Hope you like ‘gammon tooGambling’s Dan Stephens offers some vital pointers in this newbie’s guide to backgammon strategy, for those interested in giving ‘gammon a go for the first time
Preconceptions about backgammon may have you thinking of some over-complicated version of draughts, or chess without the timeless methodology. A closer look reveals a game steeped in archaic pedigree and laden with so much potential for strategy it will keep even the most ardent chess or poker player thumbing through the tactics book.
With some studious application, new players might even get the chance to make some cash. One of the oldest surviving board games, historians have traced ‘gammon back five thousand years to the ancient civilisations of Persia, Rome and Egypt and famously a variant of the game was found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
It takes less than an hour to learn how to play but as the hackneyed cliché goes it takes a lifetime to master. There is ample capacity to raise the stakes and up the hurt on your opponent just like in poker. And ‘gammon can now be played online with players competing head-to-head with each other or in a myriad of online tournaments and satellites for high profile live events like the World Series of Backgammon, just like in poker.
The fundamental objective of backgammon is to race chequers in opposite directions around the points of the backgammon board, making the best possible chequer plays each roll of two dice, whilst maximising use of your key ‘weapon’, the doubling cube. The cube allows you to end the game prematurely when you raise and your opponent ‘folds’ or otherwise when you raise the stakes with the cube, just like in poker, and your opponent ‘takes’. The ultimate end game is to remove all your chequers from the board (known as ‘bearing off’) so therefore in simple terms it’s a race against your opponent. But you can also win. However, you can ‘hit’ enemy chequers and send them back to the start by landing on them when they are isolated and while seeking a more positional aspect to the game.
There is considerable debate in the game about which is harder to master, chequer play or the cube, but what is clear is there are considerably more gains to be had and potential losses with cube action and the decisions you will make around ‘raising’, ‘calling/taking’ or ‘passing/folding’.
Again, like in poker, backgammon matches or cash sessions can run for hours or even days!
From the starting position on the board the player uses the dice to navigate their chequers in a clockwise direction over the ‘points’ towards their home boards. All the chequers must be in the home area before a player can bear off. An opponent’s chequers can be sent back to the beginning if you can land one of yours on a point occupied by a singular enemy chip – known as a ‘blot’. Points are awarded on the basis of the potency of the victory, for example if a player bears off with all their opponent’s chequers still on the board a gammon is scored, doubling the points. A backgammon trebles your points and occurs when all 15 enemy chequers are still in play and at least one is in your home area.
THINKING ABOUT STRATEGY
It could take a lifetime exploring all the employable strategies of the game, yet to begin gambling on backgammon without a grasp of some basic tactics would be foolish to the extreme, especially since experienced gamers will quickly pick up on any naivety and exploit it.
Although in essence the game relies on the luck of the dice, like being dealt your hole cards in poker, in reality the stronger player will always win in the long run. One such method to consider is the idea of ‘diversification’ in your play – positioning your chequers on ‘points’ in positions where you are more likely to make strong points next roll. However, you should aim to find a balance of risk. Play with too many loose men, or ‘blots’, then expect to get hit.
While diversification is worth thinking about, there are many other strategies that will improve a beginner’s game. Backgammon has an established opening theory, and this is probably the best place to start. There are statistically proven correct moves for most of the 15 opening rolls and memorising these will immediately increase your chances of victory. It’s better to take risks early in the game when the outcome isn’t fatal but the opening strategy is in place for a reason – because it works and maverick moves at this stage will often leave you weaker.
Approaching the game in a more holistic way is the simplest, most direct strategy is known as a ‘running game’. Since backgammon is, in simplest terms, a race, this tactic involves moving your chequers across the board fast and attempting to bear-off as quickly as possible. There are distinct advantages to this approach and it is best adopted when you are already ahead and have the strategic advantage as your opponent will be playing catch up. However, this speedy approach will leave gaps and there is a chance that a more experienced opponent will be able to pick off your vulnerable chequers and send them back to the start, damaging your chances and neutralising the ‘running’ tactic.
Alternatively you could set up to try and slow your opponent when this approach fails, by adopting a ‘holding’ or ‘back game’. This is achieved by creating one or more ‘anchors’, a point on the opponent’s home board where you can build up your chequers safely. But don’t be too hasty to break up your anchors, advises WSOB commentator John Clark. “They are strategically vital and although it may seem tempting to hit your opponent’s blot, it’s better to think about the game in the long term,” he says.
A ‘priming game’ is also a useful strategy and is implemented when you build up one or more points in front of your opponent’s chequers. This makes them virtually impregnable for your opponent’s chequers and can allow you to claim a vital strategic advantage by stopping rival counters moving freely – although many experts warn against using the tactic too often.
The best players can mix and match these techniques: for example, priming for a while and then unleashing a fast attempt to move chequers into the home board and stack off. This is particularly recommended if your opponent is preoccupied trying to get their chequers back into play from the bar.
When deciding your in-game strategy always think about your position in relation to your opponent’s, if you are ahead in the game try to break contact and deny your opponent the opportunity to slow you down. Similarly, when behind, try setting up anchors to block your rival in the home area and wait for a chance to hit a blot and level up.
It’s fundamental to understand the power of the doubling cube and how it can affect the game before you can mix it with the more experienced players or against the advanced computer programs. To maximise the potential of the cube the best players will have a rough estimation of their probability of winning the game and whether it is equitable to up the stakes – just like in poker. This can be achieved by having a good general understanding of the layout of the board and by continually working out where you are in the race known as the ‘pip count’ of each player (how many points each chequer needs to ‘step’ to bear-off).
It is generally accepted that you should agree to a double if you think you have a 75 percent chance or more of victory. But this includes how often you win or lose a ‘gammon’ or double game. The limits of double and take points are calculated so that when you are declining four times you will lose your four points regardless of the outcome. By accepting you can hope to win 25 percent of the time you stand to gain four points as well, with a net loss of six points but with a chance of gaining more. When you own the cube, you have the right to double and your opponent does not. This is a big advantage, but be warned, the best players will feign weakness and look for incorrect takes or passes to make gains whilst adding pressure by redoubling at higher stakes or in complex positions; as you would with a big pair in poker. Remember the cube is a weapon and only occasionally a gift – so use it wisely.
In the last few years there has been a marked increase in the number of people playing backgammon online – sometimes against computer players known as ‘bots’. It is a genuine alternative to skill games like poker and chess, needing similar skills of risk management.
One of the most well-knownwell known providers of backgammon sites is GameAccount, who supply software for sites such as SkyBet, PaddyPower and William Hill. Recently World Series of Backgammon (WSOB’) has also launched an online backgammon platform with cash games, ‘play for free’ and a range of satellite tournaments for its big live events.
When facing opponents online, beginners should be aware of several things to maximise their chances of profiting, according to John Clark. “Before playing for money, familiarise yourself with a) all the tabs/features/options on the site, b) the timer and graphics and c) understand the disconnect policy. Secondly, selection of opponent is essential in playing against humans online – if you’ve lost five times in a row to the same player then you’re being outplayed and should move on, even if you think you’re playing well.
“Lastly consider the rakes of several websites before signing up,” he says. “Rates vary widely and if it is more than 6 percent of the ‘pot’ then forget it”