Giant Laws

Backgammon Tips from the Giants of the Game

  • LAW ONE: Make the move your opponent will hate the most
  • LAW TWO: Woolsey’s Law
  • LAW THREE: O’Hagan’s Law
  • LAW FOUR: Stick’s Law
  • LAW FIVE: The ‘Rule of Four’ Law
  • LAW SIX: Ballard’s Law of Gammons
  • LAW SEVEN: Simborg’s Forget-about-it Law

You should always make the move your opponent will hate the most.

Lewis Deyong, in his 1977 Playboy’s Book of Backgammon, champions this great rule of thumb, as more recently does Phil Simborg. It’s a terrific discipline in helping you arrive at the correct move.

If you are playing with the White checkers, it’s tempting to play the entire game staring at those White checkers and thinking about what is happening with those White checkers without ever considering the game from Black’s point of view.

However, an excellent backgammon tip is to start looking at the board from your opponent’s perspective, you’ll be able to see clearer opportunities for the White checkers to create problems. You will start to understand the game and consider the game from a new perspective. Once you’ve worked out which move will hurt your opponent most… play that move!

Woolsey’s Law is very similar to Simborg’s Law but is concerned exclusively with the doubling cube. Woolsey’s Law states that, when considering offering a double, always think first about how you would reply if you were in your opponent’s shoes.

So, when you are considering offering a double, the backgammon tip here is to try to work out which of the following your opponent is thinking as he considers accepting it.

If you think he’s thinking ‘Maybe’, i.e. if you reckon he won’t be certain either way, you should definitely offer the double. If he ends up declining and forfeiting the game, that’s a good result for you, as it’s a guaranteed win. You never know what might have happened. Your opponent may have thrown well enough next time to bring him back from the brink of the position that made you want to offer the double in the first place and gone on to take two points from you. If he ends up not accepting it, he may have made a mistake and gifted you a point.

Even if you weren’t right to have offered the double, you must have been well in the lead to have considered offering it, so you’ve still doubled the stakes if he accepts while you’re on top, which is no bad thing. Also, if you are not sure, maybe that’s because it’s a close decision. That’s the perfect time to double. If it’s close, you stand far too great a chance of losing your market when it’s next your turn and would probably have to be content with playing without the double.

If you think he’s thinking ‘No’, you should go ahead and offer the double and take the points you get when he declines, rather than playing on without the double (for much the same reasoning as above).

If you think he’s thinking ‘Yes’, you might still want to consider the double but think carefully before doing so. There is only one reason to offer the doubling cube if you are sure your opponent is going to accept it, and that is if you are too likely to get to a position on the next roll where he is sure to pass because your position is too good, i.e. when you’ve missed your market and it becomes too late to offer the double.

Consider the situation in the example below. You are on roll and wondering whether or not to double. In this position, ask yourself, ‘If I were Black, would I accept the double or not?’ If I was Black, my answer would be, ‘I’m not sure.’ Now, as White, you know for sure that you should double!

To double or not to double? Put yourself in Black’s shoes to get your answer.

To double or not to double? Put yourself in Black’s shoes to get your answer.

In the European Championships in 2015 in our match against Germany I found myself facing Tobias Hellwag, who I knew to be a very accomplished player. The dice were on my side that day and I triumphed 15 – 5 but I think both of us knew that he was much the stronger player, which I’m sure would have been proven had there been computer analysis of the match. At one point Tobias spent over seven minutes (in a time limited match) pondering whether to accept a double I had offered – which reassured me as per Woolsey’s Law that I had been right to offer the double.

O’Hagan’s Law follows on from Woolsey’s Law in a way, and states that if there is a 25% (or more) chance that you are going to lose your market, you should offer a double. This simple backgammon tip is a brilliant way of determining whether it’s time to double before it’s too late.

You can calculate your chances of losing your market by looking at which throws would make your opponent decline the double on the next turn. Then deduct any poor throws that would greatly improve his position. If the total is 9 or more of the 36 possible throws (that’s 25%) that would make him decline the double if you offered it next time, then it’s time to offer that cube now!

