Backgammon is a game that is easy to learn, and this chapter provides an overview of the rules, explanations, and instructions to get you started. While the initial part of learning any game may seem tedious, as you delve deeper, you will begin to experience the fun and excitement of Backgammon.
To play backgammon, you will need the following basic equipment:
- A backgammon board.
- Thirty playing pieces, with 15 of each color.
- Two pairs of dice.
- Two dice shakers.
- A doubling cube. And, of course, you will need an opponent to play against.
Before you proceed further, take out your backgammon board, place it on the table in front of you, and set up the game according to the instructions. It is important to practice and familiarize yourself with the game to become a skilled player, rather than simply reading through the rules like a novel.
The Board and Starting Positions
The backgammon board consists of 24 points, which are dagger-like spikes of alternating colors. These points can be red and white, black and white, or any two contrasting colors. They serve as markers for counting moves, and the alternating colors make counting easier. A strip called the ‘bar’ divides the board into two sections. Each player has a home board and an outer board, with the side closest to the player being their home and outer board, and the opposite side belonging to the opponent.
In the starting position, each player has five men on their 6-point, three on their 8-point, five on the opponent’s 12 points, and two on the opponent’s 1-point. The two men on the opponent’s 1 point are called runners and must travel the entire length of the board to reach home. Play proceeds in opposite directions, with each player moving their men according to the direction indicated by the white and black arrows in the diagram.
There are two possible starting positions in backgammon, with the home board on either the right or left side of the board.
The objective of the Game
The goal in backgammon is to move all your pieces around the board, from your opponent’s home board to your own, and then bear them off the board through throws of the dice. The first player to bear off all their pieces is the winner.
Starting the Game
If there is any disagreement between players regarding the color or direction of movement, they each throw a die, and the player with the higher number chooses the color and direction. To start the game, both players throw one die, and the player with the higher number goes first, using the total of both dice to move their pieces. Players then alternate turns, casting both dice and moving accordingly.
Moving the Men
Assuming Black rolls a 5 and White rolls a 6, White will have the first move as he has thrown the higher number. The roll is 6:5 and White now has a choice. He can either move one man for 6 points and another for 5 points, or he can move one man for the full 11 points. It is important to note that when a player moves one man for the total of the two dice, they are actually making two moves with the same man and must touch down on a point between the moves. A player cannot jump all 11 points in one move.
If White decides to move one man for 11 points, he would start counting from the point adjacent to the one on which he stands and move over and count every point on the way, whether they have men on them or not. The bar does not count as a point, it just serves to divide the board into inner and outer boards. For example, if White’s runner is on Black’s 1 point, a roll of 6:5 would bring the runner to the opponent’s bar point (7), where he touches down for a moment before moving on a further 5 points to join his five men on 12. There is no limit to the number of men of one color that may be placed on a point.
The other choice for White is to move two different men, one for 5 points and the other for 6 points. For instance, White may move one man from 12-18 and the other from 12-17, as shown in the diagram.
If a player has two or more men on a point, that point is considered “owned” by the player, and the opponent cannot land on it or touch down on it while moving the combined total of two dice. In the first diagram, White cannot move 5:6 as he would have to touch down on point (6) owned by Black. By moving the 6 before the 5, he can touch down on a vacant point (7) and then move to safety on a point he owns. A player with 2 or more men on a point is said to have “made a point.”
When a player makes 6 consecutive points, it is called a “prime.” An opposing man trapped behind a prime cannot move past it, as it cannot be moved more than six spaces at a time, which is the largest number on the die. In the diagram, Black has completed a prime and trapped one of White’s runners behind it. The runner cannot escape.
In Backgammon, a lone checker on a point is referred to as a “blot”.
In the given diagram, White has a blot on point 18 after completing their move. If Black is able to move one of their checkers to point 18 or land on it while making a move with the combined value of two dice, they will hit the blot, which will be removed from the board and placed on the bar. In the diagram, Black throws a 6 and a 5, and decides to move one of their checkers all the way to their own point 12, hitting White’s blot on point 7 on the way and sending it to the bar.
Entering from the bar
When a player has one or more checkers on the bar, they must first re-enter those checkers into their opponent’s home board before making any other moves. To re-enter a checker, the player must roll a number on either die that corresponds to an unoccupied point in their opponent’s home board. If all of the points in the opponent’s home board are occupied by two or more checkers, the player must wait until a point becomes unoccupied.
