The Back Game
Barclay Cooke and Jon Bradshaw, 1974
From Backgammon, the Cruelest Game, Chapter 6, pp 91–101

Defense in itself is a negative exercise, since it
concentrates on resisting the intentions of the
enemy rather than being occupied with our own.

— Karl von Clausewitz

The first general and important axiom concerning back games is that they should be avoided. More often than not, the back game is a rear-guard action thrown up to resist the inevitable flood. It can be a colorful and exciting tactical play; it can be brilliantly executed and even rewarding, but in the main, the back game has too many sudden pitfalls, too many built-in snares, to be viable more than half of the time.

A back game can be colorful and exciting tactical play; it can be brilliantly executed and even rewarding.

To begin with, the back game requires meticulous timing and is comparatively easy to defend against by an experienced player; and when disaster strikes, as it is wont to do, even the expert is vulnerable to losing a double or even a triple game. (In England, the back game has a better winning percentage, since triple games are not recognized there.)

The timing is so critical that if certain horror numbers are rolled, they can destroy the back game completely. The back game is not a happy place in which to find yourself, and its devotees are reminiscent of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

The Basics

If you must play a back game, however — and often there is little other choice — the principal tactic is to establish at least two fortified positions in your opponent’s inner board. To occupy points in your opponent’s board is tantamount to invasion, an occupation of enemy territory, not with a view to keeping it, but as Clausewitz said of occupied enemy territory, “in order to levy contributions on it.”

The preferred points to occupy are the low ones — the 1 and 2 points, the 2 and 3 points or the 1 and 3 points. The ideal positions are the 1 and 2 points, but only if you have perfect timing. However, it is almost always difficult to time your game perfectly, and in practice the occupation of these two points also tends to stop the enemy from playing 5’s and 6’s as he is bringing his men in. It is better, therefore, to attempt to establish the 1 and 3 points, or, failing that, the 2 and 3 points.

Having accomplished this, it is to your advantage to have as many of your men hit as possible. This is particularly true if you have established three points in your opponent’s inner board. In such a case it would be to your advantage to have all fifteen of your men distributed on these three points. Your opponent would be unable to complete his board and none of your men would be out of play or in any danger of it.

Meanwhile, in your own inner board, you must never attempt to establish forward points — that is, the lower points. They are ineffectual and out of the action. It is much like establishing a forward position when the real war is being waged behind you. Above all, it is important to establish the higher points in your own board, maintaining other men behind them as a kind of mobile reserve in order to make up the rest of your board effectively.

The back game is backgammon played in reverse, a series of maneuvers which go against all the player’s natural instincts.

In its essence, the back game is backgammon played in reverse. It is a series of tactical maneuvers which go against all the player’s natural aggressive instincts. It is a game in which the defender prefers to be hit and hopes for low numbers rather than high. It is a game for masochists.

The back game can occur quite accidentally right at the outset. In the diagram below, for example, black had an opening roll of 4-1 and played one man from white’s 12 point to his own 9 point, and dropped one man from his 6 point to his 5 point. White responded with double 4’s; using one man from black’s 1 point he hit black twice, and with two men from his 8 point he established his own 4 point. Black then rolled double 3’s, a great shot, entering two men and making his own 5 point, and, as illustrated in the diagram, after only three rolls finds himself immersed in the entanglements of a back game.

A back game after three rolls.

Like a man suddenly set upon by a dog, black’s tactics are now almost exclusively defensive.

Defending a Back Game

In defending a back game , you must try not to help your opponent by hitting his open men. More importantly, and particularly if his timing is right, you must allow yourself to be hit, especially when he has no blots in his board. He will attempt to leave as many blots there as possible, since, if you are hit, you may be forced to hit him again, thereby giving him another man in your inner board. Allowing your own men to be hit gives you the necessary delay and may destroy his timing. But this is a matter of some cunning and tactical maneuvering.

Some of these principles are illustrated in Diagram 59. In this position, black rolls a 6-3.

Black to play 6-3.

