Backgammon Articles

Clocks in Backgammon
by Kit Woolsey
This article was originally posted in October 2008 at the GammonU forum.

Clocks should not intimidate the more inexperienced player. They are easy to learn to use properly. In this posting I will attempt to explain how clocks are employed, and how an inexperienced player can prepare himself for clocked matches.

A chess clock is actually 2 clocks, one for each player. There are also two buttons, one for each player. When player A presses his button, his clock stops running and player B's clock starts running. When player B presses his button, his clock stops running and player A's clock starts running. It is also possible to stop both clocks from running by pressing each button in halfway. This is done between games or if there is some other reason to freeze the clocks.

For time controls, there are are two time limits. One is the time per move. The other is the reserve bank. A player's reserve bank is not touched unless he overshoots his time per move for any given move. For example, suppose the time limits are 12 seconds per move with a reserve bank of 22 minutes. If a player makes his move in under 12 seconds, his reserve bank remains the same. But if, say, he takes 25 seconds to make his move, then 13 seconds will be deducted from his reserve bank. These time constraints may seem severe, but they really aren't. Most plays will be routinely made in 12 seconds or less—early opening plays, bearoffs, and other fairly automatic plays in simple positions. Even more complex plays are not likely to take more than 30 seconds to make, so the 22 minutes in the reserve bank figures to be sufficient for, say, an 11 point match. The one thing one cannot afford to do is to spend 15 minutes on one decision, but this shouldn't be necessary. In my experience, I find that I usually use only 2 or 3 minutes of my reserve bank for the entire match. I have never used more than half of my reserve bank. I'll grant that I play more quickly than most players, but even a slow player should find that there is adequate time.

The mechanics of clock usage are as follows: There are only 2 dice in play. At the start of a game, each player rolls one die as usual. Let's say that player A rolls the higher die. Player B punches his clock, starting player A's clock in motion. Player A makes his opening move, and then punches his clock signifying that his move is complete. He does not touch the dice. Once player A has punched his clock, player B picks up the dice.

After that, play continues in a normal manner. Player B shakes the dice, rolls them, makes his move, and punches his clock without touching the dice. Then player A picks up the dice, etc.

It is key to note that it is the punching of the clock which signifies that the move is complete. The roller should not touch the dice once he has rolled. When you first play with clocks you may find yourself sometimes forgetting this and picking up the dice instead. Even the most experienced players will occasionally fall back into the old habits and make this mistake. There is no great harm done. Your opponent will have no choice but to let you know what you have done—he can't very well roll the dice for his next turn when he doesn't have any dice to roll. So you just put the dice back and punch your clock. If you have lost a couple of seconds, big deal—you can afford it.

If you have never played with a clock before, I strongly suggest you grab a clock and a willing opponent and play a practice match or two just to get the mechanics down pat. It won't take long before using the clock becomes second nature. The big thing to remember is that you must punch the clock, not pick up the dice, in order to signify that your move is complete. This will seem unnatural at first, but with a little bit of practice it becomes routine. I suggest that in the practice match you try to play at your normal pace, ignoring the clock. This will give you a good idea of what the time controls really mean. Unless you are an extremely slow player you will find that at the end of the match you have plenty of time left in your reserve bank. This will demonstrate that you probably won't have to worry about time control at all when playing a clocked tournament match. Just playing at your normal pace should be fine.

Suppose you do get into time trouble. That really isn't so bad. Remember, your reserve bank isn't touched unless you overstep the 12 second time limit per move. Thus, even if you have only a few seconds left in your reserve bank you are far from lost—you simply have to play each move quickly. Any experienced player can play in less than 12 seconds per move if he has to. He might not play as well, but he will still play decently. In order to demonstrate this to yourself, try playing a 7-point practice match with only 30 seconds in your reserve bank and see if you can complete the match without depleting your reserve bank and still play a respectable game of backgammon. You will surprise yourself. It can be done.

