During a stint living in New York in the 1990s, I went to watch the New York Knicks play the Chicago Bulls and was lucky enough to see Michael Jordan play. At one point in the game, he made a bad mistake, causing him to lose the ball before he could shoot. Furiously, he ran back the length of the court, threw himself at the defender, regained the ball and then ran all the way back up the court to score.
That is the basketball version of playing a great back game. It was a great recovery. Of course, Jordan would have preferred not to lose the ball in the first place and you should aim not to have to recover from your mistakes, but if you do find yourself ‘losing the ball’, there is nothing so satisfying as playing a really good back game and coming back to win.A back game is the backgammon strategy you use to recover a game you’re losing, to try to get a shot at winning again. It becomes necessary after you’ve been hit several times and have started losing in the race, but when you’ve managed to make two or more anchors in your opponent’s home board. These will help you fight back. You really need two anchors to make it a back game. If you only have one anchor it’s a holding game but in my experience you’re unlikely to win from this position.
You often hear beginners talking about bringing out their back game. Once they start losing and find themselves stuck at the back they say, ‘Okay it’s time to bring out my back game’. That doesn’t mean they know what to do, it just means they know they’re losing! There is nothing more fun and satisfying than, when it looked like you were being slaughtered, your back game turns things around and you get a shot — often two — at hitting your opponent. Many players intentionally hold back to play this backgammon strategy because they love this gambit so much. What they forget is that there is still a very real chance that they won’t get the opportunity to hit, so it’s a risky tactic; and the most important reason it is so risky is that when it doesn’t work, there is a great risk of losing a gammon (a double game).
The back game recovery is not a position you should try to put yourself in, even though it looks great when you can pull it off. You should always prioritise winning in the normal course of play rather than letting yourself get into a risky, heart-stopping situation. Remember if your back game fails, you will often lose a gammon (twice the points the game was worth) and sometimes even a backgammon (triple the points the game was worth).
If you have one man trapped at the back you will feel as helpless as Paul Sheldon (the author who is captured and tied down by a psychotic fan in Stephen King’s Misery). But having a whole team trapped in your opponent’s home board is far more hopeful, more like Escape to Victory.
While it is really fun to play a back game and look like you are in a fairly hopeless position and then get lucky and get a double shot, hit it, and go on to win, there is a big risk that comes with it. When you don’t get that shot, or when you miss it, you often get gammoned or even occasionally backgammoned.
Another major problem with back games is that if you are playing a skillful opponent, he can often manipulate the game to keep you from maintaining proper timing. If you lose timing, what usually happens is that the checkers on your side of the board “crash” to your lower points. When that happens, even if you get and hit a shot later, your opponent can still come in easily off the bar and scamper back around the board to win.
Phil Simborg classifies back games into three areas. He calls the 1-2, 1-3 and 2-3 games “Super Back Games” and says these are absolutely the best games in terms of winning chances, but ONLY if you can get good timing. And getting and keeping good timing is not easy, as you need to be down about 100 pips and have your front checkers (the ones on you inner board) on the higher points or slightly outside the inner board.
Phil calls the 2-4 and 2-5 games “Middle Back Games” and they don’t win as much as the Super games, but they also don’t get gammoned and backgammoned as much, and they also don’t require as much timing…closer to 60 or 70 pips. If your opponent still has checkers in his outer board and you have these games, they are typically very good games to have, but once your opponent brings all his checkers in, you would much rather have a super back game with timing. (Any back game without timing should be called a “bad game” according to Phil.)
There are the Split back games, the 1-4 and 1-5, and these do not require as much timing but they also don’t win anywhere near as much. As for the 3-4 and 3-5 games, Phil doesn’t even like to classify these as back games at all, but rather calls them “Double-Holding games.” They really only work like a back game when your opponent has many of his checkers in the second quadrant (his outside board) and after that they are not particularly effective.
The best backgammon strategy for playing a good back game, having established a couple of points deep in your opponent’s home board, is to build a very strong home board yourself so that when you do get that essential opportunity to hit, it really counts. However, timing is everything. It won’t work if you don’t get the timing right. If you are forced to destroy your home board with throws that you don’t want while your two anchors are trapped in your opponent’s home board, then hitting your opponent will be a hollow victory because he will be able to re-enter easily and make a recovery.
You can play a back game (as opposed to a holding game) when you have two anchors in your opponent’s home board, for example when you’re holding his 1-point and 3-point as shown below.
It is also effective to play a back game from further along the opponent’s home board if his prime is further back, as shown in the example below. Black is still the favourite to win here, however.
The modern-day experts are not even calling games that look like this final example ‘back games’ anymore, but rather ‘double-holding games’, because you really aren’t far enough back. By definition, a back game means that you are holding a couple of points right at the back of your opponent’s board and not too far along. You can see why it is such a risky strategy. If you don’t get some good opportunities to hit, you can pretty much kiss this game goodbye. The only advantage to a double-holding game over a true back game is that, because you are further forward, you do slightly lower your risk of losing a gammon or backgammon because you’ve got a better chance of making it home and bearing off at least one checker before your opponent finishes bearing off his checkers.
Also remember that there is generally no need to keep more than two checkers on a point, especially when you are simply holding anchors and there are no more builders needed. So if you have more than two checkers on one point, try to make it your backgammon strategy to run the extra ones around the board when you can; or you could use them to try to block your opponent even further by building more points on his side of the board.
‘The secret of good comedy…’ as Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis have told us, ‘…is timing’. The same goes for a back game. At first it feels counterintuitive, but you will need ample time to hit your opponent. If you already have a perfect home board by the time you hit, you will have advanced too far. You will have (as players often say) ‘crashed’. Crashing is when you are forced to move your checkers deeper and deeper into your home board, which leave free points for your opponent to land on when you hit him… defeating the object of the back game. Crashing is a frustrating experience when you’ve put a lot of hard work into building a strong home board.
In the example below, you still have a decent chance of winning (specifically a 30% chance) but you must make sure that, if you do hit your opponent, your home board is as primed as possible. Plus, you want to avoid a gammon, so you move a checker rather than crashing your home board. The blot you leave behind can still be dangerous to your opponent.
It can also be powerful to have a 2-point-prime in your opponent’s board. In this example below, your throw of 2+2 can create a double anchor, which will give you the best chance of blocking your opponent. Your timing is good here because you have plenty of time to move around the board with your midmarkers and build your home board while you wait for opportunities to hit your opponent.
When your anchors are several spaces apart, rather than being side-by-side in a prime, we call it a split back game. In this situation, it is easier for your opponent to bring his checkers home, so you should avoid getting into this position if possible. Again, never hold out for a back game anyway; a back game should be avoided at all costs. If you are presented with a chance to play forward and change your backgammon strategy game plan to a running or priming game, you should always take it. But if you find yourself in a back game and don’t get the opportunity to play forward, then commit to it fully, don’t be timid and half-hearted about it. Too many players become afraid of getting gammoned and start playing cautiously when in a back game. Ironically, this is more likely to lead to you getting gammoned than if you play boldly!
In the example shown below, you have a 60% chance of winning from this position. Often your opponent has made the huge mistake of giving you the cube simply on the basis of his large numerical lead.
Make sure your home checkers are not too far advanced though; otherwise your chances diminish because your board is going to crash. By the time you get the opportunities you need to hit, you are likely to have a home board with checkers stacked so close to home that you will not be able to contain your opponent.