• Towards Zero?

    In the summer edition of ‘Prime Time”, the excellent US Backgammon Federation quarterly magazine, American master Bob Wachtel discusses a topic that has long been close to my heart.

    The theme of his article is that we spend too much analysing errors and not enough time applauding good plays. Let’s take a short match between two strong players as an example. Assuming the match has 150 moves by each player an XG analysis will quickly highlight the small number of blunders and slightly larger number of errors by each player. Two blunders and eight errors will (probably) give you a Performance Rating (PR) of around 4.

    You will agonise over the ten mistakes and then (hopefully) learn from them. What is not remarked upon is the fact that you made around 140 correct checker plays and a significant number of correct cube decisions. In our search for perfection (a Performance Rating of zero), we ignore just how well actually played.

    In chess there is notation for various types of moves: (!) is an excellent move; (!!) is a brilliancy which normally wins the game and (!?) is a questionable but interesting move which might lead to a win if the opponent does not find the correct defence. Bob advocates, and I support, the introduction of such notation in backgammon so that we appreciate just how well somebody has played, rather than worrying about the (unattainable) Holy Grail of a PR of zero.

    So, what sort of move should earn a single or double exclamation mark in annotating a game of backgammon? I have a collection of such moves but will start with one that made a very deep impression on me. This week’s position is from the British Masters 2016 with Michy (Black) trailing Gaz Owen (White) 0-2 in a match to 11, and holding the doubling cube on 2.

    I was watching the game as Michy took nearly five minutes to make his decision. Many of the spectators expected 17/11, 13/11 or 17/13, 7/5(2). Certainly, nobody expected 13/9(2)!! Michy voluntarily exposed two new blots when his opponent had a four-point home board. In return Black significantly constrained the White checkers on his 3-pt and built a strong broken prime. Was the risk worth the reward?

    Yes, it was, and the other two plays noted above are both bad blunders. However, a large number of players would have chosen one of them, not seeing as deeply into the position as Michy did. Not only that, he had the courage to make the play over the board. The move certainly spooked his opponent. Gaz rolled 64 and played 13/9, 7/1*. Michy followed up his excellent checker play by correctly redoubling to 4. Gaz took but he should have dropped. A passage of play that showed Michy at his best.

    I believe his play of 13/9(2) fully merits one exclamation mark if not two. That passage of play led me to spend a long time studying broken primes and I came to realise just how strong they can be, particularly with two or more opponent checkers trapped behind them. Many of my website “Position of the Day” problems last year were around the theme of broken primes, all because of that play by Michy.

    Two years on and I think more players would find 13/9(2) but that is only because Michy brought the concept forcibly to our attention and helped to develop backgammon theory a little bit further.

    Congratulation to Bob Wachtel on his article and now let us see much more applause for good moves instead of just criticising blunders and errors. Backgammon is a very difficult game so please, let us give credit where credit is due.

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