One thing you must remember is to punch the clock after each move and cube decision. Your play is not complete until the clock is punched. This may not be critical for a checker play, since your opponent is not allowed to pick up the dice until you have punched your clock (in fact, if he does pick up the dice before you punch your clock you should have him put them back). A cube decision, however, can present problems. Suppose you turn the cube, but fail to punch the clock to signify that you are officially doubling. There is nothing in the rules to prevent your opponent from just sitting there as though he is thinking about whether or not to take while all the time it is your clock which is running. Whether or not this is an ethical thing for him to do is another matter, but it is certainly legal—who is to say that he never noticed that you didn't punch your clock and he really is thinking about whether or not to take. So if you double and your opponent appears to be taking an unusually long time to make his decision, you should take a glance at the clock to make sure he isn't thinking on your time.

Aside from getting rid of ridiculous 3 hour 11-point matches, use of the clock and only two dice in play has other intrinsic advantages. Many of the major potential causes of disputes are eliminated. For example:

  1. Playing without clocks, Player A rolls (or thinks he rolls) a 5-4, which is a joker. In one fluid motion, he makes his play and scoops up his dice. Player B saw (or thinks he saw) a 5-3, not nearly as good a roll, so he objects to what he believes is an illegal play. How can this be resolved fairly? It can't. It is simply one player's word against the other's. Even if both players are completely honest, this can happen when one player legitimately misreads the dice. And if one of the players is less than honest, this sort of situation gives that player a chance for a free shot. Playing with clocks, this doesn't happen. Player A makes his move, but instead of scooping up his dice he punches his clock to signify the completion of his move. The dice are still sitting on the board for all to see. There can be no dispute about what has been rolled. Only when player B picks up the dice is the play officially accepted as legal. If player A should happen to move and then improperly scoop up his dice and player B objects to the legality of the move, any doubt should be resolved in favor of player B since it was player A who wrongly picked up the dice.

  2. Playing without clocks, player A rolls a joker, makes his play, and scoops up his dice. Player B thought the dice landed cocked and wants a re-roll. Who is right? The evidence is gone, and there is no fair way to resolve the situation. Playing with clocks, this doesn't happen. Player A doesn't touch the dice, so the evidence is still there. The players (or the director if need be) can examine the dice to see if, in fact, they are cocked or not.

  3. Playing without clocks, player A rolls, makes his play, and starts to pick up his dice. At the last second player A realizes that he has overlooked a superior play, so he stops picking up his dice, resets the checkers, and makes the superior play. Player B states that player A has picked up his dice. Who is right? There is no way to determine if player A has lifted his dice 1/64 of an inch from the board or not. Playing with clocks, this does not happen. The completion of the move is signified not by lifting of the dice but by punching the clock. The evidence is unambiguous. If player A's clock is still running, he hasn't punched the clock and has not completed his move. If his clock is no longer running he has punched his clock, and the move is complete.

  4. Playing without clocks, player A makes his move and reaches for his dice. Player B thinks the move is complete, so he shakes his dice and rolls them before player A has actually picked up his dice—player A may have some last second thoughts about his play. There are rules to cover this situation (the roll stands, and player A may make his play with the knowledge of what player B will be rolling), but it still leaves an uncomfortable taste in everybody's mouth. This also can lead to some sharp practice by an unethical player who pretends to pick up his dice in an attempt to draw a premature roll from his opponent. Playing with clocks, this cannot happen. Player B cannot fastroll, since he doesn't have any dice with which to fastroll. In the worst case player B picks up the dice before player A has punched his clock. Player A will still have plenty of time to stop player B from shaking and rolling the dice.

  5. Hopefully we have been getting rid of dice cheats. But if a dice cheat is involved, having only two dice in play makes it more difficult for him to employ his tactics. He can switch in new dice, but these new dice will be used for both players not just himself. Also, if his tactic is to set the dice in his hand and control the roll this makes it more difficult since he doesn't have his own dice to work with—he would be forced to pick up the dice from the table and set them quickly. This doesn't mean that the cheats are stopped, but not allowing the cheat to have his own dice to work with reduces his potential.

I agree pretty much with everything Neil says. Clocks should be used in all championship matches, simply to keep things moving and avoid absurdly long matches which irritate everybody and destroy the smooth running of the tournament.


Kit Woolsey is a top player and has written many books and articles on backgammon.
He has his own web site,

See:  More articles on tournament backgammon

Return to:  Backgammon Galore