Have you ever heard about Backgammon? Even if you do not know the rules, maybe you just know what it is. A game with dice, played on board with “teeth” on which players move their numerous pieces. This game is really extraordinary, so it’s good to know its rules and rich history.
Backgammon is really old game, known in many countries and cultural circles. It’s interesting for mathematicians and computer scientists. It’s considered a serious mind sport and it mixes elements of luck and skill in a unique way. This game was also involved in court cases and in some countries it was illegal. There are many books on Backgammon. Computers still have a problem with beating the best human players. And Backgammon sets can be beautiful items.
Why this game is so special? I have no idea how to explain this, but if you play Backgammon you can easily understand it! Let’s start – as always – with some historical background.
Long history of Backgammon
Games similar to Backgammon appeared in Persia around 3000 BC. One of these games was known as Nard or Nardshir. It was a game with dice and board similar to modern Backgammon, but pieces set and and rules were different.
Ancient Romans known a game called Ludus duodecim scriptorum what means “a game of twelve lines”. We don’t know much about this game, but it probably gave a rise to a game of called Tάβλη (tavli) known in Byzantine Greek. Tάβλη means “a board”. This game had a board with 24 lines, just like modern Backgammon, and each player played with 15 pieces. Today in Turkey Backgammon is still known as “Tavla”.
Backgammon-like games have long been known in Greece, Turkey and Egypt. They even reached China, Japan and Korea but their expansion to the west was more significant. In Britain of the Elizabethan era playing this game was prohibited. It was seen as to engaging. People should work, not play :). Maybe that’s why the manner of placing board on the back of the chessboard was established. Such boards were easier to hide. And maybe this is a source of the word Backgammon – the “game on the back”. The use of this word was documented already in 1650.
Backgammon popularity is reflected in its presence in many artworks. You can see a Backgammon board on The Garden of Earthly Delights – triptych painted by the Hieronymus Bosch.
We see a Backgammon set on painting by Carvaggio…
…and on drawing by Adriaen Van Ostade…
…and on graphics by William Raddon…
…and on many, many other works.
The game retained popularity throughout the centuries, up to the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately Backgammon matches were to long for people living faster and faster. But in the 20s of the last century Americans found a way to revive Backgammon.
It was a doubling cube. I’ll explain later how this cube affects a game. It made Backgammon matches shorter and more exciting.
In 60s of the las century the International Backgammon Association was founded. The rules of the game have been settled and the Backgammon has begun to transform into a serious mind sport. Today the game has many enthusiasts who treat it very seriously.
There are many Backgammons variants. But of course before I’ll describe this variants, I will introduce you to the most popular “classic” Backgammon.
Game of skill or luck?
I mentioned Backgammon was the subject of court disputes. Judges were to decide whether this is game of skill or a game of luck.
Let’s briefly answer this question. If two players have similar skills, element of luck will be decisive. If there are two players wit varied skills, then… its easy to think that better player gets more lucky throws 🙂 History knows such outstanding players who usually… were luckier? No! They played better!
In some Backgammon positions there are up to 30 possible moves. Choices made by player influence ability to deploy pieces evenly, to start attack or to block the opponents moves. Player must constantly assess the level of risk and potential benefits of each decision. Better player will always win a match consisted of few games (not necessarily each single game).
Backgammon has interesting theory and varied strategies were invented. You can play and study Backgammon to train your brain. Remember that games with random element can also develop your mind.
Backgammon is a board, race-type game for 2 players with element of luck. In every move player throws two dice and moves his pieces on the board. The aim of the game is to collect all pieces in the Home Board and remove (bear off) them from the board.
Board and pieces
Backgammon board (shown below) is a rectangle divided into two parts. On each side there are 12 long triangles called Points (there are 24 of them in total). The middle between two parts of the board is called the Bar.
Colors of the points (triangles) have no significance. Alternating color just makes counting easier.
You also need 30 pieces to play – 15 red pieces and 15 black. In some sets pieces colors may be different (black and white, green and black etc.).
A pair of dice numbered from 1 to 6 is also necessary.
Game start and movement
At the beginning of the game pieces are set as shown in the image below.
