How to Play Backgammon

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Backgammon is a two-person game played with a specially designed board, 30 round game pieces, two pairs of standard dice and a “doubling cube.” It belongs to the family of games known as “race games,” like Cribbage or Snakes & Ladders. The object is to move pieces around the board and get them taken out of play faster than the opponent can remove his or hers.

The Backgammon board is divided into four quadrants, with the Player’s Home Board and Outer Board on one side and the Opponent’s Home Board and Outer Board on the other. Each quadrant features six elongated triangles of alternating colours called “points,” with their tips pointing toward the center of the game board.

Points on the board are referred to by numbers from 1 to 24, beginning with the outermost point on the Player’s Home Board as the 1-point. The 24-point is also the same as the Opponent’s 1-point. Running through the middle of the board between the two players is a narrow strip referred to as the “Bar”—a holding area for pieces that are “bumped” from the points during play.

The round game pieces come in two colours, much like Checkers, fifteen for each player. Names used to describe the pieces range from “counters” or “stones” to “men.” Before beginning a new game, the pieces must be arranged on their “starting points” in a precise order: five pieces on the 6-point, three on the 8-point and five on the 13-point. The last two pieces go on the 24-point and are often referred to as “back runners.”

Although Backgammon can be played with one pair of dice, for ratings or money games each player should have a pair of their own along with a dice cup in which to shake them. To begin, each of the players rolls a single die. Whoever rolls the highest number goes first, and the other player gets to hold the doubling cube. In case of a tie, the players roll again until one wins the right to start.

The opening player then moves one or more of his/her pieces in the direction of the Home Board in accordance with the numbers showing on the faces of the two dice. Which pieces are moved is a function of strategy and the rules that govern the game. For example, pieces must be moved in one direction only, toward the Home Board, not away.

Also no piece may land or pause on a point occupied by two or more of the opponent’s pieces. These points are “made,” “owned” or “held” by the opponent, so they must be jumped over if a piece is to move forward. No limit exists, however, on the number of a player’s own pieces that may share a single point.

After the opening player moves his/her pieces, the opponent throws two dice and moves his/her pieces around the board according to the numbers that come up. Thereafter, the players take turns, rolling the dice and moving pieces, point by point to the Home Board, trying to remove them from play by “bearing off” before one’s opponent can do the same. This is made more difficult by some additional aspects of the game, such as attacking isolated pieces (“blots”) and sending them out of action to the Bar. Blocking pieces from reentry and from advancing to the Home Board by creating a “blockade” are effective tactics. Rolling “doubles,” which allow twice as many moves as are indicated on the face of the dice, often brings a player who is lagging behind back into the lead.

This is when the doubling cube comes into play, allowing the original wager to be increased two-fold by whichever player holds the cube. Doubles must be accepted when offered; otherwise the declining player forfeits the game and whatever amount shows on the face of the cube. Once a double has been accepted, the cube is turned to show the new amount of the wager (2, 4, 8, 16 …64) and it becomes the possession of the accepting player. Knowing when to double is big part of mastering the game.

Eventually, all of a player’s pieces complete their journey through the points to the Home Board, from where they can be removed. This is accomplished by “bearing off,” rolling numbers corresponding to the points that the pieces occupy. Additional rules cover what pieces can be moved or borne off the game board.

The player that bears off all 15 pieces first wins the game. If the losing player has borne off at least one piece, the loss is the value showing on the doubling cube or one point, if no doubles have been made. If the loser has not borne off any pieces, twice the value of the doubling cube is lost in what’s called a “gammon.” Even worse, if the loser has no pieces borne off and at least one runner still on the Bar or in the winner’s Home Board, a “backgammon” is declared, costing three times the value of the doubling cube.

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