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Chinese Technology

The Chinese cosmologists long ago expressed a concept of the universe based upon yin and yang, two forces both opposed and complementary. If you lack yin you must have yang, or vice versa. Fine in theory, but what does this mean in practice? Well, some might complain that they can’t get a hamburger at a certain restaurant. But the certain restaurant I have in mind is a Chinese seafood restaurant on the shore of the Yellow Sea, and for the price of a hamburger they can crack open a whole, live crab, and fry it in garlic and oil for you. Similarly, while you eat it the song of the nearby ocean could be a lament for the loss of one of her children (your crab), or an invitation to you to come later to her welcoming embrace. You may be asking your self: where’s the backgammon? Or, you may say: if Jake had to go to China to get me this month’s position, I’ll be happy to listen to his fish stories along the way.

For those of you who insist upon hamburger, here is a position for you.

Some might say that 33 is the fourth best roll Black could hope for. But others, like Max, know that 33 is the worst roll Black could be cursed with. For starters, he had to choose between leaving himself a 42 or a 51 bearoff: no reason to prefer one or the other, and whichever one he picked would be wrong. Even worse, as happened in our game, 33 was the only roll where he could lose eight points, instead of only four. Yin and yang.

During my first few weeks in Ningbo the dice were all yang for me. Never mind that I had spent the day driving all the way to Yuyao to see an example of Chinese industrial architecture at its worst, or that the printer had arbitrarily changed his delivery schedule, or ... The dice were yang; what did it matter?

Then, they went yin. Max won games by the bushelful, and I was considering having the minus signs on my scoresheets pre-printed. It was time for a break.

As it happened, October 1 st rolled around. Chinese Independence Day is one of the big holidays on the calendar: Golden Week, they call it, as most people take, at the very least, a long weekend off. To celebrate Max had made big plans. I don’t recall all of the details, but he had various combinations of possible locations to travel to, and people to travel with -- the mathematical permutations were practically infinite. Until Plan 1 caught a cold, Plan 2 was caught by her boyfriend, Plan 3 ... Suddenly; the infinite had become awfully finite. There Max stood in the Windsor Bar, the midnight hour having passed, so that we were now an hour into October 1 st, and he had run out of plans. Almost.

“We’re all going to Putoushan.”

“We who?”

“All of us.”

Max meant everyone in the bar. There were about ten of us: Max, me, and eight waitresses. Most already had plans – “What do you mean, a wedding?” – but two, Michelle and Jessica, were brave or foolish enough to show up in the hotel lobby at eight the next morning.

Putoushan is one of the four most important mountain sites for the Chinese. There is a shrine built there in honor of a Taoist Immortal named Pu Sa. The shrine isn’t very old – it was built in 1997 – but it is popular, and it is close to Ningbo. It takes three hours to go from the Citic Hotel to Putoushan. It took us seven and a half. Most people organize their trips more than seven hours in advance, and by appearances I’d say most of them organized a trip to Putoushan. Aside from the terrible traffic, the long wait for a boat, and a near riot on the ferry that required police intervention, our trip was uneventful. One warning, for those of you who haven’t been to Putoushan before. The ferry costs 60 RMB (about $7.25), but when you get to Putoushan they charge another 130 RMB to let you in!

If you have sharp eyes you can spot the shrine in the background over my right shoulder.

After a swim, we found our way to that certain restaurant I mentioned in paragraph one. Here is the menu:

After a short night at the disco, we got up early and went to see Lady Pu Sa. The crowds and the climb were hard work, but some of us found time to stop and smell the roses.

Here’s proof I made it to the top.

I had to work the next morning, so by dinnertime we were back in Ningbo. Pu Sa must have worked her magic; the dice were yang once again. Here is a position that is crab, not hamburger.

Some would say that double aces is my worst roll. Others would say that since I needed a good position for this article, even a twenty-four point adverse swing would be worth it, and double aces was my best roll. (Of course all those who say that would be crazy.) It isn’t often that double aces can be played in exactly two ways, but that’s the case here. I can either stack them up, leaving six checkers on board, but no extra blots, or I can peel three men off, which may win me some backgammons.

Verifying the correct play is not easy.

I felt that since Max had an open deuce, not an open ace, that it might be easier for me to escape if hit, and harder for him to play to pick up a second blot, so I bore off three checkers. I have Jellyfish on my laptop, and rolled the play out with that. Jelly loved bearing off three, so much so that it would make the play at even at DMP.

But Jelly crawled out of the ocean years ago. There may be some concepts of checker play that have slipped through its tentacles. To slot, or not to slot (yin and yang), that is the first question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the minds of men to suffer, hoping for a pointing number, or to face the troubles directly, and by slotting, end them?

It turns out that Jelly likes slotting. On level 5 it chooses not to slot with many numbers, but on levels 6 and 7 it slots like a little fiend.

But that still isn’t the end of the story. Jelly also likes closing the board as soon as it can. The correct strategy might be to leave the deuce slotted, even into the bearoff. Accordingly, I rolled out a closeout/non-closeout variation. Jelly level 6 found that not closing the board was a 4.5% error.

So far so good, but there is yet another question to be asked: should Jelly leave a late blot? After all, closing the board, while giving up on catching the other blot (for the moment), saves the gammon. During the bearoff we no longer need worry about gammons. Is it right to deliberately leave blots, and will Jelly do so?

How many human players would play 5/off, 5/3? I’d venture a lot would. Jelly prefers 6/4, 5/off, and a rollout confirms that playing safely is a blunder.

I’m convinced: Jelly still plays a good game, and will answer your questions if you talk nicely to it. Snowie could answer the question more directly, but by making it easy for us to get an answer, it makes it easy for us to avoid asking the right questions. Yin and yang.

After I bore off three men Max rolled 66, bringing both men to his ten point. I rolled a large number, coming down to a 21 bearoff. Then Max rolled double !!! … twos. My play didn’t win a backgammon, but it won a gammon after all. Yin and yang. And Max had his own yin and yang. He may have lost 16 points, but he gained a neat hole in his wall, the perfect size for storing a dice cup.



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