This beginner’s guide to backgammon will help get you started and play with confidence. You will learn about the history of the game, the basics of how to play, and some rule nuances frequently asked by new players. Chris Bray is the author of multiple backgammon books, including Backgammon for Dummies, and is the backgammon columnist for The Times of London. He posts a weekly column on our website called Bray’s Learning Curve.
A (Very Brief) History
Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence alongside Go and Chess. It is probably about 5,000 years old and originated in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). An excellent pictorial history can be found in the hardback version of “The Backgammon Book” by Oswald Jacoby and John R. Crawford.
Because it is a dice game it is sometimes viewed by the uninitiated as a game of luck. Chance certainly plays its part in the short term but, like poker and bridge where the deal provides the element of chance, the best player will always win in the end and it is, in fact, a highly skillful game.
Like any really good game the rules can be easily learned in 30 minutes. You can get a good understanding of the basics in a matter of weeks, become adept in six months and a reasonable player within a year. It takes a lifetime (and probably a bit longer) to become a true expert.
Backgammon has long been popular in the Middle East and visitors to that region will be familiar with the clack-clack of checkers being moved on wooden boards at the many street-side cafes. The game was also played in the West but it was not until the introduction of doubling sometime around 1926 in France that it really became popular. Doubling enhanced the gambling element of backgammon and it flourished in the US and the UK until the Wall Street crash of 1929 removed the availability of ready cash.
In the 1970s the advent of oil money saw a resurgence in the popularity of backgammon and big money tournaments attended by celebrities became the norm. As money became tighter in the 1980s the number of players dwindled but there remained a big enough core group to start the real development of the game. Unlike chess, the first recorded game of backgammon only dates as far back as 1973.
A plethora of books also appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, amongst them “Backgammon” by Paul Magriel, still known as the bible of the game. Other authors such as Danny Kleinman and Bill Robertie also started to produce analytical material. Today the backgammon book market is a high quality but niche market. Online resources for learning are also plentiful, read Backgammon is as Easy as 1, 2, 3, take a free class at Backgammon 101, and watch the Backgammon for Complete Beginners video series.
Significant advances in theory and playing practice came with computers and particularly with the application of neural network theory. After pioneering work by Dr. Gerry Tesauro at the IBM Laboratories in White Plains, New York, two commercial programs, JellyFish and Snowie, dominated the market in the latter years of the last century. Computer programs are known as ‘bots’. Now the de facto standard is eXtreme Gammon (XG) which is undoubtedly the strongest bot to date. There is a tablet version, XG Mobile, for both Apple and Android devices, but note that this version is not as strong as the PC version.
The bots have forever changed how we think about the game and the player of 2022 is light years ahead of their 1980 counterpart. The “expert” of the 1970s would be hard-pressed to hold their own with many of today’s intermediates.
Backgammon is the most infuriating yet fascinating of games. It will provide you with highs and lows of emotion that you will find scarcely credible. Enjoy it!
Backgammon is played on a board consisting of twenty-four narrow triangles called points. The triangles alternate in color and are grouped into four quadrants of six triangles each. The quadrants are referred to as the player’s home board and outer board and the opponent’s home and outer board. The home and outer boards are separated from each other by a ridge down the center of the board called the bar.
Thirty round stones, fifteen each of two different colors, generally referred to as checkers.
Six-sided dice, numbered from 1 to 6. For convenience two pairs of dice, one pair for each player, are generally used. Precision dice (commonly used in casinos), specially machined for fair rolls, should be used if available.
Used to shake and cast the dice. Again, each player has their own dice cup. The best cups have a ridge just below the lip on the inside of the cup to ensure fair rolling. Some clubs use baffle boxes, a device through which the dice tumble, to remove even further the chance of interfering with them as they are cast.
A six-sided dice, marked with the numerals 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64. This is used to keep track of the number of points at stake in each game as well as to indicate which player last doubled. (You will occasionally find a doubling cube marked with a 1 instead of 64.)
