The Tactics of the Game
Barclay Cooke and Jon Bradshaw, 1974
From Backgammon, the Cruelest Game, Chapter 3, pp 50–63

Note: This article was written in 1974 and some of the recommendations it contains do not fare well against the scrutiny of modern computer analysis. You can view a rollout of any illustrated position by clicking on the board for that position.

Military tactics are the integral means
through which the enemy’s destruction or
submission is the ultimate end.

— Karl von Clausewitz

Developing Your Position

Expressed in its most simple form, the objective of backgammon is for one player to move his men around and off the board before his opponent can do the same. Regardless of what tactics either player employs, this is the game’s guiding principle. In order to do this most effectively, the good player learns to establish certain defensive and offensive positions. Thus, the object of the game is to run, but its method is to seek secure and unassailable positions, the most important of which are the two 5 points.

The object of the game is to run, but its method is to seek secure and unassailable positions.

To illustrate this: take the opening rolls of 6-2, 5-1, 4-1, and 2-1. If the sole strategy of the game were to run, each of these rolls would be moved as far as they could go. But this would be a losing proposition, since it would greatly reduce the options of play. However, if these rolls are played correctly, as suggested in the links above, they are employed primarily to seek position. They are little more than minor risks by which the player hopes to acquire major territorial gains.

Karl von Clausewitz
Karl von Clausewitz

From the start, there is a complicated interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good fortune and bad, which influences every facet of the game. In backgammon, to seek position is to take certain calculated risks, and because all players are ruled by the dictates of the dice — or by chance, which Karl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth-century military theorist, described as “an agency indifferent to the actor’s preference for the outcomes” — no player is ever entirely in control of his particular destiny.

One of the game’s chief tactics, then, is to shield oneself against the dice. The player with the stronger position can withstand a greater number of unfavorable rolls, or “bad luck,” than can the more weakly positioned player, who, because he has failed to protect himself, is more easily assaulted and overrun.

Nonetheless, no matter how cunningly you play, you are virtually always vulnerable. One unexpected horror roll can undermine the best positions and derange the most sensible of plans; this is both the charm and the frustration of the game. The best players of backgammon know that they must employ the craftiest of tactics, not because of the dice, but in spite of them. It is the enormously high luck factor in backgammon that causes it to be a game of skill. Without luck or accident, the game would not only be monotonous, but infinitely less skillful.

The player with the stronger position can withstand a greater number of unfavorable rolls.

In backgammon, to be skillful is to be self-protective. At any given point in the game, the better players are aware of Murphy’s Law, which states that “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Given the whimsical nature of the dice, all players have a chance in the game, but some players have more chances than others because they have created an environment in which the propitious is more likely to occur.

“Running game,” then, is a misnomer. Unless both players throw two consecutive opening 6-5’s, the running game in itself is incomprehensible, a contradiction in terms. In backgammon there is no neat and tidy sprint along the flat; the game is more in the nature of a steeple-chase and the race is rarely won by the merely swift. The better the player, in fact, the less anxious he is to commit himself to a race. A race is a crap-shoot, and so the better player seeks involvement-conflict with the enemy, in which his superior technical skills will prevail.

There must be contact and constant jockeying for position. Developing position is the paramount part of the early game. The first decision as to whether to run or to stay and fight is made on the opening roll and usually will shift and change repeatedly in the course of a single game.

Therefore the accepted notion that backgammon is neatly divided into such concepts as the running game and the blocking game can be dispensed with. To see backgammon in this way is to misunderstand the game’s primal strategies. Like chess, backgammon is almost exclusively a game of position. It is no coincidence that chess is played with soldiers and knights, castles and kings. In both theory and practice, chess and backgammon are games of war and depend upon exact and useful strategies.

The Battlefield

As has been stated, the basics are relatively simple, but early on you must learn when to make certain moves which are exactly contrary to the basics you have been taught. Some players never grasp this. No sooner does the game start than immediate adjustments must be made because of your opponent’s position. For instance, assume that you open with a 6-5 and the enemy counters with 1-1. You now roll 6-1. Hit him instead of making your bar. Here it is only your second roll, and already you are being told to play it in a new manner.

It may help you to overcome these apparent contradictions if you look upon all four segments of the board as a battlefield. You must try to be as strong as possible in every area. If you have an impregnable defense — say, a strong back game — you can become as daring as you wish, leaving blots everywhere. If you have a strong offense — such as having the enemy behind a prime — you can safely weaken your defense. Attempt to establish one or the other, and try not to be weak in both at the same time.

Imagine a general, a Bonaparte, astride his horse on the heights at Austerlitz. It is possible to survey the sweeping moves and countermoves of two opposing armies on the open plain below. Through the use of swift and competent couriers, the general instructs his legions to advance here, to fall back there, to assault, retreat, entrap, to thrust and parry. From his position it is possible to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of both factions and to deploy his men accordingly. If he is swifter, craftier, and more ably understands the art of war, this general will, barring untoward accidents, tend to defeat his enemy.

Backgammon is conducted from offensive and defensive positions of strength, employing an intricate blend of pace, balance, and power.

