Feb 16, 2021

The Cruelest Game


Ross Gordon

1.Memorize the setup

Learn how to set up the board (2-5-3-5) quickly and confidently. The difference in play direction is simply which side of the table you’re sitting on. So the faster you can arrange the pieces, the more experienced you will appear to your opponent. It’s a subtle way to gain credibility, to command respect. Similar to twirling poker chips, handle the checkers as if you know them — as if they belong to you. They do.

2. Impress your opponent with some history

Now, the dice are usually made with plastic or resin. They used to be made with ivory and wood. The game goes back 5,000 years, which a long way. Between moves, ask your opponent if he’s familiar with the expression, “Roll them bones?” It’s true. Originally dice were made from bone. Sheep ankle. Oxen ankle. Now that you’re appearing confident and smart, it’s time to get started.

3. Trap The Lonely Pair

As far as rules go, backgammon is a simple game. There’s about ten rules, but the strategy of the game is amazingly complicated. Really, it’s all math. The beginning is the most straightforward part of the game and everyone starts with the same strategy: trap the two pieces in your home. So that should be your first goal: create six columns of at least two checkers in a row—that’s what you call a Prime. A Prime is what you want, and if you can make a Prime you are in good shape.

4. Spread Out Your Doubles

When you roll doubles you have four moves, but there’s a tendency to use them two at a time. My advice: move each piece one at a time. Make one move, and reevaluate the board. See how it looks. Maybe you’ll see something differently? Or maybe you want to keep going? But spreading out your doubles by moving the checkers one at a time creates an additional option. If you just move two, you won’t see it. So always move your doubles one at a time.

5. Beware of the final interaction.

A scenario: you’ve passed each other and it’s just a race to the end, which means all the interactions you could have are over. A straight race. But just before that’s about to happen, there is a final interaction, and you have a final checker on the midpoint and everything else is in your home.

Now let’s say you roll a 1 — 6. You don’t want to hit his checker because you don’t want your opponent back in your home. He could strike coming back into the game, and you could wind up forfeiting it all away the game Let’s say he has a closed out board, meaning he has a prime in his home, meaning if he hits you with his newly exiled piece, you can’t come back in and the game is essentially a forfeit because your opponent may have a Prime in place.

6. Remember your CARBs

A useful mnemonic is C.A.R.B.‘s, which stands for Cube, Attack, Race, Block. It’s useful to think about the game across these dimensions. A move is never simply a move. Ultimately, your dice rolls are somewhat irrelevant. Lucky dice are great but you can’t count on them to win. Lucky dice is how inexperienced players can win a game against a world champ — once. But one certainty: luck runs out.

7. Use the Power of the Cube

Doubling, or using the doubling cube, is a whole life study. The cube completely changes the game. Basically each game is worth a point, and the doubling cube allows you to challenge your opponent if you think you have a good position by doubling the stakes and handing him or her the cube.

With the cube, timing is the most important thing. When you give it or when you take it (or accept the offer). If you have any doubt, don’t give it — you’ll wind up getting hammered. If it’s too early the opponent will turn the game around and give it back to you. The stakes go up pretty quickly, so use it carefully. (Another note: Many people use the cube hoping you will take it. They think they’re ahead and they want more points. A different strategy is only trying to double when you don’t want your opponent to accept. Start with that.)

9. Sound like a pro

To trick your opponent into thinking you are a master, dust off some old-school backgammon jargon: tell your opponent you’ll meet him, “on the 24-point field of honor.” Or mutter obscure mantras to yourself to show you know your way around the board. “Two on the bar is better by far.”

10. Perspective.

Embrace the golden rule of backgammon: make sure you never take the dice personally. Everybody does, and everyone gets bad rolls. There’s a reason they call it the cruelest game, so maintain perspective. You’re playing your opponent, but also remember: you are playing yourself.

As told to Jason Schwartzman, True Senior Editor

Ross Gordon

Backgammon Instructor
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