Backgammon Tips

I started composing a list of backgammon tips, but I realized that most of these tips were for intermediate or advanced players. With no offense to anyone in particular, several people I've played are pretty much beginners. Some don't even know all the rules. So I thought I'd write up a few very basic tips. Most of these tips originated with either Kit Woolsey, Kent Goulding, Bill Robertie, or Paul Magriel. Many of them came from the magazine Inside Backgammon, published by Goulding and Robertie. Unfortunately it's not published anymore, but back issues are available. I highly recommend it. It's not cheap, but it's one of the best sources of high-level backgammon analysis and thinking.

Guide for Beginners

  1. For those who don't know, you can redouble. When your opponent doubles you to two, you can redouble to four anytime it's your turn to roll.

    In particular, consider a match to 3 where you are trailing 1-0. Your opponent doubles, and you take. You should always turn the cube on your next roll. What do you have to lose? If you lose this game you lose the match, so why not be sure to win the match if you win the game?

  2. The break-even point for accepting a double is about 25%. That is, if your chances of winning the game are at least 25%, you should take. Why? Suppose you play 4 games in which you're doubled. If you drop every time, you'll lose 4 points. If you take and win 25% of the games, one of four, you'll win 2 points and lose 6 - a net of minus 4. So it evens out. Of course, this doesn't consider gammons (if you have a significant chance of getting gammoned, you're more apt to drop).

    Owning the cube is worth something. By "owning" I mean, having the right to double but your oppoent doesn't. Suppose your opponent is on roll with checkers on his 5 and 6 points. You have 3 checkers on your 4 point. Your chances of winning the game, if neither player has doubled, are zero. He should double, and you should drop. If, however, he's doubled, and you've taken, you still have about a 14% chance to win the game. So don't double with a small lead.

    At the same time, don't wait until the game is iced. Consider the position in the previous paragraph. If you are the player with two checkers on, double. Why give your opponent a free chance to get lucky? And if he happens to (wrongly) take, be happy! And if he takes and you lose the game, well, that's the luck factor in backgammon.

    I'm not saying that it's easy to determine what your win percentages are. In a racing position, most experts pretty much know, but other positions are far more complex. But you have to know the guidelines. I've noticed one thing. Playing on the zone, I usually won't double unless I have a stronger advantage than I would against a real-life player I thought was as good as I am. I don't want to give an opponent too much chance to get lucky and get two points, when hopefully I can grind him down. What that means is that it is almost never right to accept a double I give. But time and again players take my doubles.

    A somewhat crude guideline for doubling in long races (at least 60 pips remaining) is that the player on roll should have about an 8% lead to double, and you can take when up to about 12% behind. So if you have 70 pips left and your opponent has 76, you have enough to double. He should take if he has about 76 to 78 pips left, and drop if he has 79 or more. Of course, these are guidelines. If your checkers are well-spaced, rather than being stacked on one point, that makes you more apt to double or take, and vice versa.

  3. (This tip is likely to cost me a lot of matches. I mean, a lot. I'm amazed at how many players don't know it.)

    Always double when it can't cost! Suppose you are down 2-0 in a match to 3. You win the next game, the Crawford game, and are now down 2-1. There is no reason not to double on your first roll of the next game! If you lose the game, so what? Losing 4-1 and losing 3-1 are the same thing. But this way, if you win the game, you win the match.

    I've heard some players say, "I want to wait until I have a big advantage, maybe I'll get my opponent to drop." But this can't be right. Consider this.

    Suppose you reach a point where you are even 90% likely to win the game! Say you double and your opponent drops. The score is now 2-2 and you have a 50% chance to win the match. But suppose you had already doubled. You now have a 90% chance to win the match, because this game decides it!

    There is another situation where this concept comes into play. Suppose you are trailing 1-0 in a match to 3 and your opponent doubles. Let's say you decide to take. Redouble right away! If you lose the game you lose the match, so why not set yourself up to win the match?

  4. Don't always make the safe move! You've doubtless noted that I often hit in very unsafe positions. Does this always work? No. And my hits are probably in the category of "Trained Professional—Do Not Try This Yourself At Home." I know when to and when not to. But, for example, I've seen many players play an opening 4-1 with 13/8. This can't be right. Of course you might get hit sometimes, but in the long run it will help you escape your back checkers and start to make points in your inner board.

  5. One terrific value in learning how to play backgammon online is Kit Woolsey's GammOnLine backgammon magazine. GammOnLine is no longer actively published, but for a one-time payment of $36 you get access to all 53 issues of the magazine. There are two current features, which are also great. One is the online backgammon match. Each day, Kit rolls the dice, makes a move, and explains his reasoning. He then rolls the dice again and the reader vote on how to play the roll. There is also a bulletin board on which backgammon readers can discuss backgammon topics, and the OLM (online match) is often a topic of discussion between players. Considering that Kit is the #5-ranked backgammon player in the world and that Neil Kazaross, the #2-ranked backgammon player, is a regular contributor to the discussion forum, you can't help but learn a tremendous amount.

    Another great resource is to get one of the computer backgammon programs. If you're serious about your game, there is no alternative to not having one (Especially that there are very strong and free programs now).

When There's an Upcoming Double

The doubling cube is key to backgammon. You can't win a game if you drop a cube, but you can't take cubes when you are too far behind in the game. If the game is on the verge of one side or the other doubling, consider these four rules before making a move:

  1. If you think your opponent should double after the move you make, look for a play that will make him not want to double.

  2. If you think you should pass a cube after the move you make, look for a play that will make your position strong enough to take.

  3. If you don't think you should double after the play you make, look for a play that will give you a correct double.

  4. If you think your opponent can take after the play you make, look for a play that should make him drop

Guide for Advanced Players

  1. Always have a plan. The plan may change from one roll to the next, but always be focusing on how you can win the game, or if a loss is very likely, how to save the gammon. Identify the main thing(s) you need to do. Do you need to escape your one back checker? Then run if you can, even if into a double shot. Are you trailing badly in the race and need to contain your one opponent's straggler? Then slot, or hit, aggressively. Don't let yourself just drift into untenable positions.

  2. Learn how to use match equity tables and make your match doubling and taking decisions based on them. Since most players on the Zone play relatively short matches, there are a limited number of distinct situations that will arise. Learning the proper doubling strategy for each score can make a huge difference in your won-loss record. One of the most common questions asked is, "How do I increase my rating?" Most players want to know some secret trick for what opponents to play or what match lengths, but it's must better to just win more matches. Winning just 5% more of your 3-point matches will increase your rating about 100 points.

  3. When you must leave a shot, put your checkers where they will do the most good if not hit.

  4. Woolsey's Law for doubling: "Put yourself in your opponent's shoes. If you would even think of dropping if doubled, then it must be a good double." Don't be worried that he will take. If it's a good double, you're happy to play with the cube on 2. Corrolary to Woolsey's Law: "If you never turn the cube, you never give your opponent a chance to make a mistake." Backgammon is not won by brilliant plays. It is won by the player who makes the fewest mistakes.

  5. Never make a move until you have identified at least one or two viable alternatives. The worst checker play mistakes are not made by choosing the second or third best option from the list of the best 3. They are made by not even seeing the best move.

Tips of the Week