a back checker. Even though White has made his bar point, Black's back checkers aren't very hemmed in yet.

White to play 6-2.

5. . . . 6-2: 24/16

White chooses to make a bolt for it. I'm not so sure about this play. Before Black rolled those double-fives the timing was against White in a priming battle. The double-fives, however, evened up the race and the timing battle as well. Now Black has the stronger board, but it is White who owns the blocking bar point. For these reasons I believe White can afford to hang onto the anchor and work on the priming game. The pretty safe 13/7, 8/6 is too unproductive. However 13/7, 6/4 has plenty of possibilities. White will be in trouble if he is hit, but if he is not hit he will be a big favorite to make the four point and be in pretty good shape in the priming battle. I believe White didn't notice how the timing had shifted on the last two rolls and failed to change his primiary objectives.

Should Black double?

6. Double

A very reasonable cube. Black has a lot of threats, including good blitzing chances. The market losers are definitely there. Had White played 13/7, 6/4 last roll, I doubt if Black would have even turned the cube. Black would have to hit the shot or escape a back checker to have a substantial advantage.

6. . . . Take

Scary though it looks, White has to take. Even though Black has a four-point board, he has yet to put White on the bar and he might not do so. In addition White's offense is in good shape, and Black may get tangled up trying to blitz and extricate the back checkers at the same time. Sure there is gammon danger, but White is better off taking that risk than conceding the point.

Black to play 6-3.

7. 6-3: 24/21, 11/5

Making the two point may look natural, but it is not thematic. Black needs to get his back checkers moving fast or he could be in trouble. In addition, 24/21, 11/5 picks up the blot on the 11 point. I like the play.

White to play 5-1.

7. . . . 5-1: 24/18

Having run with one back checker, escaping with the other one is clear. White does not want to leave that checker for Black's hungry wolves to attack. If White can survive the next roll without being hit he will be in good shape with his outfield control.

Black to play 3-1.

8. 3-1: 24/21, 8/7*

Making the anchor has clear priority over doing anything on the offensive front. This guards against an accident and prepares to escape both back men.

8. . . . 6-5: --

Black to play 5-2.

9. 5-2: 21/16, 6/4

Black makes the natural developing play, going all out for the gammon. Is it worth it? Black certainly gets better distribution than if he quietly plays 21/16, 7/5. However picking up the blot on the bar point can make a big difference if White enters. There is an immediate big swing on 6-1 and 5-2, and many of White's other entering numbers will put Black on the bar. Black has plenty of other things to do with the outfield checkers anyway. I'm sure I would have made the same play and I think it is probably correct, but it wouldn't shock me at all if the safer play was the winner.

White to play 3-2.

9. . . . 3-2: bar/23, 7/4*

This is one of the biggest plays I have ever seen in the finals of a major backgammon tournament. White is leaving five blots strewn around against Black's four-point board, and every entering number except 6-5 hits something. It is very tempting to play with one blot and play bar/23, 16/13. That one blot may get pounded away, but the gammon danger is clearly much less. However the hit has a lot going for it. If Black flunks, which will happen 1/4 of the time, White instantly becomes a big favorite. Black's fours are duplicated, so the outfield blot is safe for a roll. If Black hits on the two point White has a chance to hit back, and if Black doesn't hit there White has a chance to roll a two and anchor. At the time I was watching I thought the loose hit on the four point was too rich, but I have since become convinced that it is probably the correct play.

10. 2-2: --

Should White
redouble to 4?

What's going on? Why isn't White doubling? Not good enough? Too good? At the time I felt that Black had a pass if White doubled, so I concluded that White must have felt it worth playing on for a gammon. This seemed to me to be a very optimistic view considering the extreme volatility of the position and the fact that Black could snap back into being a favorite with one lucky roll next turn.

When I asked Nack about it after the match, he told me he felt he wasn't good enough to double! This struck me as even more remarkable. First of all I did think it was a pass, so unless I had lost my mind there must at least be some chance that it is a pass which makes doubling almost automatic. Secondly, the volitility is in the sky which is very conducive to doubling even if it is a clear take.

This kind of difference of opinion among experts shows just how difficult a game backgammon can be, and illustrates the importance of doubling in positions such as this. I still believe it is a pass, and I think that failing to double here is a huge blunder.

White to play 5-1.

