About the game of Backgammon

Backgammon is a combination of games.  It is a race game as in ludo in that the first player to get all his checkers around the board and off is the winner.  It is a strategy game as in chess because it isn't just a simple race around the board but an absorbing tactical manoeuvre of 'armies' embroiled in an exciting battle for domination and victory, during which you have to have alternative plans as present ones fall apart on the roll of a die.  And it is a board game similar to draughts inasmuch as the checkers are the same shape and move in opposing directions in their attempt to get ‘home’. This unique combination makes backgammon a game for everyone to enjoy.

Summed up, backgammon is an exciting game of tactics, probabilities and chance. A game where, despite the vagaries of the dice, the more experienced and knowledgeable player will prevail in the long run. However, due to the chance or luck element, absolute beginners can on occasions triumph over a champion - this is the appeal of backgammon. Its outcome is often uncertain until the very last rolls of the game – when it can all fall apart on the roll of the dice.



How to Play

Where Do We Start? - At The End!

It is much easier to explain how the game ends first - this way, when you start to play from the beginning you'll know exactly what is required to win - and how easy it can be to lose! In backgammon there can be a very fine line between winning and losing. Many players lose a game from a winning position because they know little about how the game ends and how to give themselves better chances of winning and their opponents fewer chances to beat them.

We all play games to win, but if we don't know how to win when we get to the end of the game then we often end up losing - and the more you lose the sooner you'll get tired of playing. So, to win a game of backgammon you have to learn how not to lose! Too few players ever really learn how the game ends; they are too intent on getting started, and in doing so gloss over the whole point of the game – how to win.

Although we start at the end, I’ll just show you the initial set-up for the start of a game and the names of the segments on the board to familiarise yourself with the components.




Bearing Off - The End Of The Game


Diagram 1

Set up your backgammon board as in Diagram 1 Black (you) have moved all your checkers around the board from the white Inner Board, to your Inner Board. You are now about to start 'bearing off', i.e., taking your checkers off the board at the very end of the game; each checker bearing off in relation to the dice roll. This is how the game ends and you win - taking off all your checkers before your opponent does. If you roll 3-2 you can remove one checker from the 3-point and one checker from the 2-point. If you roll a die higher than the highest point occupied, checkers can be removed from that highest point; that means that if your highest occupied point is your 4-point and you roll 6-2 you can remove a checker from the 4-point (using the 6) and a checker from your 2-point. Doublets allow you to remove four checkers if possible.

If you roll a die for a point that isn't occupied then you must, if possible, move within your inner board until a die is equal to an occupied point or is less than your highest occupied point. If only one die can be moved then the higher is moved if possible, else the lower one. You cannot move one die then claim that the other is impossible to play - if both dice can be moved legally then you must move both of them; however, you can move either die first, for example, you roll a 5-3, you can move the 3 down inside your board and then remove your highest checker with the 5.

Exercise 1: This first exercise is a simple one where all you have to do is bear-off your checkers as efficiently as possible. Set up your home board as in Diagram 1 and move the following dice rolls bearing off a checker each time: 6-1, 3-2, 4-2, 6-2, your board now looks like Diagram 2


Diagram 2

You now roll 6-2 again; taking a checker off your 5-point (using the 6) and because you don't have any checkers on your 2-point you now have to move within your home board. When bearing off in backgammon you want to make certain that you get as many checkers off each roll as possible and to this end the 2 is moved from the 4-point to the empty 2-point ensuring that on your next roll you will remove at least two checkers. This tactic is very important when bearing off without the possibility of being hit by an opponent (more on this subject later) and is used in the next exercise. Always try to maximise the checkers off on the next roll by filling empty points. Rolling dice that correspond to gaps in your home board can lose you the game and therefore it is vital you concentrate on covering as many points as you can - and preferably the lower ones as opposed to the higher ones.

  • Exercise 2: Set up as in Diagram 3 and move the following dice rolls filling empty points when you can’t bear-off: 2-2, 6-4, 1-1.


Diagram 3

Your board should now look like Diagram 3a if you’ve applied the tactic of covering empty points correctly. If it doesn’t look like this, have another go.


Diagram 3a

Now reset your board to Diagram 3a again and practice on your own until you are happy with the bearing off element of backgammon. Keep setting up and rolling until you are confident with your bearing off. There's nothing to gain by skimping this important part of the game; if you fail to bear-off correctly or efficiently you may well lose the game. When you are fully satisfied with your progress we’ll tackle the problem of bearing off when your opponent has checkers that can hit you and force you back to the beginning (similar to being hit in ludo and having to restart from the beginning again) - situations that can turn a winning game into a losing game; not because of 'lucky' dice rolls from your opponent, but because of lack of knowledge on your part.




