Welcome to the newest feature here on Pokernews.com, "Mastering Backgammon". In this weekly column, I'm going to explain some of the strategic and tactical ideas behind the modern style of backgammon. I'll try to make these ideas accessible even to relative beginners, but there will be plenty of material here that will be new even to experienced players.
We'll start with the opening, by which I mean the first three or four moves of the game. Understanding how to play the opening rolls, the replies to the opening rolls, and the next one or two rolls is absolutely crucial to succeeding at backgammon. The reason is simple: the opening occurs in every game, but types of position may not.
While it's nice to be a skilled backgame player, a true back game might arise only once every 50 or 75 games. But you'll have to play the opening every single game, so spending some time mastering opening ideas has a huge payoff.
The Opening Position
Diagram 1 shows the opening position with the points numbered from Black's point-of-view. Refer back to this diagram in the discussion that follows.
Basic Opening Goals
Correct opening play is dominated by a few key goals. In no particular order, here they are:
- Advance the back men. In the starting position, you (Black) have one big strategic weakness: your back men (the two checkers on the 24-point in Diagram 1) are a long way from the rest of your little army, which forms a little group from the 6-point to the 13-point. That's a big problem, and you have to address it as soon as possible. One way to address the problem is to try to run your back checkers as far as possible into the outfield (points 14, 15, 16, and 18); a second (and more practical) way is to move the back checkers up a bit and try to make a defensive point that can't easily be blocked. This is called an advanced anchor, and making an advanced anchor before your opponent usually guarantees you a solid edge. The best points for this purpose are the 18, 20, and 21-points. From a good anchor, your back men are ready to make a leap to safety when a good opportunity arises.
- Block your opponent's back men. Your opponent (White) has the same goals as you. Thwarting his goals is just as important as advancing your own. So making key blocking points (Black's 5-point, 7-point, and 4-point in the diagram) are a high priority. The more blocking points you make, the less chance White has to mobilize his back men on your 1-point.
- Prepare to block your opponent's back men. There are only a few rolls that actually make a blocking point on the opening rolls, so bringing down builders from the midpoint is a way of creating more blocking rolls on subsequent turns. This strategy is double-edged, since these builders will usually be unprotected blots, subject to being hit with a lucky throw.
- Hit your opponent's men. Backgammon is basically a race. If you can hit one of your opponent's men, sending him back while gaining ground yourself, it's usually critical to do so. Hitting is so strong that it's unusual for a hitting play in the opening to be a major error. Of course, neither side has a blot in the opening position, so hitting only comes into play on later rolls.
- Unstack. Theoretically, the ideal number of checkers on a point is three: two to hold the point, and one to serve as a builder for additional points. In the opening position, however, you have five checkers each on your 6-point and your 13-point (midpoint). We call these heavy concentration of checkers stacks, and they're strategic weaknesses, because the extra checkers on the points do no extra work. Activating these extra checkers is a key goal.
- Create problems for your opponent. If you're choosing between two plays, and you think the plays are about equivalent objectively, choose the play that presents your opponent with more difficult choices.
Next time: How to play the build-or-split rolls