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Learning Backgammon – from beginning

Introduction

Backgammon is not only one of the oldest games in existence, it is also one of the hardest to master. While you can learn the basic rules in just a few minutes, it takes many years of practice and study to become a real expert. The combination of skill and luck in addition with human psychology makes it very hard to realize how good or bad you actually are in any given stage. Good luck is often misinterpreted as skill; losses due to weak play are usually explained as bad luck. The human brain cannot handle the thought of being weak, it can deal much better with the thought of having bad luck; at least there is something to blame a loss on, other than our own incompetence.

In between the stages, you will often experience long streaks of losses, which partially are the result of normal streaks of bad luck, but also are the consequence of experimenting around with different strategies to improve your skill. Without extensive efforts to analyse and review your own games, you won’t be able to tell the real reason for wins or losses.

The following is a list of my own progress through the stages, obviously this may be different for others, depending on how much time you spend practicing and how intensive you study or review your analysed games, but maybe you can find yourself somewhere in these.

Stage 1: Novice

Someone explains to me the rules and we play a few test games. I bomb him with questions and I feel, no matter how much I ask, I didn’t even understand all the rules yet, but after a while I win a few games and I feel confident.

I signup at a free online backgammon server and I play 8500 games within one month, I’m already totally addicted, the game caught me and I can’t stop playing. But I keep losing, everyone rails me and I don’t understand it, I feel very unlucky. I’m convinced I have mastered the game already, after all it takes just a bit of logic, keep your checkers safe and hope to roll something good. How can all my opponents always roll the right number to hit me? Why can’t I roll something good once in a while? Shouldn’t I have the luck on my side every other game?

I withdraw from that server, there must be something wrong, the amount of bad luck I’m having there can’t be normal and my rating there has dropped so low, I imagine everyone else there laughs at me, they must think I’m a complete idiot.

I find a freeware backgammon program to download and I start playing against the computer, but there is something wrong with this program as well. The computer beats me even worse than the players online did, but of course, it is freeware, so no wonder the programmer hasn’t invested much in the playing skill of his program, he must have simply programmed the computer to get the better dice. I start to terminate every game as soon as I get to a bad position and play out only the games I’m winning; at least my ego is satisfied this way.

I find another online backgammon server, where they have very nice people, lots of chat going on all the time and I meet a few real nice players, who play some games with me and give me some hints. At first I feel offended, are these guys trying to lecture me? I’m an experienced player; I have played thousands of games already, they can’t tell me anything I don’t know! But then I suddenly realize, these guys are right, what they say makes sense, the strategies they show me are far superior to my basic idea of keeping checkers together and pray for good rolls. I’m not unlucky at all; I’m just a bad player!

Learning Backgammon articles series was written by Thomas Griffi (in online backgammon better known as Piranha)

Continue to Learning Backgammon,

Stage 2: Beginner

I buy a book and begin to study strategy. I learn about “Blitz” and “Back Game”, and I’m right away fascinated. The idea to hit the opponent regardless of risk, just bet on the probability that he might miss and I rail him sounds promising and a few test games against my computer proves this actually works, and I’m suddenly a winner. But the Back Game idea, to fall back in the game so much that it seems totally hopeless to win the race and then come back from there, is truly amazing.

I signup at another free online backgammon server, but there something must be wrong as well, I have studied so much, I’m a master of strategy now, but I’m still losing all the time. How can all my opponents be so lucky to hit me when I try a “Blitz” while I never get a hit when I try a “Back Game”?

I get in touch with some other players and they tell me about their own experience, suspicions about manipulated dice and I’m right away convinced, that’s the only possible explanation. I’ve had this impression myself already, and if others think the same, that confirms my theory. If the dice are manipulated, then I have no chance to win, but the people on this server are nice, so I stay, after all the manipulations seem to have the same effect on everyone which makes it overall somewhat fair again.

I begin to play for competition, I signup for some leagues and ladders and I play hundreds of games every day, my luck is still the worst, but that’s only because of the manipulations, so I put the main purpose of playing into the chat with other players, I make lots of friends and I feel good, if only the server would provide fair dice, it would be perfect.

