Last updated on November 1, 2023
At Deluxe Backgammon we have previously covered the backgammon opening moves, but this post delves into the specific strategies behind the moves. If you have taken out your best backgammon set and laid out the checkers ready for play, you and your opponent will roll the dice to start the game. For some opening dice rolls there are preferred or certain moves and for others, there are several options to choose from. Regardless of the dice roll your move will fall into one of three different categories of strategy, Point Makers, Builders or Runners. We will use standard backgammon notation to describe all of the moves in this article. The first player has a slight advantage, but understanding the opening strategies is crucial to making the most of the edge.
As the name suggests the Point Maker strategy is all about securing a point by placing two checkers on it. This has several advantages. A secure point is a safe place for a checker to land in any part of the board. If the point is within your opponent’s home board it creates an anchor, which is a safe point to re-enter from the bar. (Note: building an anchor is not an option as an opening move). If the secure point is within your home board it provides a blocking point for your opponent’s checkers and potentially forms part of a prime. Making points in backgammon is a key strategy to prevent your opponent from moving around the board before you do. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of Point Making during the opening move.
Point Maker Example 4-2
An opening roll of 4-2 has only one recognised opening move, which is 8/4, 6/4. No other move should be considered. This is because it secures a point within your home board, which has several benefits. The secure 4 point creates a barrier to the movement of your opponent’s back checkers. At this stage, it is more of a hindrance than a serious obstacle. It slightly limits your opponent’s options when trying to escape the back checkers and it also means one less landing place for checkers trying to return from the bar. Although having two secure points within the home board does not constitute a prime, it creates the opportunity to create a 3 prime on subsequent moves by securing the 5-point.
Point Maker Example 3-1
An opening roll of 3-1 is considered the perfect start. There is only one way this roll should ever be played, which is 8/5, 6/5. This secures the 5-point, also known as the golden point, and creates a 2 prime on the outer edge of your home board. The 2 prime makes a slightly more difficult obstacle for your opponent to negotiate than the 4-2 move above. It creates a safe landing place for your checkers as they move into your home board and it removes a checker from the heavily laden 6-point to where it is much more useful. The 5-point would have been targeted by your opponent so that they could create an advanced anchor, which would be a safe landing place for checkers re-entering from the bar. Removing this option is definitely to your advantage.
Checkers left on their own are vulnerable to be hit as blots. However, there are good reasons why you would want to take the risk and expose the blots. During the opening moves the main reason you would want to leave blots is to create builders. A builder is a checker that has been moved into position to be used on subsequent rolls to secure a point. They can also be used to extend a prime or to hit an opponent’s loose checker.
Builders also help distribute your checkers more evenly into positions where they are most useful. Effective distribution of your checkers leaves a player with more options on future rolls as opposed to leaving a stack of checkers on a single point. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of opening moves involving builders. Note: these moves may not be considered the optimal move for a given roll. However, they have been selected for the purpose of demonstrating the concept of builders.
Builder Example 2-1
An opening roll of 2-1 is not the ideal start in backgammon. This is because there are limited options because your pieces can only advance 3 points. One option is to play 24/23, 13/11. This leaves three checkers on their own, which probably doesn’t look like a great option for a beginner. However, the move actually creates improvements on both sides of the board. The back checkers are split and look quite vulnerable. However, it is quite risky for your opponent to hit these checkers as they risk being hit when you re-enter and that would send their piece a long way back to the other side of the board. In addition, the checkers are also well distributed to form an advanced anchor in your opponent’s home board on a subsequent roll. Alternatively, they can be used to attack any loose blots on your opponent’s outer or home boards.
The lone checker on the 11-point is in a good position to potentially help secure your 5 or bar points on the next roll. It is also relatively safe as it is outside the range of a direct hit (6 or less), requiring a 6-4 or 4-6 roll to be sent to the bar. Another option for the 2-1 roll is 13/11, 6/5. This is an aggressive start, slotting the 5-point. The lone checker will certainly be hit by your opponent if the opportunity arises. However, if it is missed and you secure the point on the next roll the risk is well rewarded.
Builder Example 3-2
An opening roll of 3-2 gives another opportunity to create builders in your outer board. A move of 13/11, 13/10 moves two builders down. Again, they are relatively safe because they are out of range of a direct hit. On the next roll, these builders provide a number of opportunities to secure points, preferably your 5-point. This move provides flexibility on subsequent rolls with the relatively low risk of an indirect hit.
Backgammon in its purest sense is simply a race, so running is considered a legitimate strategy. In a running strategy, the objective is to leap past your opponent’s checkers and beat them in the race to your home board. When running from the opening move you are looking to free one of your back checkers by leaping over your opponent’s 6 and 8-points. It can be a risky strategy as it relies on a string of high rolls to work. However, there is a specific starting roll that allows you to clear both points and land securely on your mid-point. It is the 6-5 roll and it is known as the Lover’s Leap. The 6 will land you on your 18-point and the 5 will carry you to safety on the mid-point. If your luck holds and you continue to roll high the running strategy may just work for you.
Other, slightly lower, rolls can also be played as runners. For instance, a 6-3 roll will allow you to clear your opponent’s 6 and 8-points and leave a blot in your opponent’s outer board. This was considered a good move in days gone by. However, now it’s generally believed that a 6-3 should be played by splitting the back pair and bringing a builder down from the mid-point. The only opening roll that is universally accepted as a running move is the 6-5, Lovers Leap.
Backgammon rules are available on this link.
Wikipedia, backgammon opening theory.