The slotting play concentrates all your efforts on offence. By slotting your five-point you increase your chances of making this important point next turn. Many beginners are reluctant to leave a blot within direct range of being hit. And so they should be! If your blot is hit, it will be sent back 20 spaces and you will be far behind in the race. Can the advantages of the slot really be worth this risk?
It turns out the answer is yes. The game is early and if you get hit now, there is still plenty of time to regroup and find another way to win. But when you're not hit, you can cover the blot on your five-point by rolling any 6, 3, or 1, plus double 4's—a total of 28 ways out of 36. Making the five-point is a major improvement in your position. (See the discussion of the 3-1 opener for an explanation of why.)
And there is another reason to slot here. Look at the stack of checkers on your six-point. Those checkers want to do something. 1 is the perfect number for taking a checker off your overcrowded six-point and setting it to work. As the popular backgammon aphorism says: Put your checkers where they belong. The extra checkers on your six-point belong on your five-point.
Bill Robertie (2000): The five-point is the most important point in the early stage, and this play lets you slot it while distributing your checkers off the big stacks. Aggressive and strong.
The splitting play aims at making improvements on both sides of the board. Splitting your back checkers increases your chances of securing an advanced anchor and improves your coverage of opponent's outer board. Now it's more dangerous for him to bring builders down from his mid-point or slot his five-point.
The beginning of the game is the safest time to split your runners. Opponent is unlikely to hit you so deep in his home board before he has built other home-board points. Waiting too long to split can mean getting stuck back on the opponent's one-point with no easy way to get out.
Paul Magriel (1976): Splitting the back checkers facilitates their escape at small risk since your opponent gains little by hitting on a point deep in his inner board.
Beginning players are often surprised to learn that 3 and 1 are the best opening numbers you can roll. After all, with a grand total of four pips, this is a pretty puny roll. Sure, you get to make a point, but there are other rolls that make good points too, like 4-2 (the four-point) and 6-1 (the bar-point). What makes 3-1 so great?
The answer is that the five-point is a tremendously useful point to own. Here's why:
1. The five-point is a home-board point. Each additional home-board point you own gives your opponent fewer ways to enter when he gets hit. That means he must play conservatively while you get to play aggressively.
2. Of all the empty points in your home board, the five-point is the best one to close first because you can use it as a landing spot for more checkers. A spare checker on your five-point can be used to attack enemy blots or build more home-board points.
3. The five-point is a good blocking point. The easiest real estate on which to build a prime is: from your ten-point down to your five-point, from your nine-point to your four-point, or from your eight-point to your three-point. All of these include your five-point.
4. Owning the five-point prevents your opponent from anchoring there. If he acquires your five-point, it is almost impossible for you to prime him.
5. The five-point is enduring. Once you've made this point, you will continue to hold it and it will continue to have value for the rest of the game.
Paul Magriel (1976): Your five-point is the most important point on your side of the board.
Bill Robertie (2002): With this roll you accomplish two things: you make a blocking point, further hemming in opponent's two checkers on your one-point, and you make an inner-board point.
This is the most popular way of playing an opening 4-1. The builder on your nine-point provides many point-making opportunities up front. This is nicely balanced by having your runners split at the back. Splitting your runners increases your chances of making an advanced anchor next turn or hitting your opponent if he puts a blot anywhere on his side of the board
Walter Trice (2004): You have diversified the distances between your builders. The builders are one, two, and three pips apart: thus, rolls where the numbers on the dice differ by one, two, or three can make points.
If you decide to use your 1 to advance one of your back checkers, it is safer to leave it on your 23-point rather than move up to 18. Having your runners split still gives good coverage of opponent's outer board but doesn't leave yourself open to attack.
It might seem that a fourth checker on the eight-point is unnecessary—you already have a spare checker there. But a second spare can be useful. You can use it to hit the opponent if he tries for an advanced anchor. Or if you roll 1-3, 2-4, 3-5, or 1-6, you can use the eight-point spare build a new point. There are enough uses for spares on the eight-point that having more than one there is ok
Jacoby and Crawford (1970): The split to the 23-point is quite good. If your opponent fails to hit either of your men on his one and two-points, you will be in position to make one of the advanced points in his board or his bar-point with one of several rolls. In addition, you will have doubled your coverage of the opposing outer board, so that if he chooses to move a blot into that terrain, you are twice as likely to be able to hit it.
