Last updated on September 27, 2023
Beginner’s guide. How to play backgammon.
In this Deluxe Backgammon post for first-time players, we explain how to play backgammon. If you are an experienced backgammon player then skip this post and look at some of our other Playing Guides. If you have never played backgammon before then this is the article for you. This post only deals with the basic backgammon gameplay and excludes the concept of doubling. Read on and learn how to play backgammon.
Backgammon is a strategy game for two players, played on a board consisting of twenty-four narrow triangles called points. The points alternate in colour and are grouped into four quadrants of six points each. The quadrants are referred to as the player’s home board and outer board. Your home board is the quadrant with your opponent’s two checkers on their 24-point and your 5 checkers on your 6-point. The home and outer boards are separated from each other by a ridge down the centre of the board. This is called the bar. Each player has 15 checkers that are laid out at the start of the game as shown in the diagram below. The player using the black checkers is playing from the bottom of the diagram.
The object of the game is to move all of your checkers into your own home board and then bear them off (move them off the board). The first player to bear off all 15 of their checkers wins the game. There is always a winner in backgammon, there is no way to draw a game.
Moving the checkers
To start the game, each player throws a single die. This determines both the player to go first and the numbers to be played. If equal numbers come up, then both players roll again until they roll different numbers. The player throwing the higher number now moves their checkers according to the numbers shown on both dice. There is a slight statistical advantage to the player going first. After the first roll, the players throw two dice each and take alternate turns. The roll of the dice indicates how many points, or pips, the player is to move their checkers. The checkers are always moved forward, to a lower-numbered point.
- A checker may be moved only to an open point. An open point is one that is not occupied by two or more opposing checkers.
- The numbers on the two dice constitute separate moves. For example, if a player rolls 5 and 3. They may move one checker 5 spaces to an open point and another checker 3 spaces to an open point. Otherwise, they may move the one checker a total of 8 spaces to an open point. This is only if the intermediate point (either 3 or 5 spaces from the starting point) is also open.
- A player who rolls a double plays the numbers shown on the dice twice. A roll of 6 and 6 means that the player has four 6’s to use. They may move any combination of checkers they feel appropriate to complete this requirement.
- A player must use both numbers of a roll if this is legally possible (four numbers for a double). When only one number can be played, the player must play that number. Or if either number can be played, but not both, the player must play the higher one. When neither number can be used, the player loses their turn. In the case of doubles, when all four numbers cannot be played, the player must play as many numbers as they can.
- A move is considered complete when the player picks up their dice. However, an incorrect move, if noticed, must be corrected before the subsequent throw of the opposing player. Once the opponent throws their dice, the previous moves, correct or incorrect, stand.
Hitting and re-entering
A point occupied by a single checker of either colour is called a blot. If an opposing checker lands on a blot, the checker is hit and placed on the bar. The bar is the dividing point between the two halves of the board (see diagram above). Anytime a player has one or more checkers on the bar, they must re-enter those checker(s) into the opposing home board. This must be done before moving any other checkers. A checker is entered by moving it to an open point corresponding to one of the numbers on the rolled dice. For example, if a player rolls 3 and 6, they may enter a checker onto either the opponent’s 3-point or 6-point, so long as the point is not occupied by two or more of the opponent’s checkers.
If neither of the points is open, the player loses their turn. If a player is able to enter some, but not all of their checkers, they must enter as many as they can and then forfeit the remainder of their turn. After the last of a player’s checkers has been re-entered from the bar, any unused numbers on the dice must be played. This can be done by moving either the checker that was entered or another checker already in play.
Once a player has moved all of their 15 checkers into their home board, they may commence bearing off. A player bears off a checker by rolling a number that corresponds to the point on which the checker sits, and then removing that checker from the board. Therefore, rolling a 5 permits the player to remove a checker from the 5-point. If there is no checker on the point indicated by the roll, the player must make a legal move using a checker on a higher-numbered point. If there are no checkers on higher-numbered points, the player must remove a checker from the highest point on which one of their checkers sits. A player is not obliged to bear off if they can make an otherwise legal move.
A player must have all of their active checkers in their home board in order to bear off. If a checker is hit during the bear-off process, the player must re-enter that checker and return it to the home board before continuing to bear-off. The first player to bear off all 15 checkers wins the game.
Gammons and backgammons
At the end of the game, if the losing player has borne off at least 1 checker, they lose one point. If the loser has not borne off any of their checkers, they lose by a “gammon” and lose two points. If the loser has not borne off any of their checkers and still has a checker on the bar or in the winner’s home board, then they lose by a “backgammon” and lose three points.
The dice must be rolled together and land flat on the surface of the right-hand section of the board. The player must reroll both dice if a die lands outside the right-hand board, lands on a checker, or does not land flat. If the dice land incorrectly, they are referred to as ‘cocked’.
A turn is completed when the player picks up their dice. If the play is incomplete or otherwise illegal, the opponent has the option of accepting the play as made. Otherwise, they can require the player makes a legal play. A play is deemed to have been accepted as made when the opponent rolls their dice to start their own turn.
If a player rolls before their opponent has completed their turn by picking up the dice, the player’s roll is considered void. The dice should be re-rolled.
Summary – how to play backgammon
This article covers all of the basics you need to understand in order to learn how to play backgammon. It is a complicated game and there is much more knowledge required to become a solid player. Please explore the related content below.
Here are some links to additional material on this site that teaches you how to play backgammon.
Detailed Backgammon rules are available on this link.
Simple rules and a PDF document.
Setup and rules FAQs are available on this link.
Rules of thumb. Overall, these rules will help to simplify your decision-making process.
Backgammon at Wikipedia.