There is a delicious point in the process of learning anything complicated when the mist rises, like in the film The Matrix when the hero, Neo, suddenly figures out how to read the code.
Before learning any specific backgammon strategy tips and winning moves of backgammon, you need to drill a fundamental principle into your head. Applying this principle alone will enable you to beat most people most of the time, simply because they, themselves, don’t apply it with enough rigour, if at all. I’ve already mentioned it several times in this book, but now I want to devote a whole chapter to it because without it, you really have no chance of getting good at backgammon. The rule is: always have a game plan!
You always, always, always need to have a plan in your mind, every time you play a move. That plan should be relevant to your current situation. Of course your plan can change as the game continues, depending on where you stand, but you must always replace it with a different plan. At every stage in the game you must always be clear on what your plan is. All backgammon strategy tips and moves aside, your game plan is of paramount importance.
That might sound daunting, but here’s the good news: despite the trillions of potential positions and decisions there are in every game of backgammon, there are only three plans you can have. If you always have one of those plans in your mind before every move you make, your game will develop beautifully and you will soon become a class backgammon act. If you don’t, you won’t.
These three game plans are: run, hit or prime. Keep all three in your mind at all times and know which one you are following at any given moment, because the moves you make need to be consistent with your current plan. Your game plan can, and will, change several times through a single game, and even from one move to the next, but following this mantra — of always knowing which game plan you are following as you take each move — will allow you to read the moves in each game more clearly.
Over the course of my playing I’ve discovered that if I think about my game plan first and then consider each possible move, trying to make a move that best supports that game plan, even if I don’t select the best move I will avoid making a blunder. Most of my blunders have occurred when I haven’t had a specific game plan in mind before making a move.
If you want to learn more about game plans, read Walter Trice’s famous book ‘Backgammon Boot Camp’ which discusses them comprehensively.
As much fun as hitting is, in this scenario, because you are ahead in the race and your game plan at this point in the game is running (and because your home board is so vulnerable) you should skip past the Black checker and run, as shown in the diagram below. Never forget that backgammon is a race.
In the following example, you (White) have had the luck of throwing a 1+1 early on in the game.
You’ve got some great choices here. Making a prime is definitely a good idea, especially as Black has two checkers stuck in your home board. So you could make a 4-point-prime (by moving two checkers from your 6-point to make your 5-point, as well as moving the two checkers on your 8-point to your bar-point). This is not a bad choice at all. However, in this scenario, it’s actually a better move to hit (as shown below), because you can hit twice. While your opponent is struggling to get back on the board (chances are it will take him a couple of goes because you are blocking him with your 4-point and 6-point) you can make progress, running those checkers even further around or changing your game plan and adding to your prime.
At this exact stage of the game, hitting is the best game plan because it buys you time and uses up some, or all, of your opponent’s next throw. A tactic worth remembering.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to hit simply because it’s too early on in the game to run. In the example shown below, both players are on 153 pips and White’s two backmarkers have not even started to move, so it is a little early in the game to pick running as your game plan. Priming also seems an unsuitable game plan at this stage because Black has split his backmarkers and you have very few anchors — or even builders — outside your home board. But you do have three points in your home board and Black has two blots, thus hitting is the best game plan.
When you have made more home board points than your opponent, this tells you that you have a real advantage in a hitting game. In the example above, Black only has one home board point while you have three. If the hitting goes back and forth, Black is more likely to be left dancing on the bar because he has fewer options for re-entering than you have, due to the fact that you are blocking him with your three points.
By a process of elimination we discovered that our best game plan here is to hit. However, it is still early on in the game, so once you have congratulated yourself for spotting the right game plan, you need to pause and consider your next question: which hit is best? Technically, you can hit either of Black’s blots in your home board. If you hit Black’s furthest backmarker (on your 1-point), you won’t be able to cover the blot you leave on your next turn with a single dice (you would require a 7 or a 12 but you only have a 5). So it’s best to hit Black’s blot on your 3-point as you then have a better chance of covering it by using the builder on your 6-point if you throw a 3 in your next roll.
Once you’ve hit Black’s checker on your 3-point with your 5-move, you still need to move the remaining 4. Remember, your current game plan is hitting. To follow this you need to try to cover the blot you have now left on point 3 in your home board. To do this, you make your 4-move by taking a checker from your midpoint to your 9-point. Now you have a second chance of covering the blot you left on your next throw because if you throw a 6, you can cover it using that blot you left on your 9-point.
At this stage of the game, with 3 points in your home board, there is also the possibility that neither of Black’s dice will work for him and he will have to dance on the bar thus wasting at least one entire throw. With the pip count so evenly matched, this alone could give you a substantial lead. Of course, Black might throw a 3 and hit you as he re-enters, but no one said backgammon was risk free!
