Having the first move in backgammon provides an advantage because it allows you to dictate the game’s strategy rather than simply reacting to your opponent. When starting the game, it’s important to have two basic objectives in mind: to trap your opponent’s runners behind a blockade and to escape with your own two runners before they can be trapped.
To set up your backgammon board, place it in front of you and carefully consider each move on the board as it’s discussed. In this chapter, all moves will be for the White player since they always play the two dice thrown for the opening move and can never start with a double.
There are two main groups of opening moves in backgammon: aggressive moves designed to trap the opponent’s runners, and defensive moves designed to help you escape with your runners. Aggressive moves include point-making throws, 5-point builders, and outer board builders. Defensive moves include plain running moves and mixed run/block moves.
Move and make points
There are five opening point-making throws in backgammon, but three of them are so effective that they’re the most commonly used. These three throws are:
- 6:1 – White moves 13-7, 8-7 to make the bar point.
- 3:1 – White moves 8-5, 6-5 to make the 5 point.
- 4:2 – White moves 8-4, 6-4 to make the 4 point.
With each of these moves, White begins building a blockade with the goal of trapping one or two of Black’s runners behind a 6-point prime.
There are two other point-making opening throws that you can try out on your board:
- 5:3 – White moves 8-3, 6-3 to gain control of the 3 point.
- 6:4 – White moves 8-2, 6-2 to gain control of the 2 point.
However, experienced players rarely use these moves. The two men placed on the 2 or 3 point are too far away from the main blockade that should be built around the 6 and 8 points. Black can easily jump over them to escape with their runners, and these two men aren’t a significant threat to Black. In fact, they could be better used further back in building the blockade.
About the 5 point builders move
The 5 point builders are a group of moves that involve taking a risk by leaving a blot on your 5 point and hoping that your opponent does not hit it. These moves aim to gain control of your vital 5 point.
There are two moves in this group: 5:3 or 6:2, which involves moving a man from point 13 to point 5, and 2:1, 4:1, or 5:1, which involves dropping a blot onto the 5 point and bringing down a builder onto your outer board to increase your chances of covering it on the next turn.
Leaving a blot on your 5 point may seem exposed, but only 15 out of the 36 dice permutations will enable your opponent to hit your blot. However, six of those 15 permutations are your opponent’s own vital point-making throws, such as 1:1, 2:2, 3:1, 4:2, etc. Your opponent will therefore be faced with the choice of breaking up your blockade or making their own.
During the early stages of the game, being hit is not dangerous when your opponent’s home board is open. It is important to take risks at the beginning of the game but not later on when your opponent’s board is almost closed and re-entry can cause great difficulty.
These opening moves are called outer board builders, and they involve bringing down two builders from your 13 point and leaving two blots on your outer board to increase the chances of making points on your next turn. The risk of leaving blots on your outer board is relatively low since Black can only hit them with above-average throws. These moves are recommended if your opening throw is 5:2, 5:3, 4:3, or 3:2.
To illustrate, consider the 4:3 move shown in the diagram where White moves 13-9, 13-10. You can try out the other moves on your board by moving as follows:
- 6:4 – 13-7, 13-9
- 6:3 – 13-7, 13-10
- 6:2 – 13-7, 13-11
- 5:2 – 13-8, 13-11
- 5:3 – 13-8, 13-10
- 5:4 – 13-8, 13-9
- 3:2 – 13-10, 13-11
It’s important to take risks like these in the early game when Black’s home board is open, but be cautious later on when his board is nearly closed, as re-entry can be difficult.
Running opening moves strategy
Running opening moves involve a strategy of running and escaping, rather than trying to trap the opponent. Good running moves include 6:5, 6:4, 6:3, 6:2, 5:4, and 5:3. By running to the opponent’s outer board, you have a reasonable chance of escaping, as Black may frequently miss the blot, and hitting it may waste a vital point-making move. Even smaller throws like 3:2, 4:3, and 2:1 can be used as running throws.
In the diagram, White uses the 6:2 throw to run 24-16. Other outer board running combinations can also be tried. Black will hesitate to leave a blot on his outer board or 5 point, as the chances of a hit are greatly enhanced. Additionally, you can threaten to capture one of Black’s vital points on your next turn. The same principles apply to other inner board running moves, such as 3:2 24-21, 24-22 and 2:1 24-22, 24-23.
Mixed run open block
Mixed run block openers involve starting a running move in the opponent’s home board with one runner, and dropping a blot onto the player’s outer board to enhance the chances of making one of the blocking points on the next turn.
In the diagram, White uses 4:3 to play 24-20, 13-10. This type of opening move makes it difficult for Black to play his normal tactics. By placing a man on 20, you threaten to cover it from 24 on your next turn and gain control of a point vital to Black. The man on 20 also makes it difficult for Black to drop a blot onto his outer board, and your blot on 10 equally makes it dangerous for Black to move a blot to 4, 5, 7, and 9. This mixed run/block type of opener can be done with many dice combinations, such as 5:4, 3:2, 2:1, and they all reduce the options open to Black when he responds to the opening move.