Visitors and Members! How Do You Stack Up Against The Giants?


By Phil Simborg and analysis by Stick

In recent years, I have heard the argument that high-level backgammon is nowhere near as interesting as it once was, because now that we have bots like eXtremeGammon, GNU and Snowie to clearly show the best plays, “all top players play the same.”

I won’t say that the argument is completely wrong, because most are playing most moves the same–and more importantly, they are making the right move!  (In golf, doesn’t every good putt look the same?)  30 years ago, before the bots were perfected, the top players in the game were still making many of the same moves, but there certainly was more variance in approaches and style, and there were disagreements and debates even about some of the opening moves.  No question that most of those debates have now been settled.

I set out on a mission to PROVE that not all top players play the same.  I went through my files of thousands of positions that I use for examples, quizzes, articles and lectures, and found three that I felt were particularly difficult and hadn’t been published.   I sent those three positions to many of the top players in the world, including most of the Giants and asked them to tell me, as honestly as possible, without considering the “quiz factor,” what play they would make “over the board” in an actual match.  I promised not to name names to make it easier for them to be honest, however I have found that most are extremely honest about their mistakes anyway.   As Stick points out, however, consciously or not, there is always a “quiz factor” when presented with a problem.  Immediately the player knows there must be something about this position that might not be obvious, whereas over the board you don’t get that alert.  So it is probably right to assume that if these positions popped up in the middle of a match, more of them would have been missed or the best play possibly even overlooked completely.

In spite of the possible quiz factor, there were many reports of wrong answers.  From the 34 responses I received, 14 missed problem 1; 5 missed problem 2; and 22 missed problem 3. Further, some responded that problem 1 was very easy for them and they doubted that any Giant would miss it, and they were clearly wrong about that.  Others felt 1 was quite difficult and felt the others were easy.  And of course, there were a few (only 6) that got them all right, and one Giant even admitted that he would have probably gotten them all wrong over the board!   Again, not all of the 34 responses were from Giants, but most of them were, and the remaining ones were from players I know could easily be on the Giants list.

So the point is:  while top players are fairly consistently making the best play on the easier plays, it’s the tough plays that separate them considerably.  It’s also important to note that in these three problems, the difference between the best play and the rest is significant.

So let’s see how you would do with these three tough positions.  I will give you the problems first, and then you can scroll down and see the rollouts and an explanation and analysis by my Backgammon Learning Center partner, Stick (who got them all correct, by the way).







 STICK’S Analysis of PROBLEM 1: 

First let’s take stock of the position.  It’s a prime versus prime position with a close race.  You (the one on roll) are at the edge of prime, the 22pt, and while that would normally be a good thing since the opponent has a gapped prime, it means we are pretty well hemmed in.  The opponent is not at the edge of the prime but he is also currently not as trapped as you are.  Why is that?

It is hard for us to naturally improve our prime since the 8pt is currently stripped and part of our prime anyway.  That leaves us a scant two builders to make the all-important bar point.  If we make the bar point we will have put a choke hold on our opponent since he would not be at the edge of our 5 prime.  If we don’t make the bar, we sit idly by and wait for him to spring with a five and then we’re screwed.  Even when we are able to hit him and send him back he maintains his prime and more flexibility while we try to scrape our prime together. 

Two things I suggest when trying to understand this position.  One, imagine the variant where the opponent is already anchored up on the 22pt, is your play the same?  How has this changed the composition of the position relative to the importance of your bar point?  Two, play it out if you didn’t slot the bar point.  What you will see is that in your upcoming plays you will have the same sort of decisions, slot the bar or not?  And that’s if you are lucky enough to get a roll that even gives you that option.  In some of these situations it will be even more clear that to have adequate counterplay you need to slot the bar point.  A five is already a good roll for your opponent so take advantage of when he doesn’t roll that five and counterprime. 


STICK’s Analysis of PROBLEM 2 : 

This was the easiest of the three problems for me, and obviously from Phil’s survey, it was also the easiest for all.  I understand that the reason Phil included this problem is that he saw one Giant misplay this over the board. 

If we hit 7/1* we certainly increase our gammon wins by a fair amount, slightly increase our gammon losses, but this is far from the DMP play.  That means the gammon wins have to make up a lot of ground to compensate for the single wins I know we’re tossing out the window, and they just don’t do it.

If we hit we give our opponent 20 rolls that I would consider really good for him at this point.  He either hits and sends another man of ours back or anchors up.  If we don’t hit not only have we reduced the great rolls concerning his back checkers significantly, but we have duplicated the numbers he needs most.  He desperately needs aces to anchor and wouldn’t mind escaping with sixes if he doesn’t find that ace.  He needs an ace so bad that I believe with most aces after we play bar/18 he should not hit.  I think he should hit with [61 11] but all other aces anchor up. 




STICK’s Analysis of PROBLEM 3:

It doesn’t surprise me that this play was missed the most, and I am sure, over the board, the number of people who get this wrong is even higher.

Noting the score you should have been thinking aggressively the entire game and disposing of DMP-like plays like 18, 8.  Even at a normal score, by the way, the rollout shows this to still be the best play for both wins and gammons.    If your opponent doesn’t find an immediate deuce or 66 the attack should be easy to finish out given the diversification of your numbers. 

I think this play for some people may have been a “Duuh, I didn’t even consider that play!”  Upon consideration it seems obvious to them.  One question that may still need to be answered is why is lifting the six point better than 12/8 7/2* for example?  Other than the obvious of two blots and twenty shots the key is our checkers on the twelve point.  This creates an unfamiliar position as normally they’re on the midpoint but now that they have advanced to the twelve point they can be part of the attack and in the zone if we make the six point lifting play.  Ask yourself what you would play in the aforementioned variant where the checkers are moved back to the midpoint.  The number of checkers in the zone critical to deciding whether to blitz or whether to prime.

In summation, I have to say that I agree with Phil’s premise and purpose of doing this survey.   If anything, the highly-skilled eXtremeGammon has served to prove just how much we don’t know.  Giants today probably make fewer blunders and are playing at a higher level than before, but so is everybody else we have to face to get to the finals of a major tournament.  The game may be more competitive and more interesting than ever before, and as this quiz illustrates, there are still plenty of differences between even the best players and we still have a lot to learn.

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  1. Nigel Merrigan says:

    There are additional aspects to Problem 1 the analysis failed to explore further. I doubt that I would have picked up on it had I not taken the lesson: “Run or Stay” (Pay now, Pay Later) with Phil & Perry. Perry has this knack of bringing the best out of you; he certainly put me through the ringer. The aspects I speak of are “Timing & Structure” Generally pervasive in the Opening & Middle game but subtly so in PvP. Here, the race is evenish and though Flexibility was mentioned , it failed to acknowledge the key elements of the position – Timing & Structure. Slotting the bar and increasing the weight of the 8 replenishes Red’s timing and structural concerns.

    If anyone wishes enhamce upon this, please do.

    See ya

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