Backgammon Rules

by Michael Strato


There are many differant games one can play on a backgammon board, each with its own set of backgammon rules and different starting positions, but “standard backgammon” is the international version played at live backgammon tournaments worldwide, and on most Internet backgammon play sites.

Read these Backgammon Rules and you will quickly learn how to play this wonderful board game of skill and luck.

Information on other games that can be played on a backgammon board are found in GammonLife’s Variants Section.

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The Rules of Backgammon

Backgammon is a game played between two opposing sides on a board marked with 24 triangles called “points”. Each side has 15 checkers of a different colour that move in opposite directions counting the points as spaces according to the numbers rolled by a pair of dice. The player first to get his checkers around, and then off the board, wins the game.

In addition to their checkers, each player has a pair of dice and a dice cup (to shake and toss the dice). There is also a doubling cube which is initially placed in the middle of the tray on one side of the board. This cube is marked with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 and is used for doubling the stakes in a game.

Setting Up The Board

The backgammon board consists of four sections (quadrants) of six points each - the points in backgammon are also known as “pips”. The vertical strip down the middle of the board is called the “bar” and it is where checkers are placed after they are “hit” or "sent back" .

The set up of the board, the numbers of each point and the names of the four quadrants are shown below:

The board may also be set up in the reverse position of the above, like this:

Backgammon players should learn to play using both starting positions and please note that real backgammon boards do not come marked with the numbers of the points, names of the quadrants nor the word "Bar".

The next two diagrams show the direction each player moves his checkers:

As can be seen, the players move their checkers against each other in opposite directions, clockwise and counter-clockwise, leading to encounters along the way.

Starting a Game – Moving the Checkers

To start a game, the players toss only one die each and the player with the higher number must make the first move using both numbers of what is called the “opening roll”. However, if the players toss the same number, they must roll a single die again until they do roll different numbers. After the opening roll, players alternate turns by rolling a pair of dice.

To roll the dice, a player shakes them in the cup several times and then tosses them onto his right-hand side of board from a reasonable height so that they bounce and roll. The dice must land flatly on the surface of board for the roll to be valid. If the dice are “cocked”, leaning on one of their edges against a checker or against the inside wall of the board, the roll does not count and must be repeated. The roll is also repeated if one or both dice land on top of a checker and stay there, or if one or both dice bounce anywhere out of the right side of the board. If the dice land in between checkers, as long as they have come to rest flatly on the surface of board, the roll is considered valid.

A player’s furthest checkers are on his 24 point in his opponent’s home board and these and all his other checkers must move in descending numerical order towards the 1 point.

When a player has two or more checkers on a triangle he is said to own that point, and his opponent may not land on these “closed or made points” nor use them in moving the numbers of his dice roll. Thus a player’s checkers can only land on unoccupied points or those he already owns. (There is no limit to how many checkers a player may have on any point.)

And to be more precise, a player must use the exact numbers showing on the dice roll as moves. One checker can use both numbers, but as separate moves, or different checkers can use each number separately. Therefore, if a player has a 2 and 3 to play, even though there might be an unoccupied point five spaces away from one of his checkers, that particular checker cannot be moved if his opponent owns the two points that are 2 and 3 spaces away from his checker since both numbers are blocked. However, all numbers rolled must be played if possible, so he must try his moves with his other checkers elsewhere on the board.

When a player rolls the same number on both dies, such as a 5 and a 5, it is called a “doublet” or “double”, and the player gets to play that number four times instead of just two – he may move as many of the four as possible with any combination of his checkers.

Due to blocked points, on any roll, a player will sometimes be able to use only one of the numbers showing on the dice and in some cases neither. However, in a case where he can use one or the other but is then blocked to move the second number, the higher number must be played.

When a player leaves a checker alone on a point, it becomes a “blot”, and if the opponent rolls the right number or combination of numbers, he has the option to ”hit” or “send back” one or more blots, although he may choose not to hit at all if there a more strategic play available. When a player hits a blot, he must lift the checker off the point and place it on the vertical “bar” in the centre of the board. Then, on the next roll, the opponent must try to “re-enter" and “re-circulate” the checker, playing it back onto the board from the bar by counting in from the 24 point. One can only re-enter, or "come down" from the bar, onto “open points” in an opponent’s home board. If one does not roll the number(s) of an open point(s), he may not play his dice rolls with other checkers elsewhere on the board.

In the case where an opponent has filled in all six of his home board points, the player on the bar is “closed out” and does not get to roll again until his opponent does open a point he can enter on.

Please note that it is impossible that both players get closed out on the bar and that there are no draws or stalemates in backgammon.

Owning points is good strategy, and when a player makes several consecutive points in a row anywhere on the board it is called a “prime”. Primes can hinder a player from getting his checkers home while his opponent advances his own army forward. However, the shorter the prime the easier it is for an opponent to roll numbers that jump over a prime. The best is a six-point prime which is impassable although a player may continue to move other checkers not being blocked by the six-point prime, unless, as explained above, the player has one or more checkers on the bar and the six points of a home board are closed.

