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Backgammon basics: the pip count

Last updated on October 9, 2021

Beginner’s guide. How to play backgammon.

This is another post in our Deluxe Backgammon series for beginners. Today we are going to take a look at the pip count and discuss how understanding this concept can make you into a better backgammon player. The total number of pips (or points) that a player must move his checkers to bring them all home and bear them off. At the start of the game, both players have a pip count of 167. This number will change as the game progresses. In general, the pip count will fall, but it is possible if checkers are hit for the number to rise above 167. The first player to get to a pip count of zero is the winner.

Pip count

Being able to calculate the pip count is a crucial skill in backgammon if you want to progress beyond a beginner or intermediate standard. As we all know, essentially backgammon is a race between two opponents to bear off all fifteen of their checkers. The winner is the first to complete this objective. Knowing the pip count lets you understand your position in the race and therefore allows you to apply the correct strategies and tactics to your moves. The rule of 8 can also be applied to tactical decisions if you know the pip count. This is a method that considers a position based on which side is ahead on the number of ‘average rolls’. As a beginner, pip counts can be intimidating because you are already overwhelmed by a myriad of new backgammon concepts. However, it is a skill you need to acquire as you will be at a significant disadvantage if your opponent is pip counting and you are not.

Definition

Let’s look to create a simple definition of the pip count. As we have already mentioned, backgammon is essentially a race. The direction of you move your checkers in this race is from the highest point on the board to the lowest. In the diagram below the black checkers are moving from the 24-point down to the 1-point, which is also called your Ace-point. In some respects, a game of backgammon is almost like a countdown. The pip count is simply a way of tracking the countdown and allows you to understand which player is ahead in the race.

Starting positions.

At the start of the game, you have a total of fifteen checkers to move across the points on the backgammon board. They have standard positions at the start of every game with your checkers stacked on top of four specific points. If you tally up the number of points your checkers need to move from the starting positions to get them off the board, you’ll get a total of 167 pips or points.

Both you and your opponent will, of course, have the same number of pips to move at the start of the game. As your checkers move forward you subtract the number of pips moved from the initial total. When a checker gets hit it gets sent to the bar. When it re-enters, it adds to the pip count since it has to work its way again from the very start. In the middle of the game, it is not unusual to see a pip count higher than the starting amount of 167.

Pip counting

If you play the game online or electronically, the pip count will be calculated for you, as shown in the screenshot below. However, if you playing a live game on a real backgammon board you will need to tally the pip count manually. You will literally have to manually count the number of points your checkers have to travel. There are a number of techniques available to this, but we shall look at these in subsequent posts.

Pip count.

If you are comfortably ahead in the pip count you generally have a couple of options. You can offer a double to your opponent or you could look to break contact with a high roll and race your way home. What you don’t want to do when you are ahead is get hit, as then you risk surrendering your valuable lead. If you are behind in the pip count you may wish to play a back-game strategy. Sometimes this will require patience as you carefully position your checkers and wait for an opportunity to hit. Ultimately, your objective will be to hit any blot so that you can catch up in the pip count.

Remember that the pip count is a useful concept that you should try and understand as quickly as possible. It will give you more options during play and enhance your enjoyment of the game of backgammon. A future Deluxe Backgammon post will discuss methods for performing the pip count.

Backgammon rules are available on this link.

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