Basic Strategy
Backgammon Rules of Thumb
by Phil Simborg, 2008
Phil Simborg
Over the board we often have tough decisions to make. If we truly took the time to reason through all of the variables and consider all of the ramifications of every play, it would not only take hours to make a decision, we would probably end up being very confused.

Top players don't have a lot of really tough decisions to make during a typical game. And that's because they have thousands of reference positions in their heads that generally tell them the basic strategy and decision for given situations, but also because they are constantly applying Rules of Thumb that they have adopted over the years. These Rules of Thumb help them quickly rule out most of the bad plays and decisions and generally direct them to the right decision.

I have been giving lessons to beginner and intermediate players for about 20 years, and I am still taking lessons, myself, and getting coaching from some of the best players in the world. I have found that there are certain Rules of Thumb that keep coming up over and over again, and for your benefit, I thought I would simply list for you.

If you already know all of these rules of thumb, great—just remember to use them. And if there are some you don't know, at least maybe now you know something you don't know and you can get some help from an expert or a good backgammon book and learn about it.

One of the first things a beginner learns is that the game is all about the race. So they learn, in effect, a rule of thumb that they should be aware of or know the pip count and adjust their play and cube decisions accordingly. They also learn that there are opening moves that have been proven to be best, so as a rule of thumb they will make points with 3-1, 4-2, 5-3, and 6-1, and there are rules of thumb about all other opening rolls.

Of course these rules do not apply in every situation, and if applied at the wrong time they could lead you to the wrong play or cube decision, but overall, I guarantee you that knowledge of these rules will greatly help and simplify your decision-making process.

Checker Play Rules of Thumb

  1. Always consider: Can I hit? Can I make a point? Can I safety checkers?

  2. If I have to leave blots, can I use duplication to reduce risks?

  3. Can I hit and make a point?

  4. Can I hit two checkers?

  5. Can I make a 6-prime, and if not, can I make a 5 or 4 prime?

  6. Most of the time, in the early game, if you can make your 5 point, it's the right play.

  7. Try not to stack a lot of checkers on the same point.

  8. Try not to put checkers out of play.

  9. Try to leave indirect shots instead of direct shots.

  10. Offense/offense, defense/defense (when you are in an offensive position, tend to make the more offensive play, and when you are in a defensive position, tend to make the more defensive play).

  11. If you fear being doubled, which play is least likely to get you the cube?

  12. If your opponent is on your 4 point or higher, the game is predominantly a race; if he is on lower points, the race is less of a factor.

  13. In the early game, if he has 2 checkers on his 8 point, be more inclined to split your back checkers; if there are more checkers on the 8 point, be less inclined to split.

  14. If you have more inner board points than your opponent, be more inclined to get into a hitting game, and conversely, if you have fewer points, be less inclined.

  15. If you are up in the race, be more inclined to play safe and to run. If you are behind in the race, look for blocking and hitting opportunities.

  16. Generally, it is good to slot the back of the prime. Try to make your points in order and make points together.

  17. Generally, if your opponent is at the edge of your prime, that's an invitation to hit him.

  18. If you make your ace point early in the game, tend to play a hitting game.

  19. If you are bearing off against a 2 point back game, peel.

  20. At double match point, be more willing to take a big risk if the odds are in your favor and success means you probably win the match.

  21. If you are at a score where saving gammons is important, making an advanced anchor is a priority. Avoiding back games is also a priority.

  22. If you are at a score where winning gammons is important, attempting to blitz and hit is a priority even if it risks your getting into a back game. Try to keep your opponent from making an advanced anchor.

  23. Any time you are not sure which move to make, put yourself in your opponent's shoes and ask yourself which move you would hope your opponent would not make.

  24. When considering alternative moves, think about what gets you not only the most wins and losses, but also the most gammons and backgammons.

  25. When considering moves, think about how your move might affect his or your cube decision on the next few rolls.

  26. Avoid getting into back games; try to get your opponent into back games.

  27. It is better to take risks early in the game. If you don't take risks early, you will probably be forced to take risks late in the game, when the downside can be devastating. ("Sometimes the greatest risk is to take no risk at all.")

Cube Decision Rules of Thumb

  1. Think about your cube strategy, match equity, and take points, given the score, before each game begins.

  2. Think about whether or not you should be doubling before every roll.

  3. Major things to consider about doubling are race, opportunity, and threats. Assess all three in your decision-making process.

  4. If you are thinking about doubling, apply Woolsey's Law: Put yourself in your opponent's shoes and ask yourself if you are sure if it's a take or sure if it's a drop, and if you're not sure, then for sure it's a double.

  5. If you are thinking about doubling, apply Simborg's Law: Put yourself in your opponent's shoes and ask yourself which decision causes the most pain. Would you love to see the cube or hate to see it? (The goal, in Backgammon, is to cause as much pain as possible to your opponent.)

  6. If you're not sure about giving the cube, ask yourself how you would feel if he takes it, and how you would feel if he drops it. That should give you some direction on whether or not to give it.

  7. When you are thinking of doubling, always ask yourself if you are too good to double.

  8. If you are thinking about doubling but are not sure, ask yourself how many market losers you have if you don't double to help make your decision.

  9. When you're not quite sure whether to give the cube or not, give it. You might be making a mistake not to cube, and you might be making a mistake to cube, but you only give your opponent a chance to make a mistake if you do cube.

  10. If your opponent is in a back game, and it's a money game, it's generally right to double to activate gammons. In matches, the decision is trickier.

  11. At 2-away/2-away, double as soon as you are up even slightly. If you're not sure, double anyway.

  12. At 2-away/2-away, take any cube if you think you can win 1/3 of the games or more. (Gammons and backgammons don't matter.)

  13. If it's post-Crawford and you are losing, give the cube on the first roll if you have an odd number of points (and you need an even number to win the match). If you have an even number of times, you might wait to cause your opponent to drop in error (but don't wait too long if there are gammon chances).

  14. If it's post-Crawford and you are winning, if your opponent is an even number away from winning the match, you might have a free drop. Drop even if you are behind only 1 percent.

  15. Don't forget that you are playing a human being. Take into account what you know, or think you know about that person's tendencies relative to taking and dropping cubes.

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
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