|Introduction to Backgammon|
- Playing the Game
- What is the correct starting position of the checkers?
- How do the players start the game?
- What constitutes a valid roll? / Where should I roll the dice?
- What governs the movement and placement of the checkers during the game?
- What happens when I hit (land on) an opponent’s piece?
- How does the game end? How do I win (or lose)?
- How many points do I win (or lose)?
- How do I know when it is my turn to move?
- Do I have to move a checker if I touch it?
- What happens if a player rolls their dice before I have officially signaled the end of my move by lifting the dice?
- Is there a maximum number of checkers that can be placed on one point or on the bar?
- What is the doubling dube? / What is that square block with numbers on it used for?
- Learning to play and improve
- Tough Questions and Imponderables
Q: What is backgammon?
Backgammon is a fast-paced strategy game played on a distinctive board. Two sets of 15 checkers (light and dark) are set up in a standard mirror pattern and the players compete to be the first to move their compliment of 15 checkers around and off the board in a contra-flow motion. The numbers generated by the throw of two dice govern the movement of the game pieces (checkers).
Q: What is tournament backgammon?
Backgammon tournaments are formal competitions in which the paired entrants compete to eliminate their pre-assigned opponents. The competitors play a series of games until one player has attained (or exceeded) a predetermined number of points which constitute the match length. Points are awarded for single game wins, gammons (double points), backgammons (triple points) multiplied by the value of the doubling cube.
After each successive round the total number of players remaining is halved, until just two players remain in the final round that determines the ultimate winner of the event. The size of the total field of players and the match length varies depending on factors such as — interest in the event, and time available for play.
A major difference between tournament backgammon, and head-to-head and chouette is the absence of the Jacoby rule — gammons/backgammon do not count unless the cube has been turned. Instead, the Crawford rule (applicable only to tournaments) specifies that when one player has first reached match-point score (one point short of the winning match-length total) the doubling cube cannot be used for the following game — known as the Crawford game. The Crawford rule only applies to this one game. If the match has not been decided following the Crawford game, the option to use the cube is returned for all subsequent games, until one player emerges victorious from the match. .
Q: What is head-to-head, aka, money game?
Outside the context of a formal tournament, backgammon can be played as a contest between two players (head-to-head) or between multiple players (chouette). In these types of play there is no specific upper-limit to the amount of points which can be won or lost in each game or over a series of consecutive games (a game session). The ultimate number of points won or lost will be dependent upon the value of the doubling cube at the end of the game multiplied by the type of win — e.g., single game — one point, gammon — two points, backgammon — 3 points.
In all the above forms of money games the Jacoby Rule should be assumed to be applicable unless the players agree otherwise at the start of play. The Jacoby Rule (named after the late great gamesman Oswald Jacoby) states that the points awarded for a gammon or backgammon are only awarded if the doubling cube has been turned during the game.
Q: What is chouette?
A chouette is a popular form of backgammon, which enables three or more players to actively participate in each game and throughout the game session. As in other forms of backgammon, chouette is played between two opposing sides. In contrast to tournament or head-to-head the sides may consist of more than one player. Typically side A consists of a single player known as ‘The Box’ and side B consists of a Captain and crew (team mates). Only the Box and Captain roll the dice and move the checkers, however each member of the Captain’s crew has responsibility for their individual cube decisions. Crew members are free to accept or reject the (multiple) cubes offered by the box irrespective of the Captain’s decision. Similarly, each crew member may offer the box a cube, independent from the decision of the Captain.
If the Captain wins the game he is rewarded by becoming the box for the next game and his former position of Captain is taken by the next teammate. In return, the defeated Box then joins the Captain’s crew.
If the Box is successful and wins the game then the box is retained and the Captain is relegated to the bottom of the pecking order in the new Captain’s crew. A member of the former Captain’s crew who was next in line takes the position of Captain.
Detailed Rules govern the rotation of players on the Crew (including the criteria for new players joining the game) and the conditions which determine how many cubes the box may take or drop and the minimum net score required to retain the box for the subsequent game.