In the first move each player rolls one die. First player to move is the one who rolled the higher number. This player moves using the numbers shown on both dice. So – for example – if Red player rolls 3 and White player rolls 5, White moves first according to roll off 3 and 5.
Players make next moves alternately. In each move player rolls the dice and moves two of his checkers according to the number shown on each die.
For example – if the player rolls 3-5, he must move one checker 5 points forward, and another checker 3 points forward. Player may also move one checker 5 points forward and then the same checker 3 points forward (as long as the two moves can be made separately and legally). So in one turn two or one pieces can be moved.
Player must always play his full roll. So after throwing 3-5 he can’t move only one checker for 5 points and avoid moving for 3 points (if there is any legal way to do so).
What it means to move pieces forward? We need some more explanations here.
On the picture below Points are numbered.
Points from 1 to 6 are the Home Board for black pieces. Points from 19 to 24 are the Home Board of white pieces. This means that the dark pieces always move towards line 1, as shown below (their goal is to reach their home board).
White pieces go in the opposite direction – towards lines 19-24.
Let’s see some examples. Suppose this is the beginning of the game and the result of the first roll is 4-3. Black rolled 4 and he makes the first move. He may move one checker from 24th to 20th point (4 points forward) and then one checker from 13th to 10th point (3 points forward).
There are other possibilities. Black could move one checker from 6th to 2nd point and one checker from 8th to 5th point. This is Backgammon! You have many possibilities and you have to choose those better.
Important rule: If a player rolls a double (two of the same number) he must move twice. For example, by rolling 3-3 the player makes four moves for 3 points forward.
Where pieces may stay?
Many checkers of one player may be placed on a point. Theoretically even all 15 pieces may occupy one point.
It’s not allowed to move to a point that is occupied by 2 or more opposing checkers.
In the situation shown below Black is not able to move from 20th to 15th point. There are already two white checkers on this point so it’s closed for Black. If the White was to move, he could not move from 1st to 6th point because it’s already occupied by 3 black pieces.
Capturing (hitting) enemy pieces
It’s possible to move to a point occupied by exactly one opposing checker. In this case opposing checker has been captured (hit). In the situation shown below White after rolling 3 may hit the Red checker standing on 15th point. And if White would roll 6, he could hit red checker standing on the 6th point (by moving from the 2nd point). If two dice would show 3-6 White could hit two opposing checkers in one move.
Checker that has been “hit” is placed in the middle of the board on the Bar. Player whose checker landed on the bar is obliged to enter those checker(s) into the opposing Home Board before any other move can be made.
Entering hit pieces
A player with a checker(s) on the bar simply starts his turn by rolling the dice. Roll indicates a point of the opposing Home Board on which checker(s) may enter. Points are counted from the edge of the board, as shown in the figure below.
Let’s see the example below. Red has a checker on the bar. If he had roll 3 and 5, he may enter a checker onto either the 3rd or 5th point in the opponent’s home board (24 is opponent’s 1st).
Checker may enter only to a point that is open (not occupied by opposing checkers) or occupied by only one opposing checker. If there is one opposing checker on a given point of a Home Board, it can be hit by a checker entering from a bar.
It’s possible that player will not be able to enter opponents Home Board. Such situation is shown below. White has a checker on the bar and he rolls 2 and 6.
2nd and 6th line of the opposing Home Board is closed so player is not able to land there. And it’s not allowed to make any move before entering all hit pieces. In such situation player loses his turn. This is the only situation in Backgammon when player passes his turn.
The first goal: all Checkers in a home board
The aim of the game is to move all fifteen checkers into own Home Board and then remove them (this is called “Bearing Off”). A player may not Bear Off any checker if one or more his checkers are outside a home board.
In the situation shown below Red is ready to Bear Off. White has to move three of his checkers into a home board before Bearing Off.
The main goal: Bearing off
Once a player has moved all of his checkers into his Home Board, he may start removing them (or in other words, he may commence Bearing Off). Player roll a dice and numbers shown on a dice corresponds to the points on which the checkers reside. Checkers may be removed from this points.
Look at the position below. If player rolls 3-5, he may Bear Off a checker from 3rd and 5th point of his Home Board. Points are counted from the edge of the board so 1st point is the one near the edge of the board.
