How to play backgammon – The basics
Backgammon is a game, which uses checkers, dice and dice cup along with a doubling cube on a board of 24 triangles (points) as instruments in a small battle on the playing field.
Each player has fifteen checkers, which he sets up in the following fashion (insert starting position [position one] here) as his opponent sets up his checkers of a different color in a mirror position.
The objective of backgammon game is to move all of your fifteen pieces into your home quadrant of six points and then take them all off the board before your opponent achieves that same goal.
The movement of the pieces is dictated by the number of spots on each of the two dice rolled. As in chess or checkers only one player can move his pieces at a time and to determine who moves first each player takes one die and rolls it onto the right side of his board on the playing surface.
How to play backgammon – The beginning
The player with the higher number plays both numbers and moves either one checker or two separate checkers the corresponding number of spaces equivalent to the spots on each die. In case of a tie, each player rolls one die again until there are different numbers for each player.
The movement is as follows. You can only move your pieces forward in a horseshoe fashion. If your home board is on the right side of your board you move from right to left on the top side of the board and left to right on the bottom side. Your opponent moves in the opposite direction of you and there is a battle that takes place, as each side’s goal is to get all of their checkers into their home section of six points.
After the first move is completed, the player with the larger number on his die picks up his die and puts it back into his cup with the other die. The player who hasn’t moved yet then picks up his die and puts it into his cup with his other die and then shakes both dice in the cup and rolls them onto the right side of his board.
He then must move either one checker the same number of spaces on the board that corresponds to the number of spots on both dice or two separate checkers corresponding to each individual die. For example, if you roll a three on one die and an one on the other die you may move a single checker from the eight point to the four point (enter pos 2a here) by either moving three spaces and then one space or by moving one space and then three.
As an additional note, when moving over the bar (the raised surface dividing the two halves of the board) you don’t count landing on the bar as movement of a space. You count crossing the bar from one side of the board to the other side of the board as movement of one space.
A more insightful player or one who has experience with the game would see that you could move one checker three spaces from the eight point to the five point and another checker one space from the six point to the five point.(enter pos 2b here).
There is an advantage in moving two separate checkers to the same triangle (point) in that you then have defensive control over that point. The reason is that anytime you have two or more checkers on a single point your opponent may not land on that point. He may leap over that point using a larger number but he may not land on that point.
If a player on his second roll or subsequent rolls, rolls the same number on both dice that is referred to as a “double” and he then must move whatever that number was four times. For example if he rolls a double three, he may move one checker three spaces, four different times or four separate checkers three spaces each. He also may move any other combination of three spaces moved four times (two checkers moved three spaces twice, one checker moved three spaces and a separate checker moved three spaces three times or two separate checkers moved three spaces once and a third checker moved three spaces twice).
As long as a total of 12 spaces are moved (four movements of three spaces) for the given example of “double threes”. Obviously if the double were different, for example double sixes, then you must move six spaces four separate times to fulfill your obligations for that move.
On your move you may land on any empty point or point in which you have any number of your own checkers, but not on a space where your opponent has two or more checkers since he would have control of that space by virtue of having that “point”. You could also land on a space in which your opponent had exactly one checker.
One checker, which is also referred to as a blot, is vulnerable to being displaced by his opponent when a number is rolled that allows movement to exactly that space on the board.
Since by the rules of backgammon checkers of two different colors may not occupy the same space at the same time the checker, which newly arrives at that space now displaces the opponent’s checker and puts it on the bar.
The bar as I mentioned before is the raised dividing line between the two halves of the backgammon board is the place where you send checkers that have been displaced (hit).
In games like parchesi, sorry, or trouble you send opponents back to starting points and that is what the bar is in backgammon.
After your opponent has finished his move and picked up his dice it is then your turn again. After you roll your dice you must then attempt to enter any checkers that are on the bar.
To do this you may place any checkers on the bar on your opponent’s home board is the number of the die corresponds with any non occupied point by your opponent.
You may land on any empty space. You may land on any space in which you have a single checker (blot) or multiple checkers (point). You may land on any space in which your opponent has a blot (hitting your opponent) but you may not land on any space in which your opponent has two or more checkers (opponent’s defensive point).
