Opening Moves

Backgammon Strategy: Knowing the Best Move at the Start of the Game

  • Opening Moves
  • 2 + 1
  • 3 + 1
  • 3 + 2
  • 4 + 1
  • 4 + 2
  • 4 + 3
  • 5 + 1
  • 5 + 2
  • 5 + 3
  • 5 + 4
  • 6+ 1
  • 6 + 2
  • 6 + 3
  • 6 + 4
  • 6 + 5

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I’ve got (opening) moves like Jagger…

Your opening move creates a snowball effect. As you learn backgammon and about backgammon strategy, you’ll analyse opening moves.

How you start the game is crucial; if you make a mistake you could pay for it throughout the game, with compound interest no less. If you start badly, the damage caused to your chances of winning resonates throughout the rest of the game. Many bad moves are made because the player has made a hasty decision and hasn’t thought through their options thoroughly. ‘Marry in haste… and repent at leisure,’ as the saying goes. When it comes to relationships, it is easy to get into one but much harder to get out of one, so you should take care not to make a bad choice. The same goes for backgammon.

Opening moves aren’t difficult to get right, yet many players throw away some of their match equity (i.e. give away some of their percentage point chances of winning) at the very start of the game by not bothering to master the best opening moves. There are 21 total possible dice throws, but only 15 are possible opening throws (because you obviously can’t start with a double). If you can learn the best opening moves from each of these combinations so well that they become second nature to you, you will be off to a great start in any game. Understanding the best opening moves will help you to think clearly about the game and plan your backgammon strategy, plus the moves will be much easier to remember if you know why you are making them.

At the start of every game, try to keep in mind what you are trying to achieve. For every move you could make that would help your progress, there is also a move you could make that would most greatly hinder your opponent. As well as seeking to move your checkers around the board quickly, you should also always be looking for opportunities to hinder your opponent’s progress, by hitting him or building primes. In a later section we will discuss game plans and how you should always have a game plan before you make a decision about any move. Play to your game plan and your backgammon strategy even in your opening move.

We talked earlier about having a good balanced board, so keep this in mind from the outset. Try to reduce your piles of 5 checkers, and look for opportunities to move your backmarkers out. Conversely, look out for opportunities to stop your opponent from doing this. Even if you can’t run your backmarkers all the way to near your midpoint, you can make an anchor on your opponent’s 5-point, 4-point or bar-point, which will make things difficult for him later.

These are all good priorities to keep in mind for the first few rolls of the game.  

So let’s look at all 15 possible opening throws, starting with the smallest possible combination and working our way up to the biggest.

Say you throw a 2 and your opponent throws a 1. You might think that this is not the most promising of starts, but at least you get to go first, which is always worth something. Not only does it put you ahead in the race, it can potentially put you ahead in terms of building a strong position. With a 2+1, there are two choices of moves that mean you become a slight favourite at this stage in the game. (Any other move and Black will become a favourite!)

Moving one checker from your 13-point to slot your 11-point begins to unstack your 13-point that has 5 checkers on it. And that loose checker on your 11-point is a builder. It may be useful for building other points and even primes. So now what should you do with the 1-move?

You can either split your backmarkers as shown in the diagram below…

split-5Split your backmarkers…

…or you can make a bolder move by slotting your own 5-point.

5-point…or slot your 5-point.

These are both strong moves. Moving a backmarker gives you more chances of anchoring further up your opponent’s home board (for example by throwing a 4+3 or a 3+2) or of freeing a checker from your opponent’s home board early on in the game. But slotting your 5-point is actually a stronger and bolder move.

Note, it’s also always a good idea to try to create as many different positive situations with your throw as possible, rather than using up the moves on both dice by making one good move. The risk of slotting your 5-point is well worth taking. If you are able to convert this blot into a point, you will be in very good shape indeed because you’ll have a 2-point-prime in your home board. But if you get hit, it’s not the worst thing in the world because it’s so early in the game. You are highly likely to be able to re-enter, and even hit back. The early part of the game is the time to make your boldest moves. It’s a bit like behaving badly in your twenties — the consequences are usually easier to overcome than they are later in life!

