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How to improve your backgammon game

Last updated on April 14, 2021

Beginner’s guides. How to play backgammon.

This Deluxe Backgammon post is another in our series for beginners and newcomers. The best way to improve your backgammon game is to focus your study on one area of play at a time and then practice to reinforce what you have learnt. To do this you need to break the game down into specific areas where you can focus your attention. Here is a list of those areas of backgammon play. You can follow the links to more in-depth articles on each of these areas.

Key skills

Opening moves. This is critical for all players to progress beyond the novice level. There are 15 possible opening moves and knowing how to play them correctly is crucial. For instance, the 3-1 is the best opening roll and if you don’t know how to play it correctly you are throwing away an early advantage.

Understand the key points on the board. Together the 5 and 20-points are the two most important strategic positions on the board. Holding one or both of these points conveys a considerable advantage in the game. In the opening moves of a match, there is often a considerable struggle for both 5-points because the reward to make and hold the 5 or 20-points often exceeds the risk to move more checkers back.

Backgammon probability. The understanding of probability will give you the knowledge to make calculated risks during play and ultimately improve your enjoyment of the game. You need to learn the basic probability of rolling specific numbers or combinations. Without this understanding, it is impossible to progress beyond a beginner’s understanding of the game. The table below assumes that the board is open for every possible throw. If part of the throw is blocked by an intervening point being held by opposing checkers, the chance of being hit is less.

Pip counting. Backgammon is essentially a racing game and most of the time the player who is ahead in the race is winning the game. The leader of the race can be determined by comparing the relative pip counts, which is simply a tally of the number of dice pips each player needs to roll in order to bear off all of their checkers.

Replies to the opening moves. As doubles are now in play after the opening move, there are now 21 possible combinations of dice rolls available. Obviously, most of the opening moves remain as an option for the reply, but these need to be considered in response to your opponent’s move. You may miss an opportunity if you stubbornly follow the opening moves. In addition, there are an additional six moves as the doubles are now included.

Reference points and rules of thumb

Duplication. Try to play your moves in such a way that your opponent needs the same number to accomplish their goals everywhere on the board, rather than different numbers in different places. In this way, you reduce their effective numbers to a minimum, giving yourself the best possible chance to win. It can also force them to make difficult decisions, where mistakes can be made. Does your opponent hit your loose checker or do they secure their 5-point?

Rules of thumb. Experienced players will have built up a series of reference points over many years of play. It is these reference points that can be used to formulate rules of thumb that can be applied during standard play. Of course, these rules do not apply in every situation, and if applied at the wrong time they could lead you to a poor decision. The rule of 8 is a useful rule of thumb to determine your position in the race. However, overall, these rules will help to simplify your decision-making process.

The doubling cube. Understand the basic thought process and strategies when considering to offer or accept the doubling cube. A lot of casual players will have never used a doubling cube. It is not required to be used as part of the game and backgammon can certainly be enjoyed without the cube. Afterall, backgammon has been around for five thousand years and the doubling cube was only introduced in the 1920s. However, it brings a significant amount of new strategy into the game. Many backgammon historians credited the doubling cube with the increased popularity of backgammon during the 20th century.

The doubling cube.

Bearing checkers off. The game isn’t over just because you have moved all of your checkers into your home board. There is still work to do, particularly if your opponent has checkers anchored in your home board or on the bar.

Defensive strategy

Playing back games. The back game is not a strategy you would choose to play from the start of the game. It is forced upon players because they have been hit on multiple occasions and are well behind in the race. The objective is to maintain two or more defensive anchors in your opponent’s home board and wait for an opportunity for a late hit. This is a strategy designed to salvage a game when you have fallen behind. Your other checkers should be positioned so as to block your opponent’s checker when it returns from the bar. You really need two anchors to make it a back game. If you only have one anchor it’s a holding game.

Playing holding games. The holding game strategy involves maintaining a secure point, high in your opponent’s home board or on your opponent’s bar point. The objective is to wait for an opportunity to strike a loose checker as your opponent crosses their outer board. At the same time, you will be trying to build a strong home board. This is in order to restrict your opponent’s re-entry when you do manage to get a hit. There are two main ways to win a holding game. Either by hitting your opponent’s blot from the secure point or by rolling large doubles that will allow you to break contact and escape. The doubles option is only ideal if it puts you ahead in the race.

Offensive strategy

When to blitz. The backgammon blitz is a thrilling and spectacular strategy. The definition of a blitzkrieg is an overwhelming all-out attack, especially a swift ground attack using armoured units and air support. Although in backgammon, we lack the armoured units and the air support, we certainly have the checkers to launch the ground attack. The key is to know when to launch a blitz. Firstly, there needs to be the opportunity to hit one or more of your opponent’s pieces in your home board. Ideally, one or more of these checkers will fail to re-enter giving you time to reinforce your home board by securing points or to hit another loose checker. Is your home board equal to or more established than your opponent? Do you have builders available in your outer board to continue the attack and secure home board points?

On the bar.

Priming games. What is a Priming Game? In a priming game, you secure several consecutive points to block your opponent’s rear checkers from escaping. It is an essential strategy to understand as it forms the basis of many games. It is crucial to understand how to create and maintain the prime. The player that can hold their prime the longest will have the greatest advantage.

Simple set of backgammon rules, including a single page PDF

Backgammon cheat sheet.

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