Backgammon Articles

Basics of Backgammon
by Robert Townsend

Part 1:  Introduction
There are many books written by backgammon experts and world champions designed to make serious players experts. For many beginning players, the rarified world of the match equity table, 50 page monographs on ace point games, and sparsely annotated matches between top players are something we may consider—after we learn the basics of the game. When I first started playing a year and a half ago, what I really wanted was a concise course outlining the basics of play to allow me to (a) learn the thought process behind backgammon (the theory) and (b) figure out what the heck they were talking about in some of the articles I pulled off the internet. So I studied 400 page introductory books, and then followed that with a dozen or so other books and about 100 internet articles. Then I played about 10,000 games against folks far better than me on the internet, and an equal number against computer programs like jellyfish and gnu. As a result, I am not an expert, but I am competent and have a FIBS rating of about 1700.

When I was a Resident, polishing my clinical skills prior to entering the world of private practice, part of my job was to give lectures to interns and medical students on the various problems encountered in Internal Medicine. The basis of clinical teaching in medicine is "See one, do one, teach one". The same can be applied to backgammon—we watch good players play, we play ourselves, then we organize our thoughts and teach what we know to others—and in the process we become better players ourselves. That is the purpose of this series—a relatively short monograph designed to give the new player the basic thought process of the game. They need to learn to ask the right questions, to absorb the lessons and to put them into practice. Hopefully, this series will be a start.

Aspects of Backgammon

There are four main aspects to the game of backgammon as I see it:
  1. Strategic Play.  Also known as the game plan, this is what you are trying to accomplish in the game, and by extension what your opponent is trying to accomplish. Each major game plan will be examined in turn—from the racing game where you and your opponent have broken contact and are running for the bear off, to intricate back games and priming games where your goal is to delay and block—hitting and trapping enemy checkers, forcing his hand—making him turn his play over to the randomness of the dice. Without a plan, you don't have a goal and you simply wander through the game.

  2. Tactical Play.  How do you plan to execute your strategic plan? A military analogy to strategic play is the decision to deny the enemy naval access to a port. The tactical aspect is the actual layout of the mine field or the placement of guns covering the approaches. In backgammon this is checker play, blocking points and primes.

  3. Assessing a position.  Who is winning? By how much? This skill is essential to understand the game within the game of backgammon. This deeper game is the cube—The cube allows you and your opponent to increase the stakes of the game. This is critical because it offers a fascinating dimension to play—you no longer have to take the last checker off the board to win a game, you can merely threaten to do so and your opponent may simply quit. More importantly, you may force him to "pay to play" if he thinks he can still win and calls your bluff.

  4. Attitude.  New players have a mindset, in many cases, which prevent them from being winning players. Specifically this is a conscious decision on their part to play "not to lose", rather than the proper attitude—you play this game to win. This involves taking risks, just as life does. The key to properly taking a risk is to understand it. Training teaches you how to assess the risk, understanding of the first 3 aspects of the game lets you assess the benefit of the risk, confidence in your abilities allow you to implement your decision. Other aspects of attitude include discipline, courage and commitment—most of my games are lost because I didn't apply what I knew and reason through the problem or I lost my courage and failed to follow through with my game plan. Laziness and indecision are worse than ignorance in backgammon.
I will attempt to address each of these factors when discussing the subject of each article. In this first part of the series, I will outline the basic game plans and discuss the basis of checker play. The next installment will be an explanation of the dice and an introduction to probability as it applies to dice rolls. Then I will introduce the mathematics and cube decisions of the basic game plan, the non-contact race. We will then go over each of the major game plans—when they are used, how to win them, how to make cube decisions and how to defend against them. The final article will be an introduction to match play, recommended reading and internet play.

The Game Plans

The racing game is the basic game plan of backgammon. You roll a couple of high combinations, slip past his defending checkers and make a run for home. Mathematics and pip counting determine your cube decisions. The dice determine how fast you run, but the cube action in the final bear off can be fast a furious.

The blitz or attacking game is when your opponent gets caught without an anchor in your home board and you begin to make point after point on his head. Keeping him on the bar and closing him out is the goal but the sophisticated player always has a plan B to win the game in the event the blitz fails.

Holding games are very common variation on the racing game. You are racing but one or both of you holds a point in the enemy outfield from the bar point to the mid point and your opponent must get his checkers past you before he can bear off. The three key features of this game are hitting rolls, home board points closed and timing. Timing is the opposite of racing lead—you are the trailer in the race. To you, timing translates to the ability to move elsewhere before the dice force you off your holding point. The side forced off their holding point (exposing blots in the process) is at the disadvantage in a holding game.

High anchor, low anchor, deuce and ace-point games. These are variations of the holding game above, except instead of the bar or an outfield point, you hold the enemy 4/5/6 point (high anchor), 3 point (low anchor), 2 (deuce point) or 1 (ace point). The deeper you go into the board (from the 6 to the 1 point) the more important hitting a shot to win becomes. The higher you are in the board, the more important the race is. You must contain an enemy checker if you hit one.

