How to play Backgammon Tournaments

In this series of articles we are going to be looking at how to play tournament backgammon. Playing a backgammon tournament is much more difficult than playing a single game of backgammon largely due to the match score.

Backgammon tournaments are normally decided by single elimination matches in much the same way as tennis tournaments. Competitors are grouped into pairs and each pair plays a series of games to decide which player will advance to the next round. Players that are eliminated in the first round normally go into a consolation match and, if it is a big enough tournament like a World Championships, then there will be a second consolation match and ultimately a Last Chance.
Matches are played to a clearly defined number of points. Consolation and Last Chance events are always played to a smaller number of points than is the case with the main event. The first player to reach the required number of points wins the match. Points are awarded in the standard manner: 1 for a single game, 2 for a gammon and 3 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 a player wins a gammon with the cube on 4, he wins eight points. If the players were playing a seven point match, the match would be concluded after 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. he is at match point), neither player may offer a double in the following game. This one game without doubling is called the Crawford game. After the Crawford game, if the match has not been decided, the doubling cube is available for use again and the player who is trailing in the match should double at the first possible opportunity. Automatic doubles, beavers, raccoons and the Jacoby Rule are never utilised in match play.

There is no bonus for winning more than the number of points needed to win the match. When playing a match to a certain number of points, the winner is the first person who reaches that number of points. It does not matter if he wins more than that number, or how many points his opponent has scored. The sole goal is to win the match, and the winning margin is irrelevantl.

Backgammon tournament match length.

The longer the match lasts the more likely the stronger player is to win as he/she has time to recover from a setback. For example losing a doubled gammon (4 points) in a match to 17 points is unfortunate but not nearly so unfortunate as losing 4 points in a match to 5 points! The early rounds of the World Championships (held at Monte Carlo each July) are played to 13 points. With each round the matches get longer and the final is played to 25 points.

Usually the better player will come out on top over such a long match but that is not always the case and backgammon tournaments are littered with examples of heavy favourites losing to rank outsiders. That is both the beauty and the frustration of backgammon. As long as dice are involved there will always be outrageous swings of fortune – and correctly so. Without such swings the game would rapidly lose its appeal to players.

A different format which was used in the (now defunct) World Cup was to play best-of-five 9 point matches. This enabled those players with highly developed match play skills to beat lesser players and thus the format is a much better test of player ability.

Time Clocks

To allow tournaments to run on schedule we are seeing the use of clocks more and more. We will look at the whole topic of time and clocks in a future article. For now suffice it to say that each player has a number of minutes for his match (determined by the length of the match). For each move he is allowed so many seconds (normally about 15) to make his move and only after those 15 seconds is the time used deducted from his allowed time.

As with playing chess if you run out of time you lose the match. This can lead to some interesting tactics towards the end of matches. As an example, a player whose opponent is very short on time will try to play a complicated games with a large number of moves in order to use up all of his opponent’s remaining time.


Tournament play is the ultimate in backgammon. Good money players don’t always make good tournament players. The opposite is also true because some players who excel in tournaments can’t cope with the financial pressures of high stakes money play (particularly chouettes).

To once again state the key point – the score dominates all other aspects of tournament play and as we progress we will see just what an influence that can have on play and doubling decisions.