Backgammon Strategy: Basic Tips to Help You Win

Here’s a full overview of backgammon strategy, along with rules, tips, game variations and more.

For over five millennia, the game of Backgammon has been played in one form or another around the world.

At its heart, Backgammon is a simple racing game where two opponents compete to be the first one to complete the course and bear off all of their pieces.

Utilizing the combination of strategy and luck, Backgammon is one of only a handful of ancient games which continues to be able to captivate modern players.

In this post, we’ll review the game of backgammon, providing a background of the game followed by an overview of backgammon setup, how to play, important rules, and basic backgammon strategy tips. 

A Brief History of Backgammon

Backgammon History

While the exact age and origins of Backgammon are unknown, most historians believe versions of the game date back to at least the era of ancient Mesopotamia.

Other board games utilizing similar game mechanics have been around since humans started playing board games. The oldest board identifiable as being used to play Backgammon was unearthed in the city  Shahr-e Sukhteh in modern-day Iran. 

While sifting through the remains of the city, archeologists found a board, pieces, and dice.

The dice and pieces were made from local stone, but the board was carved from ebony, a wood unavailable to local craftsmen.

This indicates that the board was most likely a trade good, proving that Backgammon was known outside of the Middle East, and perhaps as far away as India or China. 

Centuries later, the Romans would become obsessed with several backgammon-like games such as Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, The Game of 12 Lines and Tabula, or Table.  

Sets of these two games have been found throughout Ancient Rome, including at Pompei and even on Emperor Claudius’ chariot.

Claudius was such a fan of Tabula that he often gambled as much as the equivalent of $10,000 in today’s money per game!

It wasn’t until the 11th century that Backgammon become popular in Europe when Jeux de Table first appeared in France.

It didn’t take too long before the French became as obsessed with the game as the Romans and Mesopotamians before them. In fact, Backgammon became so popular that King Louis IX made the decision to ban his subjects from playing it!

But the prohibitions against Backgammon didn’t prevent the game from spreading.

In 1283, the book Libro de los Juegos, The Book of Games, which was published in Spain, included a section on how to play the game of Backgammon. 

By the end of the 17th century, Backgammon made its way throughout Europe, and eventually to the Americas.

The game grew in popularity up until the late 1800s despite several attempts to ban the game due to its connection with gambling.

At around the turn of the century, Backgammon’s popularity started to wane. But the invention of the doubling cube reinvigorated the game and led to a backgammon craze from the 1960s – 1980s.

While Backgammon doesn’t have the same popularity it once had, learning how to play the game well can be a rewarding experience.  

Want More Games?

Get our game ideas, tips and instructions delivered right to your inbox.

The Backgammon Set and How to Prepare to Play

A modern backgammon set consists of:

  • A board
  • 30 pieces, or checkers, divided into two colors of 15 each
  • Two pairs of dice
  • Two dice cups
  • A doubling cube

The backgammon board has 24 narrow arrows, also called points, of two different alternating colors.

These points are arranged into 4 different sections, or quadrants, of the board consisting of six points each. When the board is laid lengthwise between opponents, these sections, beginning at the player’s lower right quadrant and moving clockwise, are the player’s home board, the player’s outer board, the opponents outer board and the opponent’s home board.

Dividing the home boards on the right side and the outer boards on the left is the bar. The bar, sometimes referred to as the 25-point, is where the hinges are located on folding boards and it is often raised above the playing surface.

During play, when a player’s checker lands on, or hits, an opponent’s checker, the checker which was hit is removed from play and placed on the bar until it is able to re-enter the game.

For ease of reference, each point is assigned a number from 1 to 24 based on the relative location for each player. The top rightmost point is referred to 24, and the numbers descend in order counter-clockwise until reach one at the player bottom rightmost point. Therefore, one player’s point number 24 is his opponent’s point 1.  

Knowing how to use the point numbering system is important not only for talking about moves with others and planning basic backgammon strategy, but also for setting up the game correctly.

Before the game starts, each player places two checkers on their 24-point, 5 checkers on their 13-point, 3 checkers on the 8-point, and finally 5 checkers on their 6-point. 

