Mastering Backgammon

Playing the Run-or-Split Rolls
by Bill Robertie

This article originally appeared on, September 19, 2006.

The next class of opening rolls is what are called the run or split rolls, 6-4, 6-3, and 6-2.

The starting position.

Here the choice is between using the whole roll to run a checker from the 24-point into the outfield, or splitting and building in some fashion. Let's start by looking at the 6-3 roll.

6-3:  Run with 24/15, or build-and-split with 24/18, 13/10?

The two main choices here are 24/15, running, or splitting to the enemy bar-point with 24/18, then bringing down a fresh builder with 13/10. Here are the positions after each of these plays:

Diagram 1.
Position after 24/15.

Diagram 2.
Position after 24/18, 13/10.

To many beginners, 24/15 looks obviously right, as the play is pretty safe. White can only hit the blot with threes and 2-1, a total of 13 shots. Most of the time, the checker won't get hit, and Black can try to consolidate next turn. Playing 24/18 and stopping there, on the other hand, looks pretty dangerous. White can hit with any ace, any six, plus 4-2, 2-2, and 3-3, a total of 24 shots. That means White can hit on the bar-point with 2/3 of his rolls. Why take such a risk?

A good player sees the situation somewhat differently. He's not concerned with the raw count of shots, but with the dynamic possibilities after each play. Splitting with 24/18 opens up the possibility of an exchange of shots (White hits on the 18-point, then Black rolls 6-x or a 7 and hits back), which leads to more complicated play. If White misses the 18-point altogether, Black can make a very strong anchor there. Running and escaping, in contrast, just simplifies the position. Stronger players, for obvious reasons, like to create complex positions.

(Does this mean that a beginner should prefer 24/15? That depends. If you're a beginner and you want to stay a beginner, then by all means strive for simple racing positions. If you're a beginner but you want to become a strong player, then at some point you have to learn to play complex positions. No time like the present.)

Two other possibilities with an opening 6-3 aren't as important. The super-aggressive 13/7, 13/10 risks too much for too little. Black's own bar-point isn't strong enough to chance leaving a direct shot. The Middle Eastern play, 24/18, 24/21, is really weak. White can hit with almost all his numbers and start a strong attack with very little risk.

Playing 6-2:  24/16 or 24/18, 13/11?

The issues with 6-2 are the same as with 6-3. Here, however, the running play with 24/16 is even weaker since the checker doesn't get as far into the outfield, so there's no question that 24/18, 13/11 is the better play.

Playing 6-4:  24/14 or 24/18, 13/9?

With 6-4 the running play is a little stronger since the checker faces the minimum possible hits (just 11, all deuces). The two plays are considered equivalent. I generally play 24/18, 13/9 for complications, but when leading in a match and looking to avoid gammons, I switch to the running play.

Two Unusual Plays

There are two somewhat unusual plays that need to be mentioned in connection with these rolls. Take a look.

Diagram 3.
Slotting with 6-2
by playing 13/5.

Diagram 4.
Making the 2-point with 6-4
by playing 8/2, 6/2.

Playing a 6-2 with 13/5 was very popular in the 1970s. The idea was to try to make the valuable 5-point as quickly as possible. Nowadays the play has fallen out of favor, and is seen as clearly inferior to the running and splitting plays mentioned earlier. Modern players agree that the 5-point is important, but don't like to slot unless the slot also relieves the big stack on the 6-point. The other 6-2 plays are positive and constructive with much less risk.

Making the 2-point with 6-4 is both an ancient and a modern play. It was never seen in the 1970s, because the 2-point is too deep in the home board to be part of a prime, and 1970s strategy was focused on building primes quickly.

Nowadays it's considered to be close in strength to the other 6-4 plays, but leading to different sorts of positions. By making an inner-board point, the play creates more chances to win gammons, which is particularly advantageous when trailing in a match. In money games, the play has no special advantage, but good players will sometimes try it for variety.

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

See:  More articles by Bill Robertie

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