So this is my best recommendation for how to open if you throw a 2+1. Do be aware that Black has the chance of throwing a joker here. If he throws a 6+4 he can hit you twice. And, of course, Murphy’s Law states that the first time you try this opening move that is exactly what will happen! But don’t let this discourage you, because the chances of Black throwing that joker are still fairly slim, and over the course of many games the odds will even out to your advantage.

In the 1970s, many professionals believed that the best opening throw was a 6+1. In fact, computer analysis now tells us that the best chance of winning the game is if the opening throw is 3+1. It’s worth understanding why. A 3+1 is the only opening move with which you can make your own 5-point whilst leaving no other checkers exposed and unsafe. With this move, you have started to box in your opponent’s backmarkers with your opening move, and you can start developing your backgammon strategy and plotting to play with a priming game plan or a hitting game plan. If you play this move from a 3+1 opening throw, you instantly become the favourite to win by about 10%.

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With a 3+1, make your 5-point.

The ideal next move, if you throw numbers that allow you to do it, would be to make your bar-point. You would then have a 4-point-prime and be in a very strong early position indeed.

When you throw a 3+2, you have two choices. Basically, you can split or you can prime. The choice you make depends on how you feel at the time, and the style of play you prefer.

Splitting means separating your two backmarkers with your 3-move by moving one of them along three spaces. With this move, you slot your opponent’s 4-point in the home of building an anchor. With your 2-move, you could then take a checker from your midpoint to slot your 11-point in the hope that you throw another 2 with your next roll and you’re able to build a point there.

11pointWith a 3+2, you can split your backmarkers and slot your 11-point…

The second choice is to move two checkers from your midpoint to slot both your 11-point and your 10-point with the expectation of getting the roll that will allow you to build a prime on these consecutive points.

11point-2…or move both from the middle to slot two consecutive points

If in doubt, you should play the second choice (slotting your 11-point and 10-point with a view to priming), as it is the more aggressive move and we are still so early on in the game that it’s worth taking the risk.

Your best opening move with a throw of 4+1 depends largely on who your opponent is. As you learn backgammon, you’ll learn to analyse your opponent. Computer analysis won’t necessarily help you here because the computer will always assume you are playing the world champion.

If you are playing a weaker opponent, you can slot both your 9-point and your 5-point as shown below. Even though it’s risky leaving two blots on your side of the board, if your risk pays off you could build a winning lead. Even if it doesn’t, because you are playing against a weak player you may well have chances of recovering the game later.

4+1-bestThe best move with a 4+1 if you’re playing against a chump…

If you are playing against a strong player, you might not want to leave two blots on your side of the board for your opponent’s backmarkers to hit; it’s just too much of a risk because if both your blots get hit by a strong opponent, you’re in real trouble. If you’re playing against a champ, it’s better just to slot your 9-point and then move a backmarker with your 1-move, where it doesn’t matter much if you are hit, and this also gives you more options for moving your backmarkers out. Now you are leaving a couple of blots where it’s less serious if they’re hit.

4+12…and if you’re playing against a champ.

This move is very straightforward. The best move is to make your 4-point. No other option comes close. It’s not quite as good as that killer 3+1 opener, but it’s still pretty good.]

With a 4+2 throw, make your 4-point.

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The backgammon strategy here is similar to the 3+2: you can split your backmarkers and move one checker from your midpoint to slot your 9-point, or you can move both checkers from the midpoint.

With a throw of 4+3, splitting your backmarkers often has the edge because you can leave a blot in your opponent’s home board on his 4-point or 5-point in the hope that you’ll be able to make an anchor on it soon. As you first learn backgammon, you might be tempted to slot his 5-point with your 4-move instead of slotting his 4-point with your 3-move (partly because you know it will distract him to see you sitting there). However, the better use of your 4-move is to move a checker from your midpoint to your 9-point (as shown below) because it gives you the opportunity to make a 2-point-prime if you get a 4 in your next throw.

4+3-1

With a 4+3, either split the backmarkers….As with the 3+2, there is a more aggressive move (and therefore my favourite!). You can move two checkers from your midpoint onto your 9-point and 10-point. If the priming opportunities you have created pan out, you have a strong chance of winning, and might even win a double game (as we will see in the section on doubling). This is my top pick.

4+3-2

…or move two from the middle.

Not the best throw, but you have a couple of interesting choices depending on your backgammon strategy. With the 1 you are clearly going to create a blot and you can do this at the back or at the front, in either case you are likely to be moving the 5 from the midpoint.

