The Backgammon Endgame

Backgammon Strategy: Understanding How To Play The Later Stages Of A Game

  • Always have a game plan
  • Pip count
  • Holding games
  • Ace-point games
  • When to hit; when to run
  • Containment
  • When you are forced to leave a blot
  • Bearing off under fire
  • Choose your moves carefully
  • Maximising your chances of a gammon
  • The race is on
  • Bearing-off tactics
  • When to double in the final race
  • An unsporting endgame trick

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J Epstein, ‘The Astaire Way to Paradise’, The Hudson Review.

Fred Astaire looks very relaxed considering the cube is on 32.

As you reach the later stages of each game, it’s more important than ever to remember the golden rule: always have a game plan.  Developing your backgammon strategy for each stage of the game is critical.

So let’s look at some examples showing games in their later stages and discuss what your game plan should be in each scenario. Remember the basic game plans are: hitting, priming and running.

In the example below, you are being thrashed in the race (look at the difference in pip counts). But then you throw a 6+6. There is no point in continuing to extend your prime because Black has freed his backmarkers and you are losing in the race so running is not an option. So what game plan does that leave you with? The answer here is hitting. Even though, at the moment you don’t have a potential hit in sight, you should be preparing for it. And in preparation you need to build you home board in order to reduce Black’s chances of re-entering when, hopefully, you do get the chance to hit him. You also need to keep those backmarkers in place ready to hit as soon as the opportunity arises.

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With the 6+6, keep building your home board, preparing for that hit you hope to get later.

Don’t give in to the temptation to move your backmarkers out with your big throw. Create another point in your home board and, with each successive throw keep building in your home board and waiting for the opportunity to hit; it’s your only chance to catch up with Black.

You must always stay aware of the pip count. This is especially important in these later stages of the game. When you are playing a computer, or online, the computer will always calculate the pips for you. So you need to make sure you can do it in your head when you’re playing on a real board. Get used to counting the pips quickly as you don’t want to hold up play too much!

A holding game is one in which you hold onto an anchor in your opponent’s home board. It can be very useful backgammon strategy to keep your anchor as it could seriously scupper your opponent’s efforts to run home. However, at some point you will have to release it and run yourself. Also, when you hold a high point in your opponent’s board, such as his 4-point or 5-point, or even his bar-point, he can never build an effective prime to block you. The example below shows you in a holding game. You have an anchor on your opponent’s 5-point.  

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Build your home board and cross your fingers that you will get a shot.

You are holding your anchor with a view to getting the opportunity to hit your opponent so, while you are waiting, you must build a strong home board. With your throw of 6+1 in the scenario shown above, you could run a backmarker safely to the midpoint. However, running is the last thing you want to do when you are already behind in the race (look at the pip count). The better play is to build your home board and hope for the hit that will help you catch up. (If you had a similar board but were significantly ahead in the race, however, you might as well run.)

When you are in a holding game you must always consider the trade-off between escaping and being gammoned. If your opponent has a point in your home board, the deeper it is the greater the threat that he will hit you as you bear off. You are similarly at risk when your opponent is on the bar because any exposed checker you leave while bearing off is a potential hit for him. In these cases, you need to keep a tidy home board and avoid leaving exposed checkers.

Conversely, if it’s you holding an anchor deep in your opponent’s home board, ensure you have built a formidable fortress in your home board before you relinquish your anchor in order to make that hit.

There does come a time in a holding game where, if you hang around any longer you are at risk of losing a gammon and therefore going down by double the points that the game is worth at that stage. This is the time to stack your checkers as high as you like in your inner board; don’t waste a single pip in getting your checkers into your home board. But conversely, do everything in your power to stop your opponent from releasing his anchor (by not giving him opportunities to hit you) so that you have a chance of winning a gammon yourself. Be bold in your backgammon strategy: a gammon is very valuable, especially if a double has already been offered, which makes it worth 4 points!

John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,’ and never is this more true than when you are winning but your opponent still has two checkers in place on your 1-point. This is called an ace-point game and it can seriously mess up your plans!