The number of the point in your opponent’s home board is from six to one beginning at the point next to his bar and moving towards the bear off tray. The point next to the bear off tray is the one point. (enter pos 3 here)
How to play backgammon – bearing of:
The bear off tray, which can be different on different types of backgammon sets, is a place to put all your checkers, which you have successfully borne off. You are not required to put your checkers in the bear off tray but you are required to keep them off the playing surface, which includes any point, the bar, or other spot in the playing field.
To continue play when you have pieces on the bar you must enter all checkers on the bar before making any other moves. For example, if you can not enter at all because the number you rolled is the same as the numbered points in your opponent’s home board your play is over. That is referred to as “dancing”, “fanning”, or “bouncing”. (enter pos 4a here)
If you can only enter a portion of the number of checkers on the bar you must enter those checkers and your play is over. (enter pos 4b here) You may not use the number rolled for any other purpose until you enter all of your pieces on the bar.
Once you have entered all your checkers from the bar you may continue to move pieces in that oval horseshoe fashion towards your home quadrant of six spaces.
In the process of moving your pieces you will encounter some resistance. This may come in the fashion of a blockade. This is also referred to as a prime. Since making points is generally an asset for you then making consecutive points is usually more of an asset.
Your opponent may not land on any of your points but he may leap over those points if he rolls a number greater than the length of that prime. If you have four consecutive points he must roll a five or a six to jump over that prime.
If he rolls a three and two he may not add those numbers together to jump five spaces as he is required to move the corresponding spaces designated by each die separately. (enter pos 5a here). If he however rolls a five on a single die then he may jump over that prime. (enter pos 5b here and 5b1)
If you can make a prime of six points in a row your opponent may not jump over that prime at all since the highest number on a single die is six he can not move seven spaces.
Making a prime is not a foolproof way to win the game as your opponent will likely be trying to assemble a prime of his own to block you in. Battles such as these are referred to as “prime versus prime” battles.
How to play backgammon – additional info:
This is more of an advanced topic, which you can get into as you begin to study the game. Since this article is a basic primer into understanding how to play backgammon game, you may be interested where you can get more information on how to improve your backgammon game.
“Backgammon” by Paul Magriel is considered a classic beginner text and is highly advised reading for anyone who is interested in taking up the game. Books for more advanced players are written by such authors as Bill Robertie, Kit Woolsey, and Walter Trice.
Getting back to the basics of backgammon game, if you are successful in getting all of your checkers into you home section of six you may then “bearing-off” (removing checkers from the board).
You must have all of your remaining checkers in your home board to do this. When you roll your dice you may then remove pieces from your home board in correspondence with the number on each die or dice.
If for example you roll a six and four, you may take a piece off the six point and one off the four-point. (enter pos 6a here) If you have no checkers on your six point you may take a piece off the highest point that you have checkers on as a substitute for that highest number. (enter pos 6b here)
This is true for bearing off pieces on lowered numbered points as well. If you roll any number that is greater than the number of point of the highest number you have checkers on you can use that number to take a checker off with. (enter pos 6c here)
You may play either the lower number first or the higher number but if you play both numbers you must even if it is bad for you. (enter pos 7a here and 7A1). You may move the smaller number first even if by doing so you will not move the full number of spaces for the second die. In example 7b the player moves a two first to his four point and then takes a checker off the four point for his movement of the six. Even though he could move all eight spaces he is allowed to make this creative checker play legally and avoid leaving a blot. (enter pos 7b here).
If you can either play the larger number or smaller number but not both numbers then you must play the larger of the two numbers. In this position you would like to hit the blot on the 18-point but it is not legal. You must move (enter pos 7C here) to the 17 point and be subject to being sent back on the bar.
Bearing off against no interference is a straightforward thing but when your opponent has single pieces or points in your home board your bear off can be problematic since many of your moves may be uncomfortable and expose you to leaving blots or becoming awkward. (enter pos 8-1 and 8-2 here).
how to play backgammon; the doubling cube:
Another aspect of the game, which I have not mentioned yet, is the doubling cube. As in poker you can play backgammon as a cash game or a tournament game. In either variety there is a way of “raising” which is called the doubling cube.
Anytime it is your turn but before you roll you may turn the doubling cube from the level it is at to double that size. The advantage is that you are playing for twice the stakes but the disadvantage or that is that your opponent then owns the cube and is the only one who can then double the stakes “raise”.
The cube begins the game in the middle and stays there until someone turns the cube before their turn. For the remainder of the game the cube will be in possession of one player or another.
