Backgammon is one of the oldest board games for two players and is a member of the ‘tables’ family which is one of the oldest classes of board games in the world. The game is a mixture of strategy, skill and luck but strategy tends to be more important in the long run. Many options are available to the player on each roll of the dice, however, like chess, there are established tactics which can give the experienced player an advantage in the game. The objective of the game is to remove (bear off) all of one’s own counters from the board before the other player can do likewise.
Each side of the board has rows of 12 long triangles called points. During game-play, these points are followed in a continuous track which forms a horseshoe shape leading from the bottom right of the board to the top right and vice versa. The points are numbered from 1 to 24.
Each player starts at their ’24’ point and attempts to move their counters towards their ‘1’ point. The player’s ‘1’ points are opposite from one and another so the players move in opposite directions. When the counters are first set up, 2 counters go on the 24 point, 3 on the 8 point and 5 on both their 13 and 6 points. Points 1 to 6 are called the home board and points 7 to 12 are called the outer board.
Playing the game
First, each player rolls the die and then the player with the highest number moves first using the number of the first roll as the first move. The players then alternate turns, rolling two dice at the start of each turn.
After rolling, if it is possible, the player moves their counters according to the numbers on the dice. For example, if the player rolls a 2 and a 3, they must move one of their counters forward 2 positions and the same or another counter forward 3 positions. If the player rolls a double (i.e. two 5’s) then the player can play each dice twice (i.e. 4 moves of 5 positions). If the player becomes unable to move their counters, then their turn is automatically over. If it is only possible to move one of their counters, the player must choose the highest number move.
During a move, a counter may land on a point that is unoccupied or a point that is occupied by the opposing player’s counters. If the counter lands on a point occupied by only one of the opponents counters (called a blot), the opponents counter is classed as ‘hit’ and is placed in the middle of the game board in an area called the bar. A counter cannot land on a point that is occupied by two or more of the opponents counter’s. Counters that have been hit and placed in the bar must re-enter the game via the opponent’s home board. The returning counter must be placed according to the numbers on the dice (i.e. if a 4 and a 5 are rolled and one counter is re-entering the game, it must be placed on the 4 or 5 point).
When the player has moved all of their counters into their home board, the player can then start removing them from the board. This is called ‘bearing off’. A roll of 1 can be used to bear off a counter from the 1 point, a 2 from the 2 point and so on. A dice roll cannot be used to bear off counters from a lower numbered point unless there are no counters on any higher points. If one player has not borne off any counters by the time that players opponent has borne off all of theirs, then the player has lost a GAMMON which counts as double a normal loss. If a losing player has not borne off any counters and still has counters on the bar or in the opponent’s home board, then that player has lost a BACKGAMMON, which counts as a triple loss.
To speed up match play and provide an added dimension of strategy a doubling cube can be used. A doubling cube is a six sided die marked with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. At the start of each game, the doubling cube is placed on the bar with the number 64 showing; the cube is then said to be ‘centered on 1’. When the cube is centered, and before rolling the dice on their turn, players may propose that the game be played for twice the current stakes. Opponents must either accept ‘take’ the doubled stakes or resign the game immediately. If the opponents take, the cube, showing the doubled stake, is moved to the opponent side of the board.
Thereafter, the right to re-double belongs exclusively to the player who last accepted a double. Whenever a player accepts doubled stakes, the cube is placed with the corresponding power of two facing upward. If the opponent drops the doubled stakes, they lose the game at the current value of the doubling cube. For instance, if the cube showed the number 2 and a player wanted to redouble the stakes to put it at 4, the opponent choosing to drop the redouble would lose a double game.
The Jacoby Rule
The Jacoby rule allows gammons and backgammons to count for their respective double and triple values only if the cube has already been offered and accepted. This encourages a player with a large lead to double, possibly ending the game, rather than to play it to conclusion hoping for a gammon or backgammon. The Jacoby rule is widely used in money play but is not used in match play.
The most direct strategy is simply to avoid being hit, trapped, or held in a standoff. A ‘running game’ is a strategy of moving as quickly as possible around the board, and it most successful when a player is already ahead in the game. If this fails, the player may opt for a ‘holding game’, maintaining control of a point on the opponents side, called an anchor. As the game progresses, the player may gain an advantage by hitting an opponent’s blot from an anchor. The ‘primimg game’ involves building a wall of counters, called a prime, covering a number of consecutive points. This prevents the opposing player’s counters from advancing around the board.
A particularly successful priming effort may lead to a ‘blitz’, which is a strategy of covering the entire home board as quickly as possible while keeping one’s opponent on the bar. Because the opponent has difficulty re-entering from the bar or escaping, a player can quickly gain a running advantage and win the game, often with a gammon.
A ‘backgame’ is a strategy of placing two or more anchors in an opponent’s home board, while building a prime in one’s own board. The anchors obstruct the opponent’s checkers and create opportunities to hit them as they move home. The backgame is generally used only to salvage a game wherein a player is already significantly behind; using a backgame as an initial strategy is usually unsuccessful.
The history of backgammon goes back approximately 5000 years and during that extensive time period it has been played in Egypt, Iraq, Ancient Iran, Ancient Rome, India, East Asia, Europe, Turkey and the United States.
In England in the 16th century Elizabethen laws and church regulations prohibited games similar to backgammon from being played. By the 18th century backgammon was popular among the English clergy. In English, the word ‘backgammon’ is most likely derived from ‘back’ and Middle English ‘gamen’, meaning ‘game’ or ‘play’. The earliest use documented by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1650.