Bearing Off


How often have you gotten into a great position against your opponent and just when you think you are about to win a gammon, you leave a shot, get hit, and suddenly you lose the game? It happens to all of us, often, and that’s one reason why Backgammon is often called “the cruelest game.”

Most of the time when this happens we wallow in sadness, wondering why we were so unlucky. But many times, many, many more times than most people realize, it was not just bad luck…it was bad playing.

Isn’t it funny how the best players in the world seem to win more often than the rest of us? Of course not! And that same principle applies to bearing off. There is a lot more skill in the bearoff than most people realize. But I will give you some basic principles and some examples to show you why you need to take your time, consider the odds, and do some study about bearing off.

Let’s start off with a very common situation where your opponent is holding your 5 point and all you have to do to win is get those checkers off of your 6 point safely and you’ve won. (See position 1).

Position 1

backgammon bearing off – position1

backgammon bearing off – position1

In Position 1 you are up 52 pips, so you don’t have to worry much about losing the race. White has an excellent board, so if you do leave a shot early enough, you are a sure loser (as White will Redouble you immediately and you can’t take the cube).

So let’s say you roll a 3-2.
I am pretty sure that most backgammon players would move a checker off the 6-point and take one off. First, you only get one checker off, whereas if you left all three checkers on the 6 point and took two off, you would have 2 checkers off. Also, if you do end up leaving a shot and getting hit, the more checkers you have off the greater chance you have of winning EVEN IF YOU DO GET HIT.

But the second reason is even more important in this situation. That’s 2 numbers (6-5 and 5-6) out of 36 possible rolls. So if you take a checker off the 6 point, YOU DOUBLE THE ODDS of leaving a shot on your next roll.
I have seen many players make this mistake, leave a shot, get hit, and then blame it all on luck. They had no idea that they had doubled their opponent’s chances at getting lucky. The better you play, the “luckier” you will be, is a very key aspect of Backgammon.

This is a very simply illustration of a key concept in bearing off. The concept is that you have to do the math.
Now, let’s take a look at another common situation. In position 2 your opponent is on the bar and you are a sure winner if you can just get your checker off without leaving a shot. Not only are you a sure winner, but with a little luck you might even win a gammon. Ah, but the dice god always has a trick up his sleeve, and you roll a 5-1.

Position 2

backgammon bearing off – position 2

backgammon bearing off – position 2

Obviously, there are only two possible, logical plays: What’s your play?

If you moved both off the 5 point, give yourself a gold star. First you get another checker off that way, and as we stated in the case of Position 1, getting checkers off helps you in case you get hit, but in this case, it also increases your odds of winning a gammon.
As I stated earlier, you have to do the math, so let’s do it. Let’s list them and count them:

6-6, 5-5, 4-4, 6-5, 5-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 2-6, 5-4, 4-5, 5-3, 3-5, 5-2, 2-5. By the way, some of the rolls that don’t leave shots, like 3-4 and 3-2 and 3-3 leave you with large gaps and the strong possibility of leaving shots on the next roll after that as well.

Now, what leaves a shot if you clear the 5 point? That’s only 7 out of 36 rolls. Maybe it wasn’t just bad luck after all that caused you to lose some of those games?

Let’s take a look at one more position to illustrate my main point…that you have to do the match. Here you have two choices, take two checker off, or take a checker off the 5 point and move the 3 from the 6 to the 3 point.

Position 3

backgammon bearing off – position3

backgammon bearing off – position3

Even though taking 2 checkers off instead of 1 is generally better, in this case it is far worse because of the odds of leaving a shot on your next roll. There are many rolls that leave a shot if you leave that extra checker on your 6 point, but there are also many rolls that do not leave a shot that are still very bad, leavings gaps in your board that greatly increase the odds of leaving shots on subsequent rolls.

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