Like riding a bicycle — chouette is harder to describe than to do. It’s really quite simple once you get the hang of it and its great fun. Give it a go!
Interested players can find detailed rules and procedures for chouette via the following link: www.bkgm.com/rules/chouette.html
Playing the Game
Q: What is the correct starting position of the checkers?
The following diagram illustrates the starting position of the checkers:
[* Diagram courtesy Tom Keith of Backgammon Galore]
The backgammon board is comprised of a playing surface on which twenty-four bicolor triangular points are arranged in four quadrants each containing six points (6 × 4 = 24 points). A central division known as the bar divides the board into two halves.
From the player’s perspective, the 24 points correspond to the numbers 1–24 in ascending order from the point directly adjacent to the outer edge of the playing surface (typically the point next to the bay where the checkers are stored before play and after bear-off).
Points 1 to 6 constitute the player’s “home-quadrant”, or “inner-board”. Points 7 to 12 constitute the player’s “outer quadrant” or “outer-board”. The bar divides the inner and outer-boards of each player. The inner and outer-boards of each player are directly opposed (on opposite sides of the board).
Each player has two checkers on their (respective) 24-point, five on the 13-point, three on the 8-point, and five on the 6-point.
Q: How do the players start the game?
After setting up the board, the two players each roll a die to determine which side will play the opening roll. The player rolling the highest number must play the opening move of the game using the numbers rolled. For example Player A rolls a 6 and Player B rolls a 2. Player A’s opening roll is a 6-2. If both dice show equal numbers then the players must roll again until the dice indicate a non-doublet.
Q: What constitutes a valid roll? / Where should I roll the dice?
In formal games each player generally has their own pair of dice and must use a dice cup to ensure random fair rolls. After shaking, the dice are rolled directly out on to the playing surface to the right of the bar (from the perspective of the player on roll). Both dice must come to rest flat on the playing surface. If both or either dice have not come to rest and lie flat in the designated area then they are deemed to be “cocked” and both dice must be rolled again.
Q: What governs the movement and placement of the checkers during the game?
Checkers must be moved forward (never backwards) from a higher numbered to a lower numbered point. The dice roll strictly governs the movement of the checkers. The two numbers generated by the dice may be played in any sequence, individually with different checkers or individually, with one checker. Whenever possible the entire roll must be played, however if the position of the checkers allows only one number to be played then if possible the higher number must be played.
Checkers may only move to and come to rest on an open point. A point is closed if two or more of the opponent’s checkers occupy it. Closed points only block the movement of an opponent’s checker to that point. A checker may jump over the closed points located between the point of departure and point of rest providing that the number on each dice is played individually.
After the opening roll of the game, the throwing of doublets (both dice show the same number) is played as 4 separate numbers; 6-6 for example entitles the player to move four separate moves each of 6-points.
Q: What happens when I hit (land on) an opponent’s piece?
A single checker on a point is termed a blot. A blot is hit when an opposing checker comes to rest (as governed by the numbers on the dice) on the point it occupies. After being hit, the blot checker is placed on the bar, on which it must remain until the player being hit has rolled the prerequisite number for re-entry of the checker on to an unoccupied point located in the opponent’s home-board. Whilst a player has a checker on the bar, that player is not permitted to move any other checker on the board until the piece has re-entered the game in the opponent’s home-board.
Q: How does the game end? How do I win (or lose)?
Backgammon is a zero-sum game — there is always a winner and a loser (never a draw). The winner is the first person to remove — “bear-off” — all their checkers from the board. A player may only start to bear-off checkers once they have succeeded in bringing their full compliment of 15 checkers into their home-board.
