In the Beginning
The Opening Moves Revisited

Bill Robertie, 1983

From Backgammon Times, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter/Spring 1983.

In the misty dawn of backgammon, all backgammon books were written for beginners. Most of these books were structured in the same manner: a chapter on rules, a chapter on opening rolls, a chapter on replies to the opening rolls, and further chapters on bearing off, doubling, tournament strategy, and other topics.

Nowadays the backgammon book market has changed considerably. With the slackening of interest by major publishing houses, most books are privately published, sold by mail, and aimed at players from strong intermediate to expert. Nary a comment about opening moves is to be seen.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that a discussion of opening moves might still be of some interest, particularly since we now have a statistical tool not avialable to those early authors: a large and growing library of games by players acknowledged to be among the world's best. I've selected an informal "panel" of 16 of today's top players and surveyed their choices for opening rolls and replies in matches played in the last 4 years. I'll be reporting on the results of this survey in this and subsequent articles for Backgammon Times.

The Opening Rolls

The panel (in alphabetical order): Nack Ballard, Joe Dwek, Billy Eisenberg, Al Hodis, Kent Goulding, Billy Horan, David Leibowitz, Jason Lester, Roger Low, Paul Magriel, Bill Robertie, Erik Seidel, Mike Senkiewicz, Stan Tomchin, Dennis Waterman, and Kit Woolsey.

13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Opening position.
As a result of the survey, I've broken opening rolls into three categories: unanimous (98% agreement or more), pretty unanimous (more than 75% agreement, and not so unanimous (between 50% and 75% agreement).

The Unanimous Rolls

3-1:   8/5, 6/5 100%

4-2:   8/4, 6/4 100%

6-5:   24/13 100%

5-2:   13/8, 13/11 100%

2-1:   13/11, 6/5 100%

5-1:   13/8, 6/5 100%

4-1:   13/9, 6/5 98%

6-1:   13/7, 8/7 98%

Some surprises in this group, not in the choice of rolls but in the extent of agreement. Of course, 3-1, and 4-2 can't be played any other way. Occasionally, however, someone recommends 24/18, 13/8 as an acceptable way of playing an opening 6-5. To date, no one seems willing to take this advice seriously. (Actually, running to the midpoint with 6-5 is quite strong; not because of the lead in the race, which is insignificant, but because of the strategic advantage of having only one man back.) Somewhat in the same category is 5-2. I expected at least someone to try 13/8, 6/4, Dwek's recommendation in Backgammon for Profit.

The modern emphasis on the 5-point is underscored in the choices for opening rolls with an ace: a unanimous preference for slotting the 5-point instead of splitting the back men. A tribute to Barclay Cooke perhaps; for while most authors claimed the two plays were equally strong, Barclay vehemently agrued against breaking the ace-point anchor without good cause.

The vote for 6-1 was almost unanimous. One player (left unnamed ventured the arrogant 13/7, 6/5 when far behind in a match. This was once considered an acceptable way of opeining against a weaker player, but I'm afraid no one is that weak anymore. although the distribution of builders after 13/7, 8/7 is not ideal, the bar point is still, after all, the bar point.

The Pretty Unanimous Rolls

3-2:   13/10, 13/11 88%
  13/11, 24/21 12%

6-3:   24/18, 13/10 84%
  24/15 14%
  13/7, 13/10 2%

4-3:   24/20, 13/10 78%
  13/9, 13/10 14%
  13/9, 24/21 8%

The alternate play with 3-2, splitting to the 21-point, has been gaining in popularity lately. I call it the "San Francisco" opening, since Nack Ballard and Dennis Waterman have always favored it (lately Paul Magriel has taken it up as well).

The popularity of the split with 6-3 is to be expected, since the running play doesn't enhance the first player's chances of making an additional point very much. Except for a subsequent 6-4, the same rolls which make an outer board point also make an inner board point.

the verdict on 4-3 I found surprising. Although I favor the split play myself, I didn't expect the solid play of two men down to garner merely 14% of the vote. Splitting to the 21-point, rather than the 20-point, has always had a few advocates (more point-making rolls next turn), but if you're going to risk splitting at all, it makes sense to split to the most valuable point possible.

The Not-So-Unanimous Rolls

6-2:   24/18, 13/11 74%
  13/5 22%
  24/16 2%
  13/7, 13/11 2%

6-4:   24/14 71%
  24/18, 13/9 29%

5-3:   8/3, 6/3 65%
  13/10, 13/8 35%

5-4:   13/8, 24/20 55%
  13/8, 13/9 35%
  24/15 10%

Once upon a time, playing an opening 6-2 with 13/5 was the mark of a modern player (as opposed to running with 24/16). Nowadays the move has fallen into relative disrepute, with only Stan tomchin and Kent goulding among its supporters.

The simple rnning play remains a solid favorite with 6-4.

The breakdown on 5-3 shows the effect of fashion in backgammon. A few years ago virtually everyone played 13/8, 13/10 with this roll. Then Jason Lester switched to making the 3-point, soon followed by Paul Magriel. Within a few months, it seemed, everyone was making the 3-point. (Dwek, Tomchin, and Eisenberg remain the holdouts in this survey.)

With only 55% agreement, 5-4 wins the award as the "most difficult" opening roll. As with 4-3, the experts are placing added emphasis on splitting to the opposing 5-point when possible, rather than pulling two men off the midpoint.

More articles by Bill Robertie
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