Handling the Middle Stages of the Game

Learning backgammon: understanding the middle of the game

  • Game plans
  • Splitting backmarkers
  • Building primes through slotting
  • Blitzing
  • Duplication and diversification
  • It ain’t over ’til it’s over
  • Pick and pass
  • Block a pair and attack a blot
  • When to break up an anchor
  • Watch your opponent’s home board in the middle game

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The legendary James Hunt, adrenaline junkie, in one of numerous photos of him playing backgammon.

It’s important to spot when you have arrived in the middle of things. As Michael Caine once said, ‘People call me middle-aged and I’m 60. Well I don’t know that many 120-year-olds, do you?’

There comes a point in some games where, early on, it can become a straight race with nobody being hit and nobody being blocked. If this happened all the time, backgammon would be as dull as a power cut on a rainy day. Happily, it is a rare event. Usually someone gets hit, someone gets blocked, someone’s backmarkers are trapped and so on. When some of this has started to happen and each player has had 4 or 5 moves, then you know that you’ve reached the middle game.

One of the golden rules of learning backgammon is… always have a game plan. You should have a game plan in your head before you make a decision about every single move. However, it’s never more important to have a game plan than in the middle game. Every game is different and you need to play a lot of games so that you can practice what to do when you come across different situations.  Generally, your game plan should be one of three specific strategies: run, hit or prime.

If you have the upper hand in the middle game, it’s usually quite easy to decide which of the three game plans is best. But when you are behind in the game, it’s often hard to see which strategy could help you win. In this situation, you need to watch your opponent closely to work out which game plan he is following and then use a counter-tactic to foil him.

The important middle-game tactics include keeping a balanced board, moving any stragglers at the back around the board, hampering your opponent’s progress by hitting and priming, slotting where you can and creating anchors. And you must always stay flexible, as you usually won’t get the dice you want.

In the middle game, continually ask yourself questions about how the game stands. How strong is your opponent’s home board? How many points has he made? Does he have any blots? Does he have checkers stuck in your home board? Do you have any stuck in his? Always consider your own position, too. If you’re doing better than him, you can afford to be more aggressive.

 

If you have yet to move your backmarkers and you’re approaching the middle game, it’s time to look for opportunities to get them moving, which will usually mean splitting them.

In the example shown below, you have already thrown a 4+2 and made your 4-point, so when you throw a 4+2 for a second time, the best option is to split the backmarkers. This gives you multiple chances of reuniting the two checkers, or of running with one of them. If you don’t do this, Black could close in on you, especially as he has already freed one backmarker with a lover’s leap move. You will be in a pickle if you don’t act soon. In any case, in this situation there’s not a lot else you can productively do with your throw.

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With a 4+2 in this scenario, splitting your backmarkers and moving one from the midpoint is your best option.

Building primes can be a messy business. In the example below, you have a number of options with your throw of 5+4. You can make another home-board point on your 2-point, or you can slot your opponent’s 5-point and slot your own 8-point from your midpoint. But what kind of game are you playing? Clearly you are losing in the race, so you don’t want to run. You have a modest home board and no clear opportunities to hit, so hitting is not an available plan. You already have a 3-point-prime made; so continuing to build your prime looks like your best game plan.

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With a 5+4 your best move is to slot both your 8-point and 9-point, leaving two builders on them.

This looks risky, especially if you’re just learning backgammon, but it’s still fairly early on in the game and your opponent’s home board is not strong yet; it makes sense for you to take some risks. You could make your 2-point, but not only is that disconnected from your existing strong prime, it also takes those two checkers out of the running for making more valuable points on your 3-point and 4-point. Your best bet is to move two checkers from your midpoint to slot your 8 and 9 points, creating two builders with the hope that you will be able to turn them into points with your next move, strengthening your prime.

It looks risky but Black would need to throw a 7 or 8 to hit you — he cannot hit you with one dice — so his chances of scuppering your game plan are reduced. The opportunities to prime from this position, assuming you are not hit, are so good it’s worth the risk. As long as those builders don’t get hit, there are many throws that will enable you to make your 8-point or 9-point. Another 4+5 would even allow you to make both. You also have an opportunity to make your 4-point if you throw a 3+2, so you are well on your way to making a 6-point-prime, the ultimate prime. If this priming game plan pays off, Black is toast.