A player is not obliged to bear off checkers in every move. He can use his roll to move one or two checker in a Home Board. For example if he rolls 5 and 2 he may bear off a checker from from the 5th point and move a checker from 6th point 4th point (two points forward).
Player must play his roll if there is any legal way to do so. If he is not able to bear of the checker, he must at least move them.
If all of a player’s checkers are on points lower than the number shown on a die, the player may use that die to bear off a checker from the highest occupied point. For example if player rolls 4, he may Bear Off a checker from 4th, 3rd, 2nd or even 1st point if this is a highest occupied point. It’s not allowed to bear of a checker from point higher than a number shown on a die, so if player rolls 4, he can’t bear off a checker from 5th or 6th point. He may only move that checker to a lower point.
The first player to Bear Off all fifteen checkers wins the game.
Backgammon is a game of skill and luck. To reduce significance of luck people play matches that are series of single games. Matches are played to a specified number of points – often 5, 7 or 10 points.
For each won single game player gets 1 point.
Player earns 2 points for a game if his opponent has not Borne Off any checkers. Such situation is called a gammon.
Player may even earn 3 points for a game if the losing player has not Borne Off any checkers and still has at least on checker on the Bar or in the winner’s Home Board. Such situation is called a backgammon.
Doubling cube accelerates match game and it makes it more exciting. It’s not compulsory to play with doubling cube, but many people likes that.
Doubling Cube looks like a die, but instead of pips it has 6 numbers: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64.
At start cube rests on the middle of the bar with the number 64 showing. Before each move a player has the right to “offer a double”. Opponent has the right to accept or refuse the double.
Refusing the double means player concedes the game and his opponent earns points.
Accepting the double means higher stake. Player who accepts the double place Doubling Cube on his side of the board with the corresponding number (2 after a first double). From now stake is doubled so player can get 2 match points for a game, 4 match points for gammon and 6 points for backgammon.
Player who has accepted a double becomes a Doubling Cube “owner”. From now only he has a right to offer it again (Redouble). His opponent may accept or refuse Redouble, and if he accepts it, doubling cube is placed on his side with the next corresponding number (4). From now stake is quadrupled.
Theoretically double can be offered many times during one game and stake can grow up over 64 (the highest number shown on dice). In practice it’s hard to see 16 or 32 on Doubling Cube :).
Doubling Cube force players to asses their situation and make important decision – surrender or risk more? In practice doubling allows to quickly end a game in which one of players gained huge lead. And it allows to reduce number of games needed to the end a match.
Additional doubling rules
Because doubling significantly affects the game, some additional rules have emerged over time. You can play with these rules or without them.
- Crawford rule – If one player reaches a score one point short of winning, the following game is played without a Doubling Cube. This is called the Crawford game. After the Crawford game, normal use of the Doubling Cube resumes.
This rule is often used in tournament match play. It should prevent losing players from doubling early to catch up a leading player. It’s possible for a Crawford game never to occur in a match.
- Holland rule – After the Crawford game, a player cannot double until after at least two rolls have been played by each side. Today this rule is rarely used.
- Murphy rule – If both opponents roll the same opening number, the Doubling Cube is incremented, but stays in a middle of the board. Still each player can offer a double. Today this rule is rarely used.
- Jacoby rule gammons and backgammons are counted for their respective double and triple values only if the cube has been offered and accepted earlier. This rule is used in money play to encourage a player with a large lead to double.
If you are new to Backgammon, keep in mind that initial checkers setting is asymmetrical. So if one player sees a board this way…
…his opponent sees it this way.
Note that one player has a Home Boards at his right and his opponent sees a home boards at his left. Home boards are not marked on board. You can spot them only when you see initial setting of checkers. Remember home boards are on the side of the board, where you can see two checkers near the edge and 5 checkers near the bar.
I must admit I have a weak spot for Backgammon. I love this game and for some reason I have collected many Backgammon sets. Let me show you two items from my collection.
This is the smallest of my Backgammon sets. I placed a match next to him so you can see how small it is.
And this is my biggest, beautiful Turkish, wooden, fantastically decorated set.