Back games. You have two or more points in the enemy home board. To win, you hit a shot, which is very likely, and then contain the hit man in your home board or close it out. This is sort of a blitz in reverse. The key concept to winning this game is timing in buckets. If you are running a back game and all your other checkers are stacked on your 1 and 2 points, it is hopeless. If you have a 4 point prime and plenty of checkers to roll it forward, you have a chance. They are very difficult to play, but when they work, they can be very satisfying.

The priming game is very interesting. A full prime is 6 closed points in a row, any enemy checkers trapped in front of the full prime are trapped until the prime is broken. With 4 or 5 points in a row, you have a 4 point prime or a 5 point prime. If you have 5 of 6 points in a row (a full prime with one gap for example) you have a broken prime. There are three key concepts in priming games—how many men are trapped behind the prime, how long the prime is (6 > 5 > 4) and our old friend timing which determines who has to break their prime first.

Two other aspects of backgammon are the opening rolls and replies. Here you try for an early advantage in making home board points or anchors; and the so-called middle game where you are past the opening but are jockeying for position to settle into a more formal game plan. While there are no formal articles in this series on these aspects of the game, we will touch on them in the discussions of the game plans.

Bold vs. Safe Play

The tactical aspect of the game is the checker play. A main consideration is the decision to play aggressively, or to exercise caution. Paul Magriel in his landmark book Backgammon (the first book a serious player should own) terms this decision bold vs. safe play. If, for example, all your home board points are closed and you have an enemy man on the bar, you can pretty much do whatever you wish—leave blots, hit loose, break anchors, all without fear—so long as you do not have to break your home board due to a careless move resulting an awkward dice roll.

Rarely are things so clear cut in an actual game. Generally, it is relative strength compared to your opponent that you use as your guiding principle. For example, if you have 3 home board points closed, and your opponent has 2, a hit will hurt your opponent more than it will you because you have 32 of 36 rolls that allow you to enter and he only has 27 (more on that in the next article). Accordingly, you can accept more risk of having a man hit than he. You can play more aggressively to achieve your goals whereas he must be more cautious. Likewise, if you have an anchor in his board, you cannot be shut out, even if the other 5 points are owned by your opponent. If you both have anchors, the one higher in the board is stronger, because it is harder to prime and easier to escape from—the best anchor is Magriel's Golden Point which is your opponent's 5 point.

Here are some additional criteria for bold vs. safe play and how to interpret them:

  1. Home board points. Relative strength in home board points allows for more aggressive play.

  2. Anchors. One anchor vs. none allows for more aggressive play, this extends to:
    • Multiple anchors vs. single anchor.
    • A higher anchor vs. a lower anchor.

  3. Blots in your home board discourage aggressive play (if you hit, they may hit you as they re-enter). Conversely enemy blots in his home board invite an exchange of hits.

  4. More back men allow for more aggressive play, while counterintuitive, this is based on sound logic:
    • More than one man back can combine to form an anchor.
    • A single man back can only escape or be attacked.
    • A hit with only one man back may critically reduce your racing lead.
Other factors to be evaluated include outer board blocking points (especially points that block the escape of an enemy back man with 5's or 6's), blots exposed (the side with more exposed blots will wish to clean them up rather than expose more in many cases), and racing lead (lead discourages bold play).

When you must expose a weakness, there are several ways to minimize the chances your opponent may capitalize on it. Examples include:

  1. Take away part of his roll by hitting him and forcing him to use a number to re-enter (or even stay on the bar). This prevents him from using his full roll to hit you, extend his prime or otherwise advance his game plan.

  2. Duplicate his good numbers. This means that if he has a number that does something he really wants to do (like re-enter from the bar with a 2), he cannot do something else with that number such as hit one of your blots, cover one of his or extend his prime/make a point.

  3. Keep your blots more than 6 points from an enemy checker that can hit them. Once you are past direct hitting range—1 to 6 points—the number of rolls that actually hit you goes down dramatically. Plus he must use both rolls to hit you, rather than being able to do something else with the other half of his roll.

How to Increase your Lucky Rolls—How to Make your Own Luck

Many beginning players have a feeling they lose games because their opponent gets "lucky" rolls. If you define a lucky roll as one that can be used to do something good for our game, that is probably true. Better players are lucky because they plan better than beginners do, and as a result can use more of the 36 possible rolls than players that don't. The key to having good rolls is something called flexibility. Previously, we discussed the concept of duplication where we want to make our opponent have to choose between several ways to play the same number. We on the other hand want to have more numbers we can play.

This concept is best demonstrated with a couple of examples:

2-1 opening move.
White can hit the blot on 5 with any 4, 3-1, 2-2, and 1-1; 6-4 hits both.

