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Making Her Point

Most of my students over the years have been experienced players; outright beginners were rare. It isn’t surprising; not many people will pay big money (currently $75.00 an hour) (Hint! Hint!) to learn a game they know absolutely nothing about. Even so, I have occasionally found myself chanting the magic incantation: “This is a blot, and this is a point.” It has been my experience that the Eves (the recipients of free beginner’s lessons have mostly been Eves) are endowed with angelic powers, at least when it comes to rolling. Once they have bitten into the fruit of knowledge the gift vanishes, but in the beginning, pure of mind and heart, they in their radiant innocence are able to bring forth miracles from their cups.

I have as you may have surmised a specific Eve in mind. Last night I taught my girlfriend Cairn how to play backgammon. Cairn, Scottish for “pile of stones,” is an auspicious name for a backgammon player—she was prescient to pick it. Many hold that a student learns best through success, and if that is so, then early victories should reinforce their desire to learn. Myself, I cleave to a more austere, Oriental philosophy. I’m of the walk-barefoot-over-hot-coals, meditate-naked-in-an-icy-stream branch of pedagogy. Lose to your teacher awhile—the first ten years, say—and then “when you can take this race from me with seven consecutive sets of double sixes Grasshopper, then you may leave this place.”

The first game really doesn’t count, not in my methods. I set up dueling bearoffs, and we race from there. That way the student immediately learns the end in view—win the race—while mastering the mechanics of moving checkers. So Cairn’s two sets of double fives to crush me were insignificant. Totally forgotten. Really!

The second game is also a modification, it’s the position you would have if each side began the game with two six-fives. We each roll a die to determine who goes first, and race from there. This time the Jacobs’ arm was warmed up, unlike the—ahem!—first game. I had a commanding lead, when Cairn rolled 66.

From a teacher’s standpoint this was a lucky roll (especially when her next roll was a paltry 31). After my non-double Cairn was on roll with a 43 bearoff, and I could ask her whether she thought she was the favorite, then introduce the concept of dice odds and how to compute them.

The third and final game of the session is the tough one. This is the first time I let the student play from the real starting position. I explain blots and points, give a very brief explanation of the basic games that might develop, and run through the preferred openings, with some of the reasoning behind each. Then, we’re off! I try, once the game is in progress, to give less assistance rather than more. Micromanaging the student’s every move I believe leads to their retaining almost nothing. But since I had already shown Cairn how a 55 could be played if one’s opponent had split, when she rolled it in response to my opening 41, I was able to steer by reminding.

Cairn did a fairly good job of bringing builders to bear for her blitz, while I did a fairly good job of rolling lots of 1s, 3s, and 6s. But I did manage a couple of early 2s, so I retained equity in the game.

Cairn could see the pick and pass (a term I taught her), but I stopped her here to give her a taste of the future. Simply explaining that hitting and leaving the blot was better would be meaningless. I explained to her that, with experience, she would have a good notion of what would happen if she slotted and was hit, and also an idea of the difficulties she would face in the bearoff if she failed to make her four-point. She was not equipped by experience to evaluate those things yet, and so the “right” move by itself was meaningless, but that some day if she kept playing she would be so equipped. Also, that this play was an easy choice for experienced players because my board was so very weak, while picking and passing would be an easy choice if my board were very strong. “So,” I told her, “the type of problem you will some day have to wrestle with, is what to do when my board is in between. The advanced problems you face will be ones that require fine-tuning your judgment.”

As you see, I was able to establish the second anchor. And with one blot back and this little beauty spilling out of her cup, I was about to show her why it wasn’t nice to try to blitz the teacher.

Which led to another good teaching roll. Cairn’s impulse (as it would be for almost every beginner) was to play the 2, then look for a 5. By pointing out her primary strategic goal—escaping her back checkers—she could see immediately that her 5 should be played bar/20. Then I was able to show her how a new blot, if created by hitting, might protect all the others.

I fanned, and things were looking bad for teacher, but a timely 4 got me back in the game, leading to ...

“Oh, that does something good, doesn’t it?” Yes, my dear, it certainly does! A good teacher can always turn adversity into a lesson: “here’s a new vocabulary word; this is called a ‘joker!’ ”

To those who claim I should have stopped Cairn from playing 6/off, 5/4*, I say: “you are shortsighted!” There are far more teaching opportunities available if she should happen to get hit in the bearoff; my motives were unselfish. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!) The dice fully understood, and granted me a 4. Her next roll was a hideous 43 off the bar, and I acquired another man.

Playing 18/12 is better all around, unless White rolls a 66. Is guarding against 66 worth worrying about? Yes, though it’s almost too close to call. Those wondering what Cairn’s next roll was have perhaps not paid enough attention to the tenor of this article.

Cairn’s 62 permitted me to explain how even the simplest roll could turn a clear favorite into a clear underdog. I might have added that there was ironic justice in that 62 was the very first roll she had jokered over my prime with earlier, but pointing that out would have set me up for my own mocking. That’s because the most recent roll she had jumped my prime with was 66, and her next roll proved the dice have their own sense of irony.

 
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