Saturday, 21 July 2012

Proper backgammon, like what it's meant to be...

Today I participated in my first ever official backgammon tournament, The Liverpool Open.

I've actually been playing backgammon since my late teens but it used to be just something I did while getting stoned. I don't think I was particularly good at it.

then along came the internet, and I started playing online. After a decade of online play, my game has gradually improved and I can hold my own, even against some decent players.

Backgammon is not chess. It incorporates a degree of luck. Indeed, much of the skill in the game is knowing how to maximise the effects of your good luck, while minimising the chance of an opponent's luck causing you a problem.

Point being that in a short game, someone with only a basic grasp of the rules will occasionally beat a world class player but the vast majority of the time, despite it being a dice based game, the better player will prevail, especially over longer match lengths. The best players have their heads full of maths, They know the probabilities pretty much without having to think too much.

I've been playing in the Liverpool monthly meets. These are just one night per month, and you play perhaps 6 short (3 pointers) matches. The winner might walk away with 20 quid or so. Small beer.

This proper tournament though involved 64 entrants, each playing 5 matches in what is known as a swiss format. Each match was first to 9 points. Backgammon never ends with a tied game, and because of the way the swiss system organised the brackets, if you win 3 of your 5 matches, you'll end up in the top half of the bracket. If you lose 3, you'll end up in the bottom half.

I registered fairly early, and ended up playing a quick 3 pointer with a fellow competitor. He wanted to make it more interesting so we ended up playing for a fiver. I managed to beat him, so I'd got off to a really good start even before the tournament had officially begun.

I lost my first match, however, to a woman called Annette. It was close though. She was obviously a knowledgeable player, but my more intuitive play, combined with a dash of luck, meant that suddenly the game was at 7-6 to Anette, with the doubling cube on 2 but on my side of the board.

The doubling cube is what turns backgammon from a sort of complicated Ludo to something much more involving. When a game starts, the cube is between the players to the side of the board, and is set to 1. At this point, either player can turn the cube to two. That person's opponent then has to either accept the cube or forfeit the game. If s/he accepts, then the game is played for 2 points instead of 1, but they then have the cube. the person that doubled cannot redouble. the player who has the cube can turn it again, this time from 2 to 4. Their opponent then either forfeits 2 points or accepts that the stakes have been doubled yet again.

So it was that we were entering the closing stages of the game. She was ahead in the match, but I had the cube, and it was my turn to roll the dice. We were very close. I turned the cube to 4 and offered it to Annette. This meant, with the match score at 7-6, that this game would decide the match. She accepted, and it all came down to one roll right at the end. She'd had a slightly better run in, and I needed a double to win.

Doubles in backgammon are often useful because you can use each roll twice. When you throw the dice, you get two numbers, and can use each one seperately. So for example, if you roll a 6 and a 1, you haven't rolled a 7. You've rolled a 6 and a 1. You could use the roll to advance one piece 7 points further, but you don't have to. You couldn't move one piece 4 and another 3 though. Each die is a discrete number that has to be used as such. If you were to throw a double one though, for example, you might move one of your pieces 4 points forward, but you could also use the rolls to move one piece by two points, and another 2 pieces by one point each,  for example. A double 6, while not always that useful, can be very powerful in a straight race, because you move your pieces a total of 24 places forwards.

It was my roll, and I had 3 pieces left on my 1 point. Annette had two pieces on her 1 point. There wasn't a single combination of dice that would prevent her from bearing off her last pieces on her next turn. So I needed a double. It didn't have to be a double 6. Just any double.

I didn't get one. Annette won the match 9-6 but it was actually far closer than the match score suggests. She went into the top half of round 2. I went into the bottom half where I was matched against Brian.

Brian is from Manchester. I think he's a lawyer or similar, and he's won the Liverpool Open 3 times in the last 7 years. This too ended up close, at something like 6-6, before I somehow pulled in front and won 9-7.

Quite a scalp. I'd now lost one and won one. Mid table mediocrity. The format dictated that I was now paired against someone who had also won one and lost one.


Charles really should have beaten me. I was hanging in there for much of the match, and he built up a decent lead and, needing just one more point to win the match, he was well ahead in the game. Then I got lucky. I rolled a double 5. It was the one roll, of all 36 available rolls that could really turn things around. From being trapped behind a wall of pieces, I'd suddenly got clear and it was now a straight race. It was a race that I narrowly won, and from there, I went on to win the next couple of games too, and so the match.

Played 3. won 2. Lost 1. I was in the top half of the draw and was paired up against Ron.

To play a 9 point match takes over an hour, unless reckless doubling cubes hasten things. It also takes concentration, and both Ron and myself had been concentrating for about 4 hours by the time we came to play each other. Yet another close match, against someone who I feel is probably the better player. And in the end, I prevailed here too. This match was notable for one incident.

I had the upper hand for a protracted period of play, trapping at least one of Ron's pieces on the Bar.

A backgammon board is comprised of 24 points. If you have more than one piece on one of these points, your opponent cannot land there. If there are no pieces on a point, your opponent can land there. If you put just one piece on a point, then not only can your opponent land there, your piece gets knocked off the board, and placed on the wooden divide between the two halfs of the board, - the bar. Until that piece has rejoined play, a person so barred cannot make any other moves, and they can only bring that piece back into play from their beginning  position. Since each player ends in their opponents beginning position, if one player manages to develop a wall of pieces in their opponents starting 6 points, they will struggle to get back into play.

And that's where I'd had Ron. Trapped on the bar, move after move, while I advanced my pieces. But then at some point, he managed to get back on the board. I made a move, then he rolled a double 2.

I had 2 pieces on his two point.

Frustrated, he picked up the dice.

then, a moment later, he realised that he could have played, because he didn't have a piece on the bar. Those 2's (4 of them, remember) would have put him in a really strong position. Having spent roll after roll bringing pieces back into play off the bar, his concentration had lapsed, and he'd picked up his dice without making a move.

Magnanimously, Ron accepted that he'd made an error, and play passed to me. I went on to win the game, and eventually, the match.

Played 4. Won 3. Lost 1. Because I was right up at the top of the bracket, my putative opponent had also won 3 matches, so we didn't have to play the final match.

I'm through to the main tournament tomorrow. That will be 11 point matches. 32 players will be in the main tourney. Straightforward knockout. I anticipate losing hard and early, and that's fine. In football terms I'd put myself mid-table, given the opposition. I've finished day one either 7th or 8th out of a field of 64. So I've already punched well above my weight ragardless of what comes tomorrow.

Somewhere along the line I also ended up in the last 16 of the 1 point tourney. I also bet on myself in the Tote. One of the Liverpool players is an ex-bookie, so he ran a tote thing. Without the slightest clue about who is a strong or weak player, I wagered £2 on myself.

It's been fun. If it also turns out to be profitable, that's a bonus.

driving lessons in Wallasey?

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