Games: backgammon

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The Independent Online
Here's a proposition that gave Murray Sharp, the sartorial king of the Double Fives Club, much enjoyment. Black doubles; should White take? Murray, who once dropped a double, but so long ago that nobody remembers the details, promptly offered to play the White side as a proposition. In a proposition such as this Black pays White one point per game to take the double and then the two players agree to play either a set number of games or until the losing player wants to stop.

Murray couldn't put a foot wrong. Either Black crashed his board by rolling big numbers, or he would get a well-timed one-point game and hit a shot to win. He went home a big winner. A few nights later he chanced his arm and played the same proposition against Barry "Bigplay" McAdam. This time it all went wrong, and Murray quickly lost 30 points.

The difference lay not so much in the skill of the players, as this position is easy to play from either side, but in the vagaries of backgammon. At first sight this may look like a dreadful take, but although it is a drop it is not a drop by a huge amount. White does have two very reasonable winning game plans: Black crashing his board before he can escape one or both of his men, or White winning a well-timed one-point game, as Murray did in his first session. White will win fully 30 per cent of all games. What makes it a drop is the percentage of gammons that White loses when things go badly.

Over a short session of an hour or two, the defending side may get lucky. Over a longer period, Black will come out on top. Moral: when playing a proposition, choose one where your skill can make a difference. In this example the game plans are clearly defined and the result, at least in the short term, is determined mainly by the dice.