To a degree this i like pot limit as you can raise the pot but there are differences in that you can win or lose more than the level of the cube because of bonuses called gammons and backgammons.
The gammon bonus occurs when you take all of your checkers off and your opponent has taken no checkers off. That bonus is that whatever the level of the cube is on you win double that number of points.
Another bonus even more rewarding is the backgammon bonus, which is a triple game. That occurs when you take all your checkers off and your opponent has no checkers off and at least one checker in your home quadrant or on the bar.
In tournament play you do not need to turn the cube to achieve those bonuses but in money play you must turn the cube or have taken the double to achieve a gammon or backgammon bonus. That rule is called the “Jacoby rule” which was invented by Oswald Jacoby one of the all time great games players.
Backgammon is played all over the world and most of us have played a game or so recognizing it as the opposite side of a chessboard in many sets.
Getting back to the cube, you should understand that even though the cube has six sides and generally goes from 2..4..8..16..32..64, there is really no true upper limit to what the cube can go to as I have seen raises and re-raises “doubles and redoubles” up to the 256 level. I personally have been re-raised “doubled’ to 128 and declined to accept the cube.
You have two decisions you can make when you are doubled. You may pass and lose the number of points that the cube was on when it was in possession of your opponent or take the cube at the level it was offered to and risk losing twice as much.
For example, if your opponent was holding a cube on 4 and doubled you back to 8 you could fold “drop” and lose 4 points or take and risk losing 8 or possible winning 8. Remember of course that gammons and backgammons apply to all games played to conclusion but if a game is ended on a redouble and pass then no gammon or backgammon bonus is awarded.
If you call “take” for example you now own the cube on 8 and are eligible for and subject to gammon and backgammon penalties if the game is played to completion.
One advantage of calling “taking the cube” is that the only one who can then raise the pot “redouble” is you. You have possession of the cube and can either elect to check “hold the cube” or bet “redouble”.
In money games there is a convention that is usually played called beavering a cube. That occurs when your opponent doubles you when he thinks he is winning the game but in reality he is losing. You can then raise “beaver” the cube by turning the cube to one level higher than what he offered it to you.
For example if your opponent doubles you from 4 to 8 and either he is not winning the game or you improperly perceive yourself to be winning the game you could raise “beaver” the cube to 16.
This convention is normally accepted and in some cases at certain backgammon clubs you can “raccoon” a beaver. That is when you re-raise your opponent “raccoon” the cube after he has beavered it. In that case the cube would go from 4 to 8 on the redouble, from 8 to 16 on the beaver and from 16 to 32 on the raccoon.
Tournament backgammon is different since there are no beavers, raccoons or settlements allowed. Players play to a set number of points and the first player to win that number of points wins the match.
As stated before you don’t need to turn the cube to win a gammon or backgammon bonus in tournament play.
How to play backgammon – Tournaments:
Tournament play in backgammon doesn’t have raised blinds after time goes by as tournament poker does but as you proceed to the agreed number of points you will play to the games take on a higher level of significance and eventually it could get to a point where both players are “all in”. This occurs when at the conclusion of the game whoever wins that game will win the match.
This could occur for example when the match is played to for example 11 points and each player has 10 points, or if the match is played to 11 and the score is 3-3 and the cube level reaches 8.
Each time you win a game in backgammon whether it is tournament of cash game you win a minimum of one point. This changes when the cube is turned or there are double or triple game bonuses.
To determine how many points you win or lose at the conclusion of a game you multiply the size of the cube with the nature of the game being it single, double or triple.
For example if cube ends on 8 and you win a gammon you will win 8×2=16 points. If the cube was on 4 and you lose a triple game (backgammon) you will lose 4×3=12 points. If the cube is on 2 and you win a single game then you will win 2×1=2 points.
As I stated before there are many options out there for those interested in improving their game, which include literature and online sites you can play at. One additional tool, which I have not mentioned yet are neural nets known generally as “bots”. These programs play at a high level and can be used to as tools of analysis for single positions or entire matches or money sessions. The best of these include Snowie, Jellyfish, and Gnu.
Gnu is free and is quite capable in its playing ability but not as user friendly as Snowie or Jellyfish which cost a decent amount but are well worth the investment if you plan to study backgammon to any degree of diligence.
This concludes the primer on how to play backgammon. If you have any questions regarding this primer or the host article please email me, Steve Sax at firstname.lastname@example.org I am available for private instruction for players of all skill levels.
Play well and have fun.