Thinking Tactically in Backgammon

Backgammon strategies & thinking strategically

  • Playing with tactics
  • Don’t lean back
  • Are you playing too safely?
  • Creating obstacles
  • Why is the 5-point so important?
  • Choosing to make your opponent's 5-point
  • Choosing to make your own 5-point
  • The bar-point
  • The 4-point
  • Balance
  • When it’s a good idea to hit
  • When it's not a good idea to hit
  • Moving your backmarkers out
  • When to build a prime
  • A final tactical thought

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Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert

It’s important to think tactically when you develop your backgammon strategies. Too often, inexperienced players will sleepwalk through a game and lose simply because their opponent was more thoughtful.

Let’s go back to basics and start by thinking about the opening position.

At the beginning of the game, it’s important to think about how you are going to start dissolving the stacks, the 10 out of your 15 checkers that make up two big piles of 5 checkers each. One is at the halfway point and the other is in your home board.

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The opening position.

It’s a good idea to dissolve these stacks early on and use your checkers to create points and primes. This will help you to block your opponent’s path home and smooth your own journey. If you can’t use your checkers early on in the game to make points, at least move them individually so that they can help you make points later.

Most beginners try to play too safely at the start. They keep stacking their checkers up for fear of getting hit. Stacking your checkers together will give you less safe places to move to in later moves and thus leave you more exposed to being hit later on in the game, when it hurts much more. In the early stages of the game you should be taking more chances, before your opponent has had the chance to make some points on his side of the board.

Try to shift your two backmarkers around the board early on in the game, because it won’t be much fun trying to do so later on.

At the same time as focusing on these tactical priorities yourself, you should also be thinking about how to stop your opponent from making these tactical moves himself. Successful backgammon strategies take both sides into account.

The great early twentieth-century American cartoonist James Thurber said, ‘You might as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backwards.’

When you’re skiing it feels right to lean back, into the mountain; it feels safe. However, it is safer to lean forward and away from the mountain. All good skiers know this; even bad skiers like me know it. So why do we all lean back when we first learn to ski? Because we’re afraid of the slope or the speed we’re building. The same applies in backgammon. Inexperienced players ‘lean back’, trying to play safely, when they should actually be playing a bit more aggressively. Novices often think they have a better chance of winning by racing around the board unimpeded, praying that their luck will hold out; but this rarely happens. Or they will be constantly looking to play safe moves that don’t leave any exposed blots; in the short run this feels safer, but it can trip you up later.

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I thought you said lean back?

It’s always better to play aggressively than safely. Of course if you overdo it the recklessness will cost you dearly, but, on the whole, beginners tend to play far too timidly and could improve their chances if they were willing to take a few more risks. As the great player Phil Simborg says, ‘Sometimes the greatest risk is to take no risk at all.’

Remember, getting hit is not the end of the world — in fact, it’s far from it. When it happens early on in a game, it can even work to your advantage in your backgammon strategies. For example, while it might slow you down in a race that you are already losing, you can often use the checker to hit your opponent back when you re-enter the game — sometimes in his home board, which is particularly painful for him and will even up the pip count again. You could even hit one of his checkers when he is in the middle of bearing off. Then he would need to re-enter his checker in your home board and he could be blocked from doing so on a number of points, which would mean he has to skip one or more turns. This would allow you to catch up. Being hit sometimes turns the tables completely and gives you a real chance of winning in a game you had almost written off. So, never assume it’s the end of the world if you’re hit. It could actually work to your advantage.

There are often some tell-tale signs that you are playing too safely. If you have a stack of checkers in one place, not only does it look messy, but it’s also a sign that you have been prioritising safe play over good tactical play and good backgammon strategies.

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White lacks balance.

In the example, you (White), have used your first few throws, some of which added up to 7, to safely move your checkers onto your 6-point. After this move of 4+3, you have no less than 9 checkers on your 6-point. As a result of this imbalanced board, you will struggle to contain Black and to get your own remaining checkers around the board without problems. Black is in fact already statistically favourite to win from here.

Your opponent will be trying to put up obstacles by building primes. You should do the same. You can also use these primes as vital stepping-stones to help your other checkers move around the board.

Try to think of your home board as a fortress. You need to build walls to keep your opponent out and ease your own way home. The key building blocks are your 5-point, your 4-point and your bar-point (remember you begin the game with a wall on your 6-point so you already have this covered.)

