Top Tips for Backgammon

Top Tips for Backgammon

Knowing your opponent...

Bob Dylan, taking time out from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, 1975.

Bob Dylan, taking time out from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, 1975.

There are three steps that should be taken EVERY time it is your turn to play:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Consider the cube.
  3. Choose the best move.

Thinking about these three things, in the above order, should become second nature. Kent Goulding One sportsman who was brilliant at playing against weak opposition was Graeme Hick. Hick was a wonderful cricketer and one of the leading batsmen of his generation, but he was plagued throughout his career by fans and journalists calling him a ‘flat track bully’. In other words, against modest opposition and on a calm batting surface he was spectacularly good. He once famously scored a quadruple century for Worcestershire against Somerset. (For those of you who don’t follow cricket, this is a rare achievement that happens only once in a very long while). However, when he was playing in international cricket against the best spin bowlers on tricky batting services, Graeme consistently underperformed.

Daily Mail Graeme Hick, making that track slightly flatter.

Daily Mail
Graeme Hick, making that track slightly flatter.

In backgammon, as you get more confident, you can become something of a flat track bully yourself. In other words, when playing against an inexperienced opponent, you can take advantage of him by offering aggressive doubles and getting away with overly confident moves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t stand up in a big tournament against seasoned opponents. When you meet your match, you’ll quickly lose out if you don’t use a smart game plan and make too many risky decisions.

Play the player, but be smart about it. Here are top backgammon tips to help you play the game in a clever way.

TOP TIP 1: Choose the right move

Malcolm Davis, winner of many tournaments says, ‘Never think about winning and losing; just think about the right play. You can’t control the outcome but you can control what you do.’ Remember, when you think you know the right move to make, always look for a better move and then compare your options. In the example shown below, you’ve thrown a 2+1, the lowest possible dice combination in the game, but it is not necessarily the worst throw. In fact, you are spoilt for choice in this scenario. Clearly you could make your own 5-point. But look more closely. Better still, you could make your own mid-point. But wait, you could also make your opponent’s 3-point.

Consider all your choices.

Consider all your choices.

In fact, if you do any of these things, you are making a blunder… because there is an even better move! That is to make your opponent’s 5-point. With your opponent having moved his backmarkers, and given the number of blots you’ve left in his back yard, making his 5-point underpins your game.

The best choice is to make your opponent’s 5-point.

The best choice is to make your opponent’s 5-point.

Remember, the best move the one is not necessarily the one you spotted first. Top players don’t get excited when they first see a good move; they pause and look around to see what else is available. Then they weigh up the various choices before deciding what’s best.

TOP TIP 2: Offence/Offence; Defence/Defence

Phil Simborg gave me this great backgammon tip for situations where you have a number of choices. He says that if you find yourself in an offensive position, you should always play an offensive move, and vice versa. If you find yourself in a defensive position, make a more defensive move. Looking again at the example given above in the previous tip, if you have 5 blots around the board that can be readily attacked by Black on his next roll, you need to play defensively. No matter what you do you will still have some blots, but if you make your opponent’s 5-point you prevent him from either blitzing or priming you. If you had made your own 5-point, Black has multiple ways to hit you twice or make points around your blots.

‘Backgammon is like war,’ Phil says. ‘You are fighting for territory.’

When you are outnumbered and out-gunned, you dig in and await reinforcements or for things to get better. But when you are the one on the attack and you have more troops (checkers), this is not the time to wait and give your opponent a chance to breathe. As Phil charmingly says, ‘When he’s having trouble breathing, step on his windpipe!’

Hindsight isn’t always a wonderful thing. Often, even when you do the right thing you still get punished for it. This is true both in backgammon and in life! But this is one of the reasons people love the game; it’s so unpredictable. However, if you do make a move that is correct and then doesn’t work out for you, don’t beat yourself up over it or waste time wishing you’d done something differently. You know that, statistically, in different circumstances that move would have paid off for you. Don’t let your mind trick you into thinking otherwise. Likewise, you might sometimes make the wrong play and it works beautifully. Be honest with yourself about this and don’t take away a misguided lesson.

TOP TIP 3: Leave a pair behind a prime, not a blot

If you have to leave checkers behind a prime, the best backgammon tip I can give is that it is usually better to have two as together they can make a powerful stand, whereas one on its own is cannon fodder.

In this example you where you have one checker at the back you will win only about 18% of the time, but if you had had two checkers your chances would have risen to around 30%.

You only have one backmarker left behind.

You only have one backmarker left behind.

TOP TIP 4: Do your moves look elegant?

