Backgammon Opening Rolls

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Backgammon Opening Rolls- Introduction
Backgammon Opening Rolls have Always been Played the Same Way.
In this article and on of subsequent articles we are going to go right back to basics and examine how to play the opening backgammon rolls, and build our backgammon strategy in order to win. As with other games such as chess the opening roll goes a long way towards defining the type of game that will evolve.

In chess there are passive openings, e.g. the Caro-Kann, and active openings, e.g. the Sicilian. In backgammon we will see that certain opening rolls can be played aggressively or passively and that there are certain situations when one is to be preferred over the other.

So what are our objectives in the opening? Backgammon Game is primarily a race but if that was all it was nobody would play it. Whilst in the end the race will determine the winner there are many other plots and sub-plots within a game.

To enable us to race effectively we need to create safe landing places for our checkers, i.e. make points and we also need to do as much as possible to hinder our opponent’s moves as our main backgammon strategy. Ideally we would like to trap one or more of his men behind a strong blockade. We do this by building a prime – a set of contiguous points, where the ultimate is a full prime – six points in a row. Whilst six is ideal five-point and four-point primes are also very strong for our backgammon opening rolls.
So we set out our backgammon opening rolls to :

a) create new points – preferably those that easily form part of a prime.
b) begin to race for home. With regard to the second objective the most difficult checkers to get home are the two furthest away at the start of the game, i.e. the two checkers on our opponent’s ace-point. It therefore makes sense that if we are to move checkers in the opening those two on the ace-point should be given the highest priority.
c) unstack our heavy points. In the set-up position we have 5 checkers on our mid-point (13-pt) and our 6-pt. Five checkers on a point is inefficient so we want to redistribute those checkers as quickly as we can.

There are 36 possible backgammon opening rolls of the two dice. Each number combination, except doubles can occur twice. For example, 31 can be thrown as a 3 on the first dice and a 1 on the second dice or as a 1 on the first dice and a 3 on the second dice. If we exclude the doubles – as you can never open with a double – then there are actually only 15 rolls to consider. These 15 rolls fall neatly into four groups:

Rolls that are always played the same way (5): 31, 42, 53, 61, 65
Rolls on which there is broad agreement (2): 62, 63
Slot or split rolls (3): 21, 41, 51
Rolls with no broad agreement: 32, 43, 52, 54, 64

It is perhaps surprising that after 3,000 years of backgammon game existence we still don’t know how to play some of the backgammon opening rolls!

Now let’s examine each of these groups in turn.

These 5 backgammon opening 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):
31- The strongest roll of all is 31. This allows you to make your 5-pt by playing 8/5, 6/5 as shown below:

Backgammon openings
Backgammon openings

Of all the points on the backgammon game board the two most important at the start of the game for your backgammon strategy 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 backgammon game 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 for your winning ? 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.
42-The next best roll is 42 which is played 8/4, 6/4 to make your 4-pt as shown here:

backgammon 42 opening
backgammon 42 opening

Magriel named this the ‘Silver Point’. Whilst not quite as strong as the 5-pt it is still a powerful point to make and 42 is the second best opening roll.

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.
53- The third backgammon opening roll that makes a home board point is 53 that is played 8/3, 6/3 as shown:

backgammon 53 opening
backgammon 53 opening

Any new point is an improvement and making the 3-pt is still a good start to the game. It is not as good as the 5-pt or 4-pt because there is now a ‘double gap’ between the new point and the 6-pt.

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.
61- The last of the point making rolls is 61, played 13/7, 8/7:

backgammon 61 opening
backgammon 61 opening

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.
65- The last of our ‘forced’ backgammon opening rolls is 65 which is played 24/13:

backgammon 65 opening
backgammon 65 opening

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 backgammon opening rolls, 53, 61 and 65 will all lead to you winning the game about 55% of the time.

Summary

Our objectives in the backgammon opening rolls are:

  • Make new points
  • Mobilize the back checkers
  • Unstack the heavy 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.