There is only one reasonable way to play this roll—make your bar-point. The bar-point is a great point to own early in the game. It's good blocking point because it is exactly six pips away from the opponent's runners and it nicely fills in the gap between your eight-point and six-point. Sequences of points with no gaps are strong blocking formations because it is hard for your opponent to get by them and easy for you to extend them. You can now bring extra checkers down from your mid-point and use them to make additional points in your home board.
Some players are surprised to learn that 6-1 is only the third best opening roll, behind 3-1 and 4-2. Why isn't it as good as the others?
The answer is that the bar-point is not a home-board point. Home-board points are surprisingly valuable early in the game. When you own more home-board points than your opponent, he has to be particularly careful about leaving you shots, whereas you can afford to take extra chances to improve your position.
Both the five-point and four-point are more valuable to own than the bar-point. However, your three-point and two-point are not as valuable as your bar-point, so opening rolls of 5-3 and 6-4 are not as good as 6-1. The problem with the three-point and two-point is that they are too far away from the already made six and eight-points to work effectively with them. Once you place two checkers so far forward, it's hard to fill up the intervening space.
Bill Robertie (2002): You have succeeded in creating a block three points long. The only drawback to this roll is that the seven-point is not an inner-board point, so it doesn't help keep your opponent from entering if you send him to the bar.
This is the more popular of the two split-and-build plays. You use your 2 to bring a builder down from the mid-point where it can be used next turn to help make a blocking point. This is a nice way to play the 2. The blot on eleven is pretty safe from being hit and its presence helps cover your outer board in case the opponent tries to run with one his back checkers.
Advancing to the 21-point with your 3 has advantages and disadvantages. If you are not hit you have a chance to make an advanced anchor, a real advantage early in the game. The downside is that opponent's four-point is also a point he wants to make and he will be willing to fight to get it.
Paul Magriel (1976): It is wise to split early—before your position becomes more dangerous. By moving a back man up, you not only try to acquire a valuable point, you also prevent opponent from bringing builders down to his outer board and developing naturally. This play is especially recommended if you are playing someone who is afraid to hit immediately in his inner board.
This play was unheard of before the 1990's. The fear was that your opponent would roll double 5's. You'd then end up with two blots on the bar and your opponent would have an instant three-point board. Even though it is only a 1/36 chance, the result is devastating.
The other argument against splitting to opponent's three-point is that it puts your runners exactly two pips apart. This is the same distance apart as your checkers on the eight-point and six-point. Many of your subsequent rolls that make anchors on your opponent's side of the board also make good points on your side of the board. Your good rolls are said to be duplicated.
If your opponent doesn't roll 5-5, 3-3, or 5-3, you have a chance to hit back if he hits your blot. The other advantage is that you have now slotted a semi advanced anchor. If you roll a 2 next turn, you can cover the 22-point blot. It's not as good as owning the 20-point or 21-point, but the 22-point is still a nice asset to have early in the game.
This is the second best opening roll. The advantages of this roll are similar to the advantages of an opening 3-1.
• The four-point is a home-board point. Each additional home-board point you own gives your opponent fewer ways to enter when he gets hit. That means he must play conservatively while you get to play aggressively.
• While not as strong as the five-point, the four-point is still a good point to own. It is place where your checkers can land safely and a useful launching pad for attacking enemy blots or building points lower in your home board.
• The four-point is good to own if you want to make a prime. Potential primes that include the four-point are: (1) from your nine-point down to your four-point and (2) from your eight-point down to your three-point.
Some people are surprised to learn that an opening 4-2 is a better roll than an opening 6-1. Why would this be? The best point to hold when you want to block the opponent's checkers is the point exactly six pips in front of him. That means the bar-point (the point you make with an opening 6-1) is a good point to own because it prevents your opponent from escaping with 6's. Another useful quality of 6-1 is that it creates a compact position, a blockade with no holes in it. It is easier to extend compact positions by adding new points to the front or the back than it is to fill in the holes in swiss cheese positions. With these things going for 6-1, why would 4-2 be stronger?