Setting up the Board
The diagram above shows the board set up and ready for play. Each side has five checkers on their 6-point, three checkers on their 8-point, five checkers on their 13-point and two checkers on their 24-point. A player’s 6-point and 8-point will always be on the near side of the board and the 13- and 24-points will always be on the far side. From the point of view of the opposing side the point numbers are reversed. Your 13-point is your opponent’s 12-point, your 3-point their 22-point, etc. The point numbers in the diagram above are shown from Black’s perspective.
The board will always appear as a mirror-image for the opponent. One player’s 1-point will be to the left, while the other’s will be to the right. One player moves anti-clockwise and the other clockwise. This can be off-putting at first but after a little practice it becomes second nature. The points are not actually numbered on backgammon boards. The doubling cube starts in the center as indicated, set to 64 (representing 1). In the olden days the home boards were always positioned next to a light source – hopefully this is not an issue in the 21st century!
The Object of the Game
The object of the game is for each player to bring all their checkers into their home board, and then to bear them off the board. The first player to get all their checkers off the board is the winner.
Playing the Game
Starting the Game
Each player rolls one die. The player with the higher number makes the first move, using the two numbers rolled (your roll and your opponent’s roll). In the event that both players roll the same number, each rolls again to determine who makes the first move. In the event of subsequent ties this process is repeated until the dice show different numbers.
Rolling the Dice
The players throw the dice alternately throughout the game, except in the case where a player cannot make a legal move and therefore forfeits their turn. The roll of the dice indicates how many pips (a pip is the distance between two adjacent points) the player must move their checkers. If the same number appears on both dice, for example 4-4 or 6-6 (called a double), the player is entitled to four moves instead of two. Thus, if they roll 5-5 they can move up to four checkers, but each of the four moves must consist of five spaces.
Rules of Rolling
These are the commonly accepted rules of rolling:
- The dice must be rolled together and land flat on the surface of the player’s right-hand section of the board. The player must re-roll both dice if a die lands outside the right-hand board or does not land flat (known as cocked dice).
- Dice landing on the checkers may also be considered valid if the players agree – or the tournament rules dictate.
- In friendly games, players should point out any illegal move that they notice, and have it corrected before they roll their dice. In some competitive games, it is agreed that the opponent may either choose to require an illegal move to be corrected or condone the illegal move and allow it to stand. If an illegal move is corrected, the offending player may redo their entire move.
- If the opponent rolls their dice before the player has ended their turn, the player may either choose to require that the premature roll be taken back and redone after their turn is properly ended, or to require that the premature roll remains in place, in which case they may make their play with the foreknowledge of the next roll.
- Players may agree to share the same two dice for rolling rather than each player having their own two dice. In this case, a player signals the end of their turn by tapping the bar, leaving the dice on the board; the opponent will lift them. Leaving the dice on the board at the end of the turn helps to eliminate premature rolling and any dispute about what the previous dice roll was. The sharing of two dice is common in competition, where game clocks are used; a player hits their clock to end their turn.
Moving the Checkers
Each player’s turn begins by rolling two dice. They then move one or more of their checkers in accordance with the numbers on the dice. The numbers on the dice constitute two separate moves. For example, if a player rolls a 4 and 6, they may move one checker four spaces to an open point (a point not owned by their opponent) and another checker six spaces to an open point or they may move one checker ten spaces to an open point. However, all dice numbers must still be played individually, so if the checker can neither be moved a 6 nor a 4, that checker may not be moved a total of 10. The bar is not counted as a space.
The checkers are moved around the board toward a player’s home board. The two checkers on their 24-pt have the furthest distance to travel, while the other checkers have shorter journeys to make. A player’s checkers move in the opposite direction to those of their opponent; that is, each player moves their checkers from their own higher-numbered points to their lower-numbered points.
A checker may only be moved to a point already occupied by one or more of the player’s own checkers or to an open point, meaning one that is not occupied by two or more opposing checkers. A checker may move to a point if it is occupied by only one of the opponent’s checkers. In this case the opposing checker is “hit” and placed on the bar. See “Hitting and Entering” below.
