One of the fascinating things about backgammon is that at first it all seems so clear, almost simple. I think any intelligent person could master half of the game in a week. But the rest of it? I know brilliant players who have been playing it for years, and they admit that to this day there are parts of the game they don’t fully understand.
– Hugh Hefner
Although backgammon is a complex game in all its possibilities, the basic elements of how to play backgammon can be learned quickly (which is more than can be said for bridge or mah-jongg… or studying horse racing form!) In backgammon, you can learn the rules for playing backgammon and become a good player in a fairly short space of time. After that you might choose to read some rather more technical books, play stronger players, play people online and maybe even get a good computer program to play against in order to improve. Or you might just be happy beating your friends and leaving them scratching their heads, baffled as to how you did it.
My aim is to show you how to play backgammon and help you move from being a beginner, or a basic player, through to being good enough to beat nine out of ten of your friends, while remembering not to play the tenth guy for money.
Here’s more information on how to play backgammon, the rules for playing backgammon and what equipment you’ll need
The equipment you need to play backgammon consists of: Backgammon Board
30 checkers. That’s 15 each of two different colours for each of the two players.
Pair of dice each (these ones are tournament standard ‘precision dice’)
A dice shaker each
One larger dice, used for offering doubles, known as the cube.
Backgammon is a race between two players. Each player moves his 15 pieces (checkers) around the board, and then starts to remove them, which is known as bearing off. The essence of how to play backgammon is to bear off your checkers. The first player to bear off all his checkers is the winner; all you have to do to win a game of backgammon is bear off all your pieces first.
The white arrow indicates the direction that you, as the White player, will be racing. The Black arrow shows the direction that your opponent will move in the opposite direction. The board is divided into four equal parts with six triangles (points), alternately coloured dark and light, in each quarter; this gives you a total of 24 points.
The bar runs down the middle of the board and is where your checkers are placed when your opponent’s checker lands on it, which is known as being hit.
Your side of the board (which is the bottom half in all of the diagrams) is split into your outer board on the left and your home board on the right.
Your home board is the final destination for your checkers, as you can see from the white arrow. The opposite side of the board consists of your opponent’s home board and outer board; these mirror your own.
You always start with the same layout of checkers. According to the rule of backgammon, depending on which side you are sitting, they either move anticlockwise (finishing in the bottom right quarter) or clockwise (finishing in the bottom left quarter). So make sure you get used to playing both clockwise and anticlockwise. Every time you are moving your checkers clockwise, your opponent is playing anticlockwise, and vice versa.
In all examples where I’ve shown an image of the board, you are White and your opponent is Black so your checkers are moving anti-clockwise. (I will be referring to White as ‘you’ and to Black as ‘he’; this is not meant to imply that backgammon is only a game for men. In fact, the 2014 world champion was a woman.)
Here is the opposite view of how the board looks to your opponent, Black, who is moving his checkers clockwise:
An upside-down view. How the board looks from where your opponent (who is moving his counters clockwise) is sitting
The arrows in the diagram below point to some of the other standard features you will find in the diagrams on this site.
Standard features in the diagrams shown
Throughout the site, the value of the dice will be shown using the ‘+’ sign, so if a player throws a 6 and a 5, it will be shown as 6+5.
The match score is shown on the top and bottom left; in this case both players are still on 0 in a game to 5 points.
There is only a match score if the players are competing to be the first to reach an agreed number of points, this is known as match play or tournament play. A short match might be won by the first player to reach 5 points but a long match in the later stages of a tournament could for example be to 17 points, 35 points or even more. The score in match play can sometimes dictate your playing and doubling decisions as we will discuss later.
If the players are playing a series of unconnected games for money this is known as money play and the score is kept simply in terms of points won or lost. A variety of money play where a group of players compete against one player for money is the chouette.
Unless otherwise stated the examples throughout this site are match play.
Around the board the points are numbered from 1 to 24, which will help you to locate the position of the checkers I am referring to.
