IanTheCool's Reviews
Short Reviews of Movies, Board Games, and Other Stuff

Backgammon: Famous Yet Unknown

It’s hard for me not to relate Backgammon to chess. After all, both are games which exist in the public domain, both have been around for centuries, and both are included among the most fundamental and historic of all board games. However despite backgammon’s fame and notoriety, I feel like very few people are actually experienced with the game itself. Where as knowledge of chess is quite far-reaching, backgammon seems to be that classic game that everyone recognizes but may not necessarily know how to play.
I myself went years without knowing how to play backgammon. I learned chess when I was a kid as did many of my friends. Chess seemed to be a game that many whom I came across would be fine to sit down and have a game. But backgammon was never a priority to learn and I almost never saw others actually playing a game of it.
Backgammon is not a difficult game to learn and can be quite thrilling. It takes elements of dice games and combines it with a racing game but also adds elements of capturing your opponent’s pieces. This makes the game fast-paced and very interactive. The history of the game is very extensive and its origins run through the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Rome, and India. And yet basic know-how of playing the game seems lost on the general public today where chess and checkers seem like common knowledge. Why is that?


Backgammon is a race game at its heart, using dice to move around a group of checkers around the board. The first player who gets all of their checkers to the other side wins the game. Players will roll two dice and use those two numbers to combine movements of one or two checkers. The checkers move around from point to point, up one side of the board and back down the other. That is the basic mechanic of the game. The more intriguing elements of the game comes from being able to bump the other persons pieces and to speed up your moves by rolling doubles.
Any checker that is left alone on a point is vulnerable to attack. The other player may move to that point and bump those players off. This bumped piece goes tot he middle of the board and must be able to move back onto the board before that player can resume moving any other pieces. However, if there are more than one checker on a point, they are safe from being bumped. These points are also blocked from the other player since they cannot occupy the same space as their opponent.
Rolling doubles allows players to actually move using those dice numbers twice. For example, if double twos is rolled, the player may move two points four times in whatever combination they can. This is a necessary part of the game since it can really close the gap between players, keeping the game exciting and preventing an anti-climax. However, anti-climaxes in backgammon are still quite common despite this.


A backgammon board is very recognizable. The interesting thing about the board is that it is usually its own case. Backgammon boards are almost like suitcases which you open up and the board it all laid out for you. I don’t know where this came from, but its a neat design and quite handy. The board itself is very distinctive with its two facing rows of alternating coloured points, looking like an odd set of teeth.
The checkers are pretty basic, since they don’t need to be fancy but should be simple and fat, since they may have to be stacked on one another to fit on the points. The dice are, well, dice. Not much needs to be said there. Backgammon also comes with a doubling cube which is used for gambling purposes when a game is played for money. Since I never play a game for money, I wont speak to that aspect of the game.


Like I have said earlier, I cannot help but compare backgammon with chess in my mind. Is backgammon as good as chess? No. I don’t feel like backgammon has quite the variation in strategy as chess does. Backgammon is fun but also feels slightly shallow in comparison. But perhaps comparing these two in the first place is my problem. They are really nothing alike when just looking at the gameplay.
Backgammon does have its own culture. The game has its own terminology associated with the rules and with different variants: blot, gammon, bearing off, beaver, raccoon, the Murphy rule, etc. It also has scholars who study the strategies which can be used, much like other ancient games like Chess and Go. Yet in the public perspective, Backgammon seems to just have a reputation as “one of those old board games”. When people want to actually play one of these old games, they look to chess or checkers.
Perhaps this only comes from my own myopic view of the world. Perhaps elsewhere in bigger centers and more populated parts of the world Backgammon is more prevalent and since I am stuck int he middle of Canada, I just don’t see that. I am only basing this on my own experience and my exposure to pop culture through television and film. Or perhaps my observations are consistent and Backgammon in fact unknown, despite its fame. Perhaps it is overshadowed by its deeper and more complex colleague chess. Or perhaps those who play the game are comfortable with its niche as a game which doesn’t need as much notoriety as the other historic games it runs with.


2 Responses to “Backgammon: Famous Yet Unknown”

  1. Backgammon is my favorite game: it’s fun, it’s fast, it’s exciting, and it gives you a lot to think about. Do you want to take risks, or do you want to play it safe? It has, in my opinion, an almost perfect balance between strategy and luck.

    But that’s only if you’re playing with the doubling cube. The doubling cube was introduced by some anonymous genius in the first part of the twentieth century, and the game has never been the same since. Basically what you’re doing when you offer a double is saying that you want to double the stakes (or points, or whatever). If the double is accepted, then the game is worth twice what it was before; if it is declined, then the player declining the double loses the current stakes.

    What’s so cool about the doubling cube is that it forces you to think long term, it forces you to evaluate the strength of your position as accurately as possible. Sure, you might be losing, but if you’re offered a double, you need to know not just that you’re behind, but by how much.

    What you do is this: take the double if you think you’d lose from the current position 75% of the time, decline the double if you think you’d lose more often than that. Why? If you decline, you’re guaranteed to lose the current stakes. If you accept, you still have a chance of winning the game. The break-even point from a mathematical perspective is 75%.

    For those who are averse to gambling, do it this way: play a match to 21 points, where each undoubled game is worth 1 point. It’ll teach you about the doubling cube and give you a much deeper appreciation of the game.

  2. […] Note: portions of this were previously posted as a comment to IanTheCool’s “Backgammon: Famous Yet Unknown.” […]

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