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Beginner’s luck.

Last updated on May 2, 2024

The Deluxe Backgammon team plays weekly in South London. Normally, we play in one of two venues, a small Italian deli or a local pub. The deli is suitable for early games, but it isn’t suited for large numbers. At most you could get three concurrent games. The deli is perfect for an early evening game over a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The pub is larger, stays open longer and the coffee and cake are replaced by pints of beer and salted nuts. In both venues, there are always people who stop by and watch a few moves. Invariably, these spectators reminisce about their playing days in the distant past or perhaps they might comment about one of our better quality backgammon sets. In this post, we recall a recent evening when we saw some extraordinary beginner’s luck.


There was one particular spectator in the deli that we would see almost every week. She was a businesswoman, aged in her forties and always immaculately dressed. She would stop at the deli on her way home from the station to pick up some groceries for her evening meal. It was always near 8 pm when she would arrive, which was just before the deli was due to close. Every time she would stop at one of the tables and make a comment. She recalled family gatherings as a small child. Her grandfather, father and uncles would raucously play backgammon late into the evenings. Unfortunately, her grandfather passed away before he could teach her the game and she had spent the past thirty years wondering what the game was all about. Every time she stopped by, we would encourage her to join us for a game, but she was always too short of time to stay.

Introduction to Backgammon

The week before Christmas last year there was a small group of us playing in the deli at 6 pm. The businesswoman walked in, much earlier than her normal time. Again, she stopped by and registered her regret at never having learned to play. Again, we asked her to play, and she glanced at her watch and nodded. She had 45 minutes to spare, so she grabbed a coffee and joined us at the table. Her name was Barbara and she worked as a project manager in the city. Colin and Roger, two experienced backgammon players, suggested they play an ‘exhibition’ game to demonstrate the rules. They would play the dice as they rolled, but would make a series of good and bad plays to explain the basics. At least that was the plan. As all backgammon players know… sometimes the dice are not your friend.

Sometimes the dice are not your friend.
Sometimes the dice are not your friend.

The race

The dice rolls were frustrating. Checkers that were deliberately left alone to be hit, were missed. The dice rolls were high, but the double rolls were all low. In the end, the game degenerated into a simple race, which is hardly the most inspiring experience for a novice. Roger won the exhibition and challenged Barbara to her first game, she glanced at her watch again and nodded.

The dice rolls couldn’t have been more different. Roger opened with a 2-1 roll, split his back pair and moved a checker down from his midpoint. Barbara rolled 6-6, she tentatively shuffled her back pair forward and then another pair down from her midpoint. Roger rolled low again and nudged his pieces around the board. Barbara rolled 5-5, hitting both of Roger’s back checkers. He only managed to get one back in when Barbara rolled 6-6. It wasn’t the last of her doubles either. Roger never recovered; in fact, he never stood a chance, the dice just simply went against him. Barbara won her first-ever game. She smiled and clapped her hands. Again, she glanced at her watch and it was time to leave. She thanked us for the game, smiled and said, ‘I didn’t think the game would be that simple’.

Beginners luck
Beginner’s luck

Mission failed

No one knew what to say, it was a clear case of beginner’s luck. How do you explain to a rank beginner that they simply won on luck? Would that come across as poor sportsmanship? Should we have challenged her to another game and hoped that the result was different?

We were hoping for another backgammon convert, instead, Barbara left the deli thinking it was nothing more than a childish game. In this instance, beginner’s luck was more like a curse.


  1. Lydia Lydia

    What are the odds of an advanced backgammon player beating a novice player? How much % does the advanced backgammon player lose a match due to bad luck?

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Lydia,

      The answer greatly depends on the length of the match. In a single game of backgammon it would be possible for a beginner to win purely on luck. However, matches will span multiple games. The longer the match, the less likely luck will have an influence on the result.

      In smaller local tournaments, matches typically span 5 to 7 points and can be completed in under an hour. In these scenarios, an advanced backgammon player playing against a complete beginner will generally win around 75% of the time.

      For weekend regional tournaments that extend over 2 to 3 days, matches are usually played to 11 to 15 points. In this case, the odds shift, and a matchup between an advanced backgammon player and a genuine beginner leans more towards an 80-85% chance of victory for the expert.

      As tournaments expand to international scales, with match lengths ranging from 17 to 25 points, the advantage for the advanced backgammon player grows even more. At this level, the advanced player’s likelihood of triumphing against a true beginner is around the 90% mark.

      However, it’s important to consider that these backgammon tournaments typically feature divisions categorised by skill level and an entry fee. As a result, very few “beginners” find themselves competing in the top sections of these backgammon tournaments. Therefore, in reality, these matchups rarely occur.

      These are all estimates, but they should be roughly correct. Thanks for your comment, Jason

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