Sylvester vs. Kurzet – Part I

Joe Sylvester vs. Jay Kurzet
Round 1 of the 1993 World Cup

From the transcript of a 1993 lecture by Joe Sylvester & Kit Woolsey
With updates from eXtreme Gammon™ as appropriate.

Joe: So what we are going to do up here today is we are going to look through a backgammon game and give you our thought processes on what goes into various stages of the game, the match, the match equities, etc.

Audience: Who are you guys?

Joe: Kit Woolsey is an esteemed bridge player who occasionally plays a little backgammon and we are graced by his presence when he does. My name is Joseph Sylvester and I play a little backgammon.

So it happens the other day that I did play a little backgammon. And I encountered a very exciting game. It was against Jay Kurzet and it was in the first round of the World Cup and the score was 3 to 8 in an 11-point match.

Kit: Joe will probably go into more exact details of the match equities, but in general with White (Kurzet) having only 3 points to go and Brown (Sylvester) having 8 points to go, it means that Brown will be much more aggressive in doubles and takes.

Joe: Someone said that in your basic holding positions etc., White should be upwards of 70% or so at least to double.

Kit: He is talking here about holding games, but a complex game is a different story. Basically, White almost shouldn’t be doubling if it is a complex game.

Joe: Exactly, you should not be doubling. And as I watch the first 2 or 3 days of backgammon here in the World Cup – there are your experts, your World-Class players, the best players – and that is clearly the most common mistake they are making. Time and time again, players will lead in a match and give up cubes in volatile positions that should clearly just not be given.

Kit: One further point, because of this in the opening plays, White should aim for nice simple games like holding games and races. Brown should aim for the complex games for exactly that reason. Brown has all cube leverage in complex games.

Joe: Absolutely. It’s a concept that I call steering. To give you a quick example of steering positions, let’s say White is trailing here 3-8 and has an opening 4-3.  White should clearly play 2 checkers down 13/9 and 13/10. The reason being that approximately 60 to 65% – closer to 65% – of the time, what develops in this position is a prime versus prime game. And when prime versus prime comes up, those are really your gammon swings that occur in a match. One side breaks down leaves a blot, gets hit, and ends up with 3 to 4 checkers back on the ace point. These are very volatile positions.

White to play 4-3 down 3 to 8 in match to 11.


To really understand why you as a leader would not want to have a prime versus prime game, envision the score at 5-3 in a 7-point match with the cube on 2. If you are the leader the gammon has absolutely no value to you whatsoever. However, as the trailer, the gammon means as much as a victory for the leader. So if you can increase the number of gammons, that is the type of position you want when you trail.

Kit: Now guess how Brown should move when ahead in a match with an opening 4-3 roll. Any guesses?

Audience: One up, one down.

Kit: You better believe it!

Brown to play 4-3 up 8-3 in a match to 11.


Joe: Exactly. Approximately 70% of the time, what occurs from here are holding positions, OK? The general response here is White comes down and slashes Brown. Brown has 26 numbers to hit back, hits are exchanged, 3-4 checkers get sent back, and the added flexibility really helps establish advanced anchors and holding positions…the coin flips of backgammon.

Your basic holding positions – generally what happens is one side convoys out on the other one, it becomes a race and sometimes a shot is given on the midpoint, but there is not cube action until that point. Either the shot is hit or the guy blows by on the race. It is not a gammon-type of position.

Kit: By the way, these are really clear-cut. Now, how you play the normal opening for a 4-3 even match score, that’s up in the air, it’s a matter of personal preference, some people bring 2 checkers down, some people split and bring 1 checker down, I don’t know what’s correct, Joe doesn’t know what’s correct, it’s what you like best. But at these scores, it is clear which is correct.

Brown to play 4-3 tied 8 to 8 in a match to 11.