The Bear Off Process

Once all 15 checkers are inside the home board a player begins to bear them off according to the rolls of the dice. A checker on the 6 point can be removed with a 6 on a dice roll, one from the 5 point with a 5, and so forth. Here is where doublets can come in handy to win the race as there are times when a player will be able to bear off four checkers on a single roll.

If for example, while bearing off, a player has rolled a 5 but no longer has any checkers on the 5 point, but does have one or more checkers on his 6 point, he must move the 5 from his 6 point over to his 1 point. If he has no checkers on either the 5 or 6 point and has rolled a 5, or even a 6 for that matter, he is allowed to remove a checker from the next lower point where checkers remain.

If a player still has checkers in the home board of one who is bearing off, or that player is still on the bar, the one bearing off should attempt to make moves that do not leave blots. If a blot is exposed and is hit by an opponent, the bear off is delayed until the checker that has been hit re-circulates from the bar into his opponent’s home board on the other side of the board and back around into his own home board - in other words, one must have all his checkers in his homeboard in order to continue bearing off.

To further explain the above, if a player has two checkers on his 6 point and two on his 5 point and he rolls a 6-5, if his opponent is waiting on the 2 point for a blot to open, the player does not have to bear off one checker from the 5 point and another from the 6 point for this will leave two blots. To avoid being hit, it is perfectly legal to bear off one from the 6 point and move the other one on the 6 point with the 5 of the dice roll over to the 1 point.

When bearing off, a beginner player may sometimes arrive at a position where it appears as if he has to move both the numbers of his roll inside his board without taking a checker off, but that depends on the position – if a player has four checkers left to bear off, one on each of his 1, 2, 5 and 6 points, and the player rolls a 4 and a 3, no checker comes off, the player must move the 4 and 3 using the checkers on his 5 and 6 point.

However, if a player has, for example, two checkers on his 1 point, two on his 3 point and one on his 6 point, and rolls a 5-2, he does not have to play the 5 from the 6 point to the 1 point and then the 2 from his 3 point to his 1 point. Instead, he may first play the 2, from his 6 point to his 4 point, and then bear the checker off from his 4 point using the 5 of the dice roll.


The first player to bear off all his checkers wins the game. However, if an opponent fails to bear off at least one checker from his home board or is caught with one or more checkers still outside his home board, in the outer board areas, the winner scores a “gammon”. A gammon is worth twice the points or stakes being played for in “match play”, a series of games played up to a certain number of points, or, twice the current wager in a “money game”, a series of single games played at predefined stakes.

If the winner has removed all his checkers and his opponent still has one or more checkers in the winner’s home board, or on the bar, the winner scores a ”backgammon”, which is worth triple the number of points or current wager.

The Doubling Cube

The doubling cube is used to raise the stakes in a game. It has six sides individually marked with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 on its faces. It is not used in a 1-point match, or single game, unless one is playing a money game.

Anytime after the opening roll in match play, and before he rolls his dice, a player who believes he has an advantageous position may offer his opponent to play for twice the stakes. The doubler takes the cube from the centre of the tray and places it in the middle of the board with the number 2 face up and says “I double”. His opponent agrees to play on by saying “I take”, lifting the cube and placing it in the tray on his side of the board with the 2 showing face up. If the opponent refuses the cube, he says “I drop” or “I pass” and the current games ends with the doubler scoring the win.

If a player who has accepted a cube wishes to re-double his opponent later in the game, the cube is offered back at 4 and if taken can be re-offered later by the original doubler at 8, and so on. But for example, if the players are in a 7-point match there is no need to double higher than 8, since 8 points will end a 7-point match in the current game.

If for example, the players are tied 3-3 in the score of a 7-point match, there is no need to double higher than 4. However, the cube may go up to 16, 32 or 64 in longer matches and in money games.

When the cube has been used in a game that results in a gammon or backgammon, the winner gets wins twice (for a gammon) or three times (for a backgammon) the number of points showing on the cube. Therefore, in the example of a 7-point match, the match would end in one game if the cube reaches 4 since a gammon would be worth 8 points and a backgammon 12 points.


The Crawford and Jacoby Rules

There are a couple of additional rules regarding the doubling cube. In match play, the Crawford Rule states that when one of the players reaches a score where he is just one point away from winning the match, the doubling cube may not be used in the following game. However, if the leader does not win the match in that game, the doubling cube maybe be used by his opponent in all subsequent games until the end of the match.

In money games, the Jacoby Rule is an optional rule - players can agree to play with "the Jacoby" or not. When used, this rule states that when no cube has been offered in the money game, then gammons and backgammons do not count and do not scored as such.

Improve Your Game

Now that you know how to play backgammon get out your board and try a few games with friends or family members.

If you wish to learn how to play the game better, sharpen your skills with the help of backgammon expert Paul Money in his GammonLife series called “Beginners Please”. Paul will tell you the best way to play the opening rolls, how to calculate odds and probabilities and much more.

You can also get a free program called GNUBG that you can play against on your computer. In addition to a teaching feature, the program will also analyze your skill level and show you where you made errors. You may also use it to analyze yourself and others you play against on the Internet, if the server where you play allows you to save a "match file". To download the program and to learn how to use its many features please see Robert-Jan Veldhuizen's GNU Tutorial.



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