Last updated on April 11, 2022
In this Deluxe Backgammon post for beginners, we look at the 5 best opening rolls in backgammon. These are all rolls that are widely considered to have only one reasonable play. Although these moves are all a great way to start a game, they do not guarantee victory, as strategy and luck will play a part.
In normal play, there are 36 possible combinations for the roll of two six-sided dice. If we exclude duplicate values, such as 1-3 and 3-1, there are 21 possible combinations for each turn of play. However, in the opening moves, this is reduced to 15 possible combinations as doubles are excluded. We use the standard 24-point notation system to explain the moves.
During the opening move, there are no blots, so hitting is not an option. Your priorities, in order of importance, are to secure points, move down builders or escape the back checkers. Generally, the best opening moves focus on securing points, particularly the valuable home board points. Let’s take a look at each of the best opening moves separately.
The 3-1 opening roll is always played as 8/5, 6/5, which secures the 5-point. First-time players might be surprised that such a low roll is considered the best opening in backgammon, after all, it only advances the checkers 4 pips. If your opponent replies with a big double, suddenly you can find yourself well behind in the race. So why is the 3-1 opening roll considered the best? There are several strategic reasons why.
Firstly, the 8/5, 6/5 move secures a point, which, on its own, acts as a barrier to the opposing checkers and also provides a safe landing point for your own checkers. Furthermore, the 5-point is a home board point which confers additional advantages. It acts as a blocking point for the opponent’s checkers when re-entering from the bar and also forms the beginning of a home board prime. On top of all of this the 5-point, on both sides of the board, is considered to be the most important point on the board. Securing the 5-point prevents your opponent from anchoring there. If they secure your five-point, it is almost impossible for you to create an effective prime.
If you are lucky enough to open with a 3-1 roll always use it to secure the 5-point. There is no other alternative, which has been proved by countless computerised rollouts.
The 4-2 is the second-best opening roll. It is always played as 8/4, 6/4, there are no other alternatives to consider, this has been proven by computerised rollouts. The benefits of this roll are similar to the advantages of an opening 3-1.
The 8/4, 6/4 move secures a point. The 4-point is also a home board point. Each additional home board point you secure gives your opponent fewer ways to enter when they are hit. That means they must play more conservatively while you get to play aggressively. Although not as strong as the 5-point, the 4-point is still a valuable point to secure. It is a place where your checkers can land safely. With excess material on the 4-point, it can be used as a launching pad for hitting blots or building points deeper in your home board. The 4-point is also good to own if you intend to build a prime. Another advantage of 4-2 is that it moves a checker off the over stacked 6-point, these excess checkers are far better off being utilised elsewhere in the home board.
The 6-1 is the third-best opening roll in backgammon. As per the other rolls in this list, there is only one widely accepted way to play the roll. The 6-1 should be played 13/7, 8/7 to secure the bar-point. In the early stages of the game, it is always useful to secure the bar-point. It is a good blocking point because it is exactly six pips away from the opponent’s back checkers. This prevents them from escaping with a 6-6. The bar-point also fills in the gap between the 8-point and 6-point, creating a 3-prime. On subsequent rolls, you would hope to extend this prime into your home board by moving builders down from the mid-point. Another advantage of this move is that you are unstacking the excess material from the mid-point.
Many beginners are surprised to learn that an opening 4-2 is a better roll than an opening 6-1. The 6-1 is a strong move as it creates a mini-blockade and prevents the back checkers from escaping with a roll of 6. However, the bar-point is not a home board point. This is the key difference. The home board point not only blocks checkers from moving, but it blocks them from re-entering from the bar. The 4-point is also still in a good position to assist in the construction of a prime.
The 5-3 is the next best opening roll in backgammon. The modern way to play this roll is 8/3, 6/3. In the days before computers, the best play was considered to be 13/10, 13/8, however, this has been proved to be wrong mathematically. Historically, players believed that the 8/3, 6/3 play to secure the 3-point was too committal. It was thought that the 3-point was too advanced to be a solid blocking point even though it was a home board point. It was also thought that securing the 3-point wasted checkers deep in the board when they could be put to better use elsewhere. Computer rollouts changed this view in the 1980s and 90s.
The advantage of making the 8/3, 6/3 play is simple, it creates a home board point. The value of making a home-board point cannot be overstated. It doesn’t have the strength of the 3-1, 4-2 or 6-1 rolls because of the 2-point gap between the 6 and the 3-points, however, it is still a home board point. Every additional home board point adds value because each point you secure is one less entry point your opponent can use when hit. Additionally, each extra point brings you one step closer to closing out your opponent. The 3-point also provides some blocking value against your opponent’s back checkers. Lastly, it removes a checker from the heavily stacked 6-point.
The 6-5 is the fifth-best opening roll in backgammon. Like the other rolls in this post, there is only one recommended move for this roll, which has been confirmed by computerised rollouts. The only way to play a 6-5 is 24/18, 18/13, which runs one of the back checkers all of the way to the mid-point. This is the only backgammon opening roll that has its own name, the Lover’s Leap. The 6-5 is the largest possible opening roll so it makes sense to capitalise on the high roll and make a running play.
It is a perfectly safe play as the checker is secure on the mid-point. The remaining back checker may be vulnerable, but until the opponent secures more home board points there is a good chance of re-entering if hit. It is unlikely to be attacked anyway unless the opponent can hit and secure the point because of the risk of retaliation.
Normally you would want to avoid stacking six checkers on a single point, but the mid-point provides a good source of material for subsequent rolls. In the next couple of moves, you would look to continue the running strategy and try to escape the back checker or move builders down from the mid-point. The rule of 8 can be used to determine the racing lead.
The first player to safely escape one of his back checkers has established a significant lead. The combination of the racing lead and safety makes the 6-5 one of the best 5 opening rolls in backgammon.