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What's Your Game Plan? by Mary Hickey and Marty Storer

v120450 - What's Your Game Plan? by Mary Hickey and Marty Storer.  A book from Backgammon and Board Games Shop - www.bgshop.com

Price (excluding UK/EU/Europe): $62.70
(price UK: £45.60, EU/Europe: €55.86, Denmark: kr 410.40)

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About the Authors

Mary Hickey learned to play backgammon at the very end of the 1970s craze, then dropped out to pursue other interests and raise a family. She returned to the game at the end of 1995, and has been playing, teaching, and writing about backgammon ever since. 
Mary was the U.S. Open Champion in 2010 and repeated the feat in 2011. She finished sixth in the 2010 American Backgammon Tour and ninth in 2009. Besides her back-to-back U.S. Open victories, her tournament wins include the Mid-Atlantic Championship in 2010; the Ohio Open Championship in 2009; the Ohio Masters event in 2002, 2003, and 2006; the Indianapolis 300 masters event in 2006; and the Blitz in Las Vegas in 2006. 

Marty Storer has been playing backgammon since 1975, another victim of the 1970s craze. He remembers playing non-stop for most of the following decade, after which marriage and family and software engineering jobs intervened.
Marty moved to New England in 1991 and began to frequent the super-strong New England Backgammon Club. He won the inaugural American Backgammon Tour in 1993, helped by his victory in the star-studded Boston Open. He won two more ABT events the following year. By 1995 he was ranked 13th on Kent Goulding’s International Rating List. At times he’s been the highest-rated human (“mws”) on the First Internet Backgammon Server (FIBS).
Though Marty now plays in only an occasional tournament, over the years he’s found time to teach and analyze backgammon. In 2005 he published Backgammon Praxis, a two-volume analysis of three matches played by Malcolm Davis. Praxis has won high praise from such luminaries as Neil Kazaross, Paul Weaver, John O’Hagan, Matt Cohn-Geier, Tom Keith, and Chris Bray. 

Introduction

Backgammon starts as a formless mass in the beginner’s mind, but as he moulds and shapes it to become an expert, it’s transformed into a work of art. Principles take the form of rules to be followed “when in doubt,” with exceptions which in turn have their own special scope and limitations. But we humans speak of exceptions only because we’re fallible and backgammon theory is imperfect. And even if all our maxims were correct, no doubt we’d often use them incorrectly, either applying the wrong rules or giving conflicting ones the wrong relative weight. And of course, there are useful principles as yet undiscovered.

In backgammon, ideas come and go, computer analysis programs are updated, and theory evolves. But the backgammon expert's process stands firm. Players who learn to think the right way will win more than they lose, and their errors will be smaller in both number and magnitude. Both of us have worked hard over the years to improve that process for our students and ourselves. We have also shared many of our ideas with readers of our books, articles, and Web postings.

This book is about choosing the right game plan. It consists entirely of middle-game problems where the decision will determine the game’s future direction. The player must decide which doors to keep open, and which to allow to close. These problems are about selecting an overall strategy, while maintaining enough flexibility in your thinking to change course later if the dice so require. We include examples of some of those game-changing situations, where for good or ill you must abandon your previous first-choice plans.

We need good principles. They help us translate a complex system into a simpler one we can manage in real time over a backgammon board. Infinitely precise theory doesn’t work well for humans in human time, so we develop pragmatic simplifications, test them to find their useful operating range, and employ them as best we can. At the same time we accept that our principles will not always lead us to the correct answers. In this book, we explore the uses and limitations of familiar concepts in practice. We hope the problems will repay your study as much as they did ours.

What Others Are Saying about What's Your Game Plan?

Too much so-called "backgammon analysis" is merely glib post-hoc justification of computer rollouts. Not this book. Hickey and Storer, two of the world's finest players, scrutinize every position with a thoroughness that is exceptional even by world-class standards. The book overflows with hard-won insights that are guaranteed to improve your game. Bots come and go, but the lessons in this book will last you a lifetime.

Timothy Chow

What’s Your Game Plan? contains many interesting and important prototype positions from the middle game, with instructive solutions. The best plays are usually thematic, yet often surprising. As a quiz, this problem set will challenge anyone in the world, and I doubt even the best players can avoid making some blunders. This book is essential reading for serious players.

Herb Gurland

Taken as a set of individual problems, What’s Your Game Plan? provides the reader with a wonderful variety of useful concepts. Taken as a whole, it offers invaluable insight into how world-class caliber players think about the game.