Bearing Off Against Opposition On The Bar

Whenever a checker is hit in backgammon just like in ludo he has to go back to the start. A checker is hit by an opponent landing upon the same point occupied by a single checker of the opposing side; single checkers are called blots and are very vulnerable to being hit - blots are protected by having two or more checkers of the same colour on a point, this point now belongs to that player and cannot be landed on by the opponent (although, if dice rolls allow, they can be leapt over providing both dice rolls are not blocked). As you might have gathered, having a blot hit while you are bearing off is a major setback and is to be avoided if at all possible. Thinking ahead can result in fewer positions in which this can occur.

The 'start' for blots that are hit is the bar or 25-point as it is sometimes referred to (the bar is the central divider between the two halves of the board). The checker on the bar can only re-enter into an opponent's inner board by rolling dice that correspond to the point numbers in his opponent's inner board (1 to 6, which are in fact points 24- down to 19- for the player on the bar) which are either unoccupied or are occupied by a blot or one or more of his own checkers. Points 'covered' by your opponent (two or more checkers on a single point) cannot be used to re-enter upon.

Being hit and having to restart is true of any blots anywhere, not just the ones you might leave in your home board when bearing off against an opponent’s checker on the bar (or an opponent's checker occupying one or more of your inner points after he has re-entered from the bar). Also, no other checker can be moved on the board anywhere until all checkers on the bar have re-entered. The longer you spend on the bar the more moves your opponent can make without you being able to stop them. If you have two checkers on the bar and your dice roll only allows one of them to re-enter, then the remaining die is forfeit.

Blots in your home board are in great danger against opposition and must be avoided wherever possible. In Diagram 2 you have a blot on your 3-point and in Diagram 3a in Exercise 2 you have several blots! Many games that should have been won are lost when a blot is hit during the bear-off. Hopefully this section will teach you how to avoid this.

Exercise 3: Set up as Diagram 4 , with an opponent on the bar, his 25-point.


Diagram 4

Now bear-off, using the same dice rolls as for Diagram 1 , 6-1, 3-2, 4-2, 6-2 and it can be readily seen that if we make the same move with the 6-1, 6 off (shown as 6/0 where 0 is a checker taken off the board), 1/0 we leave a blot on the 6-point. If white rolls a 6 from the bar (it must be a 6 not 4-2, or 5-1 or 3-3 or 2-2 as these are blocked - remember, dice rolls are not added together, they are individual) on his turn he will hit your blot and force it to restart from the bar in his inner board - and, whilst there is a checker on the bar, remember no other piece can be moved until it has re-entered, sort of like rolling a 6 in ludo to start a checker off.

If you are on the bar and cannot re-enter then no other checkers can be moved and your move is forfeit. This is often called dancing or fanning and, if you have any blots exposed it is likely that your opponent can hit them too! So, we play 6/0 and we move the 1, 6/5 (6-point to 5-point) keeping the blot safe. With this in mind (assuming that white never re-enters on his roll except when there's a blot to hit) play the remaining rolls as safely as you can bearing off when you can and down when you can't: 3-2, 4-2, 6-2, and finally another 6-2 leaving the position in Diagram 4a If your board doesn’t match Diagram 4a restart and try again.


Diagram 4a

Remember, move off or down without leaving a lone checker(s), a blot(s), which white could hit from the bar forcing you to restart from the beginning with that/those checkers.

Now, it is getting quite difficult to take checkers off without leaving a blot - do you know how many rolls leave a blot next time? Don't forget that you are using two dice so each roll is in fact two rolls! To explain: Imagine you are using two different coloured dice, one black, one white and you roll a 3-2; with the black die on 3 and the white die on 2, but it could be the other way around, white die on 3, black die on 2 and still be only one move, 3-2. In fact, using two dice there are thirty-six combinations of dice rolls; so plenty to choose from! Later on you’ll have a chance to learn all thirty-six.

Back to the position in Diagram 4a How many of those thirty-six possible rolls will force a blot? Don't cheat by looking at the correct answer, write them all down. You should have twenty-five rolls that leave a blot. A quicker way to do it is to calculate the number of rolls that don't leave a blot - there are eleven that don’t: 6-1, 5-1, 4-1, 3-1, 2-1, 1-1 (note that I have only shown six rolls, this is because non-doubles such as 6-1 and 1-6 are shown just once as 6-1 and are counted twice).

Exercise 4: Practice a few bear-offs with a checker on the bar setting up as in Diagram 4 and see if you can avoid leaving blots, using your own dice rolls. It's not always possible to do so, but, often, with a little forethought you can considerably reduce the chances of doing so. This expertise is essential in playing winning backgammon and it is well worth the time taken to master it. Don’t forget that you don’t have to take a checker off each time. You can move within your home board if it’s possible to do so - just as long as you move the entire dice roll. Also, remember that you can move either die first.


Diagram 4b

Look at Diagram 4b If you rolled 6-1 in this position, to avoid leaving a blot, you would move 3/2 with the 1, and then take off 2/0 with the 6. Perfectly legal. It is fine to move either die first; and often, the order in which you move them can make a big difference. Sometimes beginners forget they can do this and they leave a blot – cheering up their opponents who are just waiting for a blot to appear and to turn the game around with a timely hit.

