Today and for the next few days, I want to move away from looking at positions for a moment and just talk about self improvement. A couple of years ago, in response to a fibster who wished most fervently to get to 1700 on Fibs (harder then than now), I offered the opinion in shouts that it wasn't hard, as "even a fencepost can be 1700 on Fibs". I knew that it would stimulate an animated response, during which I hoped to get across the message that this level is available to anybody if they are prepared to do a bit of work to get it. Sadly the message was drowned in a storm of abuse and all that was remembered was that I regarded sub 1700 players as morons! So it goes.
Then, 1700 was roughly speaking the rating of a beginner/weak intermediate, nowadays with rating inflation it is probably a bit higher, but the principle remains, that this is a rating and a level of play that anybody can achieve. At present, Fibs has about 18,000 accounts, of which about 1,200 are 1700 and above. For the 16,800 below that figure, are there ( a reader asks) any general tips to reach and maintain a 1700 rating? There certainly are.
First of all, you have to ask yourself, "How badly do I want this?" Not everybody does care to do any work towards improving at all. You might call them cafe players. They know how to play, they enjoy it, but any form of study or learning is anthema to them. That's fine, nothing wrong with that, good luck to them. However, if you do care, then you are going to have to put in some work. Some of the hours that you now spend playing are going to have to be used for improvement. Whether that improvement is reading books, or studying annotated matches or analysing your matches with the help of a bot, or any of many other methods, I can tell you this. If you don't enjoy it and find it interesting for itself, it isn't going to work. If this game doesn't fascinate and enthrall you with its endless variety of problems, forget it.
So, we've eliminated the "Can't be bothered" group and the "Would like to but I find it all rather boring" group. Still with us? I think the next question is "Why do I want to play better?"
It's undeniable that a high rating is an ego thing, more so for some than others, but I think it's there for all of us. This can't be enough in itself though and for me, there are three reasons that stand out. First and foremost, winning is more fun and the better you play, the more you win! Secondly, I have found that the more I learn about this game, the more interesting it becomes and the more pleasurable it is to play and study. The third is that the better you play, the better the opponents that will play you and without doubt, a tough struggle with a top class opponent is as good as the game gets for me.
Still in? OK, before we ever get down to learning anything at all, here are my four top tips for improvement. Just following these alone will lift the game of any of us and they will create the right environment for futher improvement.
No 1. Don't play for fun. Don't log on to grab a game while you drink your coffee and push the pieces round without thinking about it too much. Not only does this offer no room for improvement, it actually inhibits it! From the moment that you decide that you want to play better, you have to treat every match, every game, every move with respect and your full attention. At first, if you are habituated to playing without much thought, then you are going to find this actually quite tiring, but it will improve. Think of it as preparing yourself to run a marathon. You can go out for a nice walk, you can even jog a bit, but if you want to get fit enough to run a race, then you have to habituate yourself to running. Playing good bg is like that. Only by giving every move your full attention every time you play will it become second nature. You can't pick and choose, sometimes trying to play well, sometimes not, because the first time in a tough match that you come under pressure, your brain will revert to playing the first move that looks half decent. No more fun matches!
No 2. Preparation is important! If you are going to play backgammon, get ready to play backgammon! Turn off the TV, the stereo and the radio. Put the phone on answer. Tidy the desk at which you play. Don't try and play with other people in the room, or in the five minutes before your other half gets back from the shops. Tired? Don't play. Hungry or thirsty? Don't play. Been drinking a few adult beverages or indulging in your drug of choice? Don't play. Toggle silent. Visualise yourself as sitting down to play an important tournament match, log on, find the toughest opponent that will play you and go for it! Make this level of preparation habitual. You may like to add ear plugs and/or a cap! Certainly in live play in a busy tournament room they can be a big help and putting them on when you sit down to play can help to put you in the right frame of mind too. No doubt you can add some things to this list that work for you.
No 3. Recognise, once and for all, that this is a dice game! All we can do is to try and tilt the odds in our favour with good checker and cube play, but in the end, the luckier player will win! Don't waste your energies cursing your luck and the dice gods, because it will just distract you from doing all that you can do, which is finding the best play. In any backgammon environment, Fibs, a club, a pub, a tournament you will hear the four most common words in the game. They are, ".........and then he rolled". Don't join in because these are not and never will be strong players. Gravitate towards the small group that are looking at a board and discussing "What if...?"
Some years ago at the Danish Open, I was recording a match which ended with one player turning around a big race deficit and blasting home with a string of big doubles. They shook hands and then the losing player, Torben Hasseriis, reconstructed a position from earlier in the game and discussed it with the kibitzers. Nobody even mentioned the dice! Let this be you.
No 4. Play more slowly! Everybody online plays too fast, including you. Roll, then let go of the mouse. Even if the play looks obvious, just look around for something else. If there are a lot of candidate plays, try them out. It only takes a moment to reset them. Give yourself extra time with small doublets, always a fertile ground for big blunders. While your opponent is thinking ask yourself the all-pro question, "How do I plan to win this game?" These are all particularly true when playing very fast players and bots. Play at your pace, not theirs.
In the next few days, again by request, I want to look at some ground rules for bearing in and bearing off. These areas are not much discussed in todays literature, partly because they are second nature to the writers and thus not seen as interesting. It's true also that the common mistakes are usually quite small, but as these situations come up in every game played to a finish, the cumulative effect of frequent small mistakes is quite large.
Until the next time, enjoy the game!
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