For example, in the given diagram, if a player rolls a 6 and a 4 but their opponent occupies point 6, they cannot re-enter a checker on that point. However, they can re-enter a checker on point 4 if it is unoccupied. Once the checker is re-entered, the player can then use the other die to move any of their checkers on the board. If a player has multiple checkers on the bar, they must re-enter all of them before making any other moves. If a player cannot re-enter all of their checkers on a given roll, they must wait until their next turn to re-enter the remaining checkers.
When a player has successfully moved all six of their checkers to their home board, it is called a “closed board.” In the diagram, Black has a closed board while White has a checker waiting to re-enter the game from the bar. Since there are no available points for White to enter in Black’s home board, White must forfeit their turn until Black opens up a point for re-entry.
If a player rolls the same number on both dice, it’s called a “doublet,” and they are entitled to four moves instead of two. For example, if a player rolls a 6:6, they can make four moves, each consisting of six points.
In the diagram, White has rolled a 6:6 and decides to move both their checkers from point 24 to point 18, creating their opponent’s bar point. They then move two checkers from point 13 to point 7 to create their own bar point. This move is advantageous for White as they have made progress toward their home board while also blocking their opponent’s checkers.
Although a player can move their checkers in any combination when they roll a double, it’s usually best to move in pairs to ensure they make a point and avoid exposing a blot. For example, if a player rolls a 2:2, they have four moves of two points each to make and can move them in any combination they choose, such as moving four checkers for two points each or moving one checker for four consecutive moves of two points.
Bearing off is the stage of the game where a player can remove their men from the board once all their men are in their home board. The winner is the player who removes all their men first, and the removed men cannot be re-entered into the game. However, a player cannot bear off if they have any men on the bar or outside their home board. If a player leaves a blot while bearing off, their opponent can hit it and the player cannot bear off any more men until the blot is re-entered into their opponent’s home board.
In the diagram, White removes one man from point 6 and one from point 4 after throwing a 6:4. Black, on the other hand, removes three men from point 19 after throwing a double 6. Since Black has no more men on point 19, they can remove one man from point 20 with their remaining move. Both White and Black have gaps in their home boards, so if they throw a number that corresponds to a point with no men on it, they must move a man down from a higher point to a lower point instead.
However, during the bearing off stage, a player can choose to move a man within their home board instead of removing it from the board. For example, in the diagram where Black has a man waiting on the bar to re-enter their home board, if White throws a 6:5 and removes one man from the 6 point and one from the 5 point, they will expose two blots to Black. It is likely that Black would hit one of them. To prevent this, White must first remove a man from the 6 point with the 6, and then move the remaining man on point 6 five points to point 1. This way, no blots are exposed for Black to hit.
Rules of movement
When a player rolls a double in backgammon, they have the flexibility to move their checkers in any combination they desire. However, it is typically advisable to move them in pairs to avoid leaving any blots and to secure a point. For instance, if a player rolls a 2:2, they have four moves of two points each, and they can opt to move four checkers for two points each or a single checker for four consecutive moves of two points.
In backgammon, bearing off denotes the final phase of the game where a player can remove their pieces from the board once they are all in their home board. The victor is the first player to bear off all their pieces, and any pieces that are removed cannot be brought back into play. However, a player cannot bear off if they have any pieces on the bar or outside their home board.
• When playing with two dice, moves must be made for both numbers if possible. The order in which you move each number is up to you, but you cannot opt out of a move if it is possible to make one. • If you can only make one of the moves, you must choose the higher number to move. For example, if you have two moves to make and can only complete one, you must choose the move with the higher-numbered dice. • Consider a scenario where White has only two pieces left and Black is waiting in White’s home board to hit a blot. If White rolls a 3 and a 1, he would like to move the 1 to cover the blot on (4). However, if he does so, he will not be able to move the 3. According to the rules, if only one move can be made, the higher number must be moved first. White must move the 5 to the 2 points, leaving two blots exposed. • Any incorrect moves must be corrected before the opposing player throws their dice. Once the opponent throws, previous moves (whether correct or incorrect) cannot be changed.