To bear-off a checker(s) the player must roll a number that corresponds to a point in the home-board on which the player’s checkers are currently placed. From the perspective of the player, the points in the home-board are numbered from 1-6 (left to right, the lowest being the point next to the edge of the board and highest being the point next to the bar). For example a checker on the five-point can be born-off by the roll of a five. If the number of the point, which corresponds to a number rolled on the dice is vacant, the player is obligated to make a legal move (dictated by the numbers rolled) by moving a checker inside the home-board. However, if there are no checkers currently placed on the higher numbered points, the player must make their play by bearing off a checker from their next highest occupied point or by making a legal move inside the home-board. As always, if possible both numbers indicated by the dice must be played (and if only one of either number can be played, it must be the highest.)
If during the bear-off, a checker is hit, it is placed on the bar and must first be re-entered into the opponent’s home-board, then traverse around the board to re-enter the player’s home-board before any other checkers can be born-off.
Q: How many points do I win (or lose)?
The player who succeeds in completing their bear-off before the opponent wins the game. If the opponent has managed to bear-off at least one of their own checkers then the victors earn a single-point victory. If the opponent has failed to bear-off at least one checker before the victor has completed their bear-off then the winner scores a gammon — aka a double-point game. If the opponent has not managed to bear-off at least one checker and still has one or more checkers inside the players home-board, or stuck on the bar, then the winner scores a backgammon — aka a triple-point victory.
If the doubling cube is being used and is legally in play, the value of the win is multiplied by the value of the cube. For example, if the game ends with the cube indicating a stake value of 4 then a gammon win earns the victor 4 x 2-points = 8 points. If the game ends with the cube indicating a stake value of 2 then a backgammon win earns the victor 2 x 3 points = 6 points.
Q: How do I know when it is my turn to move?
A player signals the end of their turn by picking up their dice from the playing surface. Once the dice have been lifted, a player may not change their mind to make an alternative play.
Q: Do I have to move a checker if I touch it?
Unlike chess, “touch-move” is not a feature of the formal rules of the game. On their turn, after rolling the dice, players are free to move the checkers to see the resulting position, then return them to the starting position to consider an alternative. A player is free to change their move until the dice have been lifted from the playing surface.
Q: What happens if a player rolls their dice before I have officially signaled the end of my move by lifting the dice?
In tournament backgammon the rules on premature rolls vary (note difference between ABT and BIBA/MSO) so in a formal tournament it’s advisable to thoroughly check the detailed rules applicable to a specific tournament. In general however, premature rolls are void and must be re-rolled at the appropriate time.
Q: Is there a maximum number of checkers that can be placed on one point or on the bar?
Any number of checkers can be placed on one point (providing of course they are of the same colour), or on the bar.
Q: What is the doubling dube? / What is that square block with numbers on it used for?
Formal backgammon (including tournament, head-to-head and chouette) is played with a device known as a doubling cube. The doubling cube is marked on each of its six faces by numbers which sequentially increase by powers of 2 (typically 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64). The doubling cube (“cube” for short) indicates the number of points at stake as the game progresses. At the start of the game, the cube resides in the “center” and its default value is 1. Whilst in the center position, the cube is accessible by both players. During the course of the game either player may exercise their option to offer their opponent a double providing that it is their turn to play and they have yet to roll the dice. If the player has decided to roll and subsequently rolls cocked dice, they may not then change their minds and offer a double prior to re-roll.
To offer a double, the player “on roll” picks up the cube from its resting location, lays down the cube with the number 2 face-up on the playing surface in front of the opponent and clearly confirms the decision with words to the effect “I double”. The opponent (the player being doubled) is free to accept or reject the double.
If the cube is rejected (aka dropped) then the current game has been conceded by the player rejecting the cube and the player who offered the double claims a single point victory. The checkers are then re-set for the next game to begin.
If the cube is accepted (aka taken) then the player taking the cube, places it on their side of the board and earns sole right to offer a re-double (aka re-cube) at their own discretion later in the game. After the double has been accepted, the game proceeds with the player who offered the accepted double rolling their dice.