To avoid single checkers (known as blots) becoming vulnerable to being hit a player can try to use their roll to “make a point”. A player “makes a point” by positioning two or more of their checkers on it. They then “own” that point, and their opponent cannot move a checker to that point nor touch down on it when taking the combined total of their dice with one checker. If a player makes six points in a row they have completed a full prime. Creating such a prime means that an opposing checker cannot move past, since it cannot be moved more than six spaces at a time – the largest number on one die.
A player must use both numbers of a roll if it is legally possible to do so (or all four numbers of a double). When only one number can be played, the player must play that number. If either number can be moved but not both, the larger number must be played. When neither number can be played, the player loses their turn. In the case of doubles, when not all four numbers can be played, the player must play as many numbers as they can. To learn how to play the opening rolls see Opening Rolls Part 1 and Part 2
Hitting and Entering
As noted above, a single checker on a point is a blot. If you move a checker onto an opponent’s blot or touch down on it in the process of moving the combined total of your roll, the blot is hit and must be placed on the bar. It must re-enter into the opposing home board. A player may not make any other move until they have brought all their checkers on the bar back into play.
Re-entry is made on a point equivalent to the number of one of the dice cast, providing the point is not owned by the opponent (occupied by two or more of the opponent’s checkers). For example, if a player rolls 4 and 5, they may enter a checker on either the opponent’s 4-point or 5-point, so long as those points are open. If neither point is open, the player loses their turn. In the case where a player has more than one checker on the bar, they must enter as many as they can and then forfeit the remainder of their turn if they cannot enter all of them. After the last of their checkers has been entered, any unused numbers on the dice must be played, if possible, by moving either the checker(s) that have been entered or other checkers.
A player who has made all six points in their home board is said to have a closed board. If the opponent then has any checkers on the bar they will not be able to re-enter them into their adversary’s home board. Therefore, they forfeit the roll and continue to do so until the other player has to open a point in their home board, thus providing a point of entry.
Note that while a player may forfeit a roll they never forfeit their right to double at the start of each turn, should they have access to the doubling cube. See “Doubling” below.
Once a player has moved all fifteen of their checkers into their home board, they may commence “bearing off.” A player bears off a checker by rolling a number that corresponds to the point on which the checker resides, and then removing that checker from the board. Thus, rolling a 4 permits the player to remove a checker from the 4-point. Checkers borne off the board never re-enter play. The player who bears all their checkers off first wins the game.
A player may not bear off checkers while they have a checker on the bar or outside their home board. Thus if, in the process of bearing off, a player leaves a blot and it is hit by their opponent, they must first re-enter the checker in the opponent’s home board, then bring it around the board and back into their home board before they can resume the bearing off process.
In bearing off, a player can remove checkers only from points corresponding to the numbers rolled on the dice with the exception that, if the player rolls a number higher than the highest point on which they have a checker, they may apply that number to the highest occupied point. Thus, if the roll is 63 and their 6-point has already been cleared but they have checkers on their 5-point, they may use the 6 to remove a checker from the 5-point. However, they may elect not to bear off a checker. They may, if possible, move a checker inside their home board the number of spaces equivalent to one of the numbers rolled. The rules require that a player must use both numbers of their roll (all four in the case of a double) if possible. If they can make moves that don’t involve bearing off, they are free to do so. Otherwise, they must bear off if that is the only legal play.
There was no agreed notation for recording games and moves for many years. In the 1970s a standard notation was finally adopted, and that is as follows:
Dice rolls are given as two numbers followed by a colon. The numbering of points is based on the point of view of the player whose turn it is to move. Each point therefore has two numbers, depending upon who is on roll. For example, White’s 5-point (or 5-pt) is Black’s 20-point. Diagrams are normally numbered from the viewpoint of the player whose home board is at the bottom of the diagram. Each movement is shown by giving the start and end point of the checker separated by a ‘/’. If a player is on the bar and fails to enter a 0 is used to represent their roll (sometimes the word ‘fan’ is used). If a player is on the bar against a closed board (their opponent owns all six of their home board points), their move is left blank or notated as “no play”.