Joe: If you are playing someone for money and you consider yourself stronger, you will generally want to bring the 2 checkers down. Perhaps you will want to bring the 2 checkers down because if you enter a prime versus prime position, with the timing elements it will be played at a really advanced level, it’s a complex part of backgammon. If you are the better player, in theory you should be able to handle it better. Conversely, if you are playing someone for money and you feel weaker, then you probably want to establish the holding position and play that type of game. It will bring less variance into your position.

11 Point Match

Brown-3 White-8

White to play opening 5-2?


Joe: White starts with an opening 5-2 by moving 13/8, 6/4. Here’s an example of something I don’t think I would start off the top of the game with anyway. I have heard pros and cons with regard to something like this for money, but to me this is somewhat like trying to establish a prime versus prime position. If Brown doesn’t hit, he’ll probably bring 2 down, White will probably build a point, Brown will build a point. I can see this evolving into a prime versus prime much quicker than a standard 5-2 opening.

Kit: I agree. Even though this is my personal preference for an opening 5-2. In a match at this score, I definitely think it is what Brown should do and do not think it is what White should do. All for the same reasons.

BROWN to play an opening 5-2.

Audience: What do you suggest White do? Play 2 down or split the back checkers?

Kit: Both are reasonable.

Joe: I want to put myself on record for saying that this deuce-split from Magriel’s book of the 1970’s that the world has so much chastised for years, isn’t as bad as its press. It isn’t my favorite. You can get blown away with double 3’s or 5’s, but you get blown away with those anyway.

Brown responds with 5-4.


Joe: Brown responds with 5-4 by moving 13/8, 13/9.

Kit: This is definitely right! It is not right for Brown to run in this position. He is not being threatened with a prime, he’s being threatened with an attack. What he wants to do is build his own counter-prime. His own board. The checkers on the 24-point can sit and wait.

Audience: Would you consider moving the 4 to the 20-point?

Kit: It’s dangerous for the same reason. You could get attacked, he hits and covers and all of a sudden you’re in trouble. You do not need that. The back guys are quite safe where they are. Brown builds his own prime and White builds a prime. Brown has the priming valve that he wants. By sliding you risk a disaster without any real gain if you get away with it.

Joe: You don’t want to enter into the mutual holding game. You are trying to create that prime versus prime position.

White to play 4-3.



Joe:  White covers with the 4 and moves the 3 to the 10-point.

Kit:  Certainly reasonable.  White should not be coming up to the 21-point because he would be coming under the gun of 3 or more builders since Brown brought his checker down.  This is why White should have made the effort to get out earlier, before Brown brought the checker down.  Now it’s a little more dangerous for the split.

Joe: Brown responds with 4-1 making the 5-point. White rolled 6-1 making the bar point.

Kit: Notice what’s happening!

Audience: Prime versus prime.

Kit: Prime versus prime. What Brown wanted and what White should have avoided. This is all largely because of White’s choice on his opening roll. This is how the game evolves. I have gone through a lot of matches and I have seen this time and time again. Your choice on the opening roll so often determines what type of game it is. This is the perfect example.

Brown to play 4-1.


Joe: Brown plays 4-1 by moving 13/9 6/5. He’s using the same bait of diversifying and creating builders.

Kit: What do you think about slotting the bar point here?

Joe: I really don’t want to give White the tempo in this position of hitting that shot. If Brown gets hit and comes in, he’s not necessarily a favorite to hit White back here. I feel as though I’m aiding White in establishing an advanced anchor and getting into the holding position I’m trying so hard to avoid.

Kit: I agree. And also the builder is excellent. Brown has a lot of ways to make points. And another thing by the way, even though White stole the bar point, Brown should not be in a hurry to come out here. He’s just going to get pounded if he does. So he should just sit back and build his own prime. Then see what happens. That should be Brown’s approach.

