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Fundamental principles and strategic goals

Backgammon is a game that combines luck and skill. Against bad luck - which is determininate by the dice - you can do nothing. But in the long run, the dice will break even and the players, who will make the superior checker play and cube decisions will win.

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Because of the luck factor, the best players can lose to the worst players in the short-run, there is nothing they can do about it, because luck is an important and decisive factor in backgammon. But if they play hundreds or thousands of games, the player who plays poorly and makes consistently the inferior moves, will have no chance. 

A former world champion of chess and one of the best players of all the time - Michail Tal - once said, that he usually watches the beginner lessons in the Russian TV, simple because it helps him not to forget the universal strategic principles, that are essential to be successful in chess. Even the best players will lose, when they violate these standards, simply because these strategic principles are the logical and universal basics for chess.

In a sense this is also true for backgammon. There are a lot of strategic guidelines / rules, that are essential to be successful in this game. You should always bear these general rules in mind, because during a backgammon game it will often help to make the best moves.

It is important to mention that these rules sometimes conflict with each other in certain positions. You must weight the different factors against each other and decide which are more important. This is often very difficult to achieve and even the best players sometimes have great difficulties in this area. Please note, that each point is just as important as the other and the order has nothing to do with their importance.

Advanced Anchor

It is strategically very advantageous to have an advanced anchor. This is very important goal, when there is still contact. You should try to accomplish this goal as soon as possible. This is consistent with the concept to mobilize your checkers on the 24-point in the early stage of the game. To own an advanced anchor has several considerable advantages:

  • Your checkers are closer to home.
  • It is much harder for you opponent to build a potent prime to restrain these checkers.
  • As long as you keep your anchor in your opponents home board you always have a fine landing place for your men, in case you get hit and must enter from the bar.
  • You control the outfield, where the enemy checkers move to the home board, often you will get shots from your anchor.
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Break or keep contact

This is a very simple and obvious principle, that it is unbelievable how many players violate this easy to understand concept. To make things crystal clear: Whenever, after your move, you have a clear advantage in the race, at least 5 pips or more and the game is a simple holding game with each side having a normal checker distribution, it is right to break contact completely and transform the game into a simply race.

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Golden anchor and golden point

In every Backgammon book you can read the term "golden point" or "golden anchor" or "most important point on the board". These terms describe the 5 or 20-point. The golden point is your own 5-point, the golden anchor is the 20-point (the opponents 5-point). These are the most important strategic points on the Backgammon board for several reasons:

  • Together with your 6-point, they form the beginning of an effective prime to block the enemy back checkers in your own home board.
  • In every blot-hitting-contest you have the best possible prime with two points made (6 and 5-point) against the checkers your opponent must enter from the bar.
  • The best possible case, is a 6-prime or a closed board against the enemy checkers. The 5-point is the next best point (together with the 6 point which you already own) to achieve this goal.
  • If you have the golden anchor it is much harder for your opponent to build an effective prime against these checkers, compared to the checkers on the 24-point.
  • If your opponent makes an advanced anchor in your home board it is always in front of your inner board points, that is strategically advantageous for you.
  • Suppose your opponent must enter from the bar and you own the 5 and 6 point, the highest numbers on the dices. If your opponent is not able to come in from the bar (with the numbers 6-6, 5-5 and 6-5), he will waste much more pips (what is bad for the race) on average compared when you have the lower points and he cannot enter from the bar.
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Mobilize back checkers

The two most vulnerable checkers in the game are those placed on the 24-point. The reason is simple: because these checkers have by far the longest way home and these have to go through the opponents home and outer board, where they can easily be attacked or pointed on. Therefore in the opening it is a fundamental important strategy to mobilize these checkers and bring them to safety as soon as possible.

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Having a bad position

When you have a bad or a hopeless position you usually should take greater risks (to improve the position) compared to a position where you already have the superior game.

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Play safe or hit loose

Often you are faced with the alternatives to either hit loose or play safe. Some general guidelines should help you to find the right decision.

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Checkerplay against the ace point anchor

A fair share of backgammon positions result in an ace point game, so its worth to take a closer look at these positions. We will analyze three reference positions, in two positions you still have all points made and a very smooth position. In the other position, you already have the six point cleared and smooth position with your remaining checkers.

When you play against an anchor your main goals are:

  • minimize shots (including sequences in the future)
  • prepare to clear your points
  • bear checkers off

Most of the times these goals conflict with each other, so it is always a difficult decision over the board and most of the players have great problems in this area. Many factors decide the right decision and, for example, if your opponent is on the verge of crushing his homeboard in the next one or two rolls it may be right to take greater risks in keeping your prime, because crippling  his homeboard will reduce his winning chances considerably.

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Rake adjusted cube handling

When playing online, the house takes a fee (rake) from the winner of the game. So I was wondering if that can change the proper cube decision of some positions. We will look at two simple bear offs, in one position we can offer a double in the other we are offered a double and have to decide if we take.

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Takepoints and Gammon Prices in a 15-point match

This is an article from John O'Hagan, who is available for backgammon lessons at the Backgammon Learning Center and member of the US Backgammon Federation.

John has won far too many tournaments to list, and he is currently ranked No. 11 in the World on the Giants list.  He recently took 1st place in the Howard Ring Memorial Quiz, which was a pure test of backgammon knowledge and skill.  John has retired and is now devoting his time to playing and teaching backgammon-he has placed 2nd in the World Championships is currently ranked No. 1 on the U.S. ABT tour.

Below are some rules of thumb that you can use to estimate your takepoints and gammon prices (or values) in a 15-point match.  They are the combination of being simple enough to use OTB and accurate enough to usually lead you to the correct cube action.  They are based on the Rockwell-Kazaross MET.  These rules do not apply to scores where both players are within 5 points of victory (they do however apply to any score where the trailer is 6 or more away even if the leader is 5a or less).  I recommend that players memorize the takepoints and gammon values for these 5a or less scores on their own.  Also, don't use these rules for Crawford or Post-Crawford scores.

Perhaps someone smarter than me can come up with a "one size fits all" formula for takepoints and gammon values.  Something like the takepoint is 25% plus a% if a win by the opponent puts him at Crawford, plus b% if a win by the opponent wins the match with no overage, minus c% if a win by the opponent wins the match with overage, minus d% if a win by me puts me at Crawford, minus e% if a win wins the match with no overage, minus f% if I'm way behind in the match, etc.  Similarly, the gammon price formula could be 50% +/- factors a-f plus factors g and h for one being way ahead or behind in the score.  I haven't been able to come up with a formula like this, but maybe someone can?

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