By Neal Taparia - 09/07/2022
Backgammon is a two-player dice game in which each player aims to traverse their pieces around a board to remove them from play and win the game.
The object of the game is to remove all 15 of your checker pieces from the board – the winner is the first to do so.
The game dates back over 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and is still an extremely popular game throughout much of the Middle East and the rest of the world today.
Backgammon can be a tricky game to learn. But having a clear understanding of the rules can help you drastically improve your game.
Key rules to consider include:
Players cannot move checkers onto a point that’s occupied by two or more of the opponent’s checkers – Points that have no opposing checkers on them are free to be filled. Those with one enemy checker on them can and should be targeted as it will count as a blot and the opponent will have to spend additional dice rolls to remove it from the bar. However, points occupied by two or more opponent checkers cannot be filled.
Players must reset from the bar if possible – If your checker is blotted, you have to prioritize that checker with your dice rolls before moving any of the others in play or trying to bear-off checkers that are close to the end.
Dice roll determines which player leads – At the start of the game, each player rolls both dice and the player with the highest combined score leads the first turn of the game. In the event of a tie, both players keep rolling until a winner is determined.
Dice numbers have to be followed or face forfeits – When the dice are rolled, the numbers shown on both can be added together for use on one checker or can be split to use on two different checkers. For example, if a player rolls a five and a three – usually written as a 5-3 – the player can either move one checker eight spaces or one checker five spaces and a second checker three spaces, provided the points are free to do so.
If a player rolls a dice that results in a checker landing on an occupied point, that player forfeits that portion of the move.
Two of the same number doubles the figure – If a player rolls two of the same number, the value of each of the dice is double. For example, say a player rolls a 2-2, that player can move one checker eight spaces or two checkers four spaces as the value is now double that of the original roll.
Fill the home board - Players can only begin bearing off when all 15 checkers have reached the home board.
Only exact numbers can bear-off checkers – When a player reaches the point where they can legally begin bearing off checkers, only exact numbers can take them off the board. For example, a player would need to roll a four to bear off a checker that’s four points from the end.
If this same player rolled a three, they could move that checker three points forward, but would then need to roll a one to bear-off that checker.
However, checkers can be borne off with a number greater than the points required. For example, if a checker is three points from the end, it can be borne off with a roll of five.
Blots halt the bearing off process – If the opponent hits you – or blots one of your checkers as it’s also commonly known – this resets the checker to the bar. You cannot bear off any more checkers until the hit checker is returned to the home board.
To begin the game, players roll dice to determine which player goes first – the player with the highest value opening play. When everything is set up and the leading player is determined, the gameplay can commence.
Taking it in turns, each player rolls dice to determine how they can move their checkers around the board. Play is carried out in an anticlockwise direction.
Players can choose to split the value of each dice between two checkers or combine their value for use on one checker. They can choose to focus on moving small clusters of checkers with their dice rolls or move all their checkers together more gradually.
Depending on the players’ strategies, you can either play defensively – focusing more on blotting an aggressive opponent and keeping them on the bar – or pushing your own checkers to the home board so they can be borne off quickly.
The object of the game is for players to get all 15 of their checkers into their respective ‘home boards’ before bearing them off (removing them from the board) before the opposing player and winning the game.
Backgammon can be notoriously difficult to learn. Because of this, there are many strategies that new players adopt thinking they’re the right ones but that actually decrease their chance of winning games.
With that said, players should bear in mind the following tips to improve their skills:
Steer clear of large stacks – Typically, it’s best to spread out your checkers during play to make it more difficult for your opponent to traverse the board. Because any more than one checker on a point means it’s out of bounds for an opponent, spreading them out creates blockades and primes, limiting your opponent’s moves.
Aim for blots – ‘Hitting’ your opponent – or blotting their pieces – kills two birds with one stone. Not only do blots allow you to advance your own checkers, but they also prevent the opponent from progressing at the same time.
The golden point and golden anchor – These two points on the Backgammon board most disrupt your opponent’s progress. From the 5-point and the 20-Point, players are best positioned to build an effective prime against their opponents – making it extremely difficult to advance.
The golden anchor is also an effective blocker against someone getting all of their checkers onto their side of the board, making them the most strategic defensive options.
Commit to a strong running game… – The running game is a simple yet effective strategy. If a player has a series of consecutive high rolls early, they might want to commit to a strategy of rushing as many chips into their home board as possible – not allowing their opponent enough time to set up anchor points as a defense.
…or blitz their checkers on the defensive – Instead of running from home, players can attempt to ‘blitz’ the opponent. This means trying to blot as many vulnerable checkers as possible. Not only does this halt your opponent’s progress if they are ‘running for home’ but it has the added bonus of trapping checkers on the bar that can remain there for a long time with consecutive poor rolls.
Anchor – A point that is populated by two or more checkers inside your opponent’s home board.
Bar – The bar is the raised edge that separates each player’s outer and home boards. Pieces temporarily removed from play – like when they’ve been ‘blotted’, for example – end up on the bar until they’re freed up by a dice roll.
Bearing off – This is the process of moving your checkers off the board once you’ve got them onto the home board. Bearing off all 15 checkers before the opponent wins the game.
Blots – You can’t move checkers to a point with more than one opposition checker occupying it. However, if only one of the opponent’s checkers populates that space, you can move your own checker onto it. This means your opponent must move their checker to the bar, setting them back from pushing through to the home board.
Builder – This is any checker that is able to help set up an advantage later in the game. Builders can be placed anywhere that’s advantageous to the player in a given moment, but they’re designed to create an easier route to your home board.
Doubling cube – This is a cube that’s slightly larger than the average dice with the numbers 2,4,8,16,32 and 64 written on each of the faces. This keeps track of any changes to the stakes and helps the players tally up the points at the end of each game. The doubling cube is optional and is often excluded from online Backgammon.
Hit – A player rolls the dice as normal. If the shown number allows you to move a checker onto a point occupied by a single opposing checker, you blot the opponent and you score a hit.
Points – These are the triangles that make up the board. 24 triangles make up the entire board – 12 on the inner board and 12 on the outer board. Players must traverse these 24 points to bear off their checkers and win the game.
Prime – Players can establish a prime by having two or more checkers occupying six consecutive points. This makes it impossible for an opposing player to move past those points until the prime is broken – letting the player that’s constructed the formation dictate the flow of play.
Single game – This is a game where a winner has been determined and the losing player has borne off at least one checker. The winner receives the value of the doubling-cube, but no bonus.
Gammon – This is a game where the losing player hasn’t borne off any of their checkers, while the winner bears off all 15. As a result, the winner gets twice the value of the doubling cube.
Backgammon – A ‘backgammon’ is when the losing player of a given game hasn’t borne off any checkers and has one or more of their checkers relegated to the bar. Otherwise known as a ‘triple game’, a player that wins by backgammon gets triple the value shown on the doubling cube.
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