Joe: Getting back to the advanced concept of steering the position to match score. Coming out to the bar, even if it does succeed, that’s the one thing that Brown would want to avoid in this position. Let’s say he comes up there and White hits, Brown hits back, during that interval of time when White is coming in and Brown is hitting back and coming up, White has a 3rd or 4th checker back to establish an advanced anchor. If White doesn’t establish an advanced anchor, Brown cashes the game in a hurry. Which is fine and dandy, but down 8-3 it’s not the position we are striving for. We are striving for the prime vs. prime position where White’s cube is completely inhibited. White can go to as high as 70-75% in some sort of timing battle and really not be able to double. Because if he does cube, he gets the cube back at 4 and all the volatility of his position is against him. Not only are the gammons against him, but the 4 cube is too. He can only use 3 of the 4 points. Conversely, with the volatility of the position, Brown can use all 8 points. That way he can win the match.

Joe: White rolls 6-5, plays 24/13.

Brown rolls 2-1.


Kit: Brown has a choice of making the bar point or the 4-point.

Audience: Bar point.

Kit: The bar point is better. The main reason is not because it’s a good blocking point, the 4-point is a better blocking point. Look at Brown’s nice flexibility, builder, builder, builder. Let’s look at making the 4-point.

Make the 4-point

Yuk! Now you can see how much nicer Brown’s position is by making the bar point. I think that’s why Joe chose the play, not because the bar point is better than the 4-point, but because the resulting distribution is better. You are Brown aren’t you?

Joe: This by the way turns into a very exciting match. You won’t be disappointed.

White rolls 5-1 making the 5-point. Brown rolls 6-1.


Joe: Thoughts? Ideas?

Kit: This one you gotta think about. This is the first really non-trivial play.

Joe: Let’s start off with some thought process. I’ll give you a player plan. I play this entire game to try to create some volatile position. It’s not my intention to trash my position, kill checkers to the ace point and turn it into something impure. I want to keep my checkers pure. I am trying to induce a cube, I want to get something. I want to illicit an error. If I go and slash him on the ace point, and he doubles me, he won’t be making that big an error. If he hits me, he feels pretty good. If he doesn’t hit me, it’s no big deal. So the play from that standpoint looks pretty clear. In fact, it is THE prefect roll for the evil plan I had. So I moved 13/7, 5/4.

Kit: I like this.

Joe: The 6 is clear, the ace is a slide. I want to wave a White flag in front of him…”Hey, that’s a checker – shoot at him – come and get me.” If I do a stack play on him, I’m inflexible. If I play 8/7, 7/6 or 6/5, I’ll be taking away a builder. And I don’t want to split my back men either. That would be tempting. That’s probably the most tempting alternative. And I believe it’s a pretty big error in this position. Making my play, White now only has aces to hit, and 2’s and 3’s to come up effectively so that he can leap out. But if I split, he has 4’s, 5’s, and 6’s to point on me. With some aces he will gladly just mow one and take his chances with the cube in the center.

Kit: I agree. Splitting just asks to be blown out of the water. Brown is definitely in trouble in the timing battle, White can escape one checker and White has a bigger prime. But Brown is in more trouble if White fires away. White also has a bigger board and plenty of checkers to attack him. If Brown is sitting there anchored on White’s ace point, White can’t blow him out of the water. White’s got to get this checker out or Brown could just win the priming battle. Joe’s play is aimed at just what he wants to do. Make the 5th point of the prime and win the priming battle. So he if he gets hit he will have his anchor and try to win the struggle. It’s not going to be easy, but you guys have rolled very well during this game.

Joe: Trailing, we really want to induce volatility.

White on roll – cube action?


Joe: I think you’ve gathered from everything we’ve said that we felt it would be an error to double from here – but White doubles.

Kit: If this were a money game or an even match score, what do you think the proper cube action would be?

Audience: (More than one person talking.) Double. Double. No Cube. Double.

Kit: When I say cube action – there are two sides to cube action. What should White do and what should Brown do?

Audience: (More than one person talking.) Double/pass. No double/take

Kit: I agree. I would not take this.

Joe: White should double and Brown should pass for money.

White on roll.  Cube action?  Money game.