Not the best throw, but you have a couple of interesting choices depending on your backgammon strategy. With the 1 you are clearly going to create a blot and you can do this at the back or at the front, in either case you are likely to be moving the 5 from the midpoint.

5+1-1If you split your backmarkers as shown above you are creating more possibilities for moving them out, and if you slot your 5-point as below this gives you a chance next time if you aren’t hit to start creating a strong home board.

5+1-2Most people favour the first option but both are popular.

This isn’t a great opening move, but you have got a couple of choices. The 5 effectively plays itself because the only good choice is to move from your midpoint to your 8-point.

For the 2 you can either, as above, move a second checker from the midpoint onto the 11-point thus creating a builder, which is favoured by many, or if you feel like splitting your back markers that is another option, as below.

1

Very similar to the 3+1 and the 4+2, this is another straightforward, strong opening move: you make your 3-point safely.

5+3-2With a throw of 5+3, make your 3-point.

Although this isn’t as exciting as making your 5-point (with the 3+1) or your 4-point (with the 4+2), it’s still a good home-board point and you’ll only need to make another point before you’ll be in the strong position of having three home-board points.

It’s interesting to note that back in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the computer analysis of backgammon, virtually all the experts agreed that the best opening play with a 5+3 was to bring a couple of checkers down from point 13, the midpoint. Everyone did it because the best players and teachers said it was the right thing to do. And there are still some old-timers who continue to make what is often a wrong move. Right off the bat they are giving away equity. In other words, their chances decrease considerably by making this move instead of building their 3-point. Let’s hope they don’t read this and modify their backgammon strategy before you meet them in a tournament!

There’s not much choice about what to do with your 5-move; you move a checker from your midpoint onto your 8-point, leaving you an extra builder.

Now you are left with a couple of choices for the 4-move. You could slot Black’s 5-point or you could slot your 9-point. It’s generally better to slot your opponent’s 5-point to give you a chance of making an anchor, so that’s the one I recommend.

With a 5+4, move a builder onto your 8-point and slot your opponent’s 5-point.

1

This is a no-brainer. You make your bar-point. With this move you have built a 3-point-prime on your opening move. This is a great opening move.

With a 6+1, make your bar-point

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With a 6+2 opening throw, you have a couple of choices. You could combine the values and run a backmarker eight spaces. However, as you’ll see as you learn backgammon, it’s always best to start two initiatives, using both your dice numbers rather than combining them. The best option with a 6+2 throw is to run one of your backmarker 6 pips with your 6-move and then slot your 11-point with your 2-move.

With a 6+2, move one from the back and one from the middle.

p6nibec6swoshzgqt9gvynx9gtc0elxlogzsbchyxvhnx8m60lx879947n8ugx-buouemnzgvmlyerxdc-0axabxj0mhpgzcopy2hwnzogao4cdydx2zdzmaxkdgmjwzxrcbuorvnavioe5ivg

This is very similar to 6+2. You move one of your backmarkers forward with your 6-move and then slot your 10-point (as opposed to your 11-point with the 6+2).

With a 6+3 throw, you take one from the back and one from the middle.

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With a throw of 6+4, the obvious move is to follow the pattern with the 3+1, 4+2 and 5+3 and make your 2-point. To any beginner starting to learn backgammon, this would seem a natural and obvious

6+4-1 With a 6+4, either make your 2-point…However, checkers on your 2-point can’t really play much of an active part for the rest of the game. Many more experienced players would move a backmarker (to slot your opponent’s bar-point) and move a midmarker to slot your 9-point as this gives you more potential to build a more effective prime. This choice is what I would always recommend if you have a 6+4 to start.

6+4-2 …or free a backmarker and slot your 9-point.

There is an entirely reasonable third option which is to run a backmarker all the way along to position 14. This is often a good option for a beginner playing against an expert.

So that just leaves us with the highest starting throw. The best backgammon strategy with a 6+5 is (for once) to combine the dice and move a backmarker all the way to your midpoint. In one fell swoop you only have one backmarker and a big lead. There’s no need to think about any other choices. This move is so well known, it has been given a name: Lover’s Leap (although I’m not sure why, when you are splitting apart your two backmarkers!)

The 6+5: the good old Lover’s Leap!

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