Forum Archive : Learning

The backgammon cake

From:   Daniel Murphy
Address:   raccoon@cityraccoon.com
Date:   5 November 1997
Subject:   Re: Players who became good before they read Magriel
Forum:   rec.games.backgammon
Google:   34603dff.10060617@news.businessnet.dk

David Montgomery wrote:
> Recently I've been wondering how valuable reading Magriel is to someone
> who has become good, or at least competent, *before* they read the book.
> I would like to ask players who became good before reading Magriel
> to write me to tell me their experiences.  Did you find that you
> knew everything in the book?  Did you learn a lot?  Did it change
> the way you looked at the game?  Most importantly, did reading it
> help you play better?

I knew the rules of backgammon, but not much else (probably because
they were printed on the backside of my first chess board) when I
first played in 1978 over drinks with a friend in a cafe. One evening
I played three games with a stranger, three games being enough to tell
me I didn't stand a chance. It turned out he was a travelling
backgammon hustler. I don't remember how he moved the checkers but I
remember that he seemed to double early and take late and whether he
gave or took the cube the result was a doubled game for him. I doubt
if he had read Magriel's Backgammon. I suspect that he learned from
someone who had read Becker's Backgammon for Blood, and that was good
enough back then.

I didn't play again until 1988 or so, when I discovered the chess
tables in Washington Square Park in New York City. There was an old
guy there who slept in his taxi and won enough at $1 a point
backgammon to pay for his cigarettes, joints and beer. He took me for
$20, and the next week, I let him take me for $20 more.

Then I found out that one of my housemates played backgammon, and
through the winter months we played thousands of games. I took every
cube and every few hundred games I paid him off. The stakes were
astronomical. We started at a penny a point, moved to buffalo nickels,
dimes, quarters. By the time we got up to 50 cents a point, I wasn't
losing anymore. Soon after we raised the stakes to $1 a point, my
buddy quit on me and we never played again.

Sometime during this marathon session I read Jacoby's Backgammon Book,
which may still be the second best book, after Magriel, for beginners.
Towards the end of it I read Cooke's Paradoxes and Probabilities,
which is still my favorite backgammon book -- strange, perhaps,
because it's often wrong -- but it's wrong in a very interesting way.

By spring I was ready for small money games. I played a lot, and
watched a lot more. It wasn't hard to find better players to play or
watch since almost everyone was better than me. But then I read
Magriel, Deyong, Dwek, Joli, Ball, old issues of Las Vegas Backgammon
Magazine, Cooke's other two books and any others, good and bad, that I
could borrow. And I began to see that most of those players weren't
very good at all. So I played the bad ones, watched the good ones,
learned a lot and didn't have to pay for my lessons.

I don't remember how much of Magriel was new, helpful or
incomprehensible the first time through. But I've reread Magriel every
two or three years since then, this year for perhaps the last time --
or the next to last time -- because on at least two occasions, I found
that rereading Magriel put my game back on a winning track.

Rereading Magriel is a reminder that backgammon is primarily a race --
a race with obstacles -- and is more art than mathematics. It's about
recognizing and anticipating patterns. It's about always having a game
plan and being willing and able to change it. It's about using each
roll to create a flexible position that will make your next rolls,
whatever they are, work better for you. It's about using a small set
of concepts to make good decisions. Kit Woolsey says to put the
checkers where they want to go. And the only thing a backgammon friend
of mine remembers from a lecture by Kent Goulding was his advice to
intermediate players to, when in doubt, make the prettiest move. Good
advice, because the prettiest move is usually the best one.

I used to chouette with a fine player who enjoyed mulling over
possible moves while exclaiming "eh, and how can I overplay this
position?" He was joking, but I think many intermediate players go
through a stage where they think too much, always looking for the
tricky play that will create the complicated position in which their
newfound skills will shine. They forget that even the best backgammon
players lose close to half of their games, and too often those tricky
plays only trade an even game for a losing one.

As time goes by, the fundamental things apply. If you're a beginning
player, read Magriel. Magriel explains all the fundamentals. If you
beat bad players handily but can't seem to beat anyone else, read or
reread Magriel and think about how you can better apply the
fundamentals to the way you go about making play decisions. You may
find that the reason you lose is not because you rolled a bad number
on move 9, but because you didn't have a plan when you made moves 3,
4, and 5; you didn't know if you were ahead or behind; you didn't
compare anchors, blots and builders, points and primes -- or maybe you
did but didn't let that influence your game plan and each and every
play decision. Perhaps you played too safely, not taking a small risk
for a big reward. Or perhaps you gave your opponent one too many
unnecessary chances. And you had no thought for how your decision on
move 3 might affect the position you reached on move 9, or even on
move 4 or 5.

Having a plan (and being willing and able to change it), identifying
the key features of a position, anticipating how a position might
develop -- this is the essence of backgammon and surprisingly easy for
decent players to forget. Magriel reminds you how to bake the
backgammon cake. You'll need to know more to take your game to yet a
higher level, but the rest, however essential, is icing.
Daniel Murphy  http://www.cityraccoon.com
FIBS: http://www.fibs.com
Denmark: http://www.cityraccoon.com/hbk.html
San Francisco: http://www.backgammon.org
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