Opening Rolls

One of the things we have noticed is that newer players often struggle with playing the opening roll. The playing of the opening roll has been extensively analyzed and the correct play(s) for each  is well established.

A good brief overview of opening moves can be found at http://www.simborgbackgammonlessons.com/the-best-opening-moves.

If you do nothing else read this brief introduction and learn the opening moves for the various rolls, there are only 15 possible opening rolls so it is not that big of a task, and many of the plays are obvious once you see them.

If you read the above article you will see that one of the last things Phil points out is that it is not only important to know the opening plays but also why those are the best plays. Tom Keith gives a good discussion of the whys of the opening rolls at http://www.bkgm.com/openings.html. (www.bkgm.com is a wealth of free backgammon information).

Finally, if you want help with memorizing the opening roles there is an app for both iOS and Android that provides flashcard based learning of the opening plays. See http://www.fortuitouspress.com/flashback/. You can buy additional flashcard decks for this app, but the first move deck and a few others are included in the free version.

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Backgammon Bots

If you hang around backgammon players it will not be long until you hear a reference to XG, or the “bots” or something similar.  These refer to programs that are designed to play backgammon and provide in-depth analysis of positions.  These programs use neural network programming techniques and are “trained” by repeatedly playing themselves and developing a database based on the outcomes of millions of games.

There are several ways you can use one of these programs to improve your game. One is by using the program as a “sparring partner.” The programs have various modes that will provide information on your choice of plays either while you are playing or after a game or match is completed. If you play backgammon online against others most sites have a method for creating a log of your game or match. These can be downloaded and analyzed using the program giving you an assessment of your — and your opponents — overall play as well as detailed information about every play and cube decision.  You can also set up a particular position in the program and have it analyze the plays and tell you which is best. It is common to see players photographing positions during tournaments, and quite a few are recording entire matches to analyze later.

The currently undisputed “champion” of the backgammon bots is eXtreme Gammon, often referred to as XG. This program is available for Windows (although you will see it on a lot of Macs using Windows emulators at tournaments). The PC version is $59.95 which most players consider a bargain. There are also Android and iOS versions of XG available, while not as strong as the PC version these still play a very good game. XG is available at eXtreme Gammon.

If you are not ready to pay for a program yet, an open source alternative to XG is GNU Backgammon. GNU Backgammon is slower than XG, especially when doing detailed analysis, and not quite as strong, but it is still a very good tool for improving your game.  GNUbg is available for Windows,  MacOS, and LINUX. Get it at GNUbg.

If you look around the App Store or Google Play you will find a large number of backgammon playing programs.  Most of these are not neural network programs and are fairly weak opponents. I would advise you against using them as sparring partners as you can pick up a lot of bad habits playing against these weak programs. If you are looking for a mobile opponent stick with XG or alternatively Backgammon NJ, which is also a neural net based program that plays a strong game.  Backgammon NJ also has provisions to play against other humans online.

Finally, ignore all the complaints in the reviews for XG and Backgammon NJ about cheating with the dice. There are many reasons why these complaints are not valid and many sound ways to show that the programs do not cheat.

 

Doubling

Doubling is a way of raising the stakes during a game. The basics are simple. At the beginning of a game you are playing for a single stake (a point in match play or a money stake). The doubling cube starts at one (although most cubes do not have a 1 on them, so they are set on the 64 or some other large number) and centered between the players, usually at the side of the board.

If a player thinks they are ahead in the game and likely to win they may offer their opponent a double. A player may only double on their turn and before they roll the dice. The cube is placed on the board with the number 2 facing up. The player doubling then says “double.” At that point, their opponent has the option of “passing” or “dropping” the double, ending the game and paying the current single stake (or conceding the point in match play) or “taking” the double, continuing the game but at twice the original stake.

A player who takes a double then literally takes the cube and places it on their side of the board with the 2 showing. That player now “owns” the cube. If the situation changes later in the game, and the cube owner now thinks they will win, they can offer a redouble, raising the stakes to 4. The same procedure applies: the doubled player may drop and pay their opponent twice the original stake, or take the cube, doubling the stake again to 4 times its original value. The new cube owner now has the option to double again later in the game, raising the stake to 8 times its original value (if taken), and so on.

Those are just the mechanics of using the cube, of course; the real skill comes in knowing when to double, when to take, and when to drop. That’s where things get complicated, and interesting. Check out the links below to a few articles that will give you more information on the basics of doubling strategy.

Idiot’s Guide to Doubling
When to Double
Be A PRAT