Progress to World Class or even Expert play is going to depend on your natural ability and how much of your life you want to devote to the game.
Make sure you have already read the Rules of Standard Backgammon before reading this first lesson.
Throughout these lessons we will of course have lots of board diagrams illustrating positions and you need to know how to relate these to the text.
If you look at the board in the diagram above, you can see that each point has a number. You are Red and your two back men start on the 24pt, you have five checkers on the 13pt, usually known as the mid-point, three checkers on the 8pt and five checkers on the 6pt in your home board. These are the numbers that we use to describe a move, for example if you roll 6-5 and move one of your two back men to the mid-point, 24/13 is the notation we will use.
Usually we will be talking about your moves, but when we describe an opponent’s move we number the points from her point of view, so that your 1pt is her 24pt, your 12 pt is her 13pt and so on. Thus her opening 6-5 in this diagram would also be described as 24/13, not 1/12. This system is universal now, although you will find some older books that have other conventions.
Some of the points are known by name. The 7pt is always called the Bar Point, the 13pt is the Mid-Point as we have seen and the 1 and 2pts are often called Ace and Deuce. The 5pts are known as the Golden Point, reflecting their importance as the most valuable point that you can make.
Throughout this series, I will call the rolls with double numbers, 6-6, 5-5, 4-4, 3-3, 2-2 and 1-1, doublets, so that we can keep the word double solely for use in reference to the doubling cube. Non-doubles, 6-5, 6-4 etc. are referred to as singletons. In all the diagrams, you will have the Red checkers and be moving clockwise. Your opponent has the White checkers and moves anti-clockwise. Red will always be referred to as “he” and White as “she”.
Some Useful Terms
DMP stands for double match point, the last game of a match where both players are just one point from victory.
Prime, several consecutive made points, of which of course the six prime is the strongest as it can’t be jumped by your opponent.
Split. Separating your back checkers. Playing one of them to the opponent’s bar point is called a major split.
Blot. A lone checker - one that is vulnerable to being hit and sent to the bar.
Slot. To slot is to put a blot on a point that you want to make on the next turn if you can.
Loose hit. Hitting and leaving a blot in the process.
Direct shot. Any blot that can be hit with the number on a single die - 1 to 6 pips away.
Indirect shot. A blot that can only be hit by using the numbers on both dice - sometimes known as a fly shot.
Return shot. A blot that can be hit by a checker coming in from the bar.
Builders. Checkers that are poised to make an important point next turn.
Spare. A third (or more) checker(s) on a point.
We will start off by looking at play in the simplest kind of game, the one point match. There are no cube decisions to consider and winning or losing a gammon is irrelevant. These matches are often played as a side event in tournaments and also featured prominently in online play. Also of course, longer matches often end at DMP, so knowing how to play this type of game well is very important.
One other point that should be kept in mind though, is that the one point match is almost invariably won by the player who gets lucky! It is very rare for the luck to even out in the course of one game. What happens 98% of the time, is that one player gets so much luck that the skill of the players is almost irrelevant. Keep this in mind and learn to lose gracefully when it is your turn for the bad break. However, playing as well as possible can’t of course be bad. It does maximise your chances and is always more interesting than just pushing the wood around the board.
Two key aims dominate the early play in this type of game as in every other. These are escaping your back men (from your 24pt) to the midpoint and also building a prime to contain your opponent’s back men, or runners as they are sometimes called. The dice will largely decide which of these aims we concentrate on first, although sometimes we are able to make a play that makes a little progress on both sides of the board.
Let’s take a look at the best ways to play the opening roll when you get it. Backgammon is not a game in which learning set plays is useful normally, there are billions of possible positions and we need to learn ways to puzzle out the best play, but the opening roll has only 15 possible variations, so learning them by heart is both feasible and very useful.
TIP: You will find it very helpful to set the checkers out on your own board and move them as we discuss the plays. The brain absorbs written information more readily with the tactile reinforcement of the game pieces and it will also get you used to thinking of the points by their numbers. Some students also find it useful to number their boards with temporary labels.
We can start with 6-5, widely regarded by Mediterranean players as the strongest opening roll. It isn’t actually, 3-1 is the best that you can get, but it is a good one and it is always played 24/13. This play escapes one checker completely and leaves you, for the moment at least playing with one checker back. Priming a single checker will be tough for your opponent, rather like trying to catch the soap in the bath, so this is a good situation for you to be in.
