In this and subsequent articles we are going to be looking at the opening rolls in backgammon. As in other games like chess, opening rolls and the way we play them play a large part in defining the type of game that will develop.
Playing a game of backgammon , you will discover that opening rolls can be played either with an agressive or passive mindset and that in various in-game situations one of these is prefferable over the other.
The first thing we need to define is our goal when playing the opening moves .
Backgammon is principally a race but if that was all there was to this game nobody would play it.
There are many factors and strategies that will determine the winner of the race. In order to ensure that you the player can play effectively we need to create safe havens for your men, while you obstruct the plans of the opposition as much as possible. In an ideal game situation we would like to trap one or more of the opponenents checkers behind a blockade. This is done by creating primes with the ultimate prime consisting of 6 points in a row. Of course four and five point primes are very desirable also.
The two things we try to do from the outset , are creating new points and of course start the race for home. The most difficult men to get home are the 2 that are furthest away at the beginning of the game. It makes sense that if one moves men in the opening that those 2 should be given the highest priority.
Priority number three should be to unstack any points that are so called ‘Heavy’. In the initial setup position of the game we have five checkers on our midpoint and the six-point. Having too many checkers on a point is dreadfully inefficient and redistributing those should be a priority also.
As with any game with 2 dice, there are thirty-six (36) possible combinations. Since you cannot open with a double this, coupled with the fact that in backgammon 31 & 13 , 14 &41 etc are the same we are left with fifteen (15) opening rolls that we have to consider. These rolls divide into four tidy groups.
There are five rolls that are always played the same way :
65 – 61 – 53 – 42 & 31
We have 2 rolls for which the majority of players agree on how to play :
63 & 62
Three rolls on which opinion is divided :
51 – 41 & 21
And five rolls on which there is no general consensus at all :
64 – 54 – 52 – 43 & 32
It is perhaps surprising that after 3,000 years of play we still don’t know how to play some of the opening rolls!
Now let’s examine each of these groups in turn.
These 5 rolls are the best you can have because they give you an immediate solid asset. Four of them create a new point whilst the fifth gets one of the back men safely to the mid-point (your 13-pt).
The strongest roll of all is 31. This allows you to make your 5-pt by playing 8/5, 6/5 as shown below:
Of all the points on the board the two most important at the start of the game that you should strive to make are your own 5-pt and your opponent’s 5-pt. Long ago, Paul Magriel, one of the world’s finest players and certainly the best author/teacher for many years, coined the term ‘Golden Point’ for the 5-pt to reflect its importance and the name has stuck.
Why is it so important? It is a new point in your home board that will hamper your opponent’s entry should he have a man hit. Most importantly it forms the third point in a potential prime – all you need now is to make your bar-point (your 7-pt) to create a four-point prime.
A 31 opening roll will lead to you winning the game about 59% of the time.
The next best roll is 42 which is played 8/4, 6/4 to make your 4-pt as shown here:
The reason it is not as strong as 31 is the ‘gap’ between the 4-pt and the 6-pt. If you subsequently make your 5-pt you will have a very powerful position but if your opponent makes it he will have a strong defence.
A 42 opening roll will lead to you winning the game about 58% of the time.
The third opening roll that makes a home board point is 53 that is played 8/3, 5/3 as shown:
Back in the 1970’s 53 was played 13/8, 13/10 because it was felt that the 3-pt was too deep a point to make on the first roll of the game. However, Jason Lester, switched to making his 3-pt and noted that he was winning more games with this play than the old one and soon all the budding New York professionals changed to making the 3-pt.
Nowadays making the 3-pt is universal.
The last of the point making rolls is 61, played 13/7, 8/7:
Beginners often think that the bar-point is better than making the 5-pt but it isn’t for a number of reasons. Firstly all home board points are useful because they limit your opponent’s entering numbers when he has a checker hit. Making the bar-point doesn’t do anything to stop your opponent entering from the bar.
Secondly, the most difficult men to activate from the opening position are the five men on your 6-pt because they have so few possible destinations. 31, 42 and a 53 all make use of one of those men, 61 does not so whilst a 61 is definitely a good roll the structure that it leaves is not as good as after one of the other three rolls. On the up side it does create a three-point prime that can be extended in either direction.
The last of our ‘forced’ opening rolls is 65 which is played 24/13:
This is a good roll because it gets one of the two back checkers halfway home in complete safety. The move is known as ‘Lover’s Leap’. Once you have started with a 65 you have a fairly straightforward game plan presented to you – run the other man out as quickly as you can!
For many years it wasn’t appreciated how powerful it is to escape one checker completely so early in the game. It is far easier to escape one checker than two and to have 50% of the job done on move 1 is a distinct advantage.
These last three opening rolls, 53, 61 and 65 will all lead to you winning the game about 55% of the time.
Our objectives in the opening are:
- Mobilise the back checkers
- Unstack the heavy points
- Make new points
So far we have only looked at rolls where there is really no choice. Things get more interesting when we look at the remaining 10 opening rolls.