I’m often asked ‘Is there any magic to getting good at backgammon?’ My answer is yes.There are two magic ingredients: Study and Practice Play and take note… I was once playing a difficult match at my local tennis club when I faced a crucial cube decision. As I took the decision, I thought I’d got it wrong but I wasn’t sure. Phil Simborg always says it’s best to take a picture of the position with your phone and then feed it into your XG program later, to see what you should have done. I always feel that taking a snap of the position would look nerdy and foolish in the middle of a sociable evening, so I can never bring myself to do it. Instead, I took an old envelope out of my pocket and scribbled some notes on it about the position. This was unusually diligent of me and I felt rather pleased with myself as I tucked the scrap of paper away.
At many tournaments nowadays, you will see players record their entire match and analyse it later. I’m not sure I like that idea myself, but I can’t fault people for working on their game. A few days after this match, I took my dog Hector out for a walk and he did what dogs are supposed to do; he made a deposit on the pavement. I reached into my jacket pocket for a little plastic bag but I had none left. I looked around nervously to see if I could get away with walking off (a fairly serious crime in my part of London).
I noticed that Yvonne — an elderly and respectable neighbour — was about a hundred yards behind us. She’s a nice lady but has an eye like a hawk; there was no way she hadn’t seen Hector do his business. She was closing in on us and I was left with no choice. The only thing in my pocket was the old envelope on which I had written my backgammon notes.
I reluctantly used it to scoop up Hector’s mess. I should’ve taken Phil’s advice and taken a picture! There’s a big difference between playing casually with your mind elsewhere, and playing to improve. Take notes and pictures, look up positions on your computer or in your backgammon books when you get home, even ask a friend, but don’t walk away from a bad match or position.
Ask yourself: do you want 20 years of accumulated experience or one year of experience repeated 20 times?I’ve already mentioned the classic ‘Backgammon’ by Paul Magriel which many consider to be the ultimate backgammon tome. There are many other books about backgammon that can help you, such as ‘Backgammon – From Basics to Badass’ by Marc Brockmann Olsen, ‘Backgammon Boot Camp’ by Walter Trice# and, for more advanced players, ‘Can a Fish Taste Twice as Good?’ by Walter Trice and Jake Jacobs.
For these and other books I recommend some of the specialist backgammon websites such as Backgammon Galore and the Backgammon and Board Games Shop as well as the bookshop at the excellent Flint Area Backgammon Club.
The British player and author Chris Bray has written a number of excellent books including ‘Backgammon to Win’ and ‘Backgammon for Dummies’, both of which are very sound. As well as playing and writing about backgammon, Chris Bray also gives lectures – he’s a great communicator and advocate of the game.
Some of the great players of the 70s have left a strong legacy. I particularly recommend ‘Backgammon’ by Paul Magriel and ‘The Backgammon Book’ by Jacoby and Crawford. Also, ‘Classic Backgammon Revisited’ by Jeremy Bagai analyses many of the examples that in the earlier books were found wanting due to the lack of computer analysis available back then, and for a comprehensive review of common backgammon positions, Kit Woolsey’s two-volume ‘The Backgammon Encyclopaedia’ is also recommended.
A great next step is reading the books of Bill Robertie. Bill has written a number of very good backgammon books. ‘Backgammon for Winners’ is excellent for beginners. ‘501 Essential Backgammon Problems’ and ‘Backgammon for Serious Players’ and ‘Modern Backgammon’, all of which are excellent for intermediate players and include well-explained scenarios from one of the best backgammon brains around.
Backgammon for Serious Players is a step-by-step account of five matches featuring top players along with Bill’s commentary. Many people find this approach of teaching the game by following matches a brilliant way of learning the game.
There are also some excellent online resources. Paul Magriel, two-time world champion, used to write a column for the New York Times. You can read a backlist of his articles at http://www.bkgm.com/articles/Magriel/NYTimes/indexByDate.html. At Backgammon Galore you can also read a lot of other useful backgammon articles: http://www.bkgm.com/. There are also many good pieces and wonderful photographs at Chicago Point http://www.chicagopoint.com, and at the official US Backgammon Federation site at http://usbgf.org/ where they have a regular magazine called Primetime.
If you join the USBGF, which is a leading membership-based authority, you’ll find a large online resource, including many video lessons from other members. For example, you can watch hundreds of short videos made by Phil Simborg, covering virtually every area of the game.
Chris Bray maintains a regularly updated website www.chrisbraybackgammon.com which offers a daily problem for readers to wrestle with and some excellent educational material. Also in the UK you can get backgammon news and tournament dates from the UK Backgammon Federation at http://ukbgf.com/ and from the British Isles backgammon Association at http://www.backgammon-biba.co.uk/
Hardy Huebener maintains a great website in German and English which includes some wonderful quotes from players of the game, at http://www.hardyhuebener.de
Kit Woolsey and John O’Hagan practice every day but fellow Giant Ed O’Laughlin goes further and reports that he plays against the computer and studies his errors for approximately 12 hours a day, 6 days a week!
Although it’s not as romantic or as much fun as playing human beings, you will get better if you play regularly in the same way as Kit, John and Ed do. Especially if you play in tutor mode. One criticism of the computers is that they tell you what is right but not why it is right. It is in the figuring out why a move is good that you gain true knowledge and skill. I have to admit that the ‘why’ is often elusive, and that is where you can get great help from a teacher or mentor.
Playing online can be great fun and also has the advantage that you can do it at the drop of a hat. You don’t need to arrange anything in advance and you can play for as long or as short a time as you wish. As previously discussed, don’t play for money against someone you can’t see.
You can always capture a moment in an online game by taking a picture or screen grabbing it on your computer. This is excellent for studying moves afterwards and feeding the position into your game software.
Don’t be afraid to chat while playing
Some players can be hilarious to talk to, and it gives you more of a ‘live’ match feel.
Taking lessons is really easy these days because you can play against a professional online as well as in person. Local clubs will often have members who offer lessons. Phil Simborg has established BackgammonLearningCenter.com and has brought on several other teachers who specialise in beginner, intermediate, and advanced lessons, as well as teachers who provide backgammon lessons in Spanish, German, and French. Many of Phil’s students have gone on to win major tournaments around the world too.
In summary, to help you take your game to the next level: play, read, play people online, play against computers, and take lessons. If you do an assortment of these you will not only stay fresh and interested, but you’ll also accelerate your learning and progress.
One thing is clear, you need to get good information or help from books, articles, videos, teachers, mentors, and bots, and then you need to put in hours of study and practice, particularly what is called ‘deliberate practice,’ actively questioning your moves and attempting to improve at the same time. Studies of top athletes, chess players, and people who have become champions in any game or sport prove that all of these people have one thing in common: they worked hard and they worked smart.