In many sports, the player who consistently wins will be considered the best player. Few will dispute that Ronnie O’Sullivan is a better snooker player than Marco Fu or that Magnus Carlsen is a better chess player than … eh … Geert Van der Stricht. In backgammon, victories and results are not so trustworthy.
Backgammon is a game of probabilities. It is well possible – and statistically perfectly normal – for an intermediate player to win from a world class player. In Norway, a couple of weeks ago, I lost three consecutive matches from weak intermediates. I can say that I played much stronger than my opponents. “Oh yeah?”, somebody might argue, “how can you be so sure?” Well, easy, I filmed my matches, transcribed them into XG and saw the analysis done by the computer. My opponents played an average PR of 11,9 (two guys beat me with PR’s of 15 and more…) and I played an average PR of 4,6.
This in itself would not be enough for me to assume that my playing level is 4,6. It is well likely that over the course of seven 7-point matches, I was not confronted with many difficult decisions or I just happened to pick the right play by chance, without being really sure. The sample is too small, statisticians would say. But, in Prague, a month ago, I played seven 11-point matches which were also filmed, and I had an average of … 4,6. And in the summer, over a series of eight 15-point matches with Geert VdS, I also averaged 4,6. So I do no think that anybody in his/her right mind would contest my assessment that I play below 5.
I bring this up because it depresses me to keep hearing players claim how good they are or how bad their opponents play. People gratuitously point out blunders of others without any ground. In backgammon, the best play is the play which guarantees the most equity, even if that play happens to lose the match. Somebody makes a 0,250 mistake, but survives against the odds, and he justifies that choice by claiming that, well, he won, didn’t he? This in itself is in my opinion an indication of moderate playing strength…
As everybody will agree, neither is the BGFed ranking a completely true reflection of the players’ strengths. We cannot deduct from the current ranking that Nigel Vergaerde is Belgium’s 6th strongest player, or that Walter Meuwis is Belgium’s 32nd best player. In that sense the ranking is flawed. Some players have had a lucky/unlucky streak, others play too infrequently, others play only the same opposition, etc. It would be foolish to base our assessment of who is the strongest player merely on the BGFed ranking.
Maybe international experience is an indicator? In a way, it may be. Competing on the highest level and booking results is simply not possible without the required skill levels. It is highly unlikely, though not impossible, to reach the quarter finals of the World Championship in Monaco (Geert VdS) or to win the Advanced flight with 107 players at the Nordic in Copenhagen (Walter M) as a mere amateur. Still, international experience in itself is not sufficient as an indicator. Some people have enough money to play all over the world and they may once in a while reach the latter stages of a tournament, but that does not cut it.
So, as a tool to determine one’s playing strength, analysis by XG stands beyond discussion. Moreover, recording one’s matches and analysing them attentively is a great way to improve. When you see new players in local or international tournaments set up their recording equipment, you can safely bet money on the odds that they will make significant improvements in the not too distant future. That is why I suggest that more of you make this investment. Buy a GoPro camera, find a way to attach it to some device, and go ahead and start recording your matches. Then, if you announce beforehand you will play a series of matches within a set time frame, your PR will have a validity which will be accepted by all, providing the sample is large enough. It is generally agreed that an experience of 200 matchpoints (let us say twenty 11-point matches or thirty 7-point matches) should give a pretty accurate idea of your playing strength.
An added benefit of making this step is that BGFed’s selection committee will be able to select the best players to compete in prestigious international events like the European Team Championship, without suspicion of bias. By the way, the next EBTC will be held in Denmark next year, Europe’s pioneering backgammon country. Just announce a series of matches you will play (this can be in your local club against any opponent) within a given time frame, submit them to the selection committee, and your playing strength will be acknowledged by all.
To set the example, Geert VdS and I have begun our Autumn Series. We will play ten 11-point matches over a period of 6 weeks or so and make our PR’s public. That should set the standard to beat. If you do the same and are able to come up with better PR’s, your status as the better player will be criticism-proof. An added benefit is that this will help you shift your focus away from … winning. Winning backgammon matches is a side effect of playing well. You can be unlucky some of the time, but a better PR is surely to guarantee more wins over a period of time. Emotions like disappointment, frustration and anger, dissipate in the light of the more rewarding satisfaction of … making progress.