Most players in this situation would move their man on white’s 5 point out to white’s 11 point and move the odd man on their own 10 point to their bar. This illustrates the difficulty of learning the theory inherent in the back game. The play that should be made is to slot the man on white’s 10 point on black’s 9 point, and to move the man on white s 5 point out to white’s 8 point.

The reasoning behind this tactic is as follows: If white does not roll a 5 or a 6 on his next roll and does not hit your blot, he will have to move forward in his inner board, which he would prefer not to do. Then if black rolls a 1 or an 8 on the next roll, he can cover his open man, thereby restricting white’s movements to his own inner board and probably destroying it. On the other hand, if white does roll a 5 or a 6 and hits black, this will give black more time in which to preserve his semi-prime.

This is a battle of masochists, since both black and white long to be hit in order to be delayed for as long as possible. White has a beautifully balanced back game, but ultimately he will have to break his anchors on black’s 3 and 4 points or destroy his inner board. Black has a fine semi-prime and should strive to maintain it for as long as he can. That semi-prime is not only black’s main offense, his spearhead to safety, it is also his chief defense, since it prevents white from releasing his reserves. Oddly enough, white’s position would be much improved if his seven remaining men were on the bar. He would, in fact, be in a better position to win the game.

This is another example of the game’s paradoxical nature. Two contestants are attempting to mobilize their men around and off the board as speedily as possible, and yet are making moves calculated to slow them down — and both sides are perfectly correct in doing so. But every back game has its built-in potential for self-destruction and it could easily be set off in this position.

In this same diagram, suppose white now rolled double 4’s.

Black to play 4-4.

Unable to escape from black’s board, he would be forced to tear down his own. Should black then roll a 1 or an 8, white would be sealed in and the remnants of his inner board would be destroyed. Hence, white’s position here, though not hopeless, is not auspicious.

The Critical Point

Diagram 60 illustrates a back game which has reached the critical point for both factions. Disaster rolls could destroy either position. The worst roll for white is double 3’s; for black it is double 5’s. This, of course, is the chief drawback to back games; regardless of the painstaking precautions both sides have taken, they are now each in a position where one roll could initiate a landslide. It is that tense moment when both armies, having thrown themselves into the fray, now wait for signs that indicate which side will falter, break, and melt away.

At this point, however, white rolls a 5-2.

White to play 5-2.

The roll is not as unfortunate as it appears to be. White’s mandatory play is to move the 5 from the bar point to the 2 point and the 2 from the 6 point down to the 4 point.

Paradoxically, white’s main strategy is not to advance his men in his inner board. He does not want to establish forward positions. And yet to accomplish this, he must move his men down as far as they will go. This tactic saves him from being forced into playing 5’s and 6’s, gives him breathing space, and allows him to delay. At this crucial moment in the game, when victory could turn either way, it would be to each player’s advantage to have his opponent roll. They are both employing, or would prefer to employ, delaying tactics.

One strength of white’s position is that he has created three points in black’s board. On the next roll, should black be forced to break his prime by rolling high numbers, so that his opponent will subsequently have to play from either the 3 or the 4 point, white will still command the 1 point and either the 3 or the 4 point.

Assuming that eventually white retained only the 1 and the 3 points, but was forced to break one or the other of them, his position would be tantamount to three soldiers defending their position against an enemy battalion. But with three points secured as they are in the diagram, white’s position is not nearly as bad as it looks. As it is, the game is nearly even, although black must be slightly favored because of the threat of the double game.

If white had a four-point prime in black’s inner board, his first tactic would be to break it so that black would be able to play. In this instance, the open 2 point permits black to play any 6, which otherwise he could not do. It is a delicate situation. The only real reason for white to have four points in black’s inner board would be if he had all fifteen of his men distributed on them. White would then be an overwhelming favorite to win. As it stands, however, the tide of the game could turn either way.

In Diagram 61, an illustration of the classic backgame position, white rolls a 2-1.

White to play 2-1.

