In-depth: Backgammon – the back game

I had a request for some Backgammon related posts, so I thought I’d start by discussing the back game.

I was first taught Backgammon by a friend who had learned it from a guy he worked with. Of course my friend didn’t know anything about the game since he had just learned it, but it took me a few years to figure out that the guy who taught him didn’t really know what he was doing either. He had told my friend that there are basically two ways to play: the front game and the back game. The front game involved racing your pieces home as quickly as possible and the back game involved hanging back and trapping your opponent as he tries to bring his pieces around.

Well to me the back game sounded more fun, exciting, and trickier to do, so of course I tried to do that whenever I could. But I found that I kept losing; usually I would get a shot as the other pieces came around and if I missed that was it: I would quickly lose. I figured I was just executing the back game incorrectly but it turns out that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the back game is supposed to be used only when you have no other choice. As I found out, it’s a losing proposition and should only be used when you’re forced to, not because you want to.

So what is a back game exactly? It’s when you have 2 or more points in your opponent’s home board (such as the 2 and 3, or 2-4, or 3-5) and you’re far behind (meaning the opponent will be able to get his pieces out before you i.e. his pip count is far lower than yours). At that point your only chance is to hang back, make your own home board as strong as possible, and hope to hit a shot. If you do you can keep your opponent on the bar and bring your remaining pieces home.

It’s kind of a fun game to play out,  but as I found out the problem is you don’t win very often. You usually will get at least one shot at an opponent’s piece, but your odds of hitting it aren’t that great. And since you have no chance of winning a race, once your opponent makes it home safely you’ve lost. So back games should only be played when you have to. But if you find yourself stuck in one here’s a few tips on how to play them:

  • Your number one priority in a back game is to get any “spares” back into play. For example, if you’re in a 2-4 back game and you have three pieces on the 2 point your immediate goal is to get that extra piece out of there and into circulation. The reason is that it helps with your “timing”. If you roll a big double you might have to break up your good home board before you’ve even gotten a chance to take your shot. Having all your spares out and available means they can be used as part of that big double rather than breaking up your board.
  • Your second priority is to build a strong home board as soon as possible. While this is always a worthy goal, it’s especially important in a back game because if you are fortunate enough to hit the opponent you need to keep him contained so you can bring your remaining pieces around.
  • Remember though that the back game is your last option. If you see a chance to break out of it and move into a race by hitting shots be sure to take it.
  • Having a third point in the opponent’s home board makes for a very strong (and super annoying!) back game. Go ahead and take some chances if you can establish a third point by doing so.
  • The good news about a back game is that once you have one established getting more pieces hit isn’t a problem. Being hit just improves your timing, and you’re in no danger of being shut out since you have points in your opponent’s home board. So you can slot anywhere that looks good and not have to worry about being hit.

So how about attacking a back game? How should you proceed if your opponent is playing the back game and has two or more points in your home board?

  • Do whatever you can to keep the opponent from establishing a third point in your home board. Your life will suck if he does, trust me.
  • Try to attack the back game by forming a prime in front of it. If you can do that you’ve got a safe position to work from.
  • Once you’ve gotten all your men home or close to it clear your points from the back first, just like you would against a single point held by the opponent.

Some people enjoy playing the back game and try to get behind on purpose so they can win this way, but don’t fall into that trap. Save the “goal line stands” of backgammon for when you have no other choice. One time when playing on Yahoo I played against a guy who did this. Unfortunately I wasn’t good enough at the time to know how to defend against it, and he ended up waxing me with a vicious back game. And he was all jerky about it too (someone being jerky online, how weird!). Now I would know how to deal with it; maybe I can track him down and play him again ; )

Back games can be pretty tricky but with these tips and a little practice you can play them well and occasionally get the win with one. But only when you have to!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “In-depth: Backgammon – the back game

  1. I haven’t played Backgammon in forev! I wouldn’t mind playing more, but you’re so good now that it would probably put me in a bad mood. 🙂 (Which is probably why you never suggest it. :P)

    “(someone being jerky online, how weird!)” – Ha!

    Um..I don’t know what else to say. Good post!

  2. dantherpgman

    Yup, Bill Robertie’s books were definitely a big part of developing my backgammon game, including back games. Great stuff.

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