Last updated on August 7, 2023
In this Deluxe Backgammon post for beginners, we take a look at whether the first player has a distinct advantage in making the first move in backgammon. The simple answer is yes, in backgammon, the first player does have a slight advantage over the second player. The main advantage occurs because the first player is ahead in the race before the second player makes their move. This lead can be as small as 3 (opening roll of 2-1) or 11 (opening roll of 6-5). This is important because backgammon is a racing game.
The second player does have an advantage in that they can reply to the opening move with doubles. A reply of a double 4, 5 or 6 can erase the lead of the opening player and put the second player in front. The second player may also have the opportunity to hit if the first player has left any blots on the board. Hitting is not an option in the opening move.
First player advantages
Additionally, these are some distinct benefits the first player enjoys in a game of backgammon:
Initiative. The first player sets the pace of the game by making the first move. They can put pressure on their opponent and dictate the game’s direction from the outset.
Strategic flexibility. As the first player moves their checkers onto the board, they have more options for their initial positioning. The first player cannot hit their opponent’s checkers. However, they have the advantage of being able to create blocking positions that could affect the second player’s response.
Access to key points. The first player gets the first chance to occupy critical points on the board, especially the 5-point and bar-point. These are key points that play an important role in controlling the board and creating strong anchor positions. Seizing the bar point makes it difficult for the second player to escape their back checkers.
However, it’s essential to note that backgammon is a game of skill and luck, and the advantage of being the first player is not significant. In the long run, games will generally be decided by a combination of superior tactics and strategy.
To offset the first player advantage, some tournaments use the “Crawford rule“. This rule states that after one player is one point away from winning the match, the following game does not allow the doubling cube to be used by either player. This rule helps to offset the first player advantage and adds more excitement to the game.
XG Mobile Backgammon
At Deluxe Backgammon we do not claim to be mathematicians, mental arithmetic is a struggle and we are highly dependent on calculators for even the simplest mathematical task. We have done some very simple analysis of the opening rolls using the free version of XG Mobile Backgammon.
The XG software has an option under the New Game menu to Setup a Position. There is also a Light Bulb icon on the right-hand side of the screen which provides hints and basic statistics. This includes a Win percentage for the top-rated move. We set up the board and used the hint function to get the Win percentage for each of the opening rolls. These numbers are shown in the table below. Note, the Win percentage applies to the optimum opening move as calculated by XG Mobile Backgammon.
At Deluxe Backgammon we are sure someone with superior mathematical skills or more powerful software will dispute these values. However, this is the best we could do with the resources available. We welcome any constructive comments on the output.
There is definitely a slight advantage in playing first in backgammon. However, the advantage is slight and can easily be overcome by the use of effective strategy and tactics. Additionally, in the long run, you should be opening the game 50% of the time, so the advantage evens out.
Backgammon opening theory at Wikipedia.
Backgammon opening moves, a simple list (includes a one page PDF of the opening moves).