Mastering Backgammon
 Building Structure by Bill Robertie This article originally appeared on Pokernews.com, April 11, 2007.

One of the most difficult choices in the early and middle stages of a backgammon game is the choice between creating structure (a blocking prime) and attending to issues on the other side of the board. Those issues vary: you might be able to hit a checker, or make a defensive anchor, or escape one of your back men. In some cases, making structure is correct. In other cases, playing on the other side of the board is correct.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples, to see the ideas that have to guide us in these decisions.

 Position 1.Black to play 6-1.

Not a tough problem. Black can hit a blot with 24/17* or build some structure with 13/7, 8/7. The structural play has two problems: the structure isn't that impressive, and it gives White a direct shot at Black's blot on the 14-point. For structure to trump hitting, you want structure which is solid and imposing.

24/17* might look loose, but it accomplishes two great things: hits an important blot, and escapes a rear checker. True, White may hit back. He has a total of 16 return hits (all twos but 2-6, and all fives but 5-6). But that leaves 20 rolls that don't hit, and those are great rolls for Black—he's ahead in the race and his rear checkers are out. Potentially getting all your back checkers out is a great result, and 24/17* puts Black within striking distance of that goal.

 Position 2.Black to play 6-1.

Black has two choices: he can block in White's two rear checkers with 13/7, 8/7, or he can escape his own last checker with 24/17. Running out is more volatile—if Black gets away with it, he's close to a double, but if White hits, Black is an immediate underdog. Making the 7-point, on the other hand, leaves Black a solid but unspectacular favorite in most variations.

What's right? Black should go ahead and make his 7-point. There are two reasons:

• With an advantage and a centered cube, you're not looking to make big swing plays. You're more interested in plays that preserve your advantage and creep closer to an eventual good double. When in doubt between the merits of two plays, lean to the more conservative choice.

• Trapping two men will increase your gammon chances dramatically. There's actually not much difference in raw winning chances between the two plays, but locking in White's two back checkers will win many more gammons.

The basic idea in these positions is a simple one: the quality of the structure you build is key. Turning a very weak structure into a slightly better structure, as in Position 1, isn't worth that much. Turning a broken structure into a 5-point prime, as in Position 2, is huge, even when the alternative is escaping the last checker from behind a 5-prime! The lesson to be learned is that creating a 5-prime or even a 4-prime may outweigh making progress on the other side of the board, but just building a blocking point or a 3-prime is probably not enough.

Next time:  Two Interesting Back Game Plays