Let’s look at another example.

In the scenario shown below, you are much more vulnerable because your backmarkers are split. Rather than slotting both your 9-point and 10-point here, you should definitely take the opportunity to make your opponent’s 4-point. You can still leave a valuable builder by using one of your midmarkers to slot your 9-point, which will hopefully be the start of a strong prime. You should always be looking for ways to create a prime in and around your home board.

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With a 4+3 in this scenario, make your opponent’s 4-point and slot your 9-point with your midmarker.

Blitzing is a thrilling strategy, one that really makes the game exciting. I always love a good blitz and I am sure you will too! It is a battle of nerves. While your opponent is desperately trying to get a foothold in your home board, you blitz him, hitting him again and again regardless of your own exposure. There is no faster way to win a game. Furthermore, you give yourself a strong chance of winning by a large margin and therefore gammoning your opponent, earning you double points in the process.

In the example shown below, you have many choices of how to play your 5+5. The most compelling is to create two more points in your home board, while hitting your opponent and giving you further opportunities to hit.

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A 5+5 gives you many choices, but to hit and make two extra home-board points is best. The example below is slightly different, but you are still able to hit black and make two more home-board points. You do end up with one checker exposed on the 1-point in your home board but it’s worth it for the thrill of the blitz. And with a bit of luck you’ll soon be able to cover the exposed blot.

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With your 5+5 in this scenario, you can hit and make three more home-board points.

Don’t be put off by these words that sound like you’d only use them if you were doing a PhD in Economics! They simply describe a great way to improve your odds at a point when your opponent will likely have multiple ways to hurt you in his next move. You need to play in a way that limits his chances to do too much damage.

Duplication means duplicating your opponent’s need to throw a specific number in order to do maximum damage — i.e. decreasing his chances of really hurting you.

In the example shown below, the race is close unless you are hit. You have thrown a 6+2 and you are forced to move your 6-move from Black’s home board; there is no other option with the 6-move. So the question now is what to do with the 2-move. In this scenario, you should continue to move the same checker a further two spaces so that it lands on your 11-point because now Black will need a 3 to hit either of your checkers, i.e. he would need a double 3 to hit both.

If you do anything else with your 2-move (e.g. move one of the checkers in your home board or move your other backmarker 2 spaces), you still have two exposed checkers but Black needs different numbers to hit you, which greatly increases his chances of hitting one or both of your blots. The move shown below duplicates Black’s need to throw a 3 to hit you, i.e. he can only do the maximum damage (of hitting you twice) if he throws a 3+3. This is quite a nifty little tactic!

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With a 6+2 you can duplicate Black’s need to throw a 3.

Diversification means giving yourself as many chances as possible of achieving something.

In the simple example shown below, you have thrown a 6+4. While you cannot cover your blot without leaving another checker exposed, you can give yourself as many shots as possible to do so with your next turn. In this case, instead of moving both your checkers into the home board (one of which would land on your 6-point that already holds spare checkers), if you move a checker from your 6-point to your 2-point, creating a builder there, you have a much larger number of throws that could allow you to cover the blot without exposing another one next time.

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A 6+4 allows you to diversify your options, giving you the best chance to cover your blot next time.

If all of your opponent’s checkers have escaped and you are still moving yours around the board, you might think there is no point in building more home-board points and strengthening a prime. However, you might still want to hit your opponent and then you need that strong home board. So keep working on building that prime!

I often see players who are losing a race focus on moving their checkers around the board as quickly as possible. A better game plan when you are in this situation is to hit, even if you can’t immediately see where that opportunity to hit is going to come from. So you must keep preparing, as you’ll see when learning backgammon. Pretend that you have your opponent trapped and build that prime anyway. When he sees your game plan is to keep building rather than racing, your opponent will likely slow down and play more cautiously. This, in turn, will give you a greater chance of winning if and when you do get to hit your opponent, which actually happens more often than you would think!