In the middle of the bar rests the doubling cube, which always shows 64 at the start of each game (as shown in the above diagram), although this means 1 (there isn’t a 1 on the doubling cube).
On the top or bottom right is the turn indicator; this indicates which player’s turn it is. In the diagram shown above, it is White’s turn, as marked with a White circle on your side of the board.
Finally, each player’s pip count is shown in the middle of his side of the board. Your pip count is the exact number of pips, or dots on the dice, it would take you to move all of your checkers off the board. The arrow in the diagram above points to 167, which is always your starting pip count. Your pip count goes down as you move your checkers around the board, and goes up when you are hit and have to move a checker around the board from the beginning again.
One important rule you need to know about how to play backgammon regards hitting. When a player only has one checker on a point (known as a blot), his opponent can hit it. (You cannot land on a point with two or more of your opponent’s checkers on it, only on empty points or a point with a blot on it). When a checker is hit, it is taken off the board and placed on the bar in the middle of the board.
The rules for playing backgammon state that on the next turn of the player who’s been hit, he must re-enter the hit checker from the bar and start at the beginning back in his opponent’s home quarter; that is, as long as he can throw a number that will land him on a point not occupied by two or more of his opponent’s checkers.
He cannot re-enter if the points that correspond with the values on his dice are blocked by his opponent’s checkers. So you must throw a number that gets you back onto the board, and you have to re-enter your checker on the bar before you can continue your turn and move any of your other checkers on the board.
Simon Woodhead from BGlog, who designed the excellent diagrams used here, has a great way of explaining how to play backgammon. When describing being hit in backgammon to beginners, he says it’s very much like when you are playing Snakes & Ladders and you land on a snake that takes you back to the start.
It can take a number of throws to get the right dice to re-enter. While you are waiting to re-enter a checker into the game you are said to be dancing on the bar!
Dancing on the bar… not always as fun as it looks
Each player rolls one dice to determine who starts. The player who gets the highest value goes first, but must play the dice on the board according to the rules for playing backgammon. If you win the roll, you play your single dice and your opponent’s single dice as your opening move. You can’t roll both of your own dice again and hope for something better.
If you both throw the same number, you roll again.
There are regional variations in how to play backgammon. Rules vary by country and tournament about how you must shake your dice. As a rule of thumb try to make sure that you shake your shaker three times before releasing the dice and that you release the dice properly from the shaker so that they roll across the board a short distance before coming to rest, rather than just letting them ‘plop out’.
If either dice lands on top of a checker, or at an angle (leaning against a checker or the side of the board), it is known as a cocked dice and both dice must be thrown again. It’s no crime to throw cocked dice, even the top players do it frequently, so don’t worry about it, just throw again.
Your dice must also land in the right-hand half of the board (as you are looking at it). If one of your dice jumps into the left-hand half, it is usually considered to be cocked dice and you will have to throw again.
On each turn you move the checkers around the board the number of moves that are shown on your dice. The rules for playing backgammon are that you can move any combination of the numbers that you throw unless you’re blocked from doing so by your opponent’s checkers (you cannot land on a point that has two or more of your opponent’s checkers on it). You can place as many checkers as you wish on the same point. If you can’t move at all (perhaps because you are on the bar and haven’t thrown a value that allows you to re-enter), then you miss your turn. This happens surprisingly often, mostly later in the game after your opponent has built a strong home board. If you can only play one of the numbers then you must move that one and forgo the second.
Be careful that you don’t automatically combine the total of the two dice to work out how many spaces to move. Throwing 4+1 does not mean you necessarily have to move 5 consecutive spaces with one single checker (although you can if that is your best move). This is especially important to remember if a 5 would block you from moving or re-entering after being hit. You can always move one checker a 1 or a 5 and then take the remaining moves with a different checker.
Always keep the number on each dice separate in your mind; you can play the two numbers in any order. You must use both dice if you are able to, but if you are only able to play one of them, you must play the higher one if you can.
