Playing The Game

How to Play Backgammon for Beginners: Backgammon Terms and Positions

  • Backmarkers & Midmarkers
  • Making a point
  • Making a prime
  • Blots
  • Slotting
  • Builders
  • Anchors
  • Stacking
  • Redundant Numbers
  • Jokers
  • Anti-Jokers

Master of comic timing Charlie Chaplin with Paulette Goddard on Charlie’s yacht, 1933.

If you’re looking for backgammon instructions, here’s some critical information about terms. Let’s take a look at the board as it is at the start of each game and go through some of the terms used in the game, as well as studying some of the fundamental positions, to help you to start thinking more strategically about your game.

If you’re looking for instructions on how to play backgammon for beginners, here are the basics. Annoyingly to some professionals I refer to the checkers furthest behind in the race as the backmarkers. In the illustration below, which shows the position of all the checkers before the game starts, you have two backmarkers on your 24-point.

Midmarkers are those checkers that are half way around the board. You start the game with five midmarkers on your 13-point.   5-point, 4-point and bar-point – Some key positions and terms

5-point-4-point-and-bar-point

The crucial points that you should become familiar with as you learn how to play backgammon for beginners are your 5-point, 4-point and bar-point (your 7-point, often referred to as the bar-point because it is alongside the bar.)

These three points, on both sides of the board, are crucial strategic territory over which the players fight. Whoever wins the fight is often in a winning position from that stage in the game.

A point (not to be confused with the named triangles, 4-point, 5-point, etc.) is made when you have placed two or more checkers on one of your point positions, which means that your opponent is blocked from landing on it.  

You make a prime when you have two or more consecutive points in a row. If you have two in a row, you have a 2-point-prime, if you have 3 in a row you have a 3-point-prime, etc. (Again, do not be confused with point positions here; a 2-point-prime is not referring to your 2-point position. A 2-point-prime could be on your 4-point and 5-point positions.) The ultimate prime is a 6-point-prime.

If your opponent has one or more checkers stuck behind a 6-point-prime, he can’t move them at all until you vacate on of the points and break up the blockade. Even if your opponent throws 4+5 to make a total of 9, he cannot simply move 9 spaces and jump over a prime because he can’t land the 4 or 5 move on one of your points in the prime (this shows, again, how you must always think in terms of the two moves shown by the values on the dice and not automatically combine them). The more primes (consecutive points) you have, the better. There is no need to create a prime longer than a 6-point-prime, because your 6-point-prime is already impenetrable.

White has created a 5-point-prime.

In this example, you (White) have created a 5-point-prime, almost trapping 2 of Black’s checkers behind it. Black has only managed to make a 2-point-prime on his 5-point and 6-point positions.

In this example, you are in a better position than Black and are therefore more likely to win the game.

Having a blot — an exposed checker — on the board is not as bad as many beginners assume it is.

Sometimes you will be forced to leave a blot (known as a forced blot) because the number of spaces you must move will force you to leave a single checker exposed at the end of your turn. However, you might have a choice as to where to leave a forced blot. Most basic backgammon instructions would tell you that you should weigh up the advantage of leaving it in a position where it is least likely to get hit, against leaving it in a position where you can best use it as long as it doesn’t get hit. You might strategically leave a blot in a position where it would be painful for your opponent to hit you because it would force him to give up a valuable point that he is holding.

Whenever I see a player being really tidy with their checkers, avoiding leaving checkers exposed to being hit, I know from early on in the game that they are likely to be heading for failure. Whole games without anyone leaving blots, and with no one getting hit, are extremely rare. In the early stages of the game, your opponent hasn’t had a chance to create a good prime, so if you do get hit you’re unlikely to be blocked from re-entering the board; you can soon get back in the race and it’s no big loss. So the best backgammon instructions I can give you are: don’t be afraid of hitting and being hit in the early stages of the game.

Slotting simply means leaving a strategic blot in the hope that you’ll be able to cover it with a second checker, to create a point, before your opponent hits you. Backgammon instructions 101: you can purposely create a blot by landing a checker on an empty point, or by leaving one exposed after moving a checker that had been part of a duo on an existing point. The best places to do this are the places where it is most advantageous to make a point (for example your 5-point or your opponent’s 5-point).

Black has more blots but a better board overall

Black has more blots but a better board overall

In the example shown above, Black has three blots. White doesn’t have any blots so looks to be in a safer position. However, Black is a slight favourite to win this game because it’s his throw and he has already slotted points in both your home quarter and his own home quarter. This could boost his potential to create strong positions further down the line.

Making blots does involve risk but if done effectively it shows that you are thinking ahead and trading some present risk for creating a good future position.

A builder can be either a single checker on a strategic point position (i.e. a blot that you have purposely slotted), or a third checker that is placed on a point that is already securely occupied by two checkers. In the latter case, you are parking your checker on an existing point in the hope that you can soon use it to create a new point and build a stronger position. Any checkers over and above the first two that are used to create a point are surplus to requirements and are therefore useful builders.

Creating builders shows that you are planning well for the future stages of the game. And, as we’ve already discussed, leaving exposed blots that could be hit by your opponent is not as risky as you might think, especially in the early stages of the game. Again, very few games run their course without a number of hits taking place. However, it is preferable to be hit fairly early on in the game; being hit later in the game, when your opponent has had the opportunity to build up a strong prime, is more of a problem. 

