A Tale of Four Tournaments
No I haven't done a 'Mike Hanson' on the TV show 'Who wants to be a Millionaire'. All will become clear if you persevere to the end of this article.
There is much discussion about luck in backgammon, usually taking the form of hard-luck stories. If the story-tellers really did have such bad luck, their opponents must have had correspondingly good luck, but perhaps they are more likely to keep quiet about it.
They say that luck 'evens out' in the end, but it ain't necessarily so. And even if, over a long period of time, most players experience good and bad luck in roughly equal measure, the randomness of its distribution frequently results in 'clumps' - when everything seems to go right (or wrong!) for what seems to be an improbably long period. This clumping comes in very handy for winning tournaments.
If someone plays well enough to win, on average, two-thirds of his matches, but this distribution holds true for every tournament, he would never win an eight (or more) player tournament! I feel I have had more than my fair share of clumps of good luck over the years resulting, among other 'lucky' wins, in my completing the 1000-1 (ten 11-point matches in a row) eight years ago, and again in the last few months (see here). I decided to write this rather self-indulgent article about 'the secret of my success' with the addition of a few interesting positions I encountered along the way.
Players sometimes search for a reason to explain a run of luck. When they find a common factor, such as something they do before each match or tournament, or maybe a particular shirt they were wearing, there is a tendency to latch onto this in an attempt to extend their run of good fortune. Such superstitions are of course just that, and cannot affect events in the real world.
My chance of winning the board appeared to be zero after losing in the first round, and I drifted unenthusiastically into the Consolation. However it was then announced that a second identical Parker board (except for colour), which had previously been auctioned off for the benefit of the charity, had been generously donated back by the buyer and would be awarded to the winner of the Consolation. With renewed vigour I battled my way to the 9-point Consolation final, where I met a lovely lady by the name of Natasha who only played backgammon socially and was unfamiliar with the cube. A few minutes later my over-confidence was well and truly shattered as I found myself at the wrong end of a 7-0 scoreline. Undaunted, I battled on, eventually winning 9-8. The board was mine!
You might wonder what all this has to do with my recent BIBA success but, you see, this new Parker board provides the explanation. Maybe some of the 'Magic of Persia' rubbed off onto it because I have only lost one match on it and that was to my daughter. When I use it for a serious match, as I did for nine out of my ten BIBA matches in the June and July tournaments, I cannot lose on this magical board!! This has to be the secret behind my recent wins. Of course I am now reluctant to 'waste' the board's power on any old game, reserving it for the more important tournaments. Many players are very particular about dice (and with good reason, bearing in mind events at the Partouche Gammon Tour tournament in Normandy earlier this summer). However, few appreciate that it is the combination of dice and board which is important. After all there is a physical interaction between the two and, in modern parlance, the 'synergy' must be right. Naturally the board came with precision dice in green and pink which complemented the green and maroon leather, providing a soothing visual experience thereby engendering a relaxed demeanour in the player. This only works for me of course, not my opponent.
Round 1, Eddie Barker
For money this would have been a reasonable double and an easy take. Eddie has those two solid anchors on my 2- and bar-points which will keep him in the game, and potentially cause me grief, for a long time. In the meantime he can set about repairing his front position. Leading 8-5 to 11, my gammons are already slightly devalued (I cannot use all four points) and Eddie can kill them completely with a recube if he gets any kind of threat. Snowie says wait, but Snowie knows nothing about my board of course. Eddie took and I cruised home for a gammon and the match.
Round 2, Ann Pocknell
Ann is the current British Open champion and was not about to surrender without a fight. Things went badly for me from the first game: my early blitz fizzled out; Ann (White) turned the game around and then had the temerity to redouble me in Position 2.
Had someone not told her about my board? Evidently not. Ann has the tactical 'first strike' capability here (28 shots) from which I may never recover; still the double is only just correct. My stronger board allows me to snap back into the game with any return hit before she has completed her 6-prime. Also her eight misses give me a breathing space. I avoided the gammon to trail 0-4, and later 5-10 Crawford, before I found the appropriate incantations to win a gammon in the Crawford game, and then another to win the match.
Round 3, Kevin Stebbing
Kevin is, of course, an accomplished magician himself. In Position 3 from our first game (next column), Kevin (White) has contrived to make most of my checkers disappear and reappear again as prisoners in his home board.
Fortunately Kevin's magical powers were no match for those of my board, which seemed to relish the challenge. I haven't the faintest idea what the correct play is here: I just want to show the position! I won this game by going forwards after hitting a very early shot, thanks to numerous big doubles and Kevin's poor rolling. In fact throughout our match, whenever Kevin looked like he had a winning position everything seemed to fall apart for him, and I progressed to the next round 11-1.
Round 4, Dorothy Lee
Two games into the match I was leading 2-1 and had offered Dorothy (White) the unappetising cube shown in Position 4.