Looking at it from your point of view, holding your opponent’s 1-point (ace-point) is not as strong as having a back game with two points held in your opponent’s home board, or even holding one point but higher up his board (such as his 2-point or 3-point), but you do still have a very good chance of hitting if you are patient. The example below shows you in a situation with an ace-point game. What do you think your chances of winning are?

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Figure 119: You (White) have an ace-point game.

Well, in spite of the fact that you have a big pip deficit and two checkers stuck at the back, your chance of winning is actually just over 30%. This is because you are highly likely to get at least one shot at Black. He has quite a fragmented situation and is unlikely to get home without exposing checkers to you. If you do hit Black, you have another advantage: timing. You can afford to sit tight and hold that ace-point through quite a number of throws, moving your other checkers around the board and creating a strong home board ready for when you hit him. If Black is foolish enough to offer you a double at this stage, you should welcome it with open arms!

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Poor timing spoils your chances. Often the success of an ace-point game depends on timing. If your timing is poor and you don’t move your backmarkers out before your board starts to crash (i.e. you have had to move your checkers so far along your home board, you are losing your blockade), your chances also plummet.

In the example shown below, you have two options. You could hit and make your 9-point or you could make your 5-point. You could even bypass the exposed blot (by taking the 1-move first) and go on to make your 9-point without hitting. If you do anything other than hit, your winning chances might be slightly (maybe 1%) higher, but your chances of winning a gammon will plummet by half almost, from 21% to 13%. In this scenario, it is well worth hitting that second checker and making your 9-point.

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Hit and make your 9-point. In the example shown below, you are winning by a long margin in the race. You have the choice of hitting (by taking the 5-move first) or racing past the exposed black checker on your 11-point. The cube is showing a 2 and is on Black’s side, which means that Black has accepted a double from you at an earlier stage in the game. It also means that if you win a gammon, you win 4 points. Even if you hit and are hit back, you are still likely to win the game (and gain 2 points). But if you are lucky enough not to get hit, you have a very strong chance of winning that gammon if you hit Black and put him back even further in the race.

So it makes sense to hit Black with the 5-move first rather than move past him. Also, weigh up how many possibilities there are for you to get hit back on Black’s next roll if you do hit against and how many possibilities there are for you to get hit if you don’t hit him. You will see that there is a greater chance of you getting hit if you don’t hit him than if you do. Also remember that when you hit your opponent, he must waste part of his next turn simply in re-entering off the bar.

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Hit Black by taking the 5-move first, rather than racing past him.

Containment is a backgammon strategy where you have hit your opponent in the final stages of the game and want to contain his checker within your home board until you have all your checkers in your home board and can safely finish (and hopefully win a gammon). This is not as easy as it sounds!

In the example shown below, you’ve got two choices: to hit black’s blot or to make a 6-point-prime to block him. Blocking makes more sense here because if you let him escape with his 50-pip lead, he’s sure to win. Making the 6-point-prime buys you more time. You can then hopefully hit him on your next throw and, with such a strong home board, it will hopefully be a few throws before he manages to re-enter. You contain him until you have caught up with him.

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Make a prime before hitting in order to contain Black’s last backmarker.  

If you take a similar scenario but where you are in the lead, then hitting makes more sense as a backgammon strategy. The aim in the example shown below is to win a race that you are already winning. There is no advantage to containing Black. You can still make your 1-point and put Black on the bar, but there is no need to build that prime to contain him first. Again, there is now a strong chance that Black will not be able to re-enter for a number of throws. This stops him from moving his other checkers and thus increases your chances of winning a gammon. 1

You are in the lead, so you might as well hit.

In the example below, with your 6+5 you can hit or block. Hitting (using the checker on your 8-point and then moving one of the checkers on your bar-point in to make your 2-point) is a tempting choice but a poor backgammon strategy. After this, if Black threw a joker (in this case a 1+6, allowing him to re-enter and then hit you), you would be finished because he has a 6-point-prime in his home board and you would be unable to continue until he releases points after bearing off (by which point you will be well on your way to losing a gammon). So in this scenario it is better to continue to build the prime.

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The temptation is to hit, but Black could subsequently throw a joker that would effectively end your game.   