The player in possession of the cube may exercise their option to offer a redouble to a value of 4 immediately prior to their turn to roll the dice for the duration of the game. The option, procedure and protocol for redoubling, accepting or rejecting the cube continues until the game ends. Each accepted redouble increases the value of the stake being played for by a power of 2 and there is no limit to the amount of redoubles. If a redouble is dropped the player who rejects the cube forfeits the current game for the value indicated by the cube immediately prior to the offer of the redouble.
If the game proceeds to the bear-off phase, the value of the win (i.e. single, gammon or backgammon) is multiplied by the value of the cube.
Note: also see the sections on tournament, and head-to-head for further details pertaining to specific rules for doubling in the tournament or money-game context.
Learning to play and improve
Q: I want to learn how to play backgammon (or improve my game) — what’s the best method?
Like any activity there are a variety of ways to learn the game. The best method is dependent on the student’s personality, ability, likes and dislikes. For example, some people are natural book learners, others learn better by observation or through interactive instruction. The ideal option is probably a combination of the above.
In general the successful development as a backgammon player will depend on practice and study. Ideally, practice should be against an opponent, either human or a computer player. In the big cities, skilled opponents can typically be found at a local backgammon club (see Australian list of clubs). Thanks to the advent of the Internet, a ready supply of opponents can be found around the clock on numerous game servers. Membership and access to some servers is free, whilst others charge annual subscription fees. For a free to play site — FIBS (First Internet Backgammon Server) is a good place to start — www.fibs.com
Alternatively an ever-ready expert opponent in the form of backgammon software can be downloaded to a personal computer. Many strong programs are available both free and commercial:
- Jellyfish, the first commercial neural-net program:
[No longer available]
- Snowie, a stronger commercial program:
- GnuBg, as strong as Snowie, but free:
- BGBlitz, the Swiss army knife for backgammon:
Q: What is the best book? / Where can I get it?
For those who enjoy book learning, a variety of books have been published on all aspects of the game. Some books are firmly targeted at the absolute beginners market, others to the needs of the more experienced players.
Backgammon books are typically hard to find on shelves of Australian bookshops, however most can be ordered with relatively little hassle from overseas suppliers and Internet suppliers. A good source for backgammon books could be your local library. If you don’t see a specific title on the shelf, there is always the possibility of ordering a specific book from other libraries via an Inter-library loan (a small fee of about $2 may be applicable).
The following non-exhaustive list of books is provided as a general guide. See the Reference section of this site for suggested retailers.
Absolute beginner/total novice
Know the Game, by Glen Titley — Although little more than an elaborate pamphlet, this slim inexpensive book is often available via Australian bookshops or contact Mark Driver at the Mill Hill Backgammon club. The book provides a brief overview of the rules, how to play and some basic tactics and strategy.
The Backgammon Book, by Jacoby and Crawford — Now dated and out of print but this general primer for beginners should be easily found through your local library.
Backgammon, by Paul Magriel — Generally considered to be the bible of the game. Published in the mid-70’s this book was the first to systematically assess, describe and present the deeper strategic and tactical concepts of the game. Available from overseas suppliers, (or occasionally second-hand via Ebay) for about US $45 plus postage. Well worth the price for any serious student — highly recommended.
Starting Out in Backgammon, by Paul Lamford — Published in 2000, its probably the best modern beginners book on the market. Despite its modest title and price the author does a great job of taking the beginner firmly into the realm of the Intermediate level player. The sections on the doubling cube are easily digestible with more detailed coverage than Magriel’s bible.
501 Essential Backgammon Problems, by Bill Robertie — This book is good value (even more so if you borrow it from your local library) and packed with basic and challenging positions which span the whole gamut of the game. A great reference book through which beginners and Intermediates will significantly expand their portfolio of positional knowledge.
Advanced Backgammon, (2 volumes) by Bill Robertie — The standard advanced text since the early 90’s. Although the book contains numerous errors in analyses, experienced readers should still gain general benefit from Robertie’s text. Many of the errata are analyzed and corrected in Jeremy Bagai’s Classic Backgammon Revisited (along with the serious errors contained in Magriel’s Backgammon, Jacoby and Crawford, among others). Given the relatively expensive price tag of Modern Backgammon, Robertie’s latest book for the advanced student, Advanced Backgammon is a much better investment.