White is building a fortress.

White is building a fortress.

In this game, you have made your bar-point, your 5-point and your 4-point. As a result you have a very useful 4-point-prime. Black has also made some points but his are more spread out and that’s why White is the strong favourite to win at this stage in this particular game. Obviously, your ultimate aim is to build a six-point-prime. You will be hard to beat if Black is trapped behind a six-point prime.

In order to make these points, you have to take chances by slotting them first (i.e. leaving a blot on the point even though it might get hit). If you’re lucky and your blot doesn’t get hit, you will hopefully be able to land on the blot with your next throw, make the point and reap the subsequent rewards. Like everything in this game, you are always weighing the risks against the rewards. In the early stages of the game the rewards of making points outweigh the risks of getting hit, so slot away!

Philip Martyn, a leading writer and player in the 1970s, believed that the ‘most important points on the board are the two 5-points (yours and your opponent’s).’

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Philip Martyn

Making a point on your own 5-point or your opponent’s is a good idea, but making both is nirvana and gets you into a great position.

Making your own 5-point is an important part of backgammon strategies because it makes it more difficult for your opponent to free his backmarkers. It also serves as a safe landing site for your own checkers when you are bringing the game home. Making your opponent’s 5-point hampers his efforts to bring his checkers home and finish the game. When you hold a high point in your opponent’s home board, it makes it risky for him to leave blots in his outer board because you could so easily hit them with one of the checkers on your point. The less flexibility you give your opponent to bring his checkers home, the better.

The 7-point and the 4-point are also pretty good, though strategically not quite as wonderful as the 5-point. The 6-point is, of course, already occupied from the start and generally remains occupied. Having home-board points is also important for reducing your opponent’s chances for re-entering the game when you hit him, so making any of your home-board points is a good idea, but the 5-point is slightly stronger because it is next to your 6-point and therefore builds a 2-point-prime.

In the example shown, you have a rather nice throw of 4+3 and can choose from a couple of excellent options. You could make your own 4-point quite neatly or you could make your opponent’s 5-point. If you make your 4-point, you will start to build your home board. However, Black has already freed one of his two backmarkers so it’s too late to realise the full value of doing this. Also, look out for all the Black checkers looming towards Black’s home board where they might trap your two White backmarkers that are still stuck there.

Spoilt for choice. With this 4+3 you can either make Black's 5-point or your own 4-point.

Spoilt for choice. With this 4+3 you can either make Black’s 5-point or your own 4-point.

In my opinion, in this scenario it would be better for you to make Black’s 5-point. By doing so, you spoil Black’s chances of trapping you (as shown below).

White decides to make a 5-point in Black's home board.

White decides to make a 5-point in Black’s home board.

In the example shown below, you have thrown a 6+4 and have several options in your backgammon strategies. You could move both of your backmarkers and neatly cover your two blots that are sitting in Black’s outer board. That’s not a bad idea but it commits you to racing to the finish, which is risky at this stage because after this move you will only be 3 pips ahead of Black (165 for you versus 168 for Black) and he would have the additional advantage of it being his throw.

You have a couple of strong choices. Will you cover your blots or move them forward, or make your 5-point?

You have a couple of strong choices. Will you cover your blots or move them forward, or make your 5-point?

Alternatively, you could move those two blots forward neatly so that they land together, covering the third blot and making your 11-point. You could also make your bar-point (by moving the blot on your 11-point with your 4-move and one of your midmarkers with your 6-move), giving you a 2-point-prime. However, neither of these moves is as good as making your 5-point (by moving a checker off your 9-point and the blot off your 11-point). This also gives you a 2-point-prime, but in an even stronger position. The fact that Black has 3 checkers stuck at the back means that priming is a good game plan.

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You (White) make your 5-point despite other strong choices.

I hope, by now, I have stressed how important the 5-point is. I am a huge fan of the 5-point, as are many good players. Paul Magriel, one of the greatest backgammon players of all time, even called the 5-point the golden point.

The great Paul Magriel, 1978 World Champion. Like so many of the top players, Paul is also a mathematics professor (despite the fact that he looks pretty cool!)

The great Paul Magriel, 1978 World Champion. Like so many of the top players, Paul is also a mathematics professor (despite the fact that he looks pretty cool!)