The diagram below shows what will happen if you build the prime instead of hitting. Now there is no risk of having your chances scuppered by a joker, so you can relax while Black starts to crash his home board (because he cannot move his backmarker until you break up your blockade). I always breathe a little easier when I have a 6-point-prime, so I will generally make one wherever I can, unless there is a very strong reason not to.

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Your best option is to make a 6-point-prime (think of this as a rule of thumb).

If you have to leave a blot in your home board at any point, remember to leave it on the highest point you can, because if your opponent is going to hit you, it’s best he isn’t too deep in your home board, from where he could hit you again.  

In the example shown below, you can’t move the 6 because your backmarkers are blocked, but you have a number of choices for your 1-move. The problem is, every choice will leave an exposed blot, so choose one highest up the board. Then, if Black is lucky enough to throw a 6 and hit you, he can’t hit further checkers in your home board if you are forced to expose any more of them.

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If you have to expose a checker in this scenario, make sure it’s the one on the highest point.

The expression bearing off under fire refers to when you start bearing off while your opponent still has checkers in your home board or is dancing on the bar.

As we’ve said before, in backgammon it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Backgammon is the game for comeback kings and queens everywhere because there are so many ways in which you can come back from a very poor position indeed — almost from the dead!

Sometimes you can come back because your opponent gives you a chance he shouldn’t have. Conversely, don’t give your opponent that advantage by giving away any unnecessary shots at hitting you. When bearing off always aim not to have odd numbers of checkers on the higher half of your home board (your 4-point, 5-point and 6-point), reducing the chances that throwing two high numbers would force you to leave a blot exposed.

Backgammon player and author Chris Bray reminded me in one of his lectures about an old rule of thumb that is very useful to apply to your home board when bearing off under fire. If you can play 6+6 safely, you can usually play anything safely; i.e. if you could make all four 6-moves without a problem, you are likely to be covered. So try to leave your board in that shape for the next move, as shown in the diagram below.

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If you could play a 6+6 safely, you could play any move safely.

In the example below, you are ready to bear off (although you are under fire because Black still has his backmarkers on your ace-point) and you’ve thrown a 3+3. Although it would be tempting to bear off four checkers with all of your four 3-moves, you can’t guarantee that on your next throw you won’t have to expose checkers on your higher points. At this stage it’s more important to play safely with your backgammon strategy than to push for the gammon. It’s safer to move your checkers from your 5-point and 6-point and stack them on your 2-point and 3-point from where you can safely start bearing off without leaving exposed blots, rather than rush to bear any checkers off.

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Playing it safe.

Remember, your first priority is to win the game. Only when your victory is pretty much assured should you focus on winning a gammon.  

Be careful not to make silly mistakes in your rush to bear off. At a tournament once I saw the following board and watched White make a disastrous blunder. White could, and should, have moved his highest checker (the one on his 5-point) along one space with his 1-move and then taken it off with his 6-move. Instead he used the 6-move to take off the checker on his 5 point and used the 1-move to hit black with checker from his stack on his 2-point. This was a totally unnecessary risk because Black then threw a 1 and was able to hit back, which totally scuppered White’s chance of winning the gammon he was gunning for. I’m convinced everybody watching felt the same ‘ouch’ as we saw White make the move, but it’s easily done in the heat of the moment. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to move the higher number first

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You don’t have to bear off the backmarker with the 6-move; you can make the 1-move first followed by the 6-move, which is by far the safer option in this scenario.

In the example shown below, you have a 50% chance of winning a gammon. To maximise the chances of this, stack the remaining checkers on the high numbers if possible, to maximise the value of your throws when bearing off.

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Stack your checkers on the highest points to increase your chances of a gammon.

Once you have broken free and there are no more of your opponent’s checkers behind yours (and obviously vice versa), you are left in a race. After this stage, the game is usually only played up until the point where someone is winning by enough to offer the next double, which the other player will likely decline, forcing the game to end on whatever points it was being played for at this stage.