One tip is try to keep your top two points evenly distributed, looking for the bad rolls next time. As a general guide if you are able to take 6-6 or 6-5 on the next roll without leaving a blot then you are almost 99% certain not to leave a blot on the forthcoming roll no matter what it might be - note, not 100% because on rare occasions blots can be left and you can do nothing about it.

Once you've mastered the tactic of bearing off safely against opposition from the bar we'll move on to opposition within your inner board. This is quite likely to happen and it is very important that you fully understand how to minimise your losing chances when your opponent is waiting to hit you back onto the bar from an occupied point within your own inner board.




Bearing Off Against Opposition In Your Home Board


Diagram 5
Diagram 5a


Set up your home board as in Diagram 5 with white holding your 1-point with three checkers and assume that white will hit any blots you expose. Now, using the same numbers as before, 6-1, 3-2, 4-2, 6-2, 6-2 bear-off or down safely to arrive at the position shown in Diagram 5a This is a bit more difficult to arrive at. If you didn’t arrive at this position, here’s the rolls and moves that will achieve it.

6-1: 6/0 5/4

3-2: 3/0 2/0

4-2: 4/0 4/2

6-2: 6/0 6/4

6-2: 5/0 5/3

If you calculate how many rolls leave a blot next time in Diagram 5a the answer is six, 6-5, 6-4, 5-4.


Practice bearing off with white occupying two or more points or with a combination of checkers on points or blots and on the bar; in fact any combination you can think of and keep doing this until you are happy with your bearing off against opposition.  This knowledge is paramount in winning games in which you are leading; without it you will lose them even from such a strong racing lead. Move on to the next section only when you are ready.


Bearing In Safely Against Opposition

We have now finished with the true 'end' of the game, so we now step back a little to a position where we approach the end of the game. As you can see in this diagram below of the board at the start of the game, it is divided into four segments with points numbered 1 to 24, where 24 to 19 are in your opponent's inner board and points 6 to 1 are in your inner board. The two remaining segments (points 18 to 7) are the outer boards; points 12 to 7 being your outer board and 18 to 13 being your opponent's outer board.


Like in draughts checkers are moved around the board in opposing directions, in backgammon one player moves clockwise and the other anticlockwise (you, playing as black, are moving anticlockwise). Before we get to the entire board and the opening positions, let's deal with bringing checkers into your inner board from your outer board. Set up as in Diagram 6


Diagram 6

Using the usual rolls, 6-1, 3-2, 4-2, 6-2 bear in (bring your checkers into your inner board) safely. Straight away it is obvious that if you play the 6 by playing 10/4 (10-point to 4-point) and the 1, 7/6 it will leave two blots that white can hit - so that's the wrong move! Remember, if a blot is hit it has to restart off the bar into your opponent's home board – a long way from home.


The correct move is to play from the 11-point; but; you can't move the 6 to the 5-point because white occupies it, so how do you do it? Easily; remember after Diagram 2 I explained that you can move either die first? Well, in this case (and in others which no doubt you will discover) you move the 1, 11/10 and then the 6, 10/4. Of course you could have moved 10/4 and 11/10 but I am trying to get you to think about your moves. So, we play 6-1 as 11/10, 10/4.


Now for the 3-2. We can't play 3s or 2s from the 8- or 7-points without leaving a blot, so we move two checkers down from the 10-point, 10/7, 10/8 keeping it all nice and safe. White will only win this game if he hits a blot - and the last thing you want to do is hand the game to them by leaving one. Lots of winning positions are turned into losing ones by leaving unforced blots.


Now, 4-2; remember that we need to keep (if possible) an even number of checkers on our top two points and in order to achieve this we need to move one checker from the 8-point and another from the 7-point thus:  8/6, 7/3. Now, when you roll the 6-2 it is evident that you cannot move a 6 because white is blocking you by holding your 2- & 1-points so all you can move is a 2. You don't want to leave a blot at all, so the only 2 you can move safely is 6/4 leaving you in this position in Diagram 6a


Diagram 6a

Exercise 5: Although the position in Diagram 6a might be a little contrived, this sort of position can occur. From this position roll your own dice and bear in and off as safely as you can. When you have finished set up the position in Diagram 6 as often as necessary and practice bearing in and off until you are confident with bearing in and off against opposition. When you gain confidence you could also place a white checker on the bar as well or change the points occupied by white. Try to keep any blots you have to leave down to a minimum. Look to the next roll each time and try to predict, using your knowledge of the thirty-six dice combinations, which is the safer play each time.


Always bear in mind that even though you might think you’re winning the game, getting hit during the bear-off can reverse the situation in just one dice roll. The first player to get all their checkers off is the winner, not the first to get one checker off! Remember, if you are hit and have to re-enter off the bar you cannot bear-off any more checkers until they are all back in your home board.


When you’re happy with bearing in and off we’ll start at the beginning of the game in Part 2. This is what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?

How to...Part 2

How to...Part 3