edited 12/1/15 to match the review as published in the newsletter
Ed Rosenblum’s “Conquering Backgammon” is an ambitious work. Ed aims to take the reader from novice to advanced payer, which he loosely defines as a club or tournament player. The book has two self-contained volumes. The first 100 pages or so cover the basics while the last 150 pages cover more advanced topics. Seasoned players are invited to read the book as well, reinforcing what you already know while picking up some new things along the way.
Here is a short review of the contents. The basic section starts with the rules, then quickly moves into technical aspects like dice probabilities and shot counting. Next is a section on basic strategy, followed by more technical stuff on opening moves, when to double and take, and pip counting. Ed then annotates a running game move by move over about 30 pages. He concludes with more technical guides on bearing in, bearing off, playing for the gammon, and saving the gammon.
The advanced section begins by explaining the concept of equity and how to interpret computer evaluations. There is a relatively lengthy section discussing game plans. Ed considers Race, Prime, Attack (hit now) and his own invention Ambush (hit later). Attack would be similar to Blitzing while Ambush includes Holding games and Backgames. Each of these game plans are considered separately. Next up is a lightning review of strategic concepts and playing tactics. Ed returns to the topic of Doubling, going more in depth. There is a lengthy section on Match Play and a concluding selection of checker play problems.
The several reference type materials are one of the most successful aspects of the book. These are styled similar to Ed’s popular “Expert’s Guide to Winning Backgammon.” Among these are guides for opening moves, opening replies, match equity, doubling process and race formulas. Ed clearly put a lot of time into formatting these guides and it shows. I expect the reader will likely refer to these time and again over a long period.
Another strength is the section on Pip counting. This is lacking in most books, so it was nice to see more detailed coverage here. Adding a few quiz questions is a nice touch too.
I also liked the section on doubling. Ed appears to be influenced by Phil Simborg’s teaching methods. Here Ed recommends using Joe Sylvester’s well-known TRAP (Threat Race and Position), John O’Hagan’s Market Losers, Woolsey’s Law and Simborg’s law to guide your cube decisions. While these sections are brief, he has summarized the material well.
I have mixed feeling regarding the physical book. The book itself is a beautiful 7 x 10 hardcover printed on high-quality paper and features lots of multi-color diagrams. You can tell Ed is emphasizing quality, and is expecting the reader to use this book over a period of years. Yet it feels cramped. I wonder if a larger 8 x 11 softcover format using cheaper materials might have been a better choice. This would space things out a bit more, allowing the reader to take notes directly in the book, and possibly lower the price tag a bit too.
One weakness of the book is in organization. Robertie and Magriel bring the reader along slowly. After the rules, they dive straight into a lightly annotated running game, introducing other topics as they occur in the flow of the game. Contrast with Rosenblum. I fear the novice player would be intimidated to learn dice odds, pip counting, opening moves, and doubling strategy before you even start playing backgammon on page 61!
I also find Rosenblum lacking insight. Consider the section on dice odds for example. Ed spends a few pages discussing the number of ways to hit a checker at various distances. While counting the exact number of shots is a useful skill, Ed fails to turn the data into knowledge. Magriel does when he observes that if you have to leave a direct shot, move closer to lessen the shots, and if you have to leave an indirect, leave it further away to lessen the shots. Another example is on page 63 where he analyzes the opening sequence 31 point, 41 split, 53. He analyzes four different moves over a page and a half before concluding that hitting is correct with 24/16*. Of course it is. But where is the insight into basic goals of opening play that Robertie might offer? Or even some basic opening maxims like a good checker play usually hits, escapes, or makes a point?
Further I find the book lacking in depth. Take one of the meaty sections of the book, on game plans. There is good material here, but 5 or 6 pages on each game plan is hardly enough to conquer it. Each of these topics are deserving of a full length book in their own right. Looking at Backgames, we are presented a handful of positions over six pages. We get a bit on timing but we don’t get discussions from the backgamers point of view on circulating checkers, keeping pure, when to hit, containment after the hit, when to take. Defending the backgame, we don’t learn how to build the prime to bust the timing, to recirculate our own checkers, when to double, to control the outfield, etc. It is good for what it is, an introduction to backgames and no more.
Finally I acknowledge an apparent inconsistency in my criticism. On one hand I feel the book overwhelms the reader with too much detail too fast. Yet on the other hand I feel the book is lacking in depth. Will the aspiring beginner embrace or be turned off by the heavy dose of technical material in this book? Are there really enough details on game plans for the beginner to learn what he needs to know?
Overall I feel the book falls short of the classic texts by Magriel, Robertie, and Trice. Of course this a tough bar to measure against! As described above, I find the book lacking in organization, depth and insight. To Ed’s credit, he has perhaps done a better job in some aspects like Match Equity, Pip counting and the various reference materials What the heck - if you absorb everything in the book you will indeed be an advanced player.