Note from the editor : : Phil Simborg is not only a very good tournament player (Nr. 2 on the ABT 2005), but he probably plays money, or Chouette backgammon as much as anyone in the United States does. He has studied money game play for many years and is willing to share his views with our readers here.
Chouette backgammon, is played by 3 or more players competing for points or money over the same board and is one of the most fun and challenging forms of gambling and competition I have ever experienced. Personally I think it is far more interesting and fun than any card game or table game you can find anywhere, including Vegas!
Over the years I have learned much about how to increase my odds in Chouette play from some of the best players in the world, but I have probably learned just as much from the old fashioned school of hard knocks.
These strategies will either make or save you money when you play in chouettes.
Be the best player at the table.
The number one way to win in chouettes is to be the best player in the game. This is my “trick” to winning any competition. If you are about to sit down at the table, and most of the players there are better than you, then do NOT sit down. If you aren’t the best, you still have a reasonable chance if you are better than most playersin the game. If you do get into a game where there are clearly much better players, be sure you are playing for very low or social stakes that you don’t mind losing in return for the fun and lesson(s) that you are about to receive.
Play for comfortable stakes.
If you cannot afford to take a 32 or 64 cube when it’s a take, you should not be playing. You cannot play good backgammon if you are playing scared. It is tough to take a cube if losing means you cannot pay the rent or afford to eat. Do not get in over your head, no matter how good a player you think you are.
Know the rules of the game.
Every chouette has it’s own rules about rotation, keeping the box, partners, extras, consulting, settlements, etc. Not knowing the rules can cost you money, so find out what they are before you start to play.
Read your opponents.
Almost everyone has their own tells or patterns at the table, and reading these will make you money. Some players are extremely cautious with the cube . Some players love to gamble, and the higher the cube is, the more likely they are going to take it (double these players later on high cubes—they will l take anyway). Some players will take almost any cube if it is for the box, while others might drop almost any cube if it isn’t for the box. Some players are reluctant to hit twice and will take a chance on leaving a direct shot (you can worry less about leaving more blots against this player). Some players will take or drop with the crowd (double these people separately if you can). Some players let you know, with their comments or body language, when they will drop or take a cube. Some players make very poor settlements (settle often with these players, particularly the bigger cubes). Many players will be more or less aggressive depending on whether they are up or down for the day (watch the score sheet and act in accordance). Since you can take advantage of a player’s tells, it would make sense that they can do the same to you. Think about what you say or do that could give an edge to your opponents, and work on hiding or eliminating these tells or signals in your game.
The Box means nothing.
Players who take cubes because they want to keep the box are giving away money. I don’t care what you think your edge is in the game, when you take cubes that should be dropped, you are throwing money away. At the end of the day I know many players who ended up losers instead of winners simply because they “took for the box.”
Watch, learn and listen.
One of the reasons I often play in chouettes with players who are as good or better than I (apart from the fact that it is a lot of fun) is that it is a real learning experience. I get a chance to see what plays these better players prefer, and what cubes they take or drop. You not only learn from the better players, they can help you make money by listening to their plays and following their cube action. (If I am on the same side as Dave, and he’s not doubling, I know I probably would be wrong to turn the cube, and if Luke tells me to run instead of make the 5 point, I run.)
In most games with reasonable stakes, almost all the cubes are at the 2 and 4 levels. The one or two times that you see an 8 or 16 cube could mean the success or failure of the entire day. You should be more inclined to make settlements on these cubes, even if you are giving away a little on the settlement. Of course you are giving away money if you drop a 16 cube that is a take, I’m not saying you should just drop it, but if it’s really close, or there are lots of gammon risks, maybe you should be more inclined to drop it. The key is to try to avoid getting yourself in the position of having to decide on large cubes. When you give a 4 or 8 cube, you might be a little slower giving that cube so you are more likely to get a drop and less likely to see a recube. Conversely, keep in mind that your opponent has the same concerns that you have, and he might be more likely to drop a 16 cube that he should take, this is where knowing your opponent becomes a key factor..
The Score Sheet does not matter.
While I do believe in money management, I do not believe the score sheet should matter at all. If you are plus 8 on the sheet, that is no more a factor to taking or dropping a cube than if you won 8 points yesterday, or last week, or last year. If it’s on the sheet, it is “booked” and it is yours, and it should not affect your play in any way. If you let it affect your play, all you do is give your opponents a way to exploit you. (Of course I am referring here to standard money play…if you are playing “table stakes” or in a competition where the winner is the one with the most points, the sheet becomes critical in all decisions.)
Watch out for foul play.
Any time there is money involved, there is the potential for cheaters. I will not go in to all the ways people can cheat, but I can assure you that I have seen virtually all of them over the years, and I even have a list of people I will not play because I believe they are not trustworthy. Even “honest” people can make “mistakes” that can cost you money if you are not sharp and alert. People do make mistakes on the score sheet; people do make illegal moves (accidentally or otherwise) that improve their position; people do have “friends” that they might not play their best against when their friend (or secret partner) is in the box. Some of the more extreme methods of cheating included loaded dice, magnets, dice manipulation, being slow to pick up dice to force an opponent to roll over if he has a good roll, late doubling after you know how the opponent is going to act, and many others. As my granddad once told me, “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.”