Priming is the spice of backgammon. Always be on the lookout for a good opportunity to block your opponent by building a strong prime. Playing a priming game plan is what is called ‘playing pure backgammon’. Good players are always trying to make their points close together and not to make the 1-point or 2-point too early unless the situation forces them to do so. Building the points in the middle and left of the home board first gives you a better chance of building that ultimate 6-point-prime because you have space either side to add to it and make small primes as you work your way up to 6. You are much more likely to get to a 5-point-prime or 6-point-prime by doing this.
In the example below, both players have had good first throws, and made good use of them by making points and starting to build primes. Now White has thrown a 4+3, which is not such a tidy throw. It might be tempting to play safe by moving one checker from the midpoint into the home board. This move certainly has something going for it in that it’s safe in the short-term and it moves a checker into the home board. However, as always, it pays to look again to see if there is a better move.
In this case, there are actually four better moves, even though each one exposes two checkers. You could move both your backmarkers to leave two blots in your opponent’s home board (with the intention of making an anchor there, perhaps) or you could move two checkers from your mid-point and slot your 10-point and 9-point. You could also move one each of your backmarkers and midmarkers, and there are two possible ways to do this (use the 3-move to move the backmarker and the 4-move to move the midmarker, or vice versa).
In all of these alternate moves you are achieving a lot more than the safer play of using both moves to take one of your midmarkers to your 6-point, because you are setting up great builders on which to make points.
Technically, the best move is to move the backmarker with your 4-move and the midmarker with your 3-move. As shown in the diagram below, this creates a priming opportunity as well as giving you the chance to make your opponent’s 5-point.
This example was somewhat complex, but it makes a great backgammon strategy tip: always consider all the different moves you could make. Too often a player might see a great move and take it too hastily, missing an even better one.
The great player Kit Woolsey once said, ‘Many, possibly most, inferior moves are made not because the best play was considered and then rejected, but because the best play was completely overlooked.’
We are going to look at two scenarios where you have to play a 6+5 halfway through a game.
In the first scenario, shown in the diagram below, your board looks quite tidy and you have a strong 3-point-prime in your home quarter. However, you are losing the race by 38 pips (your opponent has 94 pips to go and you have 132 pips to go). This is a big lead for Black at this stage and as it’s a race, you’re almost certainly going to lose. So while it looks tempting and neat to move your two backmarkers and neatly slot them onto your 13-point and 14-point, this would be a mistake because you are actually helping to move the race along… a race you are on course to lose.
So in this scenario, racing is not your best game plan. You would be better off moving your more advanced checkers off the 12-point (as shown below) to make your 6-point and slot your bar-point. Now you have a 4-point-prime and a chance of making a 6-point-prime. This also enables you to continue to hold a double threat against your opponent from your mid-point and your anchor on Black’s bar-point. Black is now faced with the tricky task of moving his two backmarkers around the board without you hitting them.
Now let’s look at a second scenario where your checkers are in a similar position to the example above, but your opponent is at a very different stage. In this example you have a much better chance of winning in a straight race because your pip count is the same as your opponent’s (you’re both on 128). Black also has two checkers stuck behind your 4-point-prime in your home board.
In this case it is a good idea to release your anchor and get your backmarkers onto your 12-point and 13-point with your throw of 6+5. You are now winning the race. Here you played with a running game plan and will probably continue to do so. Even though you might encounter some difficult scenarios ahead of you, there’s no doubt that playing these moves with your throw of 6+5 has helped you to move things along; it would have been a mistake to hang back.
So there you have the three game plans: run, hit and prime. Keep them in your mind at all times. The moves you choose need to be consistent with the game plan you are playing at every stage of the game. You can, and should, change your game plan several times in a single game, and even from roll to roll. But the most important thing is to have a game plan at all times.
If you can’t decide what your game plan should be at any particular stage, take a look at your opponent’s game plan and oppose it. If, for example, your opponent is playing a running game, try to stop him with either a hitting or priming game. If it looks like your opponent is trying to prime, you need to run with those backmarkers even if you have to split them, so that they won’t get stuck. You can also using hitting as a strategy to hold your opponent up. Having said that, you can also beat him at his own game plan if that seems to be your best option. For example, you can make a prime of your own to counterbalance a prime your opponent is clearly working on. Ordinarily, you should obviously choose a game plan that is based on your position and the numbers on the dice, but don’t shy away from choosing a retaliating game plan — choosing a game plan simply because it will stop your opponent from succeeding with his own.