Opening Rolls

Forum Archive : Opening Rolls

Opening 53: Magriel's recommendation

From:   George Parker
Date:   8 July 1997
Subject:   Re: 5-3 opening roll

Jorgen Lyng wrote:
> In Paul Magriel's book he recommend that an opening roll of 5-3 is
> played 13-8 and 13-10, because 8-3 6-3 leaves a gap of 2, but
> JellyFish always suggest 8-3 6-3 even on level 7, so is 8-3 6-3 better
> after all?

Hi Jorgen,

My best knowledge of this is that 53 as an opening roll has always been
used to make the three point, that is, until the 70's when experts of
the day began advising against it. As far as i am aware the earliest
mention of the other 53, i.e. 13-10 13-8, is in a book called The
Backgammon Book by John Crawford and Oswald Jacoby. This book advises
against the so called modern play. Most other books published in the
70's consider it an "expert's move", which implies that since it makes
such little sense, it must be a supremely sophisticated strategy. The
logic behind it is indeed sophisticated, but utterly useless considering
the nature of the game. Priming and blocking are only secondary
necessities to the primary goal of backgammon, which is to outrace your
opponent around the board. Getting pieces knocked back for no legitimate
compensation is obviously contrary to this goal.

Backgammon in those days was seen mostly as a prime or be primed game.
The idea promoted by these books, and hence this opening for the 53, was
to build inner board points early and fast, and in order - highest to
lowest. You see similar recommendations for 62 and any opener with a
one. These books almost said "get hit, play a back game, win every now
and's more fun that way". The problem with the logic to this
play, and others like it, is that sometimes a bird in hand is indeed
worth two in the bush, and even though these plays sometimes score
impressive wins, the solid, stodgy looking play has more value in the
long run.(Thanks Kit!) Nowadays players aren't quite as desperate to be
the first one to make their five point, they will make plays that have
immediate value and long term playability. Of course not every roll
affords such securities, but one must make do with the best one has.

It is worth experimenting with different options for the opening roll
to see how certain postions develop. 13-10 13-8 seems to take a theme a
little too far, and this without mention of the technical complications
of it,(only a 51 roll is significantly improved by it.) More
interesting, I think, are the slotting plays, recommended until very
recently by nearly all world class experts for nearly all opening
situations. I, myself, used to slot the five point with 53. When it
worked it sure was cool, but now that I have been playing 53 to make the
three point, I see the great and often unexpected value owning that
maligned point can have - a potential blitz becomes already 50% more
effective, not to mention the blocking value it can have against threats
to blots on outer points. All in all, my money is on the three point,
yet i wouldn't laugh at the other plays... unless, of course, I rolled a
nine (or a four in the case of a slot.)

There are occasions in which these plays are useful, and it is good to
know your various options, to know their relative merits, and to know
when to employ these options. In the long run, however, you will
probably see that it is not necessary to squander all your options on an
opening gamble that subsumes all reason to an ideal objective, i.e. make
that five point first! You will most likely have many opportunities to
make the five point in time to be useful. Imagine this sequence: you
roll 53, make the three point; your opponent slots his five point; you
hit the slot with a 31 or a 4; he dances on your 2 point board! It
happens more times than you might expect. Suppose on the other hand he
has a blot on your five point and one on your one point; you hit loose
on the five point with a one; he rolls 22! You have now effectively
slotted your five point AND kept your opponent from escaping or making
an advanced anchor. These parlays may seem remote, and indeed they are,
but situations like them where owning that three point becomes valuable
are too numerous to list, of course.

Like I said before, I think the slotting plays for the opening roll are
the most interesting, obviously having been developed by players who saw
the value and success of knocking their opponents off their five point
in the early game. Watch your Jellyfish when it gets behind in a match,
it will play its opening roll by slotting with a one. Interesting...huh?
The reason is that the play scores more gammons at the cost of losing a
few more games... sometimes you have to play big to win big, or at least
catch up.

This discussion may have been more than you were expecting or even
asking for, if so, I apologize for indulging myself. Perhaps there are
others who know more than myself who are willing to discuss these
matters. I know I would like to hear what others have to say.

George Parker (geop)

Oh, by the way, this prime-the-opponent-at-all-costs style of play is
known in the backgammon world as "pure" play.

Daniel Murphy  writes:

Expert opinion on how to play an opening 53 has shifted several times
since the 1930s, and at least once since Paul Magriel's "Backgammon"
was published in the 1970s.

