When to Double and when to go for the Gammon

Here is a situation that we have all been in : it’s reasonably early in the game, and everything is going well , you’ve got a great position, and if all goes well, you might win a gammon. The only problem is, you haven’t doubled yet and the doubling cube is in the middle. So, if you win a gammon, you will only get 2 points. But if you offer the double, then the opponent will probably drop. And of course, if you don’t double and keep playing for the gammon, we all know that something can go wrong and you’ll lose a game you could have ended with the cube. What should you do in this situation?

I wish I was able to give you a simple answer. The answer is: it depends on the position and on the score. In “real money” games, or in games where neither player is within 5 points of match point in longer matches, the general rule is that you should play for the gammon if your odds of winning a gammon are twice as high as your odds of losing. (However , in most money games, the Jacoby rule requires that there be an initial double before there can be a gammon.)

So in the above situation, the first thing you need to do is to “estimate” your odds of winning a gammon and your odds of losing. Even the best experts in the world have problems calculating this “Estimate” , as it can involve some complex calculations. But you have to try and do the best you can, and if you think you will win a gammon, say, one out of 4 times, or 25%, but you will lose the game only 1 out of 10, or 10%, then you are faced with an easy decision –> Go for the gammon.

But what if you are not so sure? What if you really cannot tell, or if your “best guess” is that it’s close? My advice to you, in that situation, is go ahead and double. Why? Because it’s better to make a mistake, if there is one, by doubling and just take the point. The other thing that can happen is that your opponent might make a mistake and accept the double. And that is a good thing. What could be better than your opponent taking a cube that you think might even been too good to give? Yes, you will lose sometimes, and it will backfire, but backgammon is all about odds and long term statistics, and while you will lose many games that you should have won , you will also win just as many that you should have lost. In the long run, luck, and the dice even out, and you have to rely on the odds.

Now, what about those situations where one of you is 2 away from game and the other is 3 or 4 away, or you’re both 3 or 4 away. Then the doubling decision becomes way more complex, and again, I can’t give you an easy answer or formula. This is one of the reasons why backgammon is such a complex, interesting, and truly skillful game….the mathematics involved getvery complex. To understand the answer, you must first understand and know “match equities.”

I dont plan to get into detail on this subject here, and if you really want to advance your game to a higher level, I strongly recommend you study any of the great books that cover backgammon match equity in detail…most people recommend Robertie’s books. But to really play the game right, you need to know what your odds are of winning the match if you were to double and just win one point, if you don’t double and win 2 points, and if you don’t double and lose one point. Then you have to weigh all those against the odds of the particular game and situation and decide if going for the gammon is worth the risk. Depending on the score, there are situations where you will be a big favorite to win a double, but you still shouldn’t give the cube because your opponent is better off accepting the cube and doubling you back. Even if he does get gammoned a lot, his odds of winning the match are better with the cube on 4. (For example, when playing a match is to 7, and you’re ahead 4-0, you would have to be in an extremely good position to give the cube, because if he takes it and doubles right back, you will lose a lot of your lead in the match if he get’s lucky and manages to win the game. If your opponent gets really lucky and gammons you then he could win the match !

The simple answer is, the answer is not so simple. One of my favorite expressions is “you do not know what you do not know,” and if you really want to get good at backgammon, the first thing you must realize is there’s a lot you don’t know. The game is much more complex, mathematical, and multi-faceted than most people realize, and the more you study the game, the more you will find out that you have a lot to learn. Even the top players in the world find themselves in situations where they are not sure of the right play or decision and turn to computer software like Snowie and Jellyfish to get some help coming up with an answer. It must be noted however that no matter how good the software is these days, it still has trouble coming up with answers in certain situations.
I’m sorry if this article managed to confuse you more than it helped, but I do hope that it did give you the basic things you have to think about and consider when deciding whether or not to give the cube or go for the gammon. I hope you learned a general rule, which is: when in doubt about whether to play for the gammon or not, it’s generally safer to offer the double. And I hope it encouraged you to learn more. The more you understand the game of backgammon , and the better you get, the more interesting and fun the game will be.
Phil Simborg