I have 20 great numbers – an eight or ten to cover my blot and other fives plus 4-1 to hit again. According to Snowie I will win the game two-thirds of the time and half of those wins will be gammons, making this a fairly thin take. Dorothy showed she wasn't going to be intimidated and took after some thought, eventually losing just a single.
But Dorothy, playing well and intensely focused on the match, recovered from this early setback and stormed ahead 10-6. Reaching Crawford was the wake-up call for my board which finally started to work its magic, although in several of the subsequent games I initially looked dead and buried.
Semi-final, Stewart Pemberton
From the first game of the semi-final it was clearly going to be tough for both of us. In the sequence leading up to Position 5, instead of meekly capitulating, Stewart (White) has very inconveniently rolled a 3-6 joker (Bar/16*) to give us both an interesting puzzle. The following diagrams show the original position (5), plus two variants (5.1 and 5.2):
Over the board (Position 5) I thought I simply had to take and gather in all those wins when Stewart crunches before he escapes. However I hadn't made sufficient allowance for the extra time, and extra gammons, which White banks in all the games where he manages to hit my midpoint blot. With two of my men on the bar he may escape his straggler after breaking his board and while I am still struggling to enter. Rollouts indicate a marginal pass.
White's diversification is very important here: he has twos to move up in my board and fours to hit. If you modify the position by moving my blot to the 11-point (Position 5.1), it becomes partially immune: White must use his first two to advance to the edge of my prime which considerably reduces his chance of eventually picking up the second man. Not surprisingly this results in fewer gammon losses which translates to an easy take.
Slightly more surprising is that if you modify the original position by moving White's back checker up to my 2-point to produce Position 5.2, I also have an easy take. This small change reduces the number of White's rolls which get him to the edge from 12 (all twos plus double one) to 11 (all ones only). There are two other more subtle effects of this change: it duplicates three of White's hitting numbers (31 and 11); and White must now move a two elsewhere (rather than a one in the original position). This extra pip that White has to move when he rolls a two makes it just that little bit more likely that he will crack before escaping. To quote Jeremy Bagai: every checker matters.
My punishment for taking this cube was to get gammoned, but by now I was quite used to trailing badly. I was 6-9 down before I began to pick up any momentum; then at 8-9, the following position arose.
Stewart had just hit loose on his 2-point giving me twos to shoot at from the bar, fours to hit in my outer board, and ones and threes to cover. Considering the score, I thought this was probably a pass but Stewart took: my rollouts indicate a borderline take/ pass. This is another position where score is all-important. For money the double is borderline; whereas if I had been trailing 7-9 I would get maximum value from a gammon and it becomes a big pass. During the match itself my board now knew what was required of it, and I duly won a gammon to earn a place in the final.
English Open Final, Dave Motley
The final did not seem to produce as much drama as some of my earlier matches. We used Dave's board, rather than mine, because it was a bit smaller and more easily fitted within camera shot for the match recording. Fortunately for me, being deprived of the use of my own new board did not prevent me from rolling well – perhaps I had acquired some of its magic – and I won the match 11-4. The entire match is available for all to see, so I won't dwell on it here.
Round 1, David Nathan
The first round of this tournament provided the sternest test yet for my new board. Any doubts I may have had that its powers had dissipated over the preceding four weeks were soon dispelled.
The first eleven games split the points evenly at seven apiece. Three games later, David had pulled ahead 10-7 Crawford. Of course by now I knew that on this board such a lead was fatal for my opponent. At first it didn't seem so, for he appeared to be big favourite on more than one occasion in the Crawford game. The second time occurred after the sequence shown in the next two positions (7 & 8) in which David is playing the White checkers.
I had previously hit a shot, David had escaped my home board and, in Position 7, he had hoped for a big number to get to safety and win the match. Instead he rolled 32 which he correctly played 13/8 giving me 27 numbers to hit, but almost assuring that it will be all over if I miss. The crucial word in the last sentence is 'almost'. I rolled 64 (played 8/2 7/3) and surprisingly at this point I still have about a 5% chance to win this game. As far as the tournament and the 1000-1 are concerned, I am now about 500-1 against, so for the 1000-1 at least I am still better off than when I started the previous tournament!
Well obviously this wouldn't be very interesting had David not rolled a 21, forcing him to hit (8/6* 4/3) and then I hit and covered, winning the game to take me to 8-10 post-Crawford. In the next game I tried the post-Crawford, odd-away ploy of not cubing immediately in the hope that I may later be able to steal a point, which is just about as good as two points at this score. The beauty of this 'trick' is that the perpetrator does not have to know what the exact gammon win/game loss ratio is: he just hopes his opponent will get it wrong. Technically the match leader should take the cube if his game-winning chances exceed his gammon-losing chances, but these percentages can be difficult to evaluate and the match trailer gains whenever his opponent errs. However, the trailer is skating on thin ice and the trick will cost him if the position suddenly becomes gammonish and he misses his market.
