The great Mickey Rooney – loved backgammon and loved replying to opening moves (just ask his eight wives!)I’m not going to suggest you try to memorise all the possible reply moves on top of all the opening moves as part of developing your strategy for backgammon (Chris Bray estimates that a top player will know around 600 variations on the first two moves). It’s more important to understand why you would want to make a particular move.
As with the opening move, it’s important to focus on moving your backmarkers, unstacking your checkers, starting to make important points (your 4-point, 5-point and bar-point, and those of your opponent) and planning primes. And, of course, in your reply to the opening move you may be the first player to get a chance to hit, if your opponent has left any blots after his opening move.
Bill Robertie in Backgammon for Winners explains how from the start it’s important to make dynamic rather than passive moves – which he explains let you ‘set the pace and determine the course the game will take.’ In other words, if you don’t take charge of the direction of the game your opponent probably will.
You should continue to prioritize these strategies beyond the opening two moves and as the game continues and we will discuss them in more detail when we come to talk about game plans. For now, good questions to ask yourself every turn in the early stages of the game (and indeed beyond) are: Can I hit? Can I make a point? And Can I play strategically? In that order.
This is a peach of a throw to get in reply to an opening move. Usually you can make a great 3-point-prime by making your 5-point and your bar-point, as shown in the example below.
The only time you should think twice about this move is if your opponent has split his backmarkers in his opening move. This would make him more likely to hit the blot you’ve left on your 8-point. In this scenario, still make your 5-point with two of your 1-moves but with the other two 1-moves split up your backmarkers (as shown below). It’s still a good move because you’ve made your ‘golden’ 5-point and have split your backmarkers; you’ve achieved two key objectives with one throw and protected yourself against getting hit on your 8-point.
This is another good throw. Always make your 4-point and (nearly always) move two of your midmarkers (as shown below).
If your opponent has already made his 4-point or 5-point, however, your strategy for backgammon should be to move your backmarkers along instead of moving your midmarkers, as you need to avoid getting boxed in. So still make your 4-point, but move your backmarkers along two spaces.
A 3+3 is another lovely roll. Here’s a great chance to make a second and third inner-board-point very early on.
Again, if your opponent has already started to hem you in by making his bar-point and/or 5-point, then it’s best to start getting those backmarkers out of Dodge City. If this is the case, move your backmarkers and you could also move your midmarkers to keep your board very well balanced.
This move is not set in stone. For instance, if you have the chance to hit you should probably do that as a priority, so stay flexible. As ever, scan the board for the best opportunity.
It’s almost impossible to do a bad reply with a throw of 4+4 as you have so many good choices.
A strong option is to make your opponent’s 5-point and move two checkers from your midpoint (as shown below).
If you can’t do this because your opponent has already made his 5-point, you could move straight from your midpoint to make your own 5-point. This is also a very strong move
Once again, look for alternatives (e.g. opportunities to hit) and stay flexible.
Although this looks like a good throw because it’s a high number, it’s actually the worst double to get early on. You can’t move the backmarkers, and moving the midmarkers doesn’t help you build a prime. Usually it’s best to move the midmarkers to make your 3-point.
If your opponent has split his backmarkers with his opening move, the 5+5 might not be such a bad throw. You can move two checkers from your 6-point to hit his and make your 1-point, and then move two checkers from your 8-point to make your 3-point, leaving you with three home points and slashing your opponent’s odds of throwing a number that allows him to re-enter the board. This hitting approach is called ‘blitzing’, as it will likely seriously hold up your opponent because he can’t continue until he can re-enter the board. This could lead to a very quick death for your opponent.
As long as your opponent didn’t start with a 6-1 and make his bar-point, a 6+6 can be one of the best rolls you can throw. You get to make both your bar-point and your opponent’s bar-point, giving you a huge leap in the race.
If you are blocked from doing this because your opponent has already made his bar-point, you’ll have to improvise. Your next best option is to make your bar-point (in preparation for building a 3-point-prime) and make your 2-point to hem in your opponent’s backmarkers.
There are 15 other potential throws we can get if we don’t throw a double. We have already looked at all of these moves as we would play them as opening moves, but do our choices change significantly when we throw them in reply to our opponent’s opener? In many cases, we would make exactly the same choices we would have made if we had thrown the dice combination as an opening move. However, in some cases we need to make different choices and develop a distinct strategy for backgammon to counter our opponent’s opening.
Here are some examples…
Playing a 3+1 if Black has slotted his 5-point…
When you throw a 3+1, your classic best opening move in reply opponent to your opponent’s opening is to make a point on your 5-point. However if Black has slotted his 5-point, it’s actually better to hit him than to make your own 5-point. It’s especially damaging to him because you are hitting him in his home board and this checker will have to start right back at the beginning. In general, if ever in doubt… hit!
Playing a 6+5 if… Black has slotted your bar-point
The classic opening move with a 6+5 is the Lover’s Leap. However, if your opponent has slotted your bar-point you might think twice before making that famous move. In the scenario shown below, your best option is to hit him twice. There is a good chance he won’t get both checkers in on his next throw and may have to skip one or more turns. This will give you the opportunity to build a strong advantage. It’s risky, but a double hit is usually the best way to go.
Playing a 2+1 if…
a) Your opponent has split his backmarkers…
If your opponent has split his backmarkers and you throw a good old 2+1, it no longer makes sense to slot your 5-point and move from your midpoint because you would be too vulnerable. In this scenario it’s better to split your backmarkers, too, as part of your strategy for backgammon.
b) Black has made a second point on his home board…
If Black has made a second point on his home board, it again makes sense to break up your backmarkers with your 1-move. In the scenario shown below you can see how it’s best to start mobilising your backmarkers. Splitting them up gives you more chances of escaping and of hitting your opponent. With your 2-move, begin to unstack your midmarkers and slot your 11-point.
Looking more closely at the scenario above, notice how Black now has only two checkers on his 8-point. That’s also the signal to split up your backmarkers, because Black is limited as to how he can use those checkers on his next roll. If he throws a 3+1, a 6+1 or a 5+3 (ordinarily all good throws) he’s less likely to split up his checkers on his 8-point to hit you because he would become too vulnerable to being hit himself. This example shows you how you should always think ahead to what might happen with your opponent’s next roll. It’s always a smart strategy for backgammon to think ahead before you make a decision about how to move.
Now that you have an understanding of how to play your opening move, how to play a reply to your opponent’s opening move, and how to develop your strategy for backgammon in the beginning parts of the game, you are already streets ahead of the player who sleepwalks through the start of the game. Hopefully, you will also already be much calmer and more composed than your average opponent in these early stages of the game.