Playing as much of the move as possible
It is essential to play your move whenever possible and you cannot reject it. In some cases, you may face a situation where none of your men can move a certain number, but you must still make a move if you can. For example, if you have a 6-2 and none of your men can move 6, you should try to play the 2 in a way that allows a subsequent move of 6.
Consider the Diagram where you (White) have a 2-6. Although you may prefer not to move the 6, you are obligated to do so. You must move a man from Black’s twelve points to your eleven points and then to your five points, leaving your remaining man on his twelve points vulnerable to a double shot from Black.
In some cases, you may only be able to play part in your move. For instance, in the Diagram, you roll a 5-3 but only have a possible move for one of the numbers. Even if you would rather play the 3, you must play the higher number, the 5, as per the rules, which may result in leaving two blots.
When playing backgammon, each player throws their dice onto the board on their right. The player can change their moves as many times as they want as long as they leave the dice on the board. However, once they pick up their dice, their turn is completed, and they cannot change their move. If the opponent throws their dice before the player picks up their dice, the opponent must pick up and re-throw their dice after the player completes their turn, and they cannot use the dice that were thrown out of turn. If a die falls outside the board, jumps the bar, lands flat on a man, or ends up in a tilted position, both dice must be re-thrown. Mixing the dice can only be done at the start of the game, and each player takes turns selecting one die until all four have been selected.
Scoring in Backgammon
The traditional method of scoring in backgammon is used. A player scores one point if they remove all their men off the board before their opponent. If the player ‘gammons’ their opponent by removing all their men before their opponent removes a single man, they score two points. If the player ‘backgammons’ their opponent by removing all their men while their opponent still has a man on the bar or in the player’s home board, they score three points. The double and triple game rewards the winner with a suitable reward for a decisive victory.
The Doubling Cube in Backgammon
The doubling cube is an exciting addition to backgammon, adding tension and skill to the game. Each face of the cube is marked with a number indicating the progressive doubles and re-doubles, starting with 2 and going up to 64. At the beginning of the game, the doubling cube is placed in the center of the bar, between the two players, with the face turned to 64, indicating that the cube is at zero and neither player has possession of it.
During the game, if a player believes they are in a winning position, they can double the stakes by turning the cube to 2 before casting their dice and pushing it towards their opponent’s side of the board. The opponent has the choice of accepting the double, in which case the game continues at double the original stake, or refusing, in which case the game is over and they must pay one unit of stake.
If the opponent accepts the double, they draw the cube to their side of the board and now ‘own’ the cube. They have the right to re-double their opponent at any point during the rest of the game
Scoring with doubles
Double and triple games
If you successfully bear all your men off the board before your opponent has borne any of theirs, you win a ‘gammon’, which counts as a double game. This means that you win twice the amount of the stake, regardless of whether the doubling cube has been used. For example, if the original stake was 1, but you have doubled Black to 2 and they have re-doubled you to 4, the stake has become 4. If you win a gammon, you win 8.
In addition to double games, the rules of backgammon also provide for triple games, but many players agree not to play them as they can heavily penalize the strategy of ‘back games’. In a triple game, a player wins three times the stake if they bear off all their men while their opponent has borne off none of theirs and still has a man either on the bar or in the winner’s home board. Triple games are most commonly played when a player who is behind is attempting to execute the ‘coup Classique’ strategy.
Automatic Doubles in Backgammon
Before beginning a game of backgammon, it’s important to decide whether automatic doubles will be in play. There are different forms of automatic doubles, but the most common ones are:
- If doubles are thrown during the first roll, the cube is automatically doubled. If another double is thrown, the cube is doubled again to 4, and so on. This means the game can start with 2, 4, 8, or more times the original stake.
- Some players allow each player to reject the first roll and double the cube to get another chance to roll the dice in the hope of getting a more favorable outcome.
During automatic doubles, no one gains possession of the cube, which stays in the middle of the board. If you’re a novice player and playing for money, it’s better to avoid automatic doubles, as it can quickly raise the stakes to unmanageable levels. For instance, you might start playing for €1 per point but end up losing €32 after three automatic doubles, one double during the game, and a gammon.
It’s generally safer to play with a higher starting stake than to agree to open-ended automatic doubles. Other forms of automatic doubles and redoubles may exist, so make sure to clarify the rules before starting the game.