To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (circa 1600)
Shakespeare must have been a backgammon player; he mentions the game in his early comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1590) and the excerpt quoted above from Hamlet is analogous to scenarios in backgammon where you have a critical choice to make… the decision, the consequences and the aftermath. So… to hit, or not to hit, that is the question.
In almost every game of backgammon we are faced with positions in which we can hit our opponent. Often the decision to hit is obvious but when the numbers can, instead, be used to cover one of your blots, make a new home board point or fill a gap in a prime, is it is even correct to hit at all?
In other types of positions, when we have a choice of hitting this blot or that blot – which is the better hit?
These are truly tough questions to answer and with millions upon millions of possible positions in backgammon even professional players frequently make errors when confronted with these decisions. Nevertheless, in this article we will attempt to provide you with some guidelines and tips on the topic as well as show you some typical (and not so typical) examples of when it is right to hit or not to hit.
First, some general guidelines:
- The strength of your board compared to your opponent’s. If you have the stronger home board or the better prime it is often correct to hit. If you have the weaker home board or prime, and your opponent will have many return shots, you might want to abstain from hitting for now.
- Position of anchors. If you have a good advanced anchor in your opponent’s home board, on the 20 or 19 point for example, it is usually correct to hit elsewhere on the board because if your opponent hits you back, you have a safe landing spot to come down on from the Bar.
- Blots versus blots versus returns shots. If you hit, how many return shots does your opponent have to hit you back with, and do you have other blots that can be hit, more of them than your opponent has? If there are many return shots and you have several blots lying around the board, it might be better not to hit.
Now for some tips:
- When you have a choice of hitting a checker or making a point, unless the point is crucial one, most often it is better to hit instead. An example of “crucial” is when you are behind a strong prime without an anchor – you probably should make the anchor unless hitting the opponent puts him behind a strong prime or against a strong home board of your own, which might keep him dancing on the Bar long enough for you to anchor up or even escape from behind his prime.
- When your choices are to hit or close a gap in your prime (especially a six-prime), usually it is best to make the priming play. Exceptions to this depend on the position, but sometimes you should not prime if it means leaving blots stranded behind an opponent’s prime, and you might also not want to prime if instead you can hit two of your opponent’s checkers.
- When you have a choice of hitting one checker or another it is usually correct to hit the one that will lose your opponent the most in the race and especially one that is slotted in his home board that he is threatening to make a point with.
- Similarly, if your opponent is trying to prime you back somewhere on the board and has slotted a gap in the prime, that he might cover on a next roll, hit the slotted checker rather than hit the one that loses him more in the race – at the same time, this play will also help you to escape from his prime.
Hitting two checkers:
- It is almost always correct to hit two checkers with the same roll when the opportunity arises. This is a very strong play as it allows you to do many other things while your opponent is trying to come down from the Bar.
- Examples of other things you can do are: escape your back checkers; bring builders to points where they can be used to make new home board points and keep your opponent on the Bar longer, or close him out; and, hit more blots.
- Reasons not to hit twice with the same roll: if you already have a strong home board and can hit only one checker in your home board and make a new home board point by hitting it, this is often the better play; if you can close a new point in your prime, especially a six-prime, sometimes it can be correct but first take into consideration any remaining blots elsewhere that can be hit and the strength of your opponent’s home board.
Hitting too many checkers
- Sometimes it is actually wrong to hit too many checkers. Of course, normally you want to hit as many as you can to win a double gammon or a triple backgammon but once you have hit, let’s say, five or six checkers, try to look ahead at what impact hitting a seventh or eighth blot will have on the current position.
- There are two particular scenarios. The first is common when your opponent is playing a backgame and needs to time it well in order to still have points made in his own home board if he does hit you. Thus, he can hold you back there while he runs home with his other checkers. So if you see your opponent offering more blots to be hit somewhere, examine the position before hitting them and avoid helping him to play a well-timed backgame.
- The rarer scenario, and second reason it is sometimes wrong to hit too many checkers, is that it can lead to a risky bearoff. If for example, your opponent is anchored on your 1 point and has three, four or more checkers on the Bar, as you clear points in the bearoff, he will gradually come down from the Bar onto the 1 point or other points you clear. However, there is always a chance you will be forced to open a blot, and with too many checkers on the Bar, your opponent will stay up there longer, and might have extra opportunities to hit a shot from the Bar. So calculate your chances of scoring a gammon or backgammon and hit the checkers you need to accomplish the objective, but do not get too greedy otherwise you might lose the game due to the rare phenomenon of “stones falling from the sky”.
- Finally, try to figure out your chances of winning a gammon if you do hit, and what they would be if you don’t hit. Usually there will be more gammons won if you do hit, even when compared to a non-hitting play that appears to have slightly better game winning chances. If the difference in game winning chances is miniscule, opt for the hitting play and go for the gammon.