Each player has his own pair of dice and a dice cup which they keep off to the side. A shared doubling cube is placed in the middle of the bar between the two players with the number 2 face up. 

Now you are ready to start playing.

How to Play Backgammon

Unlike chess where traditionally the player who controls white goes first, in Backgammon, the first player is determined by rolling one die. The highest number takes the first turn. 

At the start of each turn, the player rolls two dice using a dice cup on the player’s right side of the board.

After rolling, the player has several opinions on how to move his checkers.

If the player rolled two different numbers, the player must move his checkers the same number of points which appear on each individual die in a counter-clockwise direction.

A player may choose either of the numbers on his dice and any of his checkers to move first.

The player may even elect to move one checker twice (or more, see below), but the number on each die is considered an individual move, and all aspects of a valid move must be followed before continuing to move.

On the occasion when a player rolls doubles, he must make four moves with each one equal to the number on the dice.

In order for a player to make a valid move, a checker must land on either an empty point, a point with any number of his own checkers, or a point with only one opponent’s checker on it, called a blot.

If the checker lands on an empty point or one which other of his checkers are present, that move is finished, and the player must now use the other die to move.

But, if the move ends with the checker landing on a blot, the player’s checker replaces it, and the opponent’s checker is placed on the bar. 

It is important to note that if a player has a valid move available, he must move, and cannot pass.

Re-entering the Game

When a checker is sent to the bar, the player whose checker it is must bring it back into the game before making any other moves.

To re-enter the game, the player needs to make a die roll which allows him a valid move into his opponent’s home board.

For example, if a player is on the bar and rolls a 3 and a 5, the 22-point or 20-point must be a valid play; otherwise, he loses his turn even if other moves are available to him.

After re-entering the board, the player must finish the turn using any unused die rolls.

Bearing Off

The goal of the game is to escape the board by bearing off. Before a player can start to bear-off, he must first have all 15 of his checkers in his home board.

At this point, the player can begin removing checkers from the board To do this, the player rolls his dice. Then the player can remove a checker from the board which is on the corresponding point.

For example, if the player rolls a 4 and a 2, he can remove one checker each from any of the ones he has on his 2-point and 4-point. The player is under no obligation to remove a checker, if he has any other valid moves.

But, if the player rolls a number which doesn’t allow him to either make a valid move or bear-off normally, he is required to bear-off one checker from the highest point he occupies. 

To make this a bit clearer, imagine a player has three checkers left. He has two checkers on the 2-point, and one on the 4-point The player rolls a 2 and a 5.

In this situation, he can choose to make his moves in one of two ways. Either he can bear off one checker from the 2-point, and since he doesn’t have a checker on the 4-point, he then bears off the checker from the 5-point.

Alternatively, the player may choose to move the checker from his 4-point two spaces to the 2-point and then bear off one of the three checkers on the 2-point since these checkers now occupy the highest remaining point. 

The player who successfully bears-off all of his checkers first, wins the game. 

Gammons, Backgammons and the Doubling Cube

Although many people play Backgammon for enjoyment only, playing for stakes has always been part of the backgammon experience.

The chance to win or lose money increases the interest in the game for many players, and just like poker, many players find Backgammon without stakes lacks excitement.

Initially, players set a wager before starting a game, and the winner collected the agreed-upon amount. Later, the ideas of gammons and backgammons were introduced as penalties for poor play. 

Gammons occur when one player is able to bear-off all of his checkers before his opponent is able to bear-off any. Winning by a gammon requires the loser to pay twice the wager to the winner.

Losing by a backgammon, meaning being unable to bear-off any checkers and still having checkers either in the opponent’s home board or on the bar, results in the loser paying three times the initial bet to the winner.

While gammons and backgammons increases the amount of money which players had the ability to win or lose in a single game, it failed to provide enough excitement and strategy to stay popular.

Therefore, in the 1920s, the idea of doubling was introduced. At first, a dial helped to keep track of how much the wager was increased, but soon a six-sided cube replaced the dial.