When you are racing, it’s nearly always better to get all your checkers into your home board as quickly as you can. In the example shown below, you might be tempted to use your 6+4 to tidy up your home board rather than having five checkers stacked on your 6-point. However, you don’t need a tidy board when you are in a clear race because there is no threat to exposed checkers. Your backgammon strategy at this stage should be to just get everyone home and start bearing off as soon as you can. You never know, you might throw a 6+6 on your next turn and get to bear four of those checkers off. There is no need to worry about tidiness once the race is on.

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Don’t worry about tidiness in a race; just get your checkers into your home board as soon as possible and start bearing off.

Bearing off is simple, but many people still get it wrong. If you leave unnecessary exposed blots, you can end up completely turning the game against you. You can even lose the game or the chance of a gammon through inefficiency when bearing off. The art of bearing off efficiently and safely is one of the simplest things you can learn to improve your game.

First of all, it’s always best to leave checkers on all six points when you are bearing off, so that you won’t waste a throw.  

In the example below, it’s better to use the 5-move to take the checker on your 7-point to your 2-point and then bear off a checker from your 6-point. The other option is to use the 6-move to take your checker on your 7-point to your 1-point and then bear off a checker from your 5-point. If you make the latter choice, you will leave your 2-point empty, and only one checker on your 5-point. So the first option is the best.

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Figure 139: Make the move that allows you to leave checkers on every point, to maximise your chances of bearing off with both moves in your next throw.

Let’s look at some more examples of efficient moves once the race is on.

In the following example, you have thrown a 2+3. You have many choices of which checkers to move.

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You have many choices with your 3+2.   

Here the cube should be turned to 2 and be in white’s bottom right corner

Your priority in this scenario is to save yourself from losing a gammon. Moving your further checker onto your 12-point and moving the checker on your 8-point into your home board will give you around a 50% chance of saving yourself from being gammoned. If you make any other move, your chances of saving yourself from being gammoned drop to as low as 33%. That’s a big difference.

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Moving for maximum efficiency.

Efficiency means not wasting any spaces. When you are in the position of saving yourself from being gammoned, always look at whether you can move a checker onto your 6-point. Don’t worry about moving in any further than that. With any remaining moves, first look at any that will allow a checker to ‘cross over’ from one quadrant to the next, and then focus on bringing the checkers in your outer board closer to home. A good rule of thumb for when you can’t move any checker into your home board or ‘cross over’, is simply to move the checker that is farthest away from home.

It is a basic rule of backgammon strategy that you should ask yourself whether or not to offer a double before every turn. Never is this more important than in the final stages of a race. The 10% doubling rule is a quick way of assessing your position in a race. Whenever it is your throw, if you add 10% to your pip count and this doesn’t put you more than two pips ahead, you should double. As long as your opponent has a pip count that is 2 points or more than you, he should take the double.

In the example below, it is your turn and you have a pip count of 63 versus Black’s 68. Adding 10% to your total makes it 69.3; this is not more than two higher than Black, so you should offer the double.

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The 10% doubling rule says you should offer the double.  

Estimating the pip count to assess a numerical lead works pretty well in the normal course of play. However, once you start racing your proximity to the finishing line distorts the relevance of the pip count. In the example below, both players are on a pip count of 48, but a number of factors mean that you have a huge advantage over Black. It’s your turn, which gives you a percentage lead of around 10%. Also, Black has more checkers to bear off and even though they are on low points, he has some gaps in his home board, which will make him more likely to waste throws.

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Although you are on equal pips, you clearly have an advantage so you should offer the double, and black should have no hesitation in refusing it.

Here’s an old ruse to watch out for. Often it is considered good sporting manners for the losing player to concede the rest of a game during the final stages of a race, when all hope is lost. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a losing player still has to race his last few checkers home and bear one off to avoid a gammon. Watch out for an experienced player ‘sportingly’ conceding to you a single game to ‘save time’ when in fact he was struggling to bear off a checker. By accepting you might have thrown away your chance to win a gammon had you played on. This happened to me a few times before it dawned on me that I’d been tricked out of an extra point. A good rule of thumb is, don’t accept a losing player conceding a game until they’ve borne off at least one checker and you know that the gammon is off the cards. Obviously I am not suggesting you use this ruse yourself on inexperienced players…!

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Now there’s an expensive game… a giant board display in Asprey on London’s Bond Street