Celebrating 15 years in backgammon games

The Best Way to Learn and Improve Your Backgammon Game

by Phil Simborg
13 December 2007

Phil Simborg

I am writing this article to share with you what I believe to be the best way to learn or improve your backgammon skills.

I have been giving lessons to beginner and intermediate players for about 20 years. I have found that the best way for my students to learn is to break the game down into single, specific areas of play, discuss then independently, and then practice just that area until they get it.

Trying to learn the entire game at once is just too much. I know players that have played this game almost every day for many years and they have not improved at all...so simply playing and practicing is not the way to learn.

I have broken down the game into 30 basic areas of play, and we concentrate on one at a time. For example, one area of play is opening moves, and another is bearing off, and another is playing a back game, another is defending against a back game, another is deciding when to double, another is deciding when to play for the gammon, and so on.

So we take one area, talk about the major principles, and then I provide a "sample position" where we can apply what we've learned. We put that position on the board (or on the screen, as many of my lessons are on line), and we discuss how to play every roll or cube decision.

Then, we go a step further. Many of my students have Snowie, JF, or GNUBG, and I show them how to put the position into the bot so they can play the same position over and over and see what they right play should be. The next week, or by email, we discuss any moves they got wrong that they didn't understand why they were wrong.

Then I add a slightly different, but more complex position, and we do it again. Within a couple of weeks, EVERY ONE OF MY STUDENTS shows significant improvement and understanding of the particular area of the game we were studying.

For example, to help my students understand the principles of bearing in and bearing off, I start with a fairly common situation where the opponent holds the ace point (See Position 1). I call out rolls randomly and we play each roll. During the week, between lessons, they play the position over and over against the bot and let the bot tell them when they've made a wrong move.

Position 1

Once they have pretty well mastered Position 1, I give them Position 2 below, and we do the same thing. There are subtle, but important differences between bearing in and off against an opponent holding the 2 point vs. the ace point. I also change the position of the opponent's checkers to give him more or less timing, as that greatly affects how to bear in or off.

Position 2

And then we graduate to more complex situations, like position 3 below, where the opponent is holding both the ace and 2 point. And again, we change the timing to see why you might play safer in one situation and might even intentionally leave shots in another.

Position 3

The point I want most want to share with my readers is that whatever your level of play, the best way to improve your game is to study one or two (at the most) areas of play at a time and use practice and repetition to reinforce what you've learned. I guarantee that this approach will help you improve your game faster, and the lessons you learn will stay with you longer.

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Subject: Re: The Best Way to Learn and Improve Your Backgammon Game
From: TonyW
Date: 18 Dec 2007 19:21 EST

Hello Phill,

It seems good ideas just keep spreading. I've been doing the same thing with my students since I first developed a course in 1991. Can't recall who I first got the idea from. But starting from set positions, and slight variations, certainly allows the student to get a handle on what's happening, and how the game is likely to pan out from each position.

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Celebrating 15 years in backgammon games