In the example shown below, with your throw of 5+4, one option would be to race your backmarker out, but that would be a mistake because it engages you in a race you are already losing. Building your home board is the better strategy. If you get the opportunity to hit your opponent later (and you are leaving your backmarker in place for exactly that possibility), a strong home board will hamper your opponent’s chances of re-entering the board and increase your chances of winning. If you leave a weak and vulnerable home board, even if you get to hit your opponent, they could do equal damage by hitting you back in your home board.

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Keep building that prime even though he’s gone… you will need it when you get the chance to hit him later!

Pick and pass refers to hitting your opponent with one of your moves, and then moving to safety with the other. In the example below, you could make Black’s 5-point with that single backmarker. But a much better move is to hit Black’s checker on your 5-point with your 3-move and then bounce your checker to safety with the 4-move, making your 1-point (sometimes called the ‘ace-point’). You’ve achieved two things here — hitting and creating a home-board point — without taking much risk. Plus, with Black having to waste at least one of his moves by having to re-enter on his next throw, you will probably be in with a strong chance of moving your backmarkers out with your next move.

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With your 4+3, land on Black then bounce safely onto your own checker to make your 1-point.D

If your opponent still has both his backmarkers (i.e. a pair) in your home board, it is well worth continuing to build points and primes to block him. This will make it increasingly difficult for him to move them out. If he only has one backmarker left in your home board (i.e. a blot), it is less worthwhile blocking him because he could get away with one good throw, so you might as well look for opportunities to hit him (as long as you have a strong home board).

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In the example shown above, using the throw of 4+3 to build your 3-point against Black’s pair is a must. In any case, you don’t have an alternative play that is particularly useful. Remember while learning backgammon, every play you make is only good or bad in comparison to the alternatives. The golden rule is: whenever you see a play you think is good, see if there is another play that is better before you commit.

Looking at a similar situation but one where Black only has one backmarker, it becomes less important to block him. Unless you have a safe way of hitting him, it is more important to create builders, like this…

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Against a blot, blocking is less of a priority.

It is always useful to have an anchor in your opponent’s board; the question becomes when to run. In the example shown below, you have thrown a 5+4. You could run one checker from the back with this, but a better move is to take two checkers from the middle and make your 9-point, which gives you another 2-point-prime.

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In this scenario, keep hold of that anchor in your opponent’s home board.

In the example shown below, you have already broken up your anchor and have been left with one checker at the back. It would make much more sense to run because you are more vulnerable. And, of course, you can’t cause as much trouble as you can with two checkers forming an anchor in your opponent’s home board.

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Time to get out of Dodge.

Phil Simborg has a checklist to help decide when to break an anchor. These questions are great to keep in mind while learning backgammon and as you develop your strategy and game plan. Ask yourself:

  1. Who is up in the race?  
  2. What is my best game plan?
  3. Who has the stronger inner board?
  4. If I run with one checker, how likely is it that the remaining checker will be approached or attacked?
  5. Do I have a better alternative on the other side of the board?

The answers to these questions will help you to decide whether it’s a good time to break the anchor.

In the example shown below, you have recently escaped clean out of Black’s home board. You have made your opponent’s bar-point and you are now on a roll, while Black still has two backmarkers stuck in your home board.

Who do you think is favourite to win the game at this stage?

Well, it may surprise you to hear that Black is actually the slight favourite to win. The odds are that you will get hit before the end of the game. If this happens, Black has a very strong home board and will be likely block you from re-entering. As a result of either not getting the right throws or a lack of foresight, you have not diversified your checkers enough and will probably soon find yourself in a spot of hot water. You would have to be very lucky to bring all of your checkers home without giving Black several opportunities to hit you.

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Figure 98: Even though you have escaped from Black’s home board while he still has checkers in yours… Black is favourite to win because of his lead in the pip count, his strong home board and your unbalanced board.

If you had taken a few more chances earlier, like slotting and bringing builders down from the midpoint, before Black’s board was so well established, you might not have got into this predicament.

In general, in the middle game you should aim to keep all your checkers in play. As far as possible you should avoid moving them so far along that they become redundant. If you have several stacked on the last point in your home board (your 1-point), you have less checkers in your army. You need your checkers in the game, ready to build defences and attack your opponent. Checkers are no use to you in the final places of your home board too early on in the game.