Some of the leagues I play in organize live tournaments, of course I join, not only to meet the people I’ve been chatting with, but I’ll get a chance to show my real skills, with real dice, on a real board, without manipulations, that will be my glorious victory, finally my chance to show the world what a master I am.

I am more than disappointed; I lose all live tournaments I play in first or second round, not the slightest bit of luck, I feel so embarrassed, my expected great show of skill turned into a complete disaster. But I make a lot of friends; they assure me no one thinks badly about me, anyone can run into bad luck, that doesn’t affect the friendship or reputation.

I got a plan; I will study backgammon until I’m so far superior over anyone else, until even bad luck cannot prevent me from winning anymore and then I will show the world who the real champion is.

Learning Backgammon articles series was written by Thomas Griffi (in online backgammon better known as Piranha)

Stage 3: Intermediate

I surf the entire web for months, I read everything I can find about backgammon, I rarely find the time to play, this study requires all my time. I keep reading about Analysis and Equity and I invest a lot of money to buy the most expensive analysis program on the market.

I begin to analyse my games, at first I only check the summary on bottom, but why does this stupid program rate me Beginner most of the time? I cant be a beginner anymore, Ive played for several years live and online, this must be wrong!

I look deeper into the analysis and I find almost the entire list of my moves all marked in yellow and red which indicates errors and blunders. I review the moves marked as real bad blunders and I realize, this stupid program is not stupid at all, I am the stupid one here, and I am nothing but an arrogant idiot. How could I think I had mastered the game while I play such an amount of real dumb blunders?

I review my opponents skills, and I find out, most of my wins were not the result of my good play, but I won only because my opponents played even worse or I had a lot of luck while most of my losses were a direct result of my bad play against much better opponents.

I begin a mixture of playing and analysing, after every game or match I play I run an analysis and I review it move by move, even though I now spend much more time analysing than playing. I replay tricky positions to figure out why my move was such a blunder; I notice specific types of errors I keep repeating, I try to memorize and avoid them in future.

There still is this impression of manipulated dice when I play online, but the more analysis results I review, the clearer it becomes, it doesnt require any manipulations, my bad play plus the always present luck factor is more than enough to explain the outcome of my games and matches. I just wish I had a little bit more luck.

by Thomas Griffi (in online backgammon better known as Piranha)

Stage 4: Advanced

I have become a fan of statistics; I do not only review all my analysis, I also create huge statistics over thousands of games and matches, sorted by month or by opponent; I want to protocol my progress, get an estimate how long it takes to reach the next stage, but it turns out, the progress I make is minimal.

I keep playing for several further years, about half a million games, all analysed and reviewed move by move, but my average rating is still Intermediate.

At least there is one huge progress I made, I am now convinced, there is nothing manipulated in online backgammon. Ive played in a lot of live events and I have experienced, dice are weird and luck is a devil, but there is no difference at all between online dice and real dice.

I get into huge discussions with other players, who are still convinced about manipulations, I try to show them my analysis and statistics, but they wont listen. At first I try to convince them with logic, I cant understand why they dont accept my superior experience, until I suddenly remember, Ive been there myself, Ive been a beginner just a few years ago, and I didnt listen either when someone tried to tell me how weak I actually was. I keep trying to discuss with them, Im trying to find the perfect words that could break into a beginners mind and show them the truth, but it seems hopeless. Once in a while I reach someone, but the majority remains just as ignorant as I used to be myself.

Over time and another half million games I finally reach an average rating of Advanced, but it doesnt really get me exited anymore. I have learned to be modest, Im proud of my work with statistics, I have created a huge website with it and Ive gained quite a reputation in online backgammon, but the original plan of becoming a true champion is gone. Compared to the progress I made and the time it took so far, I can estimate, the date when I would reach a true world class stage will not be within my lifetime. Before studying and practicing backgammon requires talent and there I simply dont have enough.

Stage 5: Expert
Stage 6: World Class
Well, I cant tell anything about these, I havent reached it yet. Maybe someone else can fill in here.

I hope you enjoyed this article, as it represents some kind of biography of the last 15 years of my life.
Maybe you find yourself in one of these stages, maybe it helps you a bit in your own progress, however, I wish you the best of luck

Learning Backgammon articles series was written by Thomas Griffi (in online backgammon better known as Piranha)

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