Mastering Backgammon

Playing Opening 4-3 and 3-2
by Bill Robertie

This article originally appeared on, September 13, 2006.

Last time we looked at the first two build-or-split plays on the opening roll, 5-4 and 5-2. This time we'll look at 4-3 and 3-2, which are interesting in that they can be played in a wide variety of ways, all of which have some merit.

The starting position.

Let's start with the 4-3 roll. It can be played as a pure building roll, with 13/9 and 13/10. Take a look.

Diagram 1.
Position after Black plays 13/9, 13/10.

This is a bold variation, exposing two blots in the outfield, but creating a myriad of point-making opportunities in return. White has a total of eleven rolls that hit one of the blots (4-4, 3-3, 2-2, 6-3, 5-4, 6-2, and 5-3). That's almost one-third of White's possible rolls. However, if White doesn't hit, every legal roll by Black will make at least one blocking point next turn! It's a high-risk, high-reward way of playing 4-3.

The play has one more upside: if White doesn't hit, he'll be constrained from splitting his back men at all, since Black now has more attacking checkers in what we call "the zone". By the zone, I mean the area between the 6-point and the 11-point, where builders are poised to attack and/or make inner-board points. The more builders your opponent has in this area, the less you want to split your back men.

If instead you want to build-and-split with 4-3, there are actually two ways of doing so: 13/9, 24/21 or 13/10, 24/20. Here's what the two plays look like.

Diagram 2.
Position after Black plays 13/9, 24/21.

Diagram 3.
Position after Black plays 13/10, 24/20.

While the two plays may look similar, most top players have a preference for 13/9, 24/21. There are several reasons:

  • A builder on the 10-point is less useful than a builder on the 9-point. After playing 13/10, notice that some of your good point-making numbers are duplicated. (Duplication just means that a roll does multiple good things. That's bad, because you can only use one of those good things at a time.) A roll of 3-1 can now make either the 5-point or the bar-point, while a roll of 5-3 makes both the 3-point and the 5-point. This doesn't occur after 13/9, where every roll now makes a unique point, and hence you're getting more work out of your checker formation.

  • Splitting to the 21-point is less costly if your opponent points on you. If you split to the 20-point with 24/20, and your opponent then rolls 3-1, pointing on you, he's both put you on the bar and made the best point in his inner board. But if you split to the 21-point and he rolls 4-2, pointing on you, he's only made his second-best point. You still have a chance to come in and make the 20-point later, with a good game. So by splitting to the 21-point, the downside when your opponent rolls well is less.

  • Splitting to the 21-point gives your opponent more difficult problems. Most players know that if your opponent splits to your 5-point (his 20-point) with a four, you're suppose to hit him there and fight for the 5-point. Not as many players understand that the same rule applies if he splits to your 4-point (his 21-point). With rolls like 2-1, 6-3, and 5-4, you still need to hit and fight for the 4-point, to prevent your opponent from making a good anchor. Since many, if not most, players will play passively in that case, splitting to the 21-point and taking advantage of those errors becomes especially good.

So of the two build-and-split plays, 13/9, 24/21 is slightly preferable. But there's yet a fourth way to play 4-3! You can make what's called the "Middle Eastern split", moving both back checkers with 24/20, 24/21.

Diagram 4.
Position after Black plays 24/20, 24/21.

The term "Middle Eastern split" comes from the fact that this way of playing (moving both back checkers on almost all opening rolls) is popular in Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, and Egypt, where the game is played by millions in cafes and coffeehouses, the doubling cube isn't used, triple games aren't scored, and the game is played mostly as a straight racing game. The play isn't terrible, and in a few match situations it's actually best. (If you don't need a gammon and your opponent does.) Still, it's never become popular. The right antidote is to hit both checkers if you can and play for attack.

So what's the "best" 4-3 play? Playing two men down with 13/9, 13/10 is my top choice, producing difficult positions with extra tension. An excellent runner-up choice is 13/9, 24/21, which tends to produce positions that are easier to play, with fewer gammons for either side.

The 3-2 roll presents much the same problems as 4-3. The two main ways of playing the number are the building play with 13/10, 13/11, and the splitting play with 24/21, 13/11. Here's what the board looks like after each play.

Diagram 5.
Position after Black plays 13/10, 13/11.

Diagram 6.
Position after Black plays 13/11, 24/21.

The building play here is a little less risky than after 4-3. White can only hit with seven numbers (6-3, 6-4, 5-4, and 3-3), so Black is less likely to be on the bar. On the downside, Black has slightly fewer numbers to make points.

The splitting play is also low-risk, since the new builder on the 11-point is very safe, only in jeopardy to a 6-4 from White.

There's also a Middle Eastern variation for this roll as well: Black can play 24/21, 24/22, but this is very rarely seen in tournaments.

What's best? I normally play 13/10, 13/11, just because it leads to more complicated play. If I were protecting a lead in a match, I'd switch to 24/21, 13/11 to get an anchor, but even there it's a close call.

Next time:  How to play the run-or-split rolls.

See:  More articles by Bill Robertie

Return to:  Backgammon Galore