When you roll a double you can move each number of each dice twice: i.e. you get 4 x the value of the double you’ve thrown. This is usually a nice boost in your game!
To finish and win the game, according to the rules for playing backgammon, all your checkers must come off the board. You can’t begin to bear checkers off until all your checkers are in your home board. You can, however, bear off regardless of where your opponent’s checkers are.
Once all your checkers are in your home board, you roll the dice and bear off checkers in moves that match the numbers you roll. If you roll a number and can’t bear off because the number on your dice is lower than the number of moves it would take to bear off your checker, you must move a checker the number of moves shown. If you’re hit while bearing off you must re-enter that checker and get it back into your home board before you can start bearing off again. This happens more often than you’d think.
White strolls home.
In the example above, you are heading for a win, having already borne off six checkers, while Black has only borne off one. Your current throw of 4+1 means you can bear off another two checkers (the checker on your 1-point and a checker from your 4-point).
The large dice in the middle of the bar is known as the cube and has the values 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 painted on each of its six sides. Don’t worry about using it at first if you are just beginning to learn the game, in time you will become comfortable playing with the cube and you will then appreciate how much it enhances backgammon games.
The cube is not thrown; it is used to signify the offering of a double and keeps track of the stakes in a game as they increase. In backgammon you cannot draw a game, you can only win or lose. Winning a normal game is worth one point, winning a gammon is worth two points and winning a backgammon is worth three points. If the cube has been used during the game those points are multiplied by the value of the cube at the end of the game.
Once the first player offers a double, the player who accepts the double places the cube, showing the current cube value face up, on their side of the bar. That player is now the only one who can offer to double the stakes again. So the cube also shows which player holds the right to double.
A player can offer a double only when it is his turn and before he throws his dice. After the initial double is offered, only the player who has accepted the last double, and therefore controls the cube, can offer the next double. If his opponent accepts the next double, the cube is turned to its next higher value and is placed on the side of bar closest to the player who has accepted the double. This player then becomes the new owner of the cube and is the only player who can offer a subsequent double. And so on. After that first double is accepted, think of it like a game of tennis; you can only offer a double when the ball (i.e. the cube) is in your court.
Until the first double is offered, the cube sits in the middle of the bar with the value 64 facing up, signifying the stakes remain at 1.
In some of the examples that are shown, to keep it simple we have not shown that the doubling cube has been turned at all, whereas in a real match it may well have done so by that stage of the game.
At any point in the game, according to the rules for playing backgammon, a player can offer his opponent a double before he throws his dice. The player who is offered the double (the cube) can choose to accept it and play the game for double the points, or to decline it and forfeit the game, so the player who offered the double wins the number of points the game was being played for at that point. It’s very similar to making a bet in poker: if you like your odds of winning, you want to raise the stakes. In backgammon, if you are ahead by a significant margin, you want to either play for more points or force your opponent to quit so that you get the points that are being played for at that stage in the game before your luck changes!
Usually no more than two or three doubles are offered and accepted within one game, and games are sometimes played without any doubles being offered.
A normal game (without any doubles being offered) wins or loses a single point. A gammon is when the losing player has failed to bear off any checkers by the time the other player has won. When you are gammoned you lose twice the stake (so, two points if no doubles have been offered, four points if you had been playing for two points, eight points if the game was being played for four points, and so on.)
A backgammon is when you lose without bearing off any checkers and you still have one or more checkers in your opponent’s home board or on the bar. When you are backgammoned you lose three times the stake. This doesn’t happen very often but it’s very painful when it does!
White is gammoned.
In the example above we can see that Black is certain to finish with his next throw (because the lowest he can throw is 1+2, which will take his remaining two checkers off the board). Although you (White) throw a 4+2, which is enough to land the final checker in your home board, it’s not enough to avoid a gammon because you haven’t managed to bear off any checkers. Its close, but you still lose double the stakes.