6-4 is not so strong, one pip fewer (never forget that backgammon is essentially a race game) and it also doesn’t achieve the clean escape that 6-5 manages. There are three possible ways to play it. The first is 8/2, 6/2 but in this type of game it isn’t worth considering. This play comes into its own when the cube is in use and is particularly strong when gammons are important to you, e.g. when trailing in a match. We will look at it in more detail later. In the one-point match you can either play 24/14, or you can try 24/18, 13/9. These plays are almost equally strong, but they tend to lead to quite different types of game. The running play of 24/14 often leads to simple positions and shorter games. These are conditions that clearly favour the weaker player, whereas 24/18, 13/9 can lead to more complex and longer games that favour the stronger player. Adjust your play accordingly!
6-3 is a poor roll with which we can do little that is constructive. This is usually played 24/18, 13/10, but in fact just running out with 24/15 is probably just as good. Rather like the 6/4, the running play is best if you are the weaker player, whereas the stronger player should prefer the major split.
6-2. In the old days, 20 years ago, everybody played this roll 13/5. Slotting is often a very good tactic, but research clearly shows that the slot is not best with this roll and 24/18, 13/11 is now the universal favourite. The running play, 24/16 is second best and only some venerable clubmen still slot.
It may be useful at this point to discuss what we are trying to achieve by playing the “major split” to the opponent’s bar point. Beginners (and many Intermediates) can’t see the sense of this play and try to avoid it. “Surely”, they say, “It just invites attack? It’s sure to be hit next turn”. Yes, it does invite attack but it won’t always be hit. Only 24 numbers hit there if you split on the opening roll and with some of them, White will choose not to hit anyway. When she has to hit loose you will have a lot of return shots from the bar. When she can’t hit, having your checkers split will make her play more difficult than if you had stayed back on the 24pt. It’s true that you don’t usually want to be hit, but being hit there only costs you 7 pips in the race, while if you can return the hit, she loses 18 pips. It’s good action! This type of play is known as a contact play, or an action play, ensuring that the opposing armies engage one another. After you have played 24/18, you get a direct shot at any checker that she can’t play safely. When you stay back on the 24pt, she can play to her 11, 10 and 9pts and you only get an indirect shot which is always less likely to hit. We will be examining action plays in much more detail on other occasions.
This brings us on to 6-1 and of course this makes the bar point, 13/7, 8/7, forming a three prime and blocking White’s escape with double sixes.
5-4. Another roll that benefited from computer analysis. Old timers used to play 13/8, 13/9, known as “bringing two men down”. This is still quite a good play and has its advantages at some match scores, but for money and at DMP 24/20, 13/8 is the best play. Again, White will attack on her 5pt if she can, but it is worth the risk because like the major split, the play covers all the points on the board and forces contact.
5-3 is another roll that has moved on over the years. Most of the old books favour 13/8, 13/10, preparing to make the important 5 and 7 pts. They didn’t like to commit checkers to the 3 and 2pts until they had made the higher points in their board, i.e. the 5 and 4pts, so they ignored the obvious 8/3, 6/3. This is now known to be clearly best and the second best play is actually 24/21, 13/8. The old players liked very flexible positions with lots of spares and builders, so that a lot of rolls played well. This is an excellent principle but making a point on the opening roll is very strong and worth a little inflexibility. This is a topic that we will come back to time and again throughout these lessons, as it lies at the heart of good play.
The old masters used to bring two men down with 5-2 as well, 13/8, 13/11 and it is still a very strong play. Fashion has switched to 24/22, 13/8 and I marginally prefer that at DMP and when leading in a match, but there is very little to choose between the two plays. Note that playing 13/6 is awful, safe this turn but leaving you no further forward than before. When the dice don’t allow you to make a point on the opening roll, you must take steps to create some problems for your opponent and open up some more good rolls for yourself on your next turn. Later on in the game, when your opponent’s home board is strong, it is sometimes right to avoid all risk, but not here, where your opponent still has a weak home board.
