Strategy Schmategy

by Jake Jacobs
7 February 2018


Jake Jacobs

In the spring of 1982 I was living in Las Vegas. Henry Watson's tournament, which included the World Amateur Championship, perhaps better known as the Plimpton Cup, was held in June most years. My friend Craig Chellstorp was ineligible, but saw it as an opportunity. He assembled a group of promising players and offered to hold twice weekly training seminars in return for 10% of our winnings. Sitting in were my brother, Munchkin, and out roommate, Tim Wisecarver. Like Craig they were ineligible, but they couldn't resist joining the group. Tim especially was an asset. He had been the strongest player in Chicago not so many years before, mentoring Craig. While none of us cashed in the tournament, all of us gained immensely from the tutorials.

"Backgammon," said Craig, "is like poker or blackjack: it has a basic strategy." This resonated because all of us were professional blackjack players. You may have seen a basic strategy chart for blackjack. Any book on the game will have one, and casino bookstores often sold the chart as a separate item. They are tables, with the dealer's upcard forming the column headings, 2 through Ace, and the player totals the row headings, with separate sections for special combinations, player pairs, or player soft hands. (The ace may be counted as one or eleven, so a two card hand with an ace is called ‘soft," e.g. A7 could be a total of eight, but is called "soft eighteen.") There are really multiple basic strategies, depending upon the rules, the number of decks, and whether the dealer does or doesn't hit soft seventeen, or check her hole card before the play of the hand, but they are mostly similar. An example of an arcane basic strategy change comes from Peter Griffin's classic "Theory of Blackjack." In Macau, where they offered "six-card automatic win" it is, or was (I haven't kept up) correct to hit if one held specifically 10-2-A-A versus a dealer 5. Knowing that was worth one bet in thirty-six million. Now that I've shared it, please go bankrupt Sheldon Adelson.

Where there is basic strategy there must be advanced strategy. In blackjack counting the cards can lead the player to deviate from basic, as an example hitting or standing on sixteen versus a dealer ten if the count is minus or plus respectively.

I've never seen a basic strategy chart for backgammon, nor have you. There's a reason we haven't. The closest we have is for the openings. Those may be charted, with minor variations for match scores. It may be taken a step further, to cover responses to openings, but beyond that it becomes cumbersome. What was what Craig meant when he spoke of backgammon's basic strategy. He meant that there are certain moves that are the basis of skilled play, and these plays are employed for strategic ends. Hitting the opponent, making new points, building points in a row, safetying blots, are all part of backgammon's most basic strategy.

But what if one must choose between strategies? There is no chart that tells you: "In this situation you hit; while in this other situation you build your prime." For that a different sort of strategy is needed, what is often called a game plan.



Before we can answer the question: How should Black play 65? We must first ask: What's the score? Suppose it is DMP, then our game plan should focus on winning this game. We lead by 39 pips after playing this roll, so a racing game is inviting. By running 24/13 we escape our man, and if we can avoid being hit, we are nearly gin in the race. Instead suppose we trail 4-away, 2-away. Now winning the game is worth only half a match. By playing 13/2* we give up about 9% game winning chances, down to 69% from 78%, but our match winning chances go from around 52% (we win 26% gammons even after running) to 58.5% (we win about 48% gammons after hitting). Strategic considerations favor racing in the first case, trying for a gammon in the second, and we choose the tactic of running to safety for on, and the tactic of hitting for the other.
 
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Article text Copyright © 1999-2018 Jake Jacobs and GammonVillage Inc.

 
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