How Backgammon Works


Lucille Ball gets in a spirited game of backgammon, just as her leisure-loving ancestors did.
Lucille Ball gets in a spirited game of backgammon, just as her leisure-loving ancestors did.
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

A 17th-century painting by the Dutch painter Jan Steen -- "Argument Over a Card Game," shows a sword fight erupting over a spilled backgammon board. The tumultuous Baroque scene hints at the true nature of backgammon -- it's exciting enough to make even the most level-headed person want to whip out a sword.

Steen's painting makes another thing clear: Backgammon has loomed large over leisurely activities for centuries. Historians estimate that it's one of the oldest games in existence, with origins dating back some 5,000 years ago. Back then, players used dice made of human bones, but they didn't call the game backgammon. In fact, the word didn't appear in print until 1645. Before that, the game was known by many different names. The Romans, credited with making the game widely popular, called their version "duodecum scripta et tabulae" or "tables" for short.

As the 20th century dawned, the game began to fall out of favor with people looking for quick thrills. Then, in 1925, a backgammon aficionado came up with the concept of doubling the stakes. At about the same time, the multiplayer version of the game known as chouette burst onto the scene. These innovations ushered in a backgammon revival that has continued to this day. Modern players can travel around the world to participate in tournaments or go online to play Internet versions of the game. But all of these interpretations recall backgammon in its purest form: two friends, gathering at a local pub or tavern, to see who can be the first to race their checkers off the board.

Everything begins with the proper equipment, and so must we. Up first, we'll consider the backgammon board, without which the game would be impossible.

Backgammon Equipment

A basic backgammon setup awaits the players who make the game come to life.
A basic backgammon setup awaits the players who make the game come to life.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Backgammon isn't like golf, where you might plunk down thousands of dollars to get started in the sport, but your wallet will still take a few hits. The biggest investment is the board. Top-of-the-line models are often handmade and run somewhere between $700 and $1,000. These tournament-sized boards deliver better results because they allow the dice to turn several times without rolling on top of the checkers or bouncing to the floor. Smaller, less expensive sets are also available, but as with many things in life, you get what you pay for.

The boards typically fold up into little briefcases, making for easy transport. When it's time to play, you open up the briefcase and lay it flat to create the board. The first thing you'll notice about the board is that it's separated into quadrants. A ridge down the center, where the hinges are located, divides the board in half. This ridge is known as the bar. An imaginary line running perpendicular to the bar halves the board again, forming the quadrants. Within each quarter sit six narrow triangles of alternating colors. These triangles are called points or pips, and because there are four quadrants, each board has a total of 24 points. The quadrants are known as the player's home board and outer board and the opponent's home board and outer board.

The pieces -- known as stones, men or checkers -- march along the points based on a player's roll of the two dice. Each player starts with 15 checkers, which come in a variety of colors. If they blend in with the color of the points, however, they can be more difficult to see during game play.

Players have two standard dice with six faces, each bearing a number from 1 to 6. Most serious fans of backgammon prefer to use precision dice, which have rounded corners to make them roll more -- and more randomly. The dice normally match the color of the checkers, but not always. Some players like clear ones because they have a marking inside that makes it easy to see if an opponent is trying to switch out good dice with crooked ones that are weighted to give more favorable rolls. Dice shakers, or cups, also prevent cheating. Shakers should be large enough to allow the dice to tumble around inside and should have a lip so that the dice rotate out of the cup when rolled.

Finally, every backgammon board comes with a doubling cube, a six-sided die bearing the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 that raises the stakes of a match (more on that later). Of course, a novice should master the basics of backgammon before scooping up the doubling cube, and doing so begins with setting up the board properly. We'll cover that next.

Backgammon Setup

The basic setup for backgammon
The basic setup for backgammon
Image © HowStuffWorks.com

OK, so you have your board and checkers. How do you get everything set up and ready to play? First, you have to arrange your 15 checkers in their proper starting positions. Here's the deal:

  • Five checkers on your 6-point
  • Three checkers on your 8-point
  • Five checkers on your 13-point
  • Two checkers on your 24-point

Notice that the two checkers on your 24-point rest in your opponent's home board and that the five checkers on your 6-point rest in your home board. Because the object is to get all of your pieces to your home board so you can remove them completely from the board, the two checkers on your 24-point have the longest journey to make; the five on your 6-point have the shortest.

