Backgammon is Life: Intuition

I was reading an article today about erotomania (don’t ask) and I came across a paragraph that struck me as it related directly to backgammon.

“It happens that the most intuitive people are most in danger of being wrong. It’s simple: they get cocky. Their intuition is spot-on so often that they start believing they’re going to be right all the time. They ignore their mind’s capacity to play tricks on them.” — Hedia Anvar

I am that guy. I mostly play backgammon by feel, saving my thinking and more thorough analysis for the hard plays. The problem is that I use my intuition to determine what is a “hard play.” When playing on autopilot, seemingly obvious plays are often massive blunders. I mean, if making the 5-point is wrong, it can’t be wrong by much. Right? On the other hand, take a look at this position.

The correct play is 24/20*

Making the 5-point is a double blunder. So, there’s that.

I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’m the guy who’s just good enough to be dangerous, mostly to my bankroll. I play the game because it’s fun and socially satisfying. There is nothing better than sharing witty banter and trash talk in a chouette with good friends and good wine. That’s my idea of a perfect evening, and if we can stretch it out until the sun comes up, so much the better. I just don’t want it to cost me 50 or 100 points . . . again. So, I’m trying to study more. I’m analyzing my matches with eXtreme Gammon®. And I’m trying to slow down. I even get together twice a month with some other players in our local club for an online backgammon study group. We enjoy learning together and hopefully filling some of the holes in our respective games, opening our eyes to our blind spots.

The other day I was playing a match against my good friend Michael Mesich, and he threw me a cube that I really wanted to take. It was one of those positions where you think, “Ah, he’s not as strong as he thinks he is. If I can just come off the bar and make an advanced anchor, he’ll be in trouble.” And that’s when I stopped and considered that meant I was on the bar and didn’t have an anchor, and then these words came out of my mouth, “You know, I’ve taken in positions like this a lot, and I’m always surprised what a huge mistake it is. So, I’m going to pass.” “Darn you, and your learning!” he replied. We both laughed and I went on to win the match.

Don’t get me wrong. Intuition is important. Sometimes, as Mary Hickey recently said in the USBGF daily Online Match, “I realize this is kind of sloppy analysis, but I’m waiting to double because this is too funny-looking.” This is a game of patterns and our intuition comes from subconsciously analyzing them.

The problem is how do you determine that what seems to be obviously the correct play is in fact a mistake? At the 2018 Las Vegas Open, Nevzat Dogan, one of the top-level players in the field got up a bit late for his first match of the day. He stepped up to the board and spat out, “I need coffee.” He then started his clock and journeyed to Starbucks for a much-needed cup of “Kick Start.” By the time he got back he had around a minute left on his clock to finish a 15-point match, which he won with a few seconds to spare. He accomplished that feat without having the time to think deeply about any individual position. He had to rely on his intuition.

Nevzat Dogan has been around a long while. He is a former World Champion. He has spent thousands of hours over the board and seen hundreds of thousands of positions. There’s something special about the ability to categorize nuanced patterns and positions so deftly as to be able to analyze them and act within seconds. His performance was the talk of the tournament and he finished in 2nd place as well.

Contrast Mr. Dogan’s accomplishment with our bad beat story. Mike Meier is a relative newcomer to the Twin Cities Backgammon Club, and he’s still trying to get the hang of this “doubling cube thing.” Playing White from behind against Michael Mesich, 2–5 in a 7-point match, he found himself in this position.

White Doubles

He was thinking that he’s ahead in the race and all he has to do is bring those outside checkers home. He’s also behind in the match and has to make something happen to catch up, so out comes the big gun. He doubles.

Michael gently informed him that it was a pretty optimistic double. White is actually only slightly ahead in pips, and the double was a .36 blunder. All politeness aside, Michael was thrilled to hold a dead cube from this position and patiently wait for the inevitable blots to present themselves. Which of course they did on the very next roll, 6–1.

Mike figures, “Clear from the rear, right?” And plays 16/9, leaving two blots, another blunder. Of course, Michael eventually picks them both up, leading to this position with a 95.86% chance of winning the game. Movie quotes from The Matrix are running through Michael’s head, “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

White’s 1–1 is his best possible roll

Nearly all hope had drained from Mike as he was on the bar with nary a chance for a shot. But, as they say, it’s never easy. Mike throws a miracle 1–1, just enough to barely stay in the game. Still, Michael’s confidence is not diminished. He knows that he continues to be an overwhelming favorite. I mean really, white hasn’t even made his 5-point yet, how can he possibly win this game?

Indeed, Michael’s bear-off progresses perfectly, with ultra-safe play since this is match point for him. Taking advantage of his apparently insurmountable race lead, he patiently clears his high points not caring about bearing off checkers at all. Until we arrive at the point in the game when it all falls apart.

White’s 6–6 starts a massive avalanche of luck

Starting with a 44 pip race deficit and 0.26% probability of winning, Mike comes off the bar with boxcars followed by 4–4, 5–5, and 5–5 against Michael’s 2–1, 3–2, 3–1, 3–1. In the span of 4 plays Mike went from a 1–400 underdog to an 8–1 favorite.

All Michael could do was chuckle out a “Well done.” His PR in the game was a respectable 5.17 against Mike’s 24.14, but on Thursday night in Minneapolis, the only thing that matters is getting your checkers off first.

Mike is going to be a really good player one day. He has good instincts, and a great sense of humor. He’s hungry to learn and a lot of fun to play against. I know that with time, study and experience, his intuition will improve and he’ll be a formidable opponent as well.