Elegant moves often tell you that you’ve made the right play. It might be safe to stack eight checkers on the same point when you throw a double but you might agree that this doesn’t look quite right, and you should be able to see that you’ve created an unbalanced board. If the move wouldn’t leave an elegant looking board, take a closer look and see how you might do things differently.

TOP TIP 5: Don’t accept a double just to find out what happens at the end!

Even professionals do this sometimes and I know one former world champion who has done it regularly in recent times (‘former’ being the operative word!) It’s easy to do. When you are playing a thrilling match, you feel the gravitational pull towards finishing it and finding out if you could actually execute your wonderful back-game strategy. If you refuse the double you will never know if you could have survived. Don’t be tempted if you calculate that the odds say you shouldn’t accept.

TOP TIP 6: Be an optimist

Player and writer Walter Trice says, ‘Winners are people who expect to win.’ Good players are generally optimists; they always see some chance to win, even when things look very dark. And because they see the silver lining — and play for it instead of giving up, as many players would do in the same situation — they end up winning more as a result.

TOP TIP 7: Knowing the theory isn’t everything

Recently I saw a top player in a London tournament make a hurried and fairly obvious late game blunder. No matter how well you know the theory, applying it under pressure will always be a challenge. There isn’t a player in the world who doesn’t make foolish mistakes from time to time; we’re all human. Never be afraid to slow the game down. If you’re feeling the pressure, pause, sip your drink and think about it. (I know that’s easier said than done!)

TOP TIP 8: It’s never too early to think about doubling

The example below shows a situation I was once in where I missed a double. My opponent (Black) started with a 4+3 and was immediately hit by my lucky throw of a 4+4. Black then threw a 6+5 so he was unable to re-enter. I was very optimistic about my chances, but I assumed that it was too early to think about doubling because I’d only rolled the dice once. But this was in fact clearly a double I should have offered and one that my opponent should have accepted. As it happened, I failed to offer the double. I went on to roll well but it was too late. I lost my market and ended up winning but missed the opportunity to double the stakes. My top backgammon tip here: always think about whether doubling is right.

Even though it’s early in the game, White should offer the doubling cube at this point.

Even though it’s early in the game, White should offer the doubling cube at this point.

TOP TIP 9: Remember your mistakes

Quite often we can be too busy congratulating ourselves after a game to notice that we missed a trick. Always look back and see what you could have done better. It’s human nature to assume that we haven’t really made mistakes on the days that we win. But hindsight can be a great tutor!

TOP TIP 10: Don’t play for stakes higher than you can afford

The problem with playing for high stakes is twofold. Firstly, you become nervous and make mistakes. Secondly, you can’t afford to accept or offer a cube when it is logical to do so. If you start a game but wouldn’t be able to pay up if the cube was offered to you at 8 or 16, you are at a huge disadvantage. This would also make you afraid of offering an 8 or 16 cube; which is just as bad. If you are in over your head, after you lose a few points you start becoming far too timid with the cube, and you’ll also start playing too carefully for fear of getting gammoned. You should avoid getting into a situation where you are playing for stakes you can’t afford because it will affect your decisions and, in the long run, cost you a lot of money.

TOP TIP 11: Always try to do as many good things as you can in one move

In the example below, you’ve thrown a 3+3. This is a very useful throw as you can do four good things with it. You can re-enter off the bar, you can hit Black, you can move a midmarker and you can make your own 5-point. You can’t always do that many things with one throw, but backgammon tip 11 is always be looking to achieve more than one thing with each throw.

One throw; four good deeds.

One throw; four good deeds.

TOP TIP 12: Stop whingeing! Never complain about the dice!

We’ve all played against someone who spends the whole game grumbling about the dice and, let’s be honest, we’ve all done it ourselves at times. You should avoid doing this at all costs. Not only does it look bad, but it will also distract you from playing the best that you can. Complaining might have worked out occasionally for John McEnroe, but for the rest of us it is usually counterproductive.

Phil Simborg told me that there are five reasons why you should never complain about the dice:

  1. It suggests your opponent is only winning because he is lucky and implies that he is not skillful. This is very bad form and insulting.
  2. Nobody cares. Everyone is tired of hearing it. Everyone only sees their own bad rolls and forgets their great ones.
  3. It’s often not true that you are unlucky. If you think you are rolling more than your share of bad rolls, you’re probably playing badly and not realizing it, because the worse you play, the more bad rolls there are and the more good rolls you give your opponent.
  4. If you concentrate on your bad rolls, you will play worse. Complaining focuses your mind and energy on the wrong things. You think about how badly you are rolling, or how well your opponent is rolling, instead of what you really should be concentrating on: what is the right decision?
  5. Complaining makes the game less enjoyable… for you. The more you make an issue of your bad luck, the more you will remember the bad luck and the less fun you will have playing, even if you win!