These are also the principal tactics of backgammon. The game is conducted from offensive and defensive positions of strength — or apparent strength — employing an intricate blend of pace, balance, and power. In short, it is the deft and deceptive art of being in the right place at the right time and knowing how best to take advantage of it.

Try constantly to use your reasoning process. Often the routine move may look good but in reality is weak. Train yourself to anticipate, to realize that should you move one way, it will give the enemy a breathing spell, while another move may let him attack you where you are vulnerable, so that this third and, at first glance, “wrong” choice may be the most intelligent.

All of backgammon’s opening moves can be learned by heart, but almost immediately thereafter both sides are involved in the whys and wherefores of the game — often after only the second or third roll. Tactics, then — what the player intends to do in the game and how he intends to control it — become very important at this early juncture. Some of the most interesting variations of early tactics occur when one player throws a double on his opening roll. For instance, in Diagram 39, black has opened with a 4-2 and white has responded with double 4’s. Black then rolls a 3-2.

Black to play 3-2.

Now, black does not want white occupying his 5 point, and so, in order to entice him from that point, he moves a 2 from white’s 12 point to his own 11 point, giving white a direct 6 with which to hit him. He plays his 3 from his own 6 point to his 3 point. There are other alternatives, of course, such as moving one man from white’s 12 point to black’s 8 point, but they are not as satisfactory.

At this point, white rolls a 6-5, which would appear to be an ideal roll.

White to play 6-5.

White can come off the 5 point now and hit black’s blot, then continue on to his own 9 point. But this play would be incorrect. The 5 point is White’s main defensive bastion and he should not relinquish it lightly. The better play would be to move one man from black’s 12 point to white’s 8 point and to start White’s bar point with the 6.

This is the real beginning of backgammon; the game is no longer being played by rote. The impression of boldness in this play is deceptive; it is merely logical. Consider White’s position if black now rolls double 1’s or double 3’s. To play the 6-5 any other way, white would have too much to lose and too little to gain. If he were race-oriented, as almost all beginners are, hitting and moving on to White’s 9 point would be his move, but this is not yet a race and it is a perfect time to leave a blot — especially when there is so much to be gained should black fail to hit it. This is a good example of early imaginative tactical play.

White rolls an opening 5-1 and plays it correctly by moving one man from black’s 12 point to his own 8 point, and dropping one man from his 6 point to his 5 point. Black then rolls double 4’s, moving two men up from white’s 1 point to white’s 5 point and two men from his own 8 point to his 4 point. Black, of course, hits white’s blot on White’s 5 point. White now responds with double 1’s.

White to play 1-1.

He comes in with one man on black’s 1 point, and he drops another man from his 8 point to his bar point, but instead of covering it, he moves two men up from black’s 1 point to black’s 2 point. This move not only threatens black’s blot, but gives white a stronger defensive position. To cover the blot on his bar point would be purposeless. White’s tactics are to lure black from his 5 point in order to recapture it himself. Black now rolls a 3-1 and makes his own 5 point by moving one man in from his 8 point and one man from his 6 point.

White, now in a weakened position, rolls a 6-5.

White to play 6-5.

White might have covered the blot on his bar point, but again, it would serve little purpose. The vastly superior play is to move two men — one from black’s 1 point and another from his 2 point — and establish a point on black’s bar point. By doing this, white has exhibited a real grasp of the game. White should make this play under all conditions — in both tournaments and money games. In this instance, black’s bar is a stronger tactical position than his own. It is a pertinent example of early tactics and logic, and emphasizes the principle that in the early stages of the game your opponent’s bar point is more valuable than your own, especially when the enemy holds an advanced point in your board.

The recurring leitmotif in backgammon is the strength or weakness of the two 5 points. In this example, black has secured both of them, and white must do everything in his power to drive his opponent off at least one of them. To play the 6-5 in any other way is not only wrong, it is craven. True, there are disaster rolls for white such as double 2’s or double 4’s, but he has done the best he can with his dice. More importantly, should those horror rolls not occur — and the odds, of course, are against them — white has secured a strong position without having obtained either 5 point.

The 1 Point

There are many crucial and constantly recurring situations in which beginners invariably make the wrong tactical plays. One of the most common is that of making your own 1 point too early in the game. The 1 point is often called the guff and is derived from the name of a man who, though he otherwise played backgammon well, had an invincible habit of making his 1 point in the beginning stages of the game, or as soon as his opponent vacated the position.

Making the 1 point early on is almost always a weak and worthless play, and as a general rule, it should be avoided. It is the point of no return; if it is made too soon, the men occupying it are out of play for the rest of the game. Moreover, should other points be open in your inner board, when your opponent is picked up and then enters from the bar, he is necessarily advanced. The 1 point is a kind of limbo in which the men imprisoned there must wait till the very end of the game before being borne away to better things.

There is, to be sure, one important exception to this general rule of thumb, which can arise, and often does, at the very start of play. If your opponent, black, has rolled a 6-4, 6-3 or 6-2 and moves one man from your 1 point into your outer board, or if he has split his back men, advancing one man to either your 2 or 3 point, and you then roll double 5’s, the 1 point becomes much more attractive.

White to play 5-5.

