Chouette Backgammon: How to Win
by Phil Simborg, 2008
Phil Simborg
To me, the most exciting gambling game I have ever played is Chouette Backgammon. That's 3 or more players at a time playing for money—usually one against the rest. This type of play forces you to not only use your backgammon skills, but because of the use of independent cubes, your poker and bluffing and other skills as well, and a little bit of mind reading sure comes in handy.

I have played in chouettes for years with many of the best players in the world, and I have to admit that at times, I sure paid my dues to learn. But after many years of learning the hard way, I'm proud to say that many consider me to be one of the better money players in the game, particularly in chouettes.

Here are what I consider the most important strategies for winning:

  • Be the best. The number one way to win in chouettes is to be the best player in the game. That is my "trick" to winning any competition. Don't sit down at a table if you are not at least as good as all, or at least most, of the other players. If you do, prepare to pay!

  • Play for stakes you can afford. If you canít afford to take a big cube, or taking and losing means you don't pay the rent, don't play in that game. If you are in over your head, even if you are the best player, you will lose. You will be forced to drop cubes you should take, and you will be afraid to give cubes you should give.

  • Know the rules. Every chouette has its own rules about the cube, rotation, consulting, etc. Not knowing the rules can cost you money, so find out what they are before you start to play. (We even have a written set of chouette rules in Chicago so there are no misunderstand. You can email me at if you would like a copy of our Chicago Rules.)

  • Read your opponents. This is what makes chouttes the most fun. Everyone brings their own "tells" or "patterns" to the table, and reading these right, will make you money. Some players are extremely cautious with the cube (double them earlier than others). Some players love to gamble, and the higher the cube the more likely they are to take it (double them later on high cubes—they'll take anyway). Some players will take almost any cube if it is for the box, while others might drop almost any cube if it is not for the box. Some players are reluctant to hit twice and take a chance on leaving a direct shot (you can be less fearful of leaving more blots against this player). Some players will take or drop with the crowd (double these players separately if you can). Some players let you know, with their comments or body language, when they will drop or take a cube. Some players make very poor settlements (settle often with these players, particularly the bigger cubes). Many players will be more or less aggressive depending on whether they are up or down for the day (watch the score sheet and act accordingly). Since you can take advantage of a player's tells, it makes sense that they can do the same to you—so think about what you say or do that gives an edge to your opponents, and work on hiding or eliminating them.

  • The box means nothing. The "box" is the player who plays alone against the rest. People who take cubes because they want to keep the box are giving money away. I don't care what you think your "edge" is in the game, when you take cubes that mathematically should be dropped, you are giving money away. At the end of the day I know many players who are losers instead of winners simply because they "took for the box".

  • Watch, listen, and learn. One of the reasons I have often played in chouettes with players who are as good or better than I (in addition to the fact that it is fun) is that it's a real learning experience. I get a chance to see what plays these better players prefer, and what cubes they take and drop. You not only learn from the better players, they can help you make money by listening to their plays and following their cube action.

  • Money management is important. In most "sane" games with reasonable stakes, almost all the cubes are at the 2 and 4 levels. The one or two times you see an 8 or 16 cube could mean the success or failure of the entire day. You should be more inclined to make settlements on these cubes, even if you are giving away a little on the settlement. Of course you are giving away money if you drop a 16 cube that is a take—I'm not saying you should just drop it, but if it's really close, or there are lots of gammon risks, maybe you should be more inclined to drop it. The key is to try to avoid getting yourself in the position of having to decide on large cubes. When you give a 4 or 8 cube, you might be a little slower giving that cube so you are more likely to get a drop and less likely to see a recube. Conversely, keep in mind that your opponent has the same concerns that you have, and he might be more likely to drop a 16 cube that he should take—this is where knowing your opponent is key.

  • The score sheet doesn't matter. While I believe in money management, I don't believe the score sheet should matter at all. If you are plus 8 on the sheet, that is no more a factor to taking or dropping a cube than if you won 8 points yesterday, or last week, or last year. If it's on the sheet, it is "booked" and it is yours, and it should not affect your play in any way. If you let it affect your play, all you do is give your opponents a way to exploit you. (Of course I am referring here to standard money play—if you are playing table stakes or in a competition where the winner is the one with the most points, the sheet becomes critical in all decisions.)

  • Watch out for foul play. Sorry, but any time there is money involved, there is the potential for cheaters. I won't go in to all the ways people can cheat, but I can assure you that I have seen virtually all of them over the years, and I even have a list of people I will not play because I believe they are not trustworthy. Even "honest" people can make "mistakes" that can cost you money if you are not alert. People do make mistakes on the score sheet; people do make illegal moves (accidentally or otherwise) that help their position; people do have "friends" that they might not play their best against when their friend (or secret partner) is in the box. Some of the more extreme methods of cheating included loaded dice, magnets, dice manipulation, being slow to pick up dice to force an opponent to roll over if he has a good roll, late doubling after you know how the opponent is going to act, and many others. As my granddaddy once told me, "Trust everyone, but cut the cards".

  • And finally, my last sage advice: Learn from me. If you are new to chouette play, and not a very experienced backgammon player, I will be more than happy to play you (for large stakes) over the board and give you the benefit of my many years of (losing) experience. Please be sure to give me a call!

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
You can contact Phil at: or visit his
web site:

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