Mind Game

Mind Game

Elevate your psychological and analytical thinking

By Ed Rosenblum

Looking down, I could see I was out of time.  I could get hit but then I could recirculate my man.  After all, I’ve been getting off the bar easily all evening. In fact, I’ve only fanned three times.  And if I’m hit, I’m sure I can develop a backgame.  But, if she gets to prime me, I may be looking at a gammon.

What the heck am I talking about?  Only the world’s oldest known board game (5,000 years old according to some estimates). It is far more than a game.  It’s a philosophy.  It’s a logic exercise.  It’s a tool for emotional perseverance.  It’s a game that parallels life itself.

OK, my bias clearly shows and for many of you this may seem like a statement that can’t be supported.  However, after playing for a while, you will begin to dramatically increase your favorable outcomes.  The parallels with life and the universe are remarkable.  Backgammon is the epitome of a game of risk and reward.

So how is it played and who would enjoy playing it?  OK, first things first.  No particular personality excels in backgammon; however, better players exhibit the following attributes. 

Visualization: Backgammon is all about the relationships between 15 nice checkers and 15 mean checkers (your opponent’s).  Where are they positioned?  Are they too far apart and can’t communicate?  Or are they stacked close together and can’t distribute themselves effectively? 

Planning: Understanding the ebb and flow of the game is essential. Do I take short-term risks for future gains?  Do I run or do I stay?  Sounds a lot like life doesn’t it?

Analytics: For many who have struggled with math, there is good news.  You do not need to be a math wizard to be a strong player.  Yes, there are some statistical concepts that must be learned.  For some people, these come easy.  Others just need more time.  But, everyone gets it.

Intuition: Reading your opponent and knowing yourself are the most powerful tools in backgammon.  Position play often relies on anticipating your opponent’s response.  Observing their behavior in similar positions is the key.  Intuition may override analytics (or vice versa) depending on the position.

So how do you play?  There are numerous sites on the web that can help you (I’ll list them at the end of this article).  But let’s start with the initial set up. 

The board on the right, (adapted from Wikipedia), shows the starting position.  Assume you are black and your opponent is red.  You will move your checkers counterclockwise while red moves clockwise.  No one knows where the board setup comes from but you can see that your 15 checkers are initially positioned on only 4 points (those triangular thingies).  Red’s checkers are positioned exactly opposite yours.

You move your checkers in response to the roll of the dice, but only in the direction shown.  The goal is to get all your checkers into the your Home Board and then to “bear them off” the board. 

There are only a few basic playing rules:

  A turn consists of one roll of two dice.

  You may move one or more checkers the sum of your dice roll. For instance, if you roll a 3-4 you may move one checker 3 points and another checker 4 points or you may move one checker 7 points.

   A point is “made” if you have two or more checkers on it.  Your opponent may not land on that point.

  A single checker on a point is known as a “blot”.  If your opponent lands on your blot, the blot is “hit” and is placed on the “bar”.

  A checker on the bar must enter the opponent’s home board at the beginning of his or her next turn.  If the checker can not enter (because the opponent has made the needed points), that player will have “fanned” and will lose his or her turn.

So those are the basics.  They are much easier to see in front of a board. But then again, this is not intended to be a treatise on backgammon play.  There are numerous books, websites, and backgammon robot games (affectionately known as the “bots”) that can instruct you. You can easily be up and playing in half an hour.  

So what can backgammon teach you?  First off, never give up.  In backgammon as in life, it is often possible to turn around the most dire situation to a big win.  The strongest players rarely give up.  They position themselves to always remain in the game despite significant odds against them.

Second, one can create “luck”.  Great backgammon players continuously position their checkers to provide the most favorable outcomes from each roll of the dice.  Deciding when to take chances or when to play conservatively is the secret for success.

Third, favorable or unfavorable dice sequences may persist for a long time.  Maintaining your composure during these sequences is paramount to a winning attitude.  A weak player beats a strong player when the dice gods embrace him.  However, over time the rolls will even out and the stronger player will persevere.  Again, as in life, one must learn to survive the bad rolls and cherish the good ones.

Finally, backgammon is fun and provides a great sense of accomplishment.  As in most sports, there is a sense of “being in the zone”, not unlike gracefully skiing a challenging run or hitting a pure golf shot. At its best, play flows naturally and is rewarded.  At its worst, movement is constrained and unnatural.

The depth of the game is considerable and it is only recently that computer programs have grown strong enough to play at the world-class level.  The permutations needed to evaluate backgammon play require thousands of times more computing power than equivalent chess programs.

If this game intrigues you, head over to the Backgammon Club of Santa Fe. They meet (play) in the library room at the La Posada Resort at 330 East Palace Avenue every Tuesday night at 6:00 PM.  Just show up. Club members will help you get started.  The hotel staff caters the room and provides tasty  inexpensive dinners to boot.  Also, drop me an email and we can set up a special teaching session at the club. 

There are many books and websites devoted to backgammon.  There are also a number of sites that allow you to learn and play.  This short list will get you started.   Good luck and may the dice gods be with you.


Ed Rosenblum is a fine player from Santa Fe and the Director of the annual New Mexico State ABT Championship

Backgammon Resources


Readings and Websites

Wikipedia   Backgammon.org  Gammoned.com  Opening Moves


Backgammon Software

Extreme Gammon (free 14 day trial)  Gnu Backgammon (free)


Local Play - Tuesdays @ 6:00

Backgammon Club of Santa Fe