Alex Zamanian

Review by Peter Bennet - July 2011
first appeared in Bibafax
113

I have a dilemma with this article. The book under review is written in the form of a quiz, and each of the 122 problems in the quiz deserves to be given your full attention and careful consideration. Picking some example positions and quoting from any of the solutions could spoil your fun when you actually buy and read the book. Because, I can assure you, this is a book which you will need to own if you are serious about backgammon.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, here's a rundown of what you get for your £40. The book is a high quality softcover, close in size to A4, and the same page size as Marty Storer's 'Backgammon Praxis' books (actually US 'Letter' size, or 8.5 x 11 inches).

However, at 303 pages, it is chunkier than either of the two 'Praxis' volumes. The glossy and attractively designed cover shows one of the positions (Problem 48) from the book, and this particularly challenging problem never seems to go away. It is repeated on the back cover, as well as on the first inside page, daring the reader to stick his neck out and pick one of the six or seven seemingly quite reasonable choices which the roll of 53 presents.

Here is the position:

Position 1

Without giving anything away about how specific plays rank, I can tell you that the top five plays span an equity range of about one fifth of a point! Choosing the right game plan here makes a big difference.

Moving inside the book, the first 14 pages include a detailed 'Methodology' describing how positions were selected and rollouts performed, and also explaining the meaning of all the figures in the rollout tables for each problem. The eXtreme Gammon rollout settings which were used throughout inspire confidence in the results: for most play options this was 2592 trials, with variance reduction, 4-ply for both checker play and cube actions, and huge search space. The 95% confidence intervals are pleasingly tight.

The next 21 pages present the problem positions, with six per page. They are all money play problems (no match play or cube action), and there are no pip counts, themed headings or any other clues to the solution. This enables the reader to try and solve each problem without any bias, and is a great feature of the book. I went through a page of six problems at a time before checking the solutions. One thing I did not do, but which is recommended (and which might have reduced my blunder-count!) was to set the positions up on a board.

The bulk of the book comprises the solutions, with either two or three pages devoted to each. For every solution the initial position diagram is again shown, this time with pip counts. The diagram is preceded by a themed heading and a sentence (or two) which expands a little on the theme.

For example: Fight or Flight? All the safe plays leave you in some danger. Should you strike first?

These introductions are a good reason for keeping the solutions separate from the initial problems.
There follows the analysis, with discussions of the merits of different types of game plan, and the choices of play associated with them. This discussion is very detailed and extremely thorough. If you liked Marty Storer's Praxis books, you will appreciate the effort put into this analysis. The authors home in on the correct game plan by examining features of the position including the race, timing, relative home board strengths, relative priorities of your objectives, tactics versus strategy, and the tried and tested safe versus bold criteria of Magriel. Sometimes a problem will have only two reasonable (or even legal) plays to choose from; sometimes six or seven. Frequently the authors will examine how a change in checker placement, or cube location (or imminent cube action), affect the correct play. These insights are particularly informative.

The lack of typos or other errors was impressive and indicative of the care which has gone into this work. I thought I had found an incorrect count of shot numbers in one solution, but it was I who had erred. Problem 92 failed to show the dice roll (44) at the start of the solution. In one problem I thought that duplication had not been mentioned when it perhaps should have been. Only occasionally did I find that I was not completely convinced by a solution, and that is perhaps more my problem than the authors'!

The last sentence or paragraph of the analysis summarises the conclusion and confirms the best move, and this is followed by a diagram showing the position after the correct move has been played. Finally there are two tables of rollout data; the first showing equities for each play and the second giving percentages of plain games, gammons and backgammons. The difference in equity between the top two plays is usually at least 0.060, and in many cases it exceeds 0.100, so we are talking about second best plays which are significant errors, and sometimes mega blunders. 

Readers might think that I have been bribed if I don't make any adverse comments about the book, so I had better get a few possible criticisms on the record:

  1. Some of the analysis might seem too long and detailed for those who prefer bite-sized bullet points. The format for every solution consists of a themed heading, followed by an introduction, followed by the analysis itself, and ending with a conclusion and summary. This formula sometimes felt a little cumbersome.
  2. To my mind, a couple of the positions were closer to 'End Game' than 'Middle Game' but who cares? 
  3. A few colloquialisms jarred a little (for me at least). For example, "In the early game, if you have to choose between blah and vicious, go with vicious!" 
  4. The typeface used in the main text is clear and easy to read; however the rollout data is in a much lighter, less pleasing, font.

To resolve the dilemma mentioned at the start of this review, I will just present two more positions for you to think about without quoting from the answers. Both are fairly unremarkable-looking middle game positions of the type which crop up frequently. In both cases the second best play is a blunder:


Position 2


Position 3

Of course you could always just roll them out for yourself. However, for a more complete understanding of these and 120 other positions, just buy the book. You won't regret it.

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