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Backgammon: splitting basics

Last updated on January 8, 2021

Beginner’s guides. How to play backgammon.

Splitting refers to separating two checkers which are secure on a point and leaving them as blots. This is almost always referring to the back checkers on the opponent’s 1-point.  These two pieces are on the last point on the backgammon board and they have to run all the way around to reach the inner board. It is important to play them so that they would neither be trapped nor be hit when they do split up. To prevent both of these scenarios, we should understand the basic tactics behind splitting. Sometimes, a split is further defined as either a major or minor split. A major split is when one of the back checkers moves from the 1-point to the opponent’s 4 or 5-points. A minor split is when one of the back checkers moves from the 1-point to the opponent’s 2 or 3-points.

When to split

The decision to split largely depends on whether or not your opponent has secured points on their home board. In the starting position, you have two checkers on your opponent’s one-point, which is also your 24-point. Splitting your back checkers is one of the difficult decisions in the game. Ideally, it is best to split your back checkers early in the game in order to avoid having your checkers blocked. In some instances, the decision is easy, such as a roll of 6-5. This allows you to escape one of your checkers safely to the mid-point.

6-5

However, splitting becomes a more difficult decision if your opponent has started securing points within their home board. This makes it more difficult to re-enter from the bar if your checkers are hit. If your opponent has yet to secure any home board points, apart from their 6-point, the option has less risk. They are far less likely to attempt a hit on a split checker as they risk being hit on the return from the bar. This would cause them to lose a lot of ground in the race.

Advantages

One advantage of splitting early in the game is that it gives you a better chance of securing an anchor in your opponent’s home board without the need for rolling a double. Having an anchor in your opponent’s home board allows you to play more aggressively, as you have a safe point of return if hit. Leaving blots in your opponent’s home board early in the game is relatively safe because your opponent risks losing a lot of ground in the race if they are hit on your return from the bar. However, there are certain scenarios in which splitting your back checkers is not a good idea.

An example is when your opponent has managed to secure their 2-point or 3-point early on. It may be tempting to split the back checkers because of the threat of being trapped. However, in this instance, it is best to off from splitting immediately. This is because your opponent would be looking to hit immediately if the checkers are split. The danger is that if you do split, get hit, and then, your opponent secures their 5-point or 4-point. This is because you could potentially be closed out and trail significantly in the race. The block is actually quite weak and relatively easy to escape on subsequent rolls. It makes more sense to use the rolls to strengthen your positions elsewhere on the board.  

Avoid the double split

Additionally, avoid the double split, where you advance both of your back checkers at the same time. Use the dice combination individually across the different quadrants of the backgammon board. This allows you to develop multiple quadrants on the same roll, providing greater flexibility on subsequent rolls. In other words, split a back checker and then advance another checker from somewhere else, preferably one from your mid-point. This allows you to develop your position in both your opponent’s home board and your own outer board on the same move.

5-2

Another instance when it is not a good idea to split the back checkers when you’ve succeeded in securing points in your home board. In this case, you should focus on continuing to develop your own side of the board. For example, try to build a stronger home board, ideally with a six-prime, and subsequently aim at hitting an opposing piece with your back checkers. This will result with your opponent trapped on the bar and gives a strong chance of a gammon or backgammon.

Summary

Splitting your back checkers ideally should be done early on in the game. If you have a choice between a minor split and a major split, always choose the latter alternative. If you subsequently throw good rolls, you can make an advanced anchor on your opponent’s 5-point with it. Avoid using the dice rolls for a double split. When you separate a back checker, use the other number on the roll to bring down a checker from the mid-point as a builder. This is because if you’re going to slot two checkers, it’s better to leave two blots that are far from one another rather than leaving them both within direct hits.

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