With the 5+2 throw, you can leave two builders: move a third checker onto your 8-point and then slot your 11-point or 4-point.

With the 5+2 throw, you can leave two builders: move a third checker onto your 8-point and then slot your 11-point or 4-point.

In the example shown here, you have thrown a 5+2.

For your 5-move, it’s obvious that moving a checker from your group of checkers at the midpoint (your 13-point, which is the halfway point around the board) to land on your 8-point position (where you already have a point) is a safe way to progress and there are no other reasonable alternatives.

This leaves you a builder for the future.

Now for your 2-move. You can’t play a checker into a safe position, but you could slot your 4-point in your home board or your 11-point in your outer board.

Generally the 11-point is a better option because you have less chance of being hit and more chance of building a prime and blocking Black.

White creates two builders

White creates two builders

The diagram shows your two optimal moves for your 5+2 throw. You create two builders, one by slotting your 11-point and one by leaving a third (surplus) checker on your pre-existing point on your 8-point.

White creates an anchor in Black’s home board

White creates an anchor in Black’s home board

In the example shown, you have thrown a 3+2 and have the chance to make an anchor in Black’s home board by moving the checker on your 24-point three spaces to your 21-point, creating an anchor point. You can then play your 2-move safely from your midpoint. With the anchor on your 21-point, you have created a guaranteed place for you to re-enter if you are hit and then manage to throw a 4 in your subsequent turn. Your anchor can give you a number of advantages. Most importantly, you ruin Black’s chance of creating a prime of any reasonable length in his home board. Your anchor can also spoil Black’s chances of quickly winning a race by disrupting his progress as he tries to get his team home and bear off his checkers. You also give yourself a better chance of freeing your backmarkers from Black’s home board later on, and of hitting Black from this position. All of this is achieved with just one anchor, so any decent backgammon instructions would tell you to be on the lookout to create anchors: they can be a great help!

Some who are just learning how to play backgammon for beginners mistakenly think that you are only allowed to stack a maximum of 5 checkers on one point; this is a myth. Technically there is no limit to how many checkers you can stack on one point, but you’ll come to learn that placing too many checkers on any one point is usually a mistake.

You have stacked seven checkers on your 6-point, which looks clumsy and creates imbalance.

You have stacked seven checkers on your 6-point, which looks clumsy and creates imbalance.

In the example shown, you (White) have stacked seven checkers on one point in your home board. Not only does this look clumsy but it also creates an imbalance in your game because your last 4 checkers are somewhat marooned at the back. This lack of balance contributes to the fact that Black is the favourite to win this game; you are unlikely to be able to escape easily as you don’t have a point in the middle of the board on which to land.

The 6 is redundant as you (White) cannot make a legal move.

The 6 is redundant as you (White) cannot make a legal move.

Sometimes part or all of your throw cannot legally be taken because you are blocked from doing so. But this is not always as bad as it sounds. For example, in the example shown, you are easily winning the race but will almost certainly lose if one of your last two checkers is hit before they reach your home board. You’ve thrown a 6 but fortunately you cannot legally move any checker so this 6-move is redundant; you don’t have to leave yourself exposed.

What are you grinning at?

What are you grinning at?

Beginners often hear players talking about ‘jokers’ and have no idea what these players are talking about. A joker simply means a very lucky roll that gets a player back into the game when no other combination of dice would have worked (i.e. the unique combination of moves on the dice that are needed for the player to progress with any conceivable chance of winning is rolled).

You will often hear players grumbling about their luck turning against them because their opponent has thrown a joker. Jokers are one of the elements that can make backgammon such a thrilling game.

You have thrown a joker with a 6+4 because the 4-move gets you back in the game and the 6-move allows you to hit Black. It is literally the only combination that gives you a chance of winning

You have thrown a joker with a 6+4 because the 4-move gets you back in the game and the 6-move allows you to hit Black. It is literally the only combination that gives you a chance of winning

In the example, Black was clearly winning the game comfortably. There was only one throw that could have resulted in you (White) getting back into the game and having a chance of beating Black.

This particular throw (6+4) is perfect because it allows you to re-enter with the 4-move and then to hit Black with the 6-move. It completely reverses who is favourite to win the game and it’s the only combination of dice that could have done so, which is what makes it a joker.

The opposite of a joker is called an anti-joker. An anti-joker also signifies a complete reversal of fortune, but this time not in your favour, and no matter what backgammon instructions you follow this throw makes you suffer. This is a uniquely terrible throw that completely changes your position in the game.  

A 6+6 is an anti-joker for White.

A 6+6 is an anti-joker for White.

The position here shows how a 6+6 is a curse in this instance for White (rather than the blessing that it usually is) because you are forced to move 6 places four times.

One of these moves will hit Black in your home board, and although this puts his checker on the bar, your next three moves of 6 places will leave two of your checkers exposed, giving him the perfect chance to hit you as he re-enters and stop you in your tracks as you were beginning to bear off.

Black throws a 4 and lands White in big trouble.

Black throws a 4 and lands White in big trouble.

In the diagram on the left you can see how Black has two opportunities to hit you whilst re-entering the board (by throwing a 4 or a 6).

In the example on the right he throws a 4 and hits your checker on your 4-point.

You will only be able to re-enter the game if you throw a 1 in your next roll. Even then you won’t be able to move the re-entered checker any further because Black has a 6-point-prime.