Your opponent sets her pieces opposite to yours in a mirror image. In other words, her 6-point checkers will be sitting on your 18-point, and her 24-point checkers will be sitting on your 1-point. She'll also be sending her pieces in the opposite direction. If your home board is located on your right side, you'll be moving your checkers counterclockwise; she'll be heading clockwise. Whichever way you go, the intent is the same: Move the checkers from the higher points to the lower points until you skillfully maneuver all of them off the board and handily defeat your challenger. The accompanying illustration shows the backgammon board with the checkers in the starting position, as well as the direction of play.

Now it's time to start a game.

How to Play Backgammon: How Checkers Move

After you set up the board, you're ready to start a game. To see who goes first, each player rolls a single die. The person with the higher number goes first, using the number on his die and the number on his opponent's. If both people roll the same number, they try again until someone scores higher.

Some quick notes about rolling before continuing: If you're playing with folks who are serious about their backgammon, you must use a shaker each time you roll. You place both dice in the shaker, give it a good shake and then release the dice into the right-hand side of the backgammon board. This convention holds even if you're left-handed. You must re-roll if either die fails to land in the right-hand side of the board. You must also re-roll if either die comes to rest on a checker, leans at an angle or gets stuck in the shaker.

Once you get a successful throw of the dice, you're ready to start dominating. The numbers on the dice indicate how many points, or pips, you can move your checkers. The checkers always head from higher-numbered points to lower-numbered points according to the following rules:

  • You can only move a checker to an open point. An open point may have no checkers, only your checkers or one opposing checker. You can't move to a point that's occupied by two or more opposing pieces. You can stack as many of your own checkers on a point as you wish.
  • The numbers on the dice indicate separate moves. If you roll a 4 and a 2, you can move one checker four spaces and a second checker two spaces. Or, you can shift one checker six spaces forward -- as long as the intermediate points (two or four spots away) are open.
  • If you roll a double -- the number on both dice is the same -- you get to enjoy four moves. For example, if you roll a double 3, you have four three-point moves at your disposal. You may move any combination of checkers to complete this requirement.
  • You must play both numbers of your roll if you're legally able to do so. If you can only play one number, you must do so. If you can move either number but not both, you must play the higher of the two. If you roll a double, you must play as many numbers as you can. And, finally, if you can't play either number, you lose your turn, and your opponent gets to roll again.

Based on these dynamics, you might think backgammon lacks excitement. Not true. On the next page, we'll start talking about all the special ways the game let's you stick it to your opponent.

How to Play Backgammon: Making a Hit

Israeli schoolboys bust out their backgammon set during a 2002 bomb scare.
Israeli schoolboys bust out their backgammon set during a 2002 bomb scare.
David Silverman/Getty Images

As you make moves in backgammon, look out for blots -- points occupied by only one of your opponent's checkers. If your turn allows you to land on a blot, you score a hit, and your adversary's piece must move to the bar. Before she can do anything else, she must re-enter the checker into her home board. To do this, she must be able to move to an open point corresponding to one of the numbers on the rolled dice. For example, if her 1-, 2- and 3-points were open, she would need to make a roll that would allow her to move to one of those points. If she rolled a 4 and a 6, she wouldn't be able to re-enter. If she threw a 6 and a 2, on the other hand, she could move the checker from the bar and re-enter on her 2-point.

Now let's say you were able to hit two or more of your opponent's checkers and send them to the bar. She must re-enter all of them before she can make other moves. If she is able to enter some, but not all, of her checkers, she must enter as many as she can and then forfeit the remainder of her turn. After she has entered the last of her checkers, she must play any unused numbers on the dice by moving either the checker that she entered or a different one.

This is what makes backgammon exciting and challenging. As you try to hit your opponent's checkers, she's trying to take yours out, too. And remember that backgammon is, at its heart, a racing game: You're trying to race your checkers to your home board so you can then remove them. If you slow your foe down by hitting her checkers, you increase your chances of winning the race.

We'll get a few moves closer to sweet victory next.

How to Play Backgammon: Bearing Off

To win a game of backgammon, you must be faster than your opponent in removing your checkers from the board, a process known as bearing off. Before you can start doing so, however, you must first get all 15 checkers to your home board. No checkers can remain outside the home board or on the bar. Only when you've moved all 15 into your home board can you commence bearing off.

Here are the rules that govern this part of the game:

  • You can bear off a checker by rolling a number that corresponds to the point on which that checker resides. If you roll a 5, for example, you can remove a checker from the 5-point.
  • If there is no checker on the point indicated by the roll, you must make a legal move using a checker on a higher-numbered point. If there are no checkers on higher-numbered points, you must remove a checker from the highest point occupied by one of your pieces.
  • If you can make a legal move, you aren't required to bear off.
  • If one of your checkers is hit as you're bearing off, you must re-enter the checker and move it back to the home board before you can resume bearing off.

