How To Play Backgammon: A Quick-ish Tutorial (And Where To Play Online)

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How To Play Backgammon
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What do you know about backgammon? If you or your parents were children of the ’60s or ’70s, you’ve probably seen the briefcase version. It’s done up in those funky browns, whites, olive, and orange hues. But have you played it? Did you know that you can play it online now, too? It turns out that backgammon is still pretty popular today, though it looks a bit different than how it originated.

Backgammon can be traced all the way back to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) more than 5,000 years ago. In fact, this game was also played by Egyptians, Romans, and the Greeks. Egyptians even created a mechanical dice thrower to avoid cheating. Another interesting fact? The original dice used in some countries were actually made from human bones. Uh, yuck? Still popular in the Middle East, the super-fun game is a common form of entertainment in local cafes and during home visits. The game is also popular in Russia and the South Caucasus. In those regions, you may also hear of it referred to as Nardi or Narde — the latter of which includes two versions: Short Narde and Long Narde.

All of that to say, backgammon is a game that’s destined for a modern renaissance. It’s fairly easy to learn. It’s a bit old-fashioned, sure, but it’s not so old school that it’s hard to find. You can even pick it up during your weekly Target run. So, if you’re hoping to add a new game to your family night repertoire, backgammon might be the perfect fit. Once you’ve got your game, you need to know how to play. We’re here to help.

How to Play Backgammon

Did you know there’s a US Backgammon Federation? There is! These rules and tips are from the USBGF’s official guide on how to play.

Know the Board

Your common backgammon board is often divided into two sides (like when you open that briefcase version) marked with 24 triangles along the sides, twelve on each opposing side. It’s worth noting that technically the board is split into quadrants. If you each sit on a side of the board with triangles, one of you will have your “home board” on your right and the other will have their “home board” on their left. That means your home boards will both be on the same side of the case, facing each other. The other half of the case makes up your “outer board” and your opponent’s outer board. Your home boards and outer boards will be separated from each other with a small ridge or bump, called the “bar.”

Unlike many games, you start with your checkers on both sides of the board. Check out the picture above for a better idea of the initial checker placement.

Other Game Pieces

Also in play will be two pairs of dice, two shaker cups, 30 checkers, and one “doubling cube” used to keep track of current stakes.

The Object of the Game and How to Win

In case you weren’t counting, you each start with 15 checkers scattered across the board. The object of the game, and thus the way to win, is to collect all your checkers into your home board.

How to Move

First, you each roll one die to see who goes first. The higher number wins. That person gets the first turn and uses the numbers rolled to move their checkers. You’ll move in opposite directions, always working to get all of your checkers into your home board. After the initial roll, you’ll alternate turns and roll both of your dice each time. A few things to keep in mind:

  • A full triangle is called a “pip.” A pip is “full” when there are two or more opposing checkers already stacked on it.
  • Each die can represent one of your checkers (whichever you want). So, if you roll a four and a six, you can move one die four times and one six times.
  • You can also choose to combine your dice totals to move just one checker. So, in the case of rolling a four and six, you’d have the choice to move one checker ten pips.
  • While you can pass your checker over a pip, it cannot stop on a full pip.
  • What if you don’t have enough movable checkers or open pips to play the numbers on either or both dice? You can play just one number and move just one pip. But, if your only movable checker can either move four or six spaces, strategy isn’t an option. You must use the larger number rolled. If you can’t move using either value on the roll, then your turn is skipped.

Other Backgammon Rules, Tricks, and Obstacles

Oh, you didn’t think it was that easy, did you? This isn’t Mancala. There are actually a ton of things that can go wrong for you along the way. If you’re on a spot and your opponent lands on that same pip (called a “blot” once it’s occupied), they can bump you onto the bar. At that point, your first objective then becomes to move off of the bar. There’s also the option of “bearing off” and doubling. And the actual act or position of gammoning and backgammoning doesn’t even come into play until it’s time to score at the end. For all those rules, it’s best to find a video and a partner so you can play through the game once or twice.

If you’re looking for a killer move, try the Blitz. Instead of trying to get home, build a wall along the board. This is a defensive move that allows you to land on your opponent’s checkers and send them to the bar. This can set the other player back and help you trap some checkers on the bar. This is especially helpful if your opponent rolls badly and doesn’t get to come back on the board. It’s important to remember that attacking so close to your home row may not hurt your opponent as much. It can actually make your checkers more vulnerable, which may cause you to lose pips.

How to Play Backgammon Online

Believe it or not, backgammon is actually so popular that there are ways to play online. Backgammon Galaxy is one of the most popular and highly rated places to play online backgammon. It’s become a great resource for both new and experienced backgammon players because it’s designed to rate and evaluate each of your moves. In other words, as you play, the game will automatically tell you why your move was good or bad, and what might have been a better move. The more you play, the more you learn and the better you get. It’s the ultimate resource for anyone hoping to play backgammon professionally. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

Of course, there are also plenty of free backgammon playing apps, too. Before you “invest” in a board, download any of the free apps from the Apple Store or Google Play. Test your interest, skills, and patience digitally first. Or, you know, just use it to practice on your lunch break so you can kick your partner’s butt during your next game night!

Backgammon is good for the brain

If you’re looking to challenge your mind and boost your mental dexterity, backgammon is a great brain teaser. As a player, you are constantly being challenged and may face new obstacles in each game you play. In backgammon, you never know how a game is going to go! You are constantly reevaluating and readjusting your plan to win. So, backgammon teaches the importance of having a plan but also the value of knowing when to ditch it and figure something else out.

This is an evolving game — the circumstances are always subject to change. Players that learn to manage those shifts must think critically and on the fly. Backgammon is also a lot like a math game in that it is filled with probabilities and percentages. It’s important to have some level of mathematical strategy if you want to win.

Backgammon fun facts

Backgammon is one of the oldest forms of fun, so it has a long and strange history that will make you appreciate the game even more.

  • In 1982, there was a US court case that argued backgammon should not be a competitive game because it was a form of gambling. The prosecutor’s argument didn’t hold, and the game was deemed an activity that used skill instead of luck.
  • During the 16th century, the Catholic church banned backgammon. However, people still played in secrecy and thus the foldable backgammon boards were born! It was created for quick concealment.
  • In 1967, Tom Holland won the first backgammon world championship in Las Vegas.
  • Greek philosopher, Plato, believed backgammon represented the movement of the earth and planets, while chess symbolized war.
  • Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, loved playing backgammon so much, he hosted backgammon parties in the Playboy mansion.

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