He has three options, the most advantageous of which is to bring one man from black’s 1 point to black’s 3 point, and to move the outside man from the 10 to the 11 point.

It would be unwise to hit the blot on black’s 2 point, thereby following the general rule for back games of not hitting, but maintaining a strong defensive position. If white did hit, however, which many players would tend to do, he should then, rather than moving the outside man, move a man from his own 3 point to his 1 point — giving black 3’s, 2’s and 1’s on which to come in and hit. In this position, white prefers to be hit. But should black then roll 4’s, 5’s or 6’s, white’s campaign strategy will have been thwarted and he will probably not be able to save his board because he is much too far advanced. Even should black roll his worst possible number, a 1-5, he would remain in a formidable position.

The whole theory and practice of the back game is illustrated here. However, if white played correctly — that is, not hitting black’s blot on the 2 point — he is hardly worse than even money to win the game. White’s tactic is to force black to play. By hitting, he is sabotaging himself. Incidentally, having four points in his own inner board is a complete illusion of strength at this stage, and white should not place much faith in it for the moment.

In backgammon, atrocious plays at certain times become “correct” as a result of subsequent happy rolls.

There are, however, no moves in backgammon where atrocious plays at certain times cannot become “correct” as a result of subsequent happy rolls. In chess, for example, if white made a foolish play tantamount to hitting black’s blot, he would be forced to resign within a few moves. But given the curative powers of the dice in backgammon, the stricken player could well be saved.

For instance, suppose that white actually hits black and then moves his outside man up two points. Black then rolls a 1-5, coming in on the 1 point and electing to move a man in, breaking his 9 point. Suppose, further, that white then rolls a 1-6, moving from black’s 2 point to hit black’s other blot. Black then rolls another 1-5 and is forced to come in on white’s 1 point and to move another 5 from his 7 point to his 2 point, as is illustrated below.

Bad play, but good results for white.

Black’s game has become a disaster, and in light of the results it would be difficult, if not impossible, to convince white (or most fortuitous winners) that he had made the wrong play. Yet such accidents happen all the time.

Most of the basic principles of the back game are illustrated in Diagrams 61, 62, and 63. In Diagram 63, black, having held on to white’s 1 and 2 points with six men, managed to time his game perfectly, and after white had borne off twelve men he finally got a shot and hit white’s blot on the 3 point. Two rolls later, white rolled a 6-1 to enter black’s board and leave it. The position is illustrated at this point.

Black to play 4-3.

Up to this moment black’s back game has been perfectly timed and played, but he still has a long way to go. His problem is not only to catch that lone man of white’s outside, but, if possible, to capture another man, since this is his best chance to win.

Most players are taught that in situations of the back game’s aftermath, they should diversify their men in order to give them a broader base of attack. But unless a block is established somewhere, white’s two men on his 4 point are immune to any black assault.

The correct play is to move the two men from white’s 7 and 8 points up to form a block on white’s 11 point. By doing this, black is, in fact, deviously attacking those men. Of course, black could block double 6’s, double 5’s and double 4’s (although double 5’s would be to black’s advantage, since it would leave two blots; moreover, with double 4’s, black is still a favorite to hit). Therefore, by blocking white’s 7’s, black has made a more practical and far more imaginative play. Now any roll of white’s totaling 7 will force him to break the block on his 4 point. It is 5 to 1 against that white will roll a 7, but if he does, black can double and white should drop.

Variations of this situation occur frequently in back games and should be looked for. Again, such plays are entirely a matter of imaginative use of tactical positioning.

Given the entanglements of a back game, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that back games are to be avoided.

It is important to study the intricacies of the back game and not to be cowed by their complications. You must learn to comprehend the reasoning behind such tactics as opening up, hitting and not hitting, blocking and not blocking, and the delicate timing factor; otherwise you will always be at a clever opponent’s mercy. Given the entanglements of this type of game, however, and the fact that more often than not it leads to at least a defeat and often a gammon, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that, whenever possible, back games are to be avoided.

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