If you bear off all 15 checkers before your opponent, you win. If your opponent is able to get rid of at least one checker, then your win falls into the single game category. If your opponent fails to bear off any checkers, then your win qualifies as a gammon. And if your hapless opponent hasn't borne off any checkers and still has checkers on the bar or in your home board, then your win is considered a backgammon -- a victory that comes only once every hundred games or so.

After you've mastered the basics of backgammon, you might be ready to mix things up with a few variations on the game. That's next.

Backgammon Variations

If you enjoy playing the basic version of backgammon, that's perfectly fine. But many fans eventually want to elevate the game to a new level. Doubling was introduced in the 1920s for this purpose. In some gaming activities, someone can propose to double the stakes, and you're able to turn down the wager. In backgammon, you're not allowed to. If your opponent offers you a double, you can give up the game, pay the agreed stake (whether it's moneyor M&Ms) and start another game or continue playing for double the original stake.

Before we explain doubling further, remember that most people don't play one-off backgammon games; they play a series of games and compete to reach a certain number of points or to accumulate the most points. In this arrangement, a player who uses doubling effectively can earn points much more quickly.

Here's how it works: At the start of a game, you place the doubling cube -- the six-sided die bearing the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 -- in the center of the board with 64 on top. The number 64 equates to 1 because the doubling cube doesn't show a 1. Neither you nor your opponent controls the cube at this point.

Now let's say you feel you have an advantage as the game unfolds. Before you roll the dice on your turn, you declare that you're going to double, and you turn the doubling cube to the next highest value.

If your opponent accepts, the value of the game doubles. She then takes control of the doubling cube and can make the next double.

If your opponent eventually decides to double herself, the stakes rise again. Subsequent doubles in the same game are known as redoubles.

Doubling doesn't have to stop with the highest value shown on the doubling cube. You can double beyond 64, but you'll need to keep track of the numbers somehow.

Another way to up the ante is to play chouette, a form of the game for more than two players. To start, each player who wants to join a game throws one die. The player rolling highest becomes the box and plays against everyone else -- the team. The person with the second-highest roll becomes the captain, rolling the dice and making the plays for the team.

Computers also get in on the backgammon fun. One of the most popular backgammon software programs is Snowie, which you can buy online for $380. Sites like Play65 allow you to play backgammon instantly without having to download software or pay anything.

Up next: some of the skills you need to become a great backgammon player.

Backgammon Skills

People love playing backgammon because they can learn the basics quickly. But mastering the game can take years -- and the right mental skills. Two of those abilities involve the part of your brain that crunches numbers. For example, the better you are at some basic arithmetic and probability, the better you'll be at backgammon. Why? Because backgammon relies on the roll of dice, so a good grasp of numbers and probability is enormously helpful. Here's just one example: Rolling two dice produces 36 possible outcomes. The odds of rolling a specific number are 11 in 36. The odds that a roll contains one of two specific numbers are 20 in 36.

Another useful talent is recognizing patterns on the backgammon board. This comes after playing many, many games and seeing how checkers often fall into certain positions that can be exploited by specific moves. After a while, you begin to recognize those positions and memorize the best corresponding moves. Ace players have a mental library containing hundreds of such moves, enabling them to make quick decisions during a game.

Finally, don't underestimate the psychology of playing backgammon. Everyone has a certain personality and tendencies when they make moves and evaluate doubling opportunities. As you get to know these tendencies, you can use them to your advantage. For example, you might double early in a match with an unknown opponent just to gauge her reaction. If she doesn't take the wager, double early again in the next game. You might find that she is reluctant to accept a double -- a habit that could be her undoing.

It's this unique combination of luck, skill and strategy that has made backgammon such a popular game for thousands of years. It offers ample opportunities to have some fun and meet interesting people, and, if you like to gamble, it can satisfy that need, as well. Just keep in mind Dutchman Jan Steen's painting of a good backgammon game turned sour -- and leave all of the hitting on the board.

Keep reading for links to games galore next.

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Sources

  • Bray, Chris. "Backgammon for Dummies." Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2009.
  • Bray, Chris. "Backgammon History." Backgammon Galore! September 2007. (Aug. 2, 2011)
  • Simborg, Phil. "Backgammon Equipment -- Checkers, Dice and Cups." Backgammon.org. May 2007. (Aug. 2, 2011)
  • Simborg, Phil. "Backgammon Equipment -- The Basics." Backgammon.org. April 2007. (Aug. 2, 2011)
  • Simborg, Phil. "The Phil Simborg Interviews." Backgammon Galore! 2010. (Aug. 2, 2011)