The cube is printed with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64. Although the die only goes up to 64, players can endless double the wager.

A player may offer his opponent to double the wager by declaring he is doubling before touching his dice at the start of his turn.

The opponent does not have to accept the double, but if he doesn’t, he immediate forfeits the game.

Once a double is offered and accepted, the die is turned to show the correct multiplier, and the die is moved to his side of the bar.

Now the player who accepted the double is in control of the doubling cube, and decides when and if to redouble later in the game. 

Basic Strategy to Improve Your Playing

After learning the basic Backgammon rules, you will find more success and have considerably more fun if you master a few strategies.

Backgammon, like chess, is a popular game where almost every aspect of the game has undergone dep analysis to come up with the optimal play strategy.

While advanced strategies are complicated, even a beginner can benefit from some of the more general strategies of the game.

Getting to Know the Common Three Game Plans of Backgammon

Backgammon Strategy Tips

In Backgammon, there are many ways to play, but you are most likely to use and defend against three common playing strategies.

These are The Racing Game, The Blocking Game, and The Back Game. 

The Racing Game

In this strategy, the player depends mostly on the luck of the dice in an attempt to get all his checkers into the home board as fast as possible.

It is often the first game plan novices use when learning Backgammon. While it can be effective if the player is already clearly ahead, it is not the ideal approach if a player is behind or equal to his opponent.

A player who finds himself with an opponent who is trying his luck with the racing game strategy, can use two counters.

The first is to leave several paired checkers in the back and concentrate on landing on the opponent’s single checker blots to send them to the bar. The other method is to try to set up a blocking game.

The Blocking Game

Once new backgammon players have a few games under their belts, there is a pretty likely they will come up with the idea that the blocking game is the ideal game plan.

Since opponents are not allowed to land on points occupied by two or more checkers, and because each move must be between 1 and 6, creating a wall of 6 points in a row with each point containing at least two checkers, effectively blocks any of the opponent’s checkers from breaking through.

This is called a prime, and is most often set up from 4-point to 9-point.

Although this is strategy does prevent the opponent’s checkers from breaking through, it significantly slows the player’s  progress. It can also leave checkers open to getting hit and sent to the bar when the prime is moved forward.

If a player finds himself behind a slow-moving or static prime, he can position his checkers directly behind the prime to offer the best chance of hitting a blot when the prime moves.

Players can also set up several two-checker points in front of the prime to force the prime to be broken. 

The Back Game

Having a checker sent to the bar isn’t always bad luck.

Sometimes it is just what is needed for a player to win the game. In the back game, a player who is behind in the race spreads out single checker blots in hopes of forcing his opponent to land on one and send him to the bar.

By doing this, the player hopes he will be able to hit as many blots as his opponent prepares to bear-off.  

One way of countering The Back Game is with proper move management and ensuring you don’t have any blots in your home board. 

The Doubling Cube Strategies

The doubling cube adds a lot of additional strategy to the game.

Yet, too many novice backgammon players use the doubling cube ineffectively. Many players are intimidated by it, and therefore refuses to redouble no matter what.

Others take the opposite approach and redouble regardless of the strength of their position.

The correct strategy is somewhere in the middle and depends on a lot of math. 

The most basic strategy is that if a player believes he has better than a 1 in 4 chance of winning based on the game it is acceptable to take or offer a double.

The important thing for a player to remember is to not always being afraid of accepting or offering a double.

The opponents for players who fall into this category will quickly take advantage of the reluctance of using the doubling cube. 

Additional Hints for Effective Backgammon Strategy

Players should:

  • Avoid leaving more than two checkers on a point when moving.
  • Abandon a Racing Game if behind and switch to a Back Game.
  • When in doubt, hit the opponents blot, as long as there aren’t vulnerable checkers on the home board.
  • Use high number doubles to move checkers to your side of the board. 
  • Choose to bear-off checkers instead of rearranging checkers on their home board.

Hopefully, these backgammon rules and strategies will help you to appreciate this intriguing game, and get you on your way to winning.