A Big Lesson to be Learned from the Second Roll
by Perry and Phil
The position below is a very common second-roll position. The right play, and the reasoning behind it are very important concepts that all good backgammon players must understand to play the game well.
White got the opening roll of 2-1 and he split his back checkers and brought a checker down from his midpoint (13) to his 11. Red now rolls a 6-4.
There are two obvious, logical plays: hit him off the 11 point or hit him off the 2 point and make the 2 point. Which play do you make?
All good players know that it is better to make hit off the 11 point. They might know this from experience…they’ve just seen this play enough to know that’s what other good players do. Or maybe they’ve made the wrong play in the past and saw it come up as a blunder when they put it into a backgammon program. Or maybe they have read articles or books or taken lessons. Bottom line, all good players know this play.
As you can see from the ExtremeGammon evaluation below, hitting outside is 11 percent better than making the 2 point.
If you look more closely at the numbers, you will see that
it is better because your chances of winning the game are about 4 percent
better than making the 2 point.
Ultimately, EVERY PLAY THAT IS BETTER THAN OTHER PLAYS IS BETTER because
it leads to more wins, more gammons, or might cost you fewer gammons, or a
combination of the three.
The real question here is “why.” Why do you get more wins hitting outside than hitting inside and making a point. There is a lot to be said for being able to both hit and make a point at the same time. Often, when you can do that, it is the best play, or at least a strong consideration. And in this case, it is a very good play.
Here’s a great expression you can use in all areas of life, not just backgammon: “Good is the enemy of best.” Often in backgammon we see a play that is a very good play; we are happy to find a good play, so we make it. Because we have found a good play, we don’t stop to see if there is a better play—a “best” play. Sometimes, even if we do see another play that is very good, because both are good we don’t worry that much about which one is better—we might think, “They’re both good, so it’s no big deal which play I make.”
This kind of thinking will never allow you to become a good backgammon player, because it’s simply not “good” to make good plays when you can make a better play. And that, more than anything, is the most important lesson of this exercise.
Now, back to the specific plays. Why is hitting outside better? First, when you hit a checker that is 14 pips away from his starting point, you have cost him 14 pips in the race (some count it as 15 if you count the fact that he has to come in from the bar). If you hit the checker off your 2 point, you have only cost him 2 pips. Since EVERY GAME of backgammon is won by the player who gets his checkers off first, the race, or pip count, is always an important consideration. (Even those games that conclude with a double and a drop, end because the dropper estimated that he would not get his checkers off first.)
So one reason to hit outside is that you gain more in the race. Another advantage is that you advance your own race by moving a checker out of your opponent’s home board. Yes, you gain 10 pips in the race by moving any of checker a total of 10 pips, but when it comes to racing, it is also important to get those back checkers out of the opponent’s home board in order to avoid being primed (held back) by your opponent later in the game. If our opponent makes a series of points to block you, even if you are up in the race, or pip count, you cannot win the race if you can’t get your back checker(s) out.
Having a checker on the 14 point when not hit on the opponent’s incoming roll (no 2’s or 5-5) adds considerable potential positional strength. 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 4-6 are 8 great numbers created by this play. The opponent’s incoming 3-6, 4-6, and 5-6 are subject to additional shots.
In summation, as stated earlier, the “big lesson” here is to realize that good is the enemy of best, and the importance of always trying to find the best play. Another “big lesson” is that its not enough to know what play is best—it’s extremely important to go deeper and understand “why” the play is best.
If you know what is right, you can play well if you are lucky enough to remember every play, and that is possible for most of us to do if we simply memorize all the opening rolls and the second rolls. But by the third and forth rolls, and the rest of the game, we’ll be lost. But if we learn the why of every play, we can apply that reasoning to all plays. There are thousands of situations where it will be right to hit outside instead of make a point, and there are thousands of other positions where the opposite would be true depending on the exact position of the checkers, the score of the match, the value of gammons, and the position of the cube. Knowing the “why” of checker play will lead you to the right answer.