Dinner With Kit

Dinner With Kit

By Phil Simborg


Kit Woolsey has long been one of my major idols..  An amazing bridge and backgammon player, but also a great innovator, teacher, writer, and leader.  My first “unofficial” teacher in backgammon was Oswald Jacoby back in the late 60’s, but the first lessons I ever paid for were from Kit, and they remain with me to this day.


At the pre-tournament festivities before the New Mexico tournament, I had the pleasure of dining with Kit.  He shared many things about his approach to backgammon, his history, what he thinks about the current game, the rules, and many subjects.  I hope to cover most of that in an upcoming interview which will appear on my site once Kit gets around to finishing.


But I do want to share with you two very interesting “concepts,” or approaches that Kit was shared with me.  These concepts will directly and immediately help my game, and with his permission, I am sharing this with you now.


First, something I, and several top players I spoke with, hadn’t realized.  At the score of 1away/2away Post Crawford, most of us double immediately as we know our opponent has a free drop and we have nothing to gain by waiting.  But Kit pointed out that there can be much to gain if you get the right combination of opening rolls. 


As an example, if I get an opening 3-1 and my opponent rolls 6-2 and comes out to my bar and brings a checker down, I am TOO GOOD to double!  I should wait and see if I can press the advantage and win the match with a gammon.  If I double at that point, any reasonable player will exercise his free drop, so I really don’t lose anything playing on.  If things go well, I might get that gammon, and if things go against me, I might still end up with a double and a free drop.  Of course, things could go very poorly and I could simply lose the game, but that was less likely to happen than if we had scrapped the game and simply started another one.


This score is a very critical score where the match is very close and on the line, and it comes up frequently.  This concept was a new one for me, and to several other very fine players I talked to. 


Kit pointed out that there are other opening sequences as well, but the great teacher he is, all he really wanted to do was get me thinking and incite me to do some work on my own to see what other rolls apply as well.


Now, Kit does not claim to be the first person in the world to understand this concept, but he does point out that he came to this thinking independently—not something he read or heard discussed by others.  (Turns out Stick Rice was well aware of this concept and even has a list of other rolls that are also too good.)


On another topic, Kit and I were talking about all the great work done by Stick and others rolling out second roll plays and soon, third roll positions.   Kit gave me some insights to how he learned the game—completely self-taught and before bots—and how he learned to concentrate on concepts and themes of play rather than memorization of moves.  He still believes that memorizing the moves might get you past the first two moves (if you have a truly amazing memory because they vary so much depending on the score), but it won’t help you beyond that. 


Then he gave me an example.  My opponent gets an opening roll of 6-2 or 6-3 or 6-4 and he slots my bar and comes down.  Now, I roll something with a 1 or 6 that hits him on my bar.  With the other number, should I bring another checker down from the 13 or should I split my back checkers?  


I found this to be a very interesting question, as years ago I rolled an opening 6-2, and my opponent, David Wells, one of the better players in the world, rolled a 6-2 and he hit me and brought another checker down.  I told David that his play was an error according to the bots and I was surprised he did that.  David said he didn’t care what the bots say, his play is better and eventually there will be a smart enough bot to prove he’s right. 


We do have far better bots now than we did then, and according to Stick’s site it is better (.0108) to split the back checkers than bring one down.  Of course, at gammon-go and certain scores, it may well be better to bring more checkers into the “attack” mode.


But Kit said that, except for special score situations, he has a basic theme that helps him make the right play.  If he has to hit the blot with the 1, that means he has stripped his 8 point.  And since the 8 point is now down to 2 checkers, and further hitting or pointing from that point would mean vacating that valuable point or leaving a blot there, it is better to bring another checker down from the 13 point to strengthen the outfield.  If the hit is with the 6, however, the 8 point remains strong and it is better to split the checkers on the 24 point to get more flexibility there.


So with Kit’s approach, we not only know “what” the right play is, we know “why” it is right, and that same “why” may well apply to 3rd roll, 4th roll, and many later rolls.  And with Kit’s approach you don’t just study a bunch of numbers and blindly imitate the bots, you do what you think is right for logical reasons.  Again, there will be scores and situations where Kit’s approach may be off, but it will be right most of the time and when it is off, it will be by a very small margin.


In addition to finding both of these concepts extremely helpful and interesting, I continue to be amazed that after 50 years of playing backgammon and 20 years of teaching,  and after reading virtually every modern book and many, many articles, I am still learning new concepts and approaches all the time.   


A few years ago, a short walk in the park with Perry Gartner changed my entire approach to looking at the board.  A short conversation with David Rockwell gave me a new way to think about (and teach) early game strategy.  10 minutes with John O’Hagan convinced me to keep my day-job and not try to make a living playing backgammon (as I quickly realized I could never keep up with him).  Jake Jacobs and Joe Sylvester used to make me feel like that several times a week when they lived in Chicago.   Howard Ring taught me how to truly use and understand the bots.  Dean Meunch taught me how to really use the cube as a weapon.


Last summer, just 3 words from Matt Cohn-Geier improved my money play.  He told me that he noticed that I was dropping too many doubles that were takes.  I asked him the best way I could resolve this problem, and he said, “Take more cubes.”


I am fortunate to be able to rub shoulders with such talented people who are also so generous with their knowledge.  

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