There are two big advantages to 4-2 over 6-1. The first is that the four-point is a home-board point. You have an extra advantage when you own more home-board points than your opponent. It's like carrying a big stick around with you. Your opponent has to be more careful about leaving blots that you can hit, while you are more free to take risks to improve your position.
The other advantage of 4-2 is that it moves a checker off your overstacked six-point. It is very difficult to get these extra checkers into play early in the game, and 4-2 (like 3-1) is an excellent roll to do it.
Bill Robertie (2002): Opening 4-2 is not quite as good as 3-1 for this reason: after you make the four-point, opponent still has a chance to sneak behind you and bring his back men up to the five-point. If he can do that, the value of the four-point will be somewhat negated
This play tries for improvements on both sides of the board. By bringing one of your runners up to the opponent's bar-point, you hope to either make his bar-point next turn or continue with the same checker and run it to safety. Meanwhile, the checker provides good coverage of opponent's outfield.
The builder on your 11-point protects your outer table and is in good position to help create a block next turn. It is quite safe because only a roll of 6-4 will hit it. The checker on opponent's bar-point is not so safe since opponent can hit it with any 1 or 6. But if he hits you, you have good chances of hitting back with a 6 from the 24-point or a 7 from the bar. And your hits are more costly than his in terms of the number of pips each checker is sent back.
Paul Magriel (1976): This play is more constructive than running since you bring a builder into your own outer board. It is also more provacative since the man on opponent's bar-point and the builder you bring down creates added pressure on both your outer and inner boards. It restricts opponent's choices and makes it hard for him to develop naturally.
Bill Robertie (1998): Modern players are looking for the right combination of aggression, building, defense, and risk/reward, and 24/18, 13/11 feels better on these criteria.
This play goes all out to try to build a quick blockade before the opponent can escape his runners. You might think the play suffers from the same problem as the double-split above, that it is wasteful using both numbers for the same purpose. The reason that 13/10, 13/9 works well is that both blots have two uses. (1) They work as builders to make new points further forward. (2) They slot good points that you can turn into blocks on your next turn.
Elizabeth Clark Boyden (1930): The position now is favourable to make a point on the next throw, and there is no throw which will permit the opponent to take up both of these men.
Jacoby and Crawford (1970): If neither blot is hit they are in excellent position to help you build your bar-point, five-point, or four-point; or you may be able to cover one, giving you possession of your nine or ten-point.
It wasn't until the 1980's that thinking began to change and many players who had been playing "two off the mid-point" came to see that making the three-point was really the way to go. What makes 8/3, 6/3 such a great play? The advantages are simple and few:
• It makes a home-board point.
• It is completely safe.
The value of making a home-board point cannot be overstated. It might appear that the gap on your five and four-points makes owning the three-point irrelevant, but that's not true. Every additional home-board point has value: Each point you own is one less number that your opponent can use to enter a checker when he is hit. And each extra point brings you one step closer to closing out your opponent. Home-board points have lasting value. Roll after roll for the rest of the game, your opponent will have to treat you with greater respect because of the additional point you hold in your home board.
The three-point can also be a good blocking point. Eventually you may be able to make a prime from your eight-point down to your three-point. Of course, it would be easier to make your points in the opposite order (five-point, four-point, and then three-point), but you have to play the rolls the dice give you. And these dice are telling you to make your three-point.
Phillip Martyn deserves credit for bucking the fashion trend of the 1970's and seeing early on that anything other than making the three-point is a huge error.
Phillip Martyn (1976): Make your three-point. Some people say the three-point is not worth having early on. They are wrong. As you gain experience you will realize how useful any point in your board is. When you have made the six and three-points, your opponent, if he has a man on the bar,will more often than not get at least one 3 or one 6 which he can't come in with. So he is forced to use his other throw to come in, assuming it is a 1, 2, 4, or 5, instead of using it for something more constructive. And more than 10 per cent of the time he will be moaning about his "unbelievable" bad luck as he throws double 6, double 3 or 6-3, and can't come in at all
Bringing a checker up to the opponent's bar-point gives you a chance to either make this point next turn or continue with the same checker and run it to safety. The builder on your ten-point can either be turned into a block, if you roll 3 again, or used with another spare to create a block on nine or five.