Hits are indicated by an asterisk (*). A move made from the bar has “bar” as its starting point. A move bearing off a checker has “off” or “0” as its ending point. Where more than one checker is moved identically, as is often the case with doubles, this fact is indicated by showing the number of checkers moved in brackets after the move. All moves in a game are numbered.
The doubling cube is indicated by a square outline in the center of the bar. If Black owns the cube it is shown at the bottom of the bar; if White owns it, it is shown at the top of the bar. The value of the cube is always shown within this square. Remember that when the cube shows ‘64’ that is actually a value of ‘1’.
In diagrams the pipcounts, meaning the number of pips on the dice that a player must roll to bear off all of their checkers, are shown above and below the bar (see the diagram above where both pipcounts are 167 and shown in red).
To briefly demonstrate the notation here is an example of the shortest possible backgammon game, one of only three moves:
|1. 62: 24/18, 13/11||1. 55: 8/3(2), 6/1(2)*|
|2. 63: 0||2. Double|
One final rule with regard to moving the checkers: while the rules require that both numbers must be played if at all possible, the numbers may be played in either order. As an example, look at the following position:
With this 61 (for diagrammatic purposes the dice are shown within the board) Black can play either 4/off, 1/off, leaving a blot that could be hit by White’s checker that is still on the bar, or they can play the 1 first and then the 6 by moving 4/3, 3/off leaving no blots. Obviously, the latter is to be preferred.
Winning the Game
The player who bears all of their checkers off first wins the game. There are three types of win:
- Single Game: If your opponent has already borne off at least one of their checkers when you bear off your last checker you win a single game.
- Gammon: If you bear off all of your checkers and your opponent still has all fifteen of their checkers on the board then you win a gammon and twice the stake.
- Backgammon: If you bear off all of your checkers and your opponent still has all fifteen of their checkers on the board and they still have at least one checker either in your home board or on the bar, then you win a backgammon and triple the stake.
Backgammon games may be played for money or points and each game is separate from the next. If played for a stake of say $1 per point, then for each game the loser pays the winner $1 multiplied by the value of the doubling cube and further multiplied by two for a gammon or three for a backgammon.
Each game starts at a stake of one point (where in our example one point equals $1). During the course of the game, a player who feels they have a sufficient advantage may propose doubling the stakes. The player does this by turning the doubling cube to the next appropriate value. Each face of the doubling cube bears a number to record progressive doubles and redoubles, starting with 2 and going on to 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. At the commencement of play, the doubling cube sits on one side of the board centered between the two players with a displayed value of 64 (representing 1).
A player may double any time when it is their turn and they have not yet rolled the dice. This includes turns in which they don’t get to roll because they have a checker on the bar and their opponent’s board is closed. Even though they don’t roll the dice because they cannot make a legal move, they still have the right to double.
A player who is offered a double may refuse to accept it, in which case they concede the game and pay one point. Otherwise, they must accept the double and play on for the new higher stake. A player who accepts a double becomes the owner of the cube, the cube is placed on their side of the board (showing the new value), and only they may make the next double.
Subsequent doubles in the same game are called redoubles. If a player refuses a redouble they must pay the number of points that were at stake prior to the redouble. Otherwise, they accept the redouble, become the new owner of the cube and the game continues at twice the previous stake. There is no limit to the number of times a double may be offered in one game. After a redouble only the owner of the doubling cube can make a subsequent redouble.
At the end of the game the first player to bear off all their checkers wins the total amount of the stake indicated by the value of the doubling cube. A gammon win doubles the value of the cube and a backgammon win triples the value.
It may seem counter-intuitive to agree to double the stakes when you stand worse in a game. However, consider the following two scenarios:
- In four games Player A doubles Player B in each game. Player B drops all four doubles and is therefore down four points (-4).
- In four games Player A doubles Player B in each game but this time Player B accepts the doubles. They go on to lose three games but win the fourth game. They lose two points in each of the games they lose (-6) and win two points in the game they win (+2). Their net result is –4 points. The same as scenario 1.