8/3 6/3 is recommended in several books from the 1930s.  For at least
one author of that time, the second choice was not 13/8 13/10, but
13/5.  In Bruce Becker's hyperagressive Backgammon for Blood (1974),
13/5 was his first choice, 13/8 13/10 was second, and 8/3 6/3 a poor
third, for the same reasons Magriel gave in his book. In Tim Holland's
Beginning Backgammon (1973), 8/3 6/3 is called the "conservative 53,"
and 13/8 13/10 the "aggressive 53."  Goren's Backgammon Complete
(1974, with "Technical Consultant" Chuck Papazian) also recommends
13/8 13/10 but calls 8/3 6/3 only "slightly inferior."  Interestingly,
Goren says that 8/3 6/3 had been the "automatic" play until recently.

Magriel's recommendation of 13/8 13/10 reflects the body of expert
opinion in the mid-1970s.  Rejecting the three point as "too deep,"
experts aimed for the 5, 4 and bar points.  The idea behind 13/8 13/10
is to diversify builders with only a small risk in order to build a
potentially powerful prime.

Today, however, experts agree that making the 3 point is better even
though it leaves a gap on the 4 and 5 points.  There are several

First, a point is a point.  Perhaps because modern play rewards both
splitting/slotting *and* hitting those blots aggressively, any point
in the home board, even the 3 or 2 point, can be valuable in an early
exchange of blot hitting.  And of course the 3 point becomes a much
more effective blocking point as soon as the 5 or 4 is made also.

Second, while 13/8 13/10 aims for flexibility in making valuable
points, it can quickly lead to an inflexible position, because it
weakens the midpoint by stripping it of all but one builder.

Third, putting a fourth checker on the 8 is not helpful at all.  The
builder on the 10 point *potentially* makes 5/3, 5/1, 6/3, 6/2 and 6/4
play well, but not if the blot gets hit first, and not necessarily
much better than how these numbers would play after 8/3 6/3 and the
opponent's next roll.

As Goren put it, in the 1970s, experts played 53 to try to make
"potentially useful points rather than settle for the scrawny
bird-in-hand."  Since then, the experts have realized that the bird
isn't so scrawny.

Brian Sheppard  writes:

It is definitely better to make the 3 point. In fact, you might be
surprised to learn that making the 2 point with a 6-4 is competitive
with 24/14 and 24/18 13/9.

I used to routinely play 13/8 13/10, as recommended by Magriel and
other books from the '70s. Then I got a book by Phillip Martyn, which
stated something along the lines of "Most experts say the 3 point
is not worth having early on. They are wrong. The more one plays
this game the more one realizes the value of *any* inner-board point."

That coment by Martyn got me thinking. I decided to do a systematic
review of the rolls after both pointing (8/3 6/3) and building (13/8

Opponent's rolls
1-1 edge to pointing, since we might hit
2-1 edge to pointing, since we might hit
3-1 equal
4-1 edge to pointing, since we might hit
5-1 edge to pointing, since we might hit
6-1 equal
2-2 equal
3-2 edge to pointing, since we might hit
4-2 equal
5-2 edge to pointing, since we might hit
6-2 edge to pointing, since we might hit
3-3 equal
4-3 edge to pointing, since we might hit
5-3 equal (played 8/3, 6/3, of course!)
6-3 big edge to 8/3 6/3
4-4 equal
5-4 big edge to 8/3 6/3
6-4 equal
5-5 equal
6-5 equal
6-6 equal

Our rolls
1-1 edge to pointing (extra point, no shots)
2-1 edge to pointing (3 point versus 10 point)
3-1 edge to pointing (3 point made versus unmade)
4-1 edge to pointing (3 point versus 9 point)
5-1 edge to building (5 point versus 3 point)
6-1 edge to pointing
2-2 edge to pointing (3 point made versus unmade)
3-2 edge to pointing
4-2 edge to pointing
5-2 edge to pointing
6-2 edge to building
3-3 edge to pointing
4-3 edge to pointing
5-3 edge to building
6-3 edge to building (7 point versus 3 point)
4-4 edge to pointing
5-4 edge to pointing
6-4 edge to building (4 and 3 points versus 4 and 2 points)
5-5 edge to building
6-5 edge to pointing
6-6 edge to pointing

When you total it all up, making the 3 point puts you a tempo
ahead of the building play. Sure, building comes out better if you
roll 5-1, 5-3, 5-5, 6-2, 6-3 or 6-4. But the chance of that is just
30%, and even that is diluted by the fact that the opponent could roll
5-4, 6-3 or a small doublet and take away the benefit.