Note that with my play of 2-1, I can make my 5 point (which not only is good for me by making a key home board point, but disrupts my opponent's game plan by taking his golden point from him) with 3 different numbers (6, 3, and 1) plus several combinations 2-2, 4-4 (from the midpoint at 13), If I moved the 2 elsewhere, I would only have 2-2, 4-4, 3's, and 1's to cover my blot on 5. By making the proper move, I increased my covering rolls from 22 to 29 at minimal risk. I would have 7 more "lucky rolls".

Bearoff: Both red and white have a pip count of 21.

Note that we are down to the wire; both sides have a pip count of 21 and 6 checkers left on the board. Red has 6 numbers that will bear off a man, while white only has two. Red is very flexible and diversified, whereas white has duplicated his good numbers. Red will bear off at least two men this roll, with any roll. White will only bear off two or more men this roll with only 6-6, 5-5, 2-2, 1-1 or 5-2; on the other 30 rolls he will bear off 1 or 0 men—a similar picture will repeat next roll as well. In a race this close, even one failure to bear off at least two men with each roll is critical and may be game losing. If I were red and offered you the cube, are you confident enough in your winning chances as white to play for twice the stakes, or do you resign?

Analyzing a Play

Finally, a demonstration of thinking through a checker play problem.

How should red play 4-4?

Let's examine this position to see how we should play 4-4 as red.

First we look at the race by doing a pip count:

  • Red has 25 pips for the man on the bar, 40 for the men on 13 and 14, 25 for the 3 on 8 and 9, and 38 in his home board (128) and we just rolled 16 pips so we expect to be 112 by the end of the turn.
  • White has 24 for the one on the 1 point, 66 for the 4 on the 7 and 10 points, 35 for the 4 on the 18, 16 and 15 points and 30 in his home board (recall his pip count is from his aspect, our 7 point as listed is his 18). This totals 155.
So our winning game plans play to our racing lead—blitzing and priming. His winning plans involve holding games and back games which use his superior timing to best advantage. To defeat his plan, we need to get past his blocking points and prevent him from forming an anchor in our home board, or continue to hit him and close our board.

So first on our 4-4, are there any moves we have to make? Yes, we must use one 4 to enter.

Our first 4.

Now, by moving a man from 8 to 4 we do two good things:

  • We make another home board point.
  • We make a 4-point prime that white's man on the 1 point must get past to escape.

Our second 4.

Now we have two 4's left. Some of our options are:

  1. Run with the back man on the 21 to 17 then on to 13.
  2. Run to the 17 as above then come down from the 13 and make the 9 point.
  3. Shift one or both of the men on 8 and 9 to the 4 and/or 5 point and move one of the back men if needed.

If we run one man 21/17 and move the other man 9/5 (option #3).

The main feature of this position is that we are very well placed to make the 2 point or even make the 1 point on white's head. We are very weak however due to all the blots and white is very well placed to hit them. Because of this, we may well never make the 1 or 2 point before white escapes. There is a better move to be made with the final two fours:

Simply use the final two 4's to shift points from the 5 to the 1, putting white on the bar.

If we use the final two 4's to shift points 5/1*(2).

Let's look at the advantages of this position

  1. White is on the bar against a 4-point board.
  2. White needs a 2 or a 5 to enter. He needs these same numbers to hit, cover his blots and make points in his home board—his good numbers are duplicated. Even a good roll like 5-3 and 5-4 duplicates his hitting numbers.
  3. Red has 26 rolls to hit white's blots on 18 and 15 to put a second (or third) man on the bar
  4. Red is well placed to make his 5 point or cover his blots on 8 and 9 if white cannot come in
  5. If white does come in, red is well placed to hit loose. If white is fortunate enough to hit if he re-enters, red should come right back in on 4 open points in white's home board.
Looking at both basic plays—the running option #3 and the switching option (which was my recommended play)—we need to learn to look at the positions and our options realistically from both sides to evaluate our cube decisions and checker play.
  1. Can we win the game as red?
  2. Can we win the game as white?
  3. If we were white in both positions, are we confident enough that we can still win that we are willing to play for twice the stakes?
  4. Are we forcing our opponent to play to our game, or are we reacting to his? Who is in control of the match?
The running play still has a lot of game left, but I would be very uncomfortable as white in the switch play. A double by red in the running play would be premature, there are many variations where white would sling the cube right back for 4 times the original stakes and pull it off. In the switch play, the major decision is not made by white, but by red—Do I give my opponent the chance to pass for a single game or do I play on for the gammon?

In the next article of this series, we look at the dice and probability in backgammon. Happy Rolls ...

Continue to Part 2

Article © 2006 by Robert Townsend.

Bob Townsend is the director of the Northern Michigan Backgammon Club.
You can contact him at


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