5-1 is an interesting roll. You can split the back checkers, 24/23, and play 13/8, or you can slot your own 5pt, 13/8, 6/5. There is very little to choose between these plays, although here at DMP the split is thought to be marginally better, so the choice usually comes down to what type of game you want to play. The slot is believed to create more difficult games, thus favouring the stronger player and this is probably true. As a beginner you should therefore prefer to split, but just bear in mind that you will eventually have to learn to play the slot as well, so take opportunities in practice games to experiment with both plays. A third interesting play that had a short vogue in the pre-computer days is 24/18, but analysis has shown it to be considerably weaker.
4/3 is a difficult roll and has at least four alternative plays to go with it. Which you choose depends largely on the score. At DMP the master play is 24/20, 24/21, although this is still not widely known or used! Not only is it best, it has the added advantage that its unfamiliarity will create problems for your opponent. The other credible alternatives are 24/20, 13/10 or 24/21, 13/9, equally effective variations on the “one down and split” theme and there is also the more attacking 13/9, 13/10. All of these have their merits in match and money play and we will look more closely at them in later pages.
You may well be asking, “It’s all very well for him to say, ‘this play is better than that play’, but how does he know? On what is he basing his opinion?” All these opening plays have been exhaustively tested by powerful computer programs that have tried out these plays thousands of times. This process, known as a rollout, is the most effective way that we have to establish the truth of a position.
4-2 is one of the best opening rolls, played 8/4, 6/4. No other play is remotely close, although cafe players sometimes try 24/20, 13/11. Don’t copy them.
4-1 is one of the very weakest rolls. The commonest plays for this are: split 24/23, 13/9 or the more aggressive slot, 13/9, 6/5. They are thought to be about equal in strength, but stronger players often slot to seek complexity. Weaker players should probably split. If you want interesting experimental plays 24/20, 24/23 has a lot of merit, particularly at DMP and the double slot 24/20, 6/5 can lead to a very volatile exchange of hitting. Try these out for fun, but probably best to stick to the mainline plays when it is important for you to win.
3-2 has only two plausible alternatives, 13/10, 13/11, best for money and match trailers and 24/21, 13/11, probably best for match leaders and at DMP as here. Moving13/8 is not acceptable!
3-1 is the prince of rolls, making the golden point, 8/5, 6/5. No other play should ever be tried.
Finally, we have 2-1, the smallest of all the rolls and possibly the weakest. Like most of the other rolls that don’t make a point, you can split 24/23, 13/11 or slot 13/11, 6/5. As you might expect, the slot is a bit more difficult to play against, so stronger players usually prefer it. Moving 13/10 is relatively safe but weaker.
That’s all for this time. In Lesson 2, we will start to look at the plays that follow the opening roll and the principles that guide our play in games played without the cube. Before you go though, it’s homework time! Quiet at the back there! I want you to study these paragraphs about probability very carefully.
Maths plays only a very small part in the make-up of a good player, but you do have to know about basic probability, as this lies at the heart of all the decisions that you will need to make. The game is played with two dice numbered from 1 to 6. This means that they can fall in any one of 36 ways, every face of one die paired with every face of the other, 6 x 6 = 36.
From this we can construct the chances of everything that can happen on the next turn, or next several turns if we need to do that. We often want to know the chances of hitting a shot or the chances of entering from the bar for example. Is every number equally likely to appear? Actually, no. All the doublets have a 1 in 36 chance of coming up, but all the singletons appear twice in every 36 rolls. If you find this hard to grasp, just imagine that you have a red die and a green die. Take the roll of 2-1 for example and you can see that it can be made by a red 2 with a green 1 or by a red 1 with a green 2. The table below should make this clear.
From this grid, you can make charts for yourself that give the chances of everything that can occur. A very useful one to make is a list of the chances of hitting a blot when it is x number of pips away. Starting with a blot one pip away, you can see from the grid that 11 of the 36 boxes contain a 1, so the chances of hitting a blot 1 pip away are 11/36. A blot 2 pips away can be hit by any 2 of course, but 1-1 will also hit, so the chances of hitting a blot two pips away are 12/36. Carry on with all the numbers up to 24, assuming that none of the points in between you and the blot to be hit are blocked. Why don’t I just make the chart for you? Because if you do it yourself, you are much more likely to remember it!
We have covered a lot of ground this time, so don’t expect to take all this in at once. Read and re-read it and it will all start to make sense, I promise. Later on, all this will be second nature to you and what is now a blur will become clear. Until next Lesson 2, enjoy the game!