Now, in defense of the building play I must note that the gain from
covering the 5-point or 4-point is very large, whereas the gain from
owning the 3-point is small. In fact, the 3-point has little priming
value (because of the gaps), so its value is limited to the extra
3/36 of the time that the opponent will stay on the bar when you hit

Adding up the rolls of both sides, it seems to me that you will be
happy you made the 3-point over 75% of the time. And my judgment
is that the infrequent advantage of the 4- or 5-points over the 3-
point is insufficient compensation.

JF gives 8/3 6/3 a .046 evaluation, and 13/8 13/10 a .014 evaluation.
If accurate, these numbers give 8/3 6/3 about a 3% edge.
Did you find the information in this article useful?          

Do you have any comments you'd like to add?     


Opening Rolls

At different match scores  (Louis Nardy Pillards, July 2002) 
Average advantage of winning opening roll  (Chuck Bower, Oct 1998) 
Choosing a strategy  (Daniel Murphy, June 2001) 
Early game rule of thumb  (Rich Munitz, Feb 2009) 
Factors to consider  (Kit Woolsey, July 1994) 
How computers play  (Kit Woolsey, Mar 1995)  [Recommended reading]
Magriel's Chapter 5  (Hayden Alfano+, May 2006)  [Long message]
Mloner vs Jellyfish  (Kit Woolsey, Dec 1995) 
Nactating a whole game  (Nack Ballard+, Jan 2011)  [Long message]
Nactation  (Jim Stutz+, June 2010) 
Nactation overview  (Nack Ballard, Oct 2009) 
Nactation--Why use it?  (leobueno+, Jan 2011) 
Opening 1's: Split or slot?  (Douglas Zare, Dec 2003) 
Opening 21: Rollout  (Stick, Mar 2006)  [GammOnLine forum]
Opening 21: Split or slot?  (Dick Adams+, Dec 2003) 
Opening 32: Rollout  (Stick, Feb 2006)  [GammOnLine forum]
Opening 43: In GOL online match  (Raccoon+, Feb 2004)  [GammOnLine forum]
Opening 43: Pros and cons  (Stick+, Jan 2006)  [GammOnLine forum]
Opening 43: Which split is better?  (Peter Backgren+, Aug 2000) 
Opening 43: Which split is better?  (Michael J. Zehr+, Mar 1996) 
Opening 51: Rollout  (Stick, Feb 2006)  [GammOnLine forum]
Opening 52: Merits of splitting  (Peter Bell, Apr 1995) 
Opening 53: Magriel's recommendation  (George Parker+, July 1997)  [Long message]
Opening 53: Split to 21?  (Alex Zamanian, Aug 2000) 
Opening 53: Why make the three point?  (Kit Woolsey+, Feb 1996) 
Opening 6's: Slot the bar point?  (Chuck Bower+, Feb 2000) 
Opening 6's: Slot the bar point?  (David Montgomery, June 1995) 
Opening 62: Could running be best?  (Gary Wong, Sept 1997) 
Opening 62: Split, run, or slot?  (Chuck Bower, May 1997) 
Opening 63: Middle Eastern split?  (Mark+, Apr 2002) 
Opening 63: Slot the four point?  (Dennis Cartwright+, Mar 2002) 
Opening 64: Make the two point?  (William Hill+, Jan 1998) 
Opening 64: Make the two point?  (Darse Billings, Feb 1995) 
Opening 64: Rollout  (Peter Grotrian, Jan 2006)  [GammOnLine forum]
Opening 64: Split to 20?  (Peter Bell, June 1995) 
Opening 64: Three choices  (Brian Sheppard, July 1997) 
Opening 65: Becker on lover's leap  (Jeffrey Spiegler+, Aug 1991) 
Opening 65: Computer rankings  (Chuck Bower, Jan 1997) 
Opening rolls ranked  (Arthur+, Apr 2005) 
Rollouts of opening 21 and replies  (Alexander Nitschke, Oct 1997) 
Rollouts of openings  (Tom Keith+, Jan 2006) 
Rollouts: Expert Backgammon  (Tom Fahland, Aug 1994) 
Rollouts: Jellyfish 3.0  (Midas+, Sept 1997) 
Rollouts: Jellyfish 3.0 level 6  (Chuck Bower, Feb 1999)  [Recommended reading]
Rollouts: Snowie 4.1  (Rene Cerutti, Apr 2004) 
Slotting the four point  (Joe Loria+, Oct 1999) 
Snowie's openers and replies  (rcerutti, Feb 1999)  [Long message]
Splitting versus building  (Dave Slayton+, Aug 2000) 
Splitting versus slotting  (Daniel Murphy, Apr 2001) 
Splitting versus slotting  (Daniel Murphy, Sept 1997) 
Trice's rankings  (Marty Storer, Feb 1992) 

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