Match Play
The Challenge of Tournament Backgammon
by Phil Simborg, 2007
Phil Simborg
Many books have been written on tournament backgammon, and my goal here is not to tell you everything you need to know to be a winner. This article is for people who have enjoyed backgammon on a social level, or playing for small stakes with friends, but are ready to give tournament backgammon, or match play a try.

I want to tell you, right off, that match play is more complex and a lot more intellectually stimulating than money or social play. In match play you are playing against an opponent to see who can first score a given number of points. Most tournament matches are to 3, 5, 7, or 9 points, with longer matches in more important and advanced tournaments.

The fact that your score from each game accumulates, and the affect that you have different strategies, both for checker play and for cube decision, depending on the score, is what makes match play so much more interesting and diverse from single-game play.

Let me start out with an extreme example. Suppose you are in a 7 point match and you are winning 5 to 1. You only need 2 points to win the match, and your opponent needs 6. Surely you would not handle the doubling cube the same as if the score was 1-1, or the same as you would in a money game. In fact, you probably would not double in this situation unless your game was so strong your opponent could hardly expect to take the cube.

If you got to a very strong position where you are likely to win some gammons, you might not even turn the cube then, as you can win the match with a gammon without even turning the cube. And that is because the rule in match play is you can win gammons and backgammons even if the cube has not been turned. In money games there is the Jacoby rule, which requires the cube to be turned for gammons and backgammons to count.

Winning 5 to 1 your checker play is also affected. You might take more risks to win a gammon, as that gives you the entire match. Conversely, if you are losing 1-5, it's pretty important that you win the game, but at the same time, you have to protect from getting gammoned or you're done for.

Another rule you should be aware of in match play is the Crawford rule. The Crawford rule states that no player can double for one game after a player reaches one-away from match point. So if your opponent gets to 6 in a match to 7, you cannot double for one game. After that game, you should double immediately as you have nothing to lose by doubling ... if you don't double and he wins, you lose the match anyway. (There are some exceptions to this strategy, but they are rare and for very advanced players.)

Again, the single factor that makes match play complex is the match equity variance at different scores. If two players have the same score, assuming they are equal players, the match equity, or odds of winning, for each player is 50%. They will each win half the time. But for every difference in the score, that number changes, and when the number changes, so do the odds of winning or losing if you take or give a double and you win or lose at any given score.

All of these factors need to be considered, and to do it properly requires some pretty complicated math. Many very experienced players who play in the top division of major tournaments are only able to estimate these percentages when playing, and I would estimate that only a small percentage of players in the world are actually able to calculate accurate take and drop percentages in their head while playing. (I have been playing and studying the game for 45 years and often I just estimate or guess at these percentages when playing.)

The good news is that once you have an understanding of the basic concepts and reasoning, estimating will serve you pretty well. And the other good news is that there are tables that give us match equity and take points (the percentage you need to have in wins to take a cube) that have already been worked out for us, so with a little study you can memorize the percentages for most common and critical situations.

Because this article is intended for players who are new to match play, I will not go into detail on the percentages at this time, but suffice it to say the information is there in books and articles, and it's not that difficult to learn.

The real skill of the game is not only learning the information, but knowing how to apply it to a given situation over the board. Even if you know that your take point is, say, 30%, you then need to be able to look at the board and determine whether you would win the game 30% of the time from the current position, and you also have to factor in gammons and backgammons that you and your opponent might win.

If you are in a simple bearoff situation with only a few checkers left, it is possible to figure these odds, or estimate them pretty closely in your head. But for most doubling situations where there is still the possibility of contact (hitting each other) and there are many rolls and possible scenarios remaining in the game, there is no formula to help estimate wins and losses. Top players can make these estimates very accurately simply because they have spent years studying positions and playing out similar positions; they have excellent memories of similar positions to draw from (called reference positions); and they are simply very skilled at the game.

There are some positions that occur relatively often where I know, for example, that my odds of winning are around 95%. I know that with a closed board and two of my opponent's checkers on the bar I will win a gammon about 40% of the time. I know that if my opponent gives me the cube because he can hit me with a 6 or a 1 (and there are no points in between) that he will hit me 24 out of 36 rolls. If a hit means I lose the game, and a miss means I win the game, then I know I win 25 percent of the time in that situation. So if my take point is less than 25 percent, I take, and if not, I drop. These are known reference positions to me, and because of my experience, I have many, many more reference positions.

Without these reference positions, one can only guess and estimate, and even the best, most experienced players in the world often find themselves in situations where they must simply make their best guess. The better and more experienced you are, the less you are guessing, and the more you are remembering and calculating.

I hope this article did not scare you away from match and tournament play. It was intended not to show you how difficult and complicated it is, but how intricate and intellectually stimulating it is. Match play is an intellectual challenge that to me, can be every bit as complex and challenging as I have experienced playing duplicate bridge, chess, Scrabble, and other games which have challenged me over the years. But to me, backgammon is the most fun, and I encourage you to give tournaments a try.

My parting advice, however, is take some time to study and learn. You will not only win more often, you will find the learning experience itself to be most interesting and enjoyable.

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
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