10. . . . 5-1: 23/18*, 4/3

No reason to leave the four point slotted. White does not dare let Black have a chance to snap back into the game now.

11. 6-1: bar/24

Should White
redouble to 4?

Now it is clear that White is playing on for the gammon. I agree. The gammon chances are there, and there is little danger of an instant turnaround. Just about any roll gives White some kind of improvement such as hitting the outfield blot, making the bar point, or attacking safely on the ace point. After any of these good things, Black will have to throw an entering doubles from the bar to get back into the game immediately.

White to play 5-3.

11. . . . 5-3: 16/13, 7/2

A complete horror roll. White accomplishes absolutely nothing. Hitting loose on the ace point is too dangerous since Black has the stronger board. White can only play safe and hope that Black rolls badly so White will be able to cash with the cube.

12. 6-1: bar/24, 16/10

Should White
redouble to 4?

I admit that I would have doubled here as White. It wasn't obvious to me that Black even had a take. As we will see, my judgment was way off.

White to play 3-1.

12. . . . 3-1: 18/15*/14

18/15*, 13/12 would expose White to 5-5 and 4-4 jokers. This seems to be a bit too much to risk, particularly since White has cube access. There is no need to overplay the position.

13. 3-3: --

Should White
redouble to 4?

13. . . . Double

Now White clearly has a very solid double. It is Black's problem.

14. Take

As you can probably judge from my previous comment, I thought this take was an error. Snowie rollouts show that the take is quite clear. The gaps on the four and five points, the dead checkers on the two and three points, and Black's strong offense really count for a lot in this position — much more than I had realized. An instructive result.

14. . . . 4-3: 14/10, 13/10
15. 6-2: --

White to play 4-1.

15. . . . 4-1: 13/9, 10/9

Is it worth paying off to three hitting numbers with this play rather than playing the safe 13/8? It probably is. White really does need those inner board points, and after 13/8 just about any roll which doesn't make a point will lead to an awkward position. I like the play.

16. 1-1: bar/24, 5/2 3-3: 9/6(2), 8/5(2)
17. 4-1: 6/2, 4/3 2-1: 10/8, 6/5
18. 2-2: 6/4, 5/1, 3/1 5-1: 8/3, 6/5

Black to play 3-2.

19. 3-2: 24/21, 4/2

Black might as well leave the blot on the six point in the hope of making the point conveniently. He can probably lift the blot to safety if necessary.

19. . . . 4-2: 6/4*/off

Black to play 4-3.

20. 4-3: bar/18

Stepping out into the outfield and holding the 24 point is clear. This avoids getting stuck on the bar and lets Black bring one checker home while holding an anchor to make White's bearin difficult.

White to play 3-1.

20. . . . 3-1: 6/5, 3/off

Perhaps not the safest play, but quite likely correct. The gammon could still be close, and every checker off matters. White prepares to clear the six point while keeping spares on all his other points.

21. 4-2: 18/12

White to play 2-1.

21. . . . 2-1: 5/2

3/off is greedier, but the spare on the three point might be needed later on. The extra flexibility looks worth not taking a checker off.

22. 5-5: 12/2, 6/1 6-4: 6/2, 6/off

Black to play 3-2.

23. 3-2: 24/19

Running a back checker is clear. Helps get Black off the gammon, and Black needs to keep what is left of his board if he hopes to win the game by hitting a shot. Also, leaving one checker on the ace point forces White to leave an immediate shot on some fours.

23. . . . 4-2: 5/1*, 3/1
24. 4-1: bar/21, 19/18

White to play 1-1.

24. . . . 1-1: 5/4*/3, 2/off

Definitely not the safest play, but that extra checker off is big. The gammon could be getting close now. White's play leaves a gap and leaves him odd on the outside which means several shot numbers, but even if White rolls one of them Black still has to hit and then he still has to win. Hitting is necessary if White wants to get a gammon. 5/4(2)*, 5/3 and 5/4*, 4/1 are both safer, but these plays don't take a checker off and fail to unstack the heavy two point. I like the actual play.

25. 2-1: -- 4-4: 5/1(2), 3/off(2)
26. 2-1: -- 5-4: 3/off, 2/off
27. 4-2: bar/21, 18/16 4-4: 2/off(3), 1/off
28. 4-2: 21/15

8 points

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