Kit: What should happen at this score?

Audience: (More than one person talking.) No double/take. Double/scoop.

Kit: I think at this score in this type of game, doubling is a big major blunder.

Joe: This is a type of position that falls in a real grey area that’s both not good enough and too good. When the game develops well for White here, he wins gammons. He gets a couple checkers, throws them back and wins a gammon. But the value of the gammon is seen only with the cube on 1, ‘cause when he turns it to 2, it’s coming back to 4 and all that value is gone.

To give you some idea how easily that cube is coming back to 4, let’s assume that in a given position – not this one but in any position – White doubles to 2 and Brown accepts. With Brown owning the cube on 2, this is how you calculate doubling plays:


OK, when you own a cube on 2, Brown looks at the position and he says, “Alright, if I play this game to completion, I’m going to be down whether or not I redouble to 4.”

If he doesn’t redouble and loses, he’ll be down 3 to 10 Crawford. At 3-10 Crawford, you have approximately a 6% chance. That’s what I use, alright? If Brown does not redouble and wins, the score will be 5-8, right? At 5-8, I use about 27%.

OK, conversely say Brown does redouble and loses, he’s going to be down 3-11, 0%
right? And if he redoubles and wins, the score will be 7-8 and he’ll be about 41 %.

OK, that’s if he’s holding a 2 cube. With these numbers in mind, we can see by redoubling to 4, all Brown is risking is 6%. He can go from 6% to 0%, that’s his net risk on a redouble.

Kit: And what he gains!

Joe: And what he gains is going from 27% to 41%. He gains 14%. It’s not like a standard double risking 2 to gain 1 when he doubles. In this case he’s actually getting 14 to 6 odds on his cube. Which means a 14 to 6 ratio. He redoubles with approximately 30%, 14 to 6 is something like 70-30. In fact it is 70-30.

Kit: That’s not saying that you should automatically redouble.

Joe: Right!

Kit: He can.

Joe: But his doubling window starts at 30%. Brown can redouble with 30%.

Kit: But notice we haven’t even considered the possibility of Brown winning a gammon.

Joe: Right. Imagine now that he could go to 100%, he’s now risking 6% to gain 73%. If every game he won was a gammon, he would need 8% to redouble. It’s a 73 to 6 ratio, which is about 8%. So you can see now why White is so inhibited with the cube because he gets redoubled so easily. Especially with the volatility involved, White is paralyzed with the cube.

Kit: Did White double?

Joe: White doubles!

Kit: The next question is should Brown take? It not clear.

Joe: Yes, it is.

Audience: (Lots of laughter.)

Joe: We had to start disagreeing sooner or later.

Audience: You’re risking 6%, right?

Kit: No-no-no. It’s not so simple.

Joe: Alright, from an initial standpoint, this is how we calculated the doubling points.


Joe: Alright, from the other standpoint, Brown could pass and be down 3-9 to 11 and be about 15%. If he takes and loses he’s down 3-10 Crawford, he’s about 6%

Kit: He’s probably gonna redouble.

Joe: Right, he’s probably gonna redouble, so we figured that since we know we’re going to redouble, we’re risking that 15% to gain seemingly only 26% if every win was just a plain win.

Kit: There’re gonna be some gammons.

Joe: Right! There’s gonna be some gammons. It’s not easy to determine the take point, but it’s probably like Kit said, it’s not clear. From my standpoint, experience shows that I’m gonna win a lot of gammons ’cause that’s what I’m going to be playing for after I’ve rewhipped.

Kit: Well, I would say whether Brown takes or passes, White is much worse off than he would have been if he had just left the cube alone.

Joe: So Brown takes the cube at 2, and White rolls double 4’s.


Kit: Oh yeah, moving right along.

Joe: Any thoughts. Don’t be shy.

Audience: 13/9 with 2 checkers and 13/5.

Joe: OK. All right that’s what he did.

Kit: Noooooooow….

To be continued…


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