The next most useful point after the 5-point, strategically speaking, is the bar-point (the 7-point). Even though it is not actually in your home board (which means it’s not as useful when it comes to bearing off), the bar-point has great anchoring and blocking potential as part of backgammon strategies.

Your opponent’s bar point is also great for blocking. The only disadvantage to holding your opponent’s bar-point as opposed to his 5-point is that you can’t use it as a landing place to re-enter on if you get hit. Even so, holding your opponent’s bar-point is still very useful in preventing your opponent from building a strong prime to trap you. It also serves as a launch pad from which to start racing your checkers home when the time feels appropriate to backgammon strategies.

In the example shown below, you (White) have thrown 6+1. You have the choice of making your bar-point or of moving one of your backmarkers safely onto the midpoint.

Should you move one of your backmarkers or make your bar-point?

Should you move one of your backmarkers or make your bar-point?

It’s really too early to race and relinquish the useful anchor you hold on Black’s 5-point while leaving one remaining checker stranded there, so making the bar-point is the way to go, as shown below. You also make a very strong 5-point-prime by making this move.

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Make your bar-point.

When you hold three or more points in your home board, you’re usually in a very exciting position, especially if your opponent still has checkers stuck at the back. Even if he doesn’t, it will mean your opponent will be afraid of being hit because if he is, his chances of re-entering are reduced. This would allow you to make further progress while he dances on the bar.

The 4-point is also very useful. In the game below, which is in its early stages, you have already made Black’s 4-point and you’ve now thrown a 4+2 so you are able to make your own 4-point as well.

With your 4+2 you make your own 4-point.

With your 4+2 you make your own 4-point.

We’ve already discussed how you can rapidly reduce your chances of winning by creating an unbalanced board. Always think about balance. It’s a key part of backgammon strategies and an important element of tactical play. If you rush ahead, leaving your backmarkers behind, you will have a devil of a job getting them out. Temper your aggression with common sense, keep your board evenly spread, and balance your offence and defence, so if you do attack you have some defences against a counter-attack. It’s no good having almost all of your checkers ready to bear off because they can’t start doing that until any stragglers have joined them. Remember, the army marches to the pace of the slowest man!

An advantage of hitting your opponent at any stage is that you at least tie up half his throw as he uses up one number just to re-enter in the board. There is even the possibility that he is unable to re-enter the board and has to miss a turn, or even (if he is exceptionally unlucky) several turns. It’s a good general rule that, in the early stages of the game, if you have a choice between hitting your opponent on his side of the board, making a point or hitting on your own side of the board, the hit on your opponent’s side of the board is probably best because his pip count increases more the further advanced the hit checker was. If you’re not sure whether to hit or not it’s usually a better move to hit because most of us are too cautious in our calculation of the position. As I’ve said before, when in doubt… hit!

In the game shown in the example below, you’ve thrown a 1+1, enabling you to re-enter your checker. Using the rest of your 1s you could hit both the blot in Black’s home board and the one in your own home board. Hittingtwo of Black’s checkers sounds tempting, and hitting the checker in his home board is going to seriously push up his pip count, but it’s actually much better here to use the rest of your moves to create a perfect 6-prime (as shown below). You then have plenty of time to hit Black later, because he isn’t going anywhere until you let his backmarker out.

So, hitting Black here is not a good idea.

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You (White) play it safe and complete your prime.

Always look for opportunities to move those backmarkers out, even if you can’t take them to safety in one throw. Unless your throw is particularly fortunate (a series of doubles that allow you to move them together) you usually have to take some chances to release your backmarkers. Don’t race them ahead so far that you lose opportunities to use them to hit your opponent when he gives you the chance, but avoid allowing them to remain isolated and trapped at the back as the game progresses.

It’s never too early to start building a prime. By making any of the points around your home board you are starting this process. Even if you can’t complete a point, you can leave builders. It’s often worth sacrificing some safety now for creating an excellent prime later.

To err is human but to miss a better move is just plain dumb…

In other words, considering carefully which is the best play and then making the wrong decision is much more forgivable in backgammon than simply not looking hard enough and missing the right play; one that you would have recognised if you’d looked harder. If you make wrong decisions, that’s fine and understandable, they will gradually get better the more you play, but if you don’t even look hard enough at the different options, you’ll struggle. Backgammon is not a game that is best played too quickly. So even if it’s exciting, try to slow it down and develop backgammon strategies. Always consider all of your options!

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