The checker on opponent's bar-point is not particularly safe since he can hit you with any 1 or 6. But if you're not hit, you have a chance to make opponent's bar-point, which is a good asset to have early in the game. And if you are hit, you have good chances of hitting back with a 6 or a 7. In a blot-hitting-contest your hits are better than his in terms of the number of pips gained each time you hit.
Jacoby and Crawford (1970): The odds are two-to-one that your man on the opponent's bar-point will be hit. But unless he is hit by a point-making roll, you will have a lot of possible return shots against your opponent's vulnerable blot, and you have lost little anyway. If your man is not hit, your position is highly advantageous.
Paul Magriel (1976): This play is more constructive than running since you bring a builder into your own outer board. It is also more proactive since the man on opponents bar-point and the builder you bring down creates added pressure on both your outer and inner boards. It restricts opponent's choices and makes it hard for him to develop naturally.
This is a balanced play, working on both sides of the board at the same time. You hope to roll a 4 next turn and cover the slot on the opponent's five-point. This is a great point to own. It causes headaches for your opponent as he brings his checkers home. And it means you can play more aggressively knowing that you always have a place to reenter your hit checkers.
The down side of this play is that opponent will hit your blot if he can, especially if he rolls a 1, and if you are unable to hit back it may be he who first makes his five-point. Of course your opponent takes a risk by hitting you. If you hit back, you'll send his checker back 20 pips.
Phillip Martyn (1976): If your opponent does not hit, you may well make his vital five-point. If he does hit without covering it he is in great danger of being hit back. You only need a 5 or a 4 (other than 6-4) to hit him; and if you should throw a 5-4 again you will be in great shape, hitting him and making his five-point.
Paul Magriel (1976): It is wise to split early—before your position becomes more dangerous. By moving a back man up, you not only try to acquire a valuable point, you also prevent your opponent from bringing builders down to his outer board and developing naturally. I have no strong preference between this play and 13/9, 13/8. The major difference is that this play is more provocative since your opponent is likely to be forced to hit you immediately.
Conventional wisdom is that making the two-point does little to block the opponent and takes two valuable checkers out of play where they can't work with the rest of your army. Further, it is considered poor form to build points six pips apart (the two-point is six pips from the eight-point). The reason is that both points cannot form part of the same prime. Once you have placed two checkers on your two-point, it makes it almost impossible to create a prime that includes your eight-point. Prior to the 1990's experts decried this play.
Only with the advent of modern computer rollouts did experts consider more seriously making the two-point. What computers have taught us is just how valuable it is to own home-board points. Every additional point you own adds to the value of your position. When you own more home-board points than your opponent, you have a real advantage. Your opponent has to play more cautiously, while you get to play more aggressively.
This is not to say that the two-point is a wonderful point to own. It's not nearly as good as your five-point, four-point, or even your three-point. But it is a home-board point and it is an asset, even though it requires you to use up two checkers that might be more useful elsewhere.
The other thing about this play is that it is completely safe—at least for now. There are no blots for the opponent to hit. On the other hand, your position is not very flexible, so your present safety may be short-lived.
Paul Lamford (2001): 8/2, 6/2 used to be regarded as a beginner's error but with stronger and stronger backgammon programs it has started to be taken seriously. The move makes a new home-board point and leaves no loose checkers. It also makes some replies containing a 1 awkward to play.
Today's experts are agreed that there is only one way to play this roll, a play so famous it has its own name: Lover's Leap. 6-5 is the largest roll possible for an opener, so it is natural to make a running play to capitalize on your racing lead. Further, 24/13 is completely safe. What more could you ask?
Normally you want to avoid putting six checkers on one point. But six checkers on your mid-point is not a big concern. Next turn you'll bring one or two checkers down to your outfield where they can work as builders. Meanwhile you'll still have some spares back on the mid-point that can work with your builders to make new points. Or they can be used to attack your opponent if he tries to escape. In general, having spares on your mid-point gives you a more flexible position.
The first player to safely escape one of his back checkers has established a significant lead. It is much harder for your opponent to contain just one checker than two. The combination of racing lead and safety is enough make 6-5 one of the Big Five opening rolls.
Bill Robertie (1984): Running to the mid-point is quite strong; not because of the lead in the race, which is insignificant, but because of the great strategical advantage of having only one man back.
These plays are the most up to date and most studied moves ever. Some of these moves change at DMP or at gammon save gammon go situations.