In Diagram 42, you can see that it is now advisable to move two 5’s from your 8 point to your 3 point and two 5’s from your 6 point to your 1 point. This aggressive tactic has established two immediate points in your inner board and has hit at least one of your opponent’s men (if black was foolish enough to leave two blots in your inner board, he now may well have two men on the bar).

8/3(2), 6/1(2)*

As can be seen in the diagram, this play has given white three points in his inner board, and if black fails to enter on his next roll, white has an excellent chance to win a double game. This is a good aggressive play and is the only exception to the general rule of not making your 1 point early in the game.

When to Run

Another example of early tactical play is illustrated in Diagram 43. Black’s reply to white’s opening 5-1 is double 6’s, making both bar points. White then rolls a 4-2, making his 4 point and leaving a blot on his 5 point. Black now rolls a 5-2. (The same general principle applies to rolls of 5-3 and 5-4.)

Black to play 5-2.

Should black break on this roll — that is, should he move one man from his opponent’s bar point to his opponent’s 12 point and the other man to his opponent’s 9 point?

Certain experts have suggested that in the relatively early stages of the game this is a sound and acceptable risk. But this is not entirely true. To begin with, in the early development of the game, your opponent’s bar point is extremely valuable. But there are other considerations.

If black is ahead in a race and — more importantly — is the weaker player, it would be sensible to run. Black is a distinct favorite not to be hit (approximately 2¼ to 1 if he rolled a 5-4, 9 to 5 with a 5-3 and 8 to 5 with a 5-2), and should he escape, he has negated white’s superior skill. If black is ahead and escapes, he should double or, in a similar position much later in the game, redouble if the doubling block is on his side.

Every opportunity of this kind should be grasped. White may, in fact, be a very slight underdog in this position, but this is relatively unimportant when the game becomes a straightforward game of dice. To fight the superior opponent on his own ground will probably entail complicated technical decisions in which the enemy has had more experience and hence a better chance to win.

These tactical moves apply, however, only when black is the weaker player. If black is the superior player in the above position, and even if he is ahead in a race, it would be folly to move his men from white’s bar point. With the 5-2, black should bring a man from white’s 12 point to his own 8 point with the 5, and start his 4 point with the 2.

Black to play 5-3.

With the 5-3, he should make his 3 point with men from his 8 point and his 6 point.

Black to play 5-4.

With the 5-4, he should move a man from white’s 12 point to his own 4 point.

You will note that black’s blot, left after the 5-2 and the 5-4, can be hit by a 3, but this is not dangerous because, unless white rolls 3’s and 1’s specifically, he cannot hit black’s blot and cover his blot on his own 5 point. Should white roll the perfect shot (hit and cover), it is still no disaster for black; he has three places to come in on his opponent’s board (which makes him a 3 to 1 favorite), and he has that fine defensive point on his opponent’s bar.

The more experienced player always seeks involvement in order to implement his skills. In this position, to risk being hit is to give yourself up to the dice. In tactical plays of this kind, the abilities of your opponent invariably influence your play. What is sound in one situation is madness in another.

Another example of subtle tactical play occurs in Diagram 44. Black has opened with a 4-3, bringing two men down to his 10 and 9 points in attacking positions. White counters with double 2’s, but instead of making the recommended opening play, correctly brings two men up from black’s l point to black’s 5 point in order to thwart black’s two extra builders. Black then throws double 1’s.

Black to play 1-1.

In this instance, there is little point in black’s making his bar point, since white already occupies his 5 point. The sound tactical play in this position is for black to ignore his blots and to move his double 1’s from white’s 1 point to the 3 point.

This is another illustration of a player attempting to lure the enemy off his own valuable 5 point. It is true that black is giving his opponent options, which under normal circumstances he should not do, but in this situation he has little choice. We realize that few players would make this seemingly bold move, but not only is it the more conservative play, it is also correct.

Here again, we can see that on only the third move of the game, one of the players has a vital decision to make, and that this decision, even at this early juncture, could affect the outcome of the game. Learning such early tactics is like learning the alphabet. Once he has learned them, however, the ambitious player must then learn to improvise, to juggle the letters in order to form more difficult and complicated word combinations. The opening moves can be learned by rote; they are routine 99 percent of the time. But immediately thereafter, both opponents become involved in positions in which thought, deduction and the imaginative exercise of tactics are of paramount importance.

At first, such tactics appear more esoteric than they really are, and if the beginner does not grasp their logic right away, he should remember that they can be learned. It is little more than the difference between learning to walk and learning to dance.

It is the power to discriminate, rather than the readiness to generalize.

At some point subsequent to learning the opening steps, a player, if he is to improve, must learn to improvise and perform on his own. He must learn the rules of the game and then deduce how and when to break them, since backgammon is all too often played in contradiction of its own laws. Thus, a talent for the game presupposes a certain presence of mind, an imaginative rendering of tactical detail, a knowledge of the specifics of situations. In short, as Clausewitz said of war, “It is the power to discriminate, rather than the readiness to generalize.”

More articles by Barclay Cooke

More articles by Jon Bradshaw

More articles on basic strategy

Backgammon Galore : Articles