The Internet is an excellent low-cost resource for the study of backgammon. Numerous free and a couple of ‘pay-to-view’ sites contain a treasure trove of knowledge. The mainstream backgammon discussion group rec.games.backgammon (easily accessible via Google) has been a popular forum for both serious players and the odd crackpot troll since 1992. An archive of the best posts is housed on Tom Keith’s excellent free site Backgammon Galore, which is also a good starting point for further online research. Mel Leifer’s Gammon Links, housed on the Chicago Point site is probably the most extensive list of online backgammon resources.
Two commercial sites (membership subscription) — Gammonvillage and Kit Woolsey’s Gammonline [no longer available] cater to the needs of the serious student, packed with expert articles and annotated matches on all aspects of the game.
Tough Questions and Imponderables.
Q: Is backgammon the world’s oldest board game?
Many researchers have made this claim for backgammon. Similar claims have been made for other games such as Chess, Go and Mancala. Aside from scant physical evidence a problem with these assertions is that they tend to side-step important issues such as specific definitions and characteristics of a game and thus ignore the process of evolution. For example, what are the appropriate defining characteristics of backgammon? If we include the doubling cube for example, then the game is no more than 80 years old. If we define the game by the physical design of the board and pieces then its ancestry can be pushed back a thousand years or so. But to claim backgammon was played by Ancient cultures requires a very loose definition of the game. The same arguments may apply to other rival candidates.
Q: Is backgammon a game of skill or chance?
Backgammon is a game, which contains ample elements of both skill and chance. The exact ratio of skill to chance is impossible to determine and is a highly complex issue as the element of chance impacts on, and enhances the diverse range of skills necessary to master the game (if that is at all possible).
Q: Which game is more skilful, chess or backgammon?
Hmmm, haven’t you read the above? All right since you asked and since we are a backgammon site — the answer is of course, (drum roll), Backgammon! (well Duh).
Not convinced? Okay, here’s some fuel for the debate -
Chess was among the first strategy games to be mastered by a computer. Backgammon was among the last. In Chess, world champions regularly fail to beat the best computer programs. In backgammon the World champions (and far lesser players) regularly beat the best programs.
In chess, the players have the simple choice to move a single piece per turn. On every turn, a backgammon player may be confronted with the choice to move one, two, three or four pieces (taking doublets into account), and on top of this, the option to increase the stakes of the game by a factor of two. The player being doubled has tough choices to make when it’s not technically even their turn to play!
In a game of chess each player faces a single opponent. In contrast the backgammon player always faces at least two opponents — the rival player and the dice. And let’s not forget about chouette!
Many backgammon champions started out in chess (and other games) but moved to backgammon for a greater challenge!
Q: Who is the best backgammon player in the world?
The World Backgammon Championships are held annually in Monte Carlo. The winner of this event is crowned World Champion. However the format and inherent limitations of such events provide less than ideal conditions to determine the ultimate superiority of the victor. Alternative methods of ranking players include the Giants of Backgammon list in which top players are ranked and rated by their peers. This and other alternative formats of ranking skill all contain significant design bias and preclude an authoritative answer.
Q: How can I beat my dad/mother/brother/sister/friend at the game?
Practice makes perfect — so the old saying goes. But like most aspects of the game, the reality is not quite so simple. Perfect practice makes perfect is probably more accurate, but what makes perfect practice is difficult to answer. Success at backgammon requires fluency and mastery of many concepts. Some people seem to have a natural talent for the game, while others may require intense and prolonged study before their efforts are rewarded and their goals achieved.
However, suppose after following the advice of two-times World Champion Bill Robertie “Study and practice”, you succeed in trouncing your nemesis in a twenty-five-point match. The very nature of the game allows your opponent to shrug off defeat by putting it all down to the cruel nature of their dice — “Ah you just got unbelievably lucky!”
It’s a great game this backgammon isn’t it?