In the example shown below, it is quite difficult to determine whether you should double or not. But if we apply O’Hagan’s Law, we can come up with an answer. If you do not offer the double now and you go on to roll a 6, there is no way that Black would accept the offer of the double on your next turn; you will have lost your market. There are 11 ways to roll a 6, so there are 11 ways in which you would lose your market. But you also have a couple of rolls that are also so disastrous for you that we call them ‘anti-market’ losers. What if you rolled a 5+5 or a 4+4? Both would put Black into a very strong position. In total, you have 11 market losers, and 2 anti-market losers .This is a net total of 9, which, out of 36 moves, is 25%. So this position is just a position from which you should offer the double, according to O’Hagan’s Law.

According to O’Hagan’s Law, White should offer the double, but only just!

According to O’Hagan’s Law, White should offer the double, but only just!

Stick’s Law will also help you with prime vs. prime doubling decisions. Stick’s Law is a simple-to-apply backgammon tip. It says: “All normal prime vs. prime positions are takes.” So unless you have a far inferior prime, or a lot more checkers back, or much worse timing, you have a “normal” situation and you can take the cube if offered. The decision as to whether to give the cube, again, can be based largely on O’Hagan’s Law.

The situation in the example below looks pretty bad for Black as he is facing a full 6-point-prime. However, you (White) also have your two backmarkers stuck behind a strong 5-point-prime, so there is light at the end of the tunnel for Black. Eventually you will have to break up some of your prime and he should be able to escape. That may well be before you are able to free your own backmarkers. This usually gives Black enough to accept a double if offered. In this position, he has a 30% chance of winning and with only one backmarker in your home board, it doesn’t look like he has a very high risk of losing a gammon. This fits Stick’s description of ‘normal’. In this situation, if you are smart enough to offer the double (as you should), Black should accept it.

 In this situation, you should offer the double and Black should take it.

In this situation, you should offer the double and Black should take it.

This is another law that helps you make doubling decisions, although it’s a little trickier to get to grips with. Basically, the ‘Rule of Four’ backgammon tip states that, if your opponent is holding just your 5-point or bar-point and you have four or less checkers on your mid-point, and you are ahead by 15% or more in the race, you should offer a double. In most cases, your opponent should accept it, but might decline and forfeit the game if the odds of getting the opportunity to hit you are too low and/or your lead in the race is too great.

In the example below, your position meets the criteria of the ‘Rule of Four,’ and you should offer the double.


The Rule of Four Law.

The great player Nack Ballard invented the Law of Gammons, which states that if you don’t think you’ll lose a gammon, you should accept a double. Basically, as long as you’re pretty sure you’re not going to lose a gammon, you should accept what you consider to be a reasonable cube offer whether or not you think you have a strong chance of winning.

Phil Simborg’s Forget-about-it Law states that you shouldn’t base your decision on a similar situation that has occurred before. For example, most situations in which you find yourself considering a double will look very familiar. When you consider your best option, it is all too easy to remember what happened the last time you were in this situation. Perhaps the previous time you doubled from this position and you ended up leaving a blot that your opponent hit and you subsequently lost. Or maybe it was a race where you had a comfortable lead and your opponent threw two doubles in a row and went on to beat you.

In backgammon, as in life, if you dwell on the bad things that happened to you in the past, you could miss golden opportunities that you will later regret. Don’t let past experiences give you cold feet and stop you from offering the doubling cube when your tactics are telling you to do so. This could really hurt you, especially if it makes you offer the cube too late, so that your opponent declines and you only win one point. As Albert Schweitzer once said, ‘Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.’ Don’t let the fear of the freak occurrence or joker stop you from taking a decision that is statistically correct. Stick to your logical rational reasoning.

In the example shown below, you’re going to win this game unless your opponent rolls a 5 together with a 4, 5 or 6. Okay, that’s exactly what happened the last time you were in this situation, but… forget about that now and make the decision to offer the double because that is what your statistical knowledge tells you to do. Let go of the previous bad things that have happened to you in the game.

As a matter of fact, black should pass if you were to double, so if you don’t double you are giving him a “free roll” or a free chance to roll 5-5 or just a 5 followed by doubles to give him a strong chance of beating you. If you double and he takes, you will usually win twice as much as a result, and if he passes, you avoid his chance to make a comeback. Either way you come out ahead if you double and you give up equity if you don’t.

 Offer the double regardless of whether it backfired on you in a similar situation last time.

Offer the double regardless of whether it backfired on you in a similar situation last time.