This gives us the basic rule of doubling – if you can expect to win at least 25% of the time from any specific position then you can (and should) accept a double.
Doubling is far more complex than this as cube ownership, psychology, gammons and backgammons all play a part in doubling decisions but that is beyond the scope of this introduction – see the Recommended Reading section for further study.
Some additional points on doubling:
By prior agreement, if both players roll the same number on the first roll the stakes are doubled. The doubling cube is turned to 2 and remains in the middle.
The Jacoby Rule
Gammons and backgammons count only as a single game if a double has not been offered and accepted during the course of the game. This rule speeds up play by eliminating situations where a player avoids doubling so they can play on for a gammon. This rule does not apply in tournaments (discussed below).
Beavers and Raccoons
There is an optional rule which says that if one player thinks they are the favorite after accepting a double, they may immediately turn the cube to 4 without forfeiting their option to double again later. This is called a beaver. Additionally, some people allow the original doubler to turn the cube up another notch to 8 if they believe the beaver to be incorrect – this is called a raccoon. With beavers and raccoons note that the cube does not change hands – only a regular double transfers ownership of the cube. Beavers and raccoons must be made immediately after the initial double has been made – there can be no intervening dice rolls or movement of the checkers.
Backgammon tournaments are normally decided by single elimination matches. Competitors are paired off and each pair plays a series of games to decide which player will progress to the next round.
Matches are played to a specified number of points. The first player to accumulate the required number of points wins the match. Points are awarded in the usual manner: one for a single game, two for a gammon and three for a backgammon. The doubling cube is used, so the winner receives the value of the game multiplied by the final value of the doubling cube. Thus, if player wins a gammon with the cube on 4, they win eight points. If the players were playing a 7-point match, the match would be over in one game.
Matches are normally played to an odd number of points and the Crawford Rule is always used. The Crawford Rule states that if one player reaches a score one point short of the match (i.e. they are at match point), their opponent may not offer a double in the immediately following game. This one game without doubling is called the Crawford Game. After the Crawford Game, if the match has not yet been decided, the doubling cube is available again. Automatic doubles, beavers, raccoons and the Jacoby Rule are not used in match play.
There is no bonus for winning more than the required number of points. When playing a match to a certain number of points, the winner is the first person who wins that number of points. It doesn’t matter if they win more than that number, or how many points their opponent has scored. The sole goal is to win the match, and the final score is immaterial.
Tournament play is far more difficult than money play because the score influences doubling decisions and checker plays and players have to learn how to incorporate this in their thinking and analysis. See Woolsey’s “How to Play Tournament Backgammon” for more detail.
How to Play Backgammon, by Chris Bray is a 25-page booklet that expands on the concepts in this article. It is a great resource to help new players get started with confidence.
What follows is my personal list of essential reading. Study these and you will truly become a much better player:
“Backgammon” Paul Magriel
“Backgammon to Win” Chris Bray
“Advanced Backgammon – Volumes 1 & 2” Bill Robertie
“Classic Backgammon Revisited” Jeremy Bagai
“The Backgammon Encyclopedia – Volumes 1 & 2” Kit Woolsey
“Backgammon Boot Camp” Walter Trice
“How to Play the Opening in Backgammon’ – Parts 1 & 2 Bill Robertie
“Opening Concepts” Michihito Kageyama & Roland Herrera
“Endgame Technique” Michihito Kageyama & Roland Herrera
“Back Checker Stratgey” Michihito Kageyama & Roland Herrera
“What’s Your Game Plan?” Mary Hickey &Marty Storer
“The Backgammon Book” (extended version) Oswald Jacoby & John R. Crawford
“Conquering Backgammon” Ed Rosenblum
“Backgammon – from basics to badass” Marc Brockman Olsen
As ever I am indebted to my wife Gill and my colleagues Ray Kershaw and Peter Bennet for painstakingly reviewing the material in this article. Any errors that remain are entirely my own.