I thought I (as Black) had missed my market when, after a very favourable exchange, I finally doubled in Position 9. However David took, so I was happy after all. A Snowie rollout shows me winning 32% gammons which compares favourably with my losses of 30% or so, indicating a pass. On this occasion, at least, my instinct had been correct. I didn't get the gammon, but was grateful to win the game and get to DMP.
There were many anxious moments in the last game, Position 10 being a case in point.
Here I developed a blind spot and did not consider hitting at all for some reason. I played 12/10 14/8, hoping to keep White locked behind my prime. White's board is in danger of collapsing and hitting 10/4* with the six is definitely correct, but the two is a little more difficult. One tactic is to carry on, 4/2, on the grounds that if White hits on the 2-point he doesn't simultaneously reach the escape hatch of my open 4-point. The problem with this idea is that I would quite like to make the 4-point, and this will now be very difficult. Another plan is to leave the 4-point slotted but take out a bit of life cover with 14/12. If disaster strikes and White hits and leaps, at least he won't be able to harvest additional blots in the outfield, thereby giving him more time to escape his last man. These last two plays are a dead-heat in my rollout.
My subsequent bear-in was awkward and I got hit a few rolls later, but by then I was able to scamper round again and win the race, and match. Sorry David.
Round 2, Dave Motley
Dave was next up, but once again my board and dice did the business, as I sped to an 11-1 victory. I find that I didn't actually record any positions from the match either, so again I am able to give only a brief summary. Sorry Dave.
Semi-Final, Myke Wignall
I got the impression that Myke had had enough of me finding jokers to turn round games which he had been winning. Sensing a possible gammon to help his comeback he shipped over the cube here. About half of Myke's wins will be gammons, and he wins just under half the time, but this isn't quite enough to cube, even when trailing 0-7. Myke did win this game, but only a single, and I went on to win the match 11-2.
Keren di Bona Final, Martin Barkwill
Once again the whole match is available if anyone is interested (well, I know that Neil Kazaross expressed an interest!), and I believe our (thankfully few) blunders have been dissected elsewhere in this issue. I won't dwell on the match here, except to say that I was using my magic board for this final, and once again I fell behind (0-6 this time). But then the magic kicked in with a vengeance: Barkers never won another point; I won the tournament and with it my second 1000-1. On this occasion we also both justified our places in the final by playing with a World Class Snowie error rating. Those are the matches you want recorded for the world to see! The bad ones are probably more useful to analyse and learn from, but preferably not for everyone to pick over.
My story had originally ended here, but I felt I should perhaps add to it after encountering more interesting positions during the MSO weekend in the middle of August. I didn't use 'The Board' for any of the six matches (mustn't wear it out!) plus it was rather too heavy and cumbersome to lug around on the tube. Nevertheless, my winning streak continued. Rather than deliver a blow-by-blow, or round-by-round, narrative of the whole tournament, at the end of this article I present a few cube action problems from some of my matches. In each case you must also decide whether the correct cube action is the same in money play.
After five rounds I was in the fortunate position of being the only player on five wins. The unfortunate part for me was that I had to play a sixth round, which I lost to John Reddington 11-8. Prior to this, I had won 15 eleven-point matches in BIBA (or BIBA-sponsored) events, and had dreams of extending this to 20 (which would have been 1,000,000-to-one). Still, I can't really complain about 15 in a row (or 32,000-to-one; hence the title of this piece). For those who don't know Mike Hanson - as well as being an airline pilot he played backgammon in the UK before going off to fly planes in the far east a few years ago. (I believe he may since have resurfaced in this country at a tournament or two.) On the 'millionaire' TV show, he was unlucky with his £32,000 question which he lost on a 50:50 guess, and went back down to £1000.
In spite of my lost match, which resulted in a four-player tie with five wins each, I was declared the winner of the MSO tournament by a whisker ahead of Irv Czechowicz after two tie-breaks had been brought into play. Some people have all the luck..... ….. and in Peter’s case, his luck seems to have run out! The decision that placed Peter in Gold, Irv in Silver and John Reddington in Bronze was mine, a decision I calculated after the Director, Mike Main asked for my advice. My ruling was overturned by Andrew Havery (Event Co-ordinator) and Tony Corfe (Event Manager) leaving John in Gold, Peter in Silver and Irv in Bronze. MC
I am looking forward to giving the board its next outing at the September BIBA tournament, sponsored by 'Backgammon in London', which will have taken place by the time you read this. Of course I don't really believe all that magic mumbo-jumbo, and naturally neither do you. But I wonder how many of my future opponents will insist on rolling to decide on whose board we play....?
Mind Sports Olympiad Doubling Quiz
12(a) and (b) Double/Pass
White has a race lead, 12 checkers in the zone, three Black checkers to attack, and she trails 6-7 in the match. Big pass at the score; small pass for money.
13(a) and (b) No double/Take
14(a) Double/ Borderline take/pass
14(b) Double/easy take for money
15(a) Redouble/Take . .
15(b) No redouble/take for money