How I Became a Big Fan of

Ed Collins


I'm not a big fan of games of chance. From the time I began playing games as a kid, I much preferred games of skill. I suspect the reason for this was because I didn't enjoy it when my younger siblings beat me when we played board games! I don't like losing! If I lose I want to believe it's because my opponent is simply a stronger player than I am, and not because they "got lucky."


Growing up, my mom taught me and my siblings how to play a variety of different board games and card games, chess included.  However she didn't know how to play backgammon

As it turned out, we did have a backgammon set.  We (and just about every other family in town) owned one of those red & black cardboard checker / chessboards, often purchased from your local dime store.  These boards folded in half and came with inexpensive plastic chess pieces and checker pieces.

On the back of this checker/chessboard was a backgammon board!  At the time, however, know one knew how to play.  In fact, we might not have even known what the game was called.


Thus, the other side of that checker/chessboard, the unknown game with those funny "triangles," never got used.  (Actually, now that I think about it, it probably did get used. I seem to recall us making up our own games on that board.)

From what I've read, backgammon was very big in the early 1920s and 1930s, and then again enjoyed a big resurgence in the 1970s. Well, this 1970s backgammon craze certainly didn't yet reach our very small town, located in the northern portion of Michigan's lower peninsula. I don't recall ever knowing anyone who knew the rules or played.

Now, skip ahead a few years later, to the year 1976. I'm almost 15 years old and during that summer our family moved from our small town in Michigan to Southern California.

Soon after we moved, my brother Bill, who is two years younger than me, became friends with a kid by the name of Steve, who lived just a house or two away. Bill and Steve were the same age and were in the same grade in school. Steve knew how to play backgammon and that first summer, possibly later that fall, Steve taught Bill how to play.

I recall seeing the two of them playing backgammon games out by the pool, in the garage, etc. They always looked like they were having lots of fun. But then again, since I could see that backgammon used "dice" and since I wasn't a fan of "games of chance," I wasn't interested in participating in this "fun." This board game that used dice just didn't interest me at all.

One day Bill offered to teach me how to play. I can't recall, but I suspect his friend Steve might not have been available. For whatever reason, I said yes. The rules to backgammon are pretty simple and can be learned him probably 10 or 15 minutes. So Bill taught me how to play and we started playing.

Bill won.

We played a few more games.

Bill won.

Okay, he just got lucky, right? However, we played again... and again... and again. As I recall, we played a lot of games that first weekend and although I don't recall the final tally, I do remember I won very few of them. You could say he "kicked my backgammon ass."

Even then, at the age of 15, I knew enough about the laws of probability to know that by now, if this were a game of chance, I should have won a lot more games than the number of games I did. If the game was all chance, for example, I would have won close to half the games. And yet I hardly won any at all!

So that's when I knew for the first time there must be much more to this game than what I initially thought.  That first weekend Bill won many more games because he knew more about the game than I did.  (Although I don't remember how the games went, I suspect I was probably trying to "protect" my men on each turn, rather than slotting points, building my home board, etc.  I also suspect I was not bearing off properly, and I know I was oblivious to the concept of duplication, diversification, re-circulating checkers to improve your timing, back games, etc.)

And I said earlier, I don't like to lose. So what did I do?  I'll tell you what I did.  I immediately went to our local library and checked out every book they had on backgammon. I also hit up every bookstore in town, used and new, and starting buying backgammon books.  I read everything about the game I could get my hands on.

As I started reading these books, I was flabbergasted. I was absolutely amazed. This game, although it used dice, wasn't a game of chance at all! It contained far, FAR more skill than I ever, EVER could have imagined! And the more I read about backgammon, the more fascinated and the more in love with the game I became.

A lot of the concepts and subtleties I was learning were fascinating.  I give just a few of many possible examples:

(1)  Although the game is essentially is a "racing game" (the first player to bear off all of their checkers wins the game), there are times when you don't care if your checkers are hit and sent back!  In fact, it can be to your advantage if they are! I know this concept that first weekend was completely foreign to me.

Match to 3

Crawford Game

Red is leading 2 to 1

Blue to play 1-1


Blue is trailing in this match by a point, but trailing 1 to 2 in a match to 3 he will win the match if he wins a gammon.  His position in the diagram is overwhelming.  According to eXtreme Gammon and GNU Backgammon, Blue is a big favorite to win.  There are many ways to play this roll and many of them are completely safe.  (They don't expose any blots.)  But one play is far superior to all of the rest:  5/1* hitting the blot on the 1-point.  (All other plays are considered blunders.)  This leave a blot on your own 1-point, but if your opponent hits this blot on his next roll from the bar, so what?  He's behind a six-point prime as it is and isn't escaping this checker any time soon.  Hitting this blot, which he would be forced to do, would be to your advantage!  If you can pick up a second blot, and there are several of them around, your gammon chances increase considerably.

Many players in the above position will simply move in their checkers from the 7-point, so they can began bearing off on next roll.  This move is okay... but it won't win nearly as many gammons.  Again, with this match score, Blue wins the match if he wins a gammon.


(2)  When bearing off your checkers, you usually want to take off as many checkers with your roll as possible.  However, at times doing just that would be a mistake!

Blue to play 2-1


Red is going to be off in two rolls, maximum.  Thus, Blue must do everything he can to give himself the best chance to be off in two rolls.  Many players would take off a checker here, by playing 3/off.  However, Blue would then need 4-4, 5-5, or 6-6 on his next roll to win.  (Assuming Red doesn't roll double 2s or better immediately.)  However, if Blue plays 5/3 4/3 instead, he now adds one roll to list of possible winning rolls on his next roll!  Now, 3-3 also gets all four checkers off, in addition to 4-4, 5-5, or 6-6.  By playing properly, Blue gained an extra winning roll, at no expense.


(3)  A similar position can be found below.  Blue to play 2-1.

Blue to play 2-1


Blue is desperately trying to save the gammon.  12/9, moving the last remaining checker as close as possible to Blue's home board, is an error.  Instead, the best move is 12/10, 2/1. 

After 12/9, rolling any 1 will not bear a checker off.  This is eleven losing numbers.  (1-1, 1-2, 2-1, 1-3, 3-1, 1-4, 4-1, 1-5, 5-1, 1-6, 6-1).  But if Blue instead plays 12/10, 2/1, he now only has seven losing numbers.  (1-1, 1-2, 2-1, 1-3, 3-1, 2-3, 3-2.)  This is a considerable improvement, again, at no additional expense.


(4)  In the position below, Red has two of Blue's checkers behind a full 6-point prime and is ahead in the race.  However, it's Blue who is an overwhelming favorite to win, and should most likely double next roll.  The reason is because of timing.  Red has very poor timing.  He will probably have to break his prime first and crunch his own board.  Blue, who is not as advanced as Red, is more likely several rolls away from crunching his own board.

Red to roll

Although Red is ahead in the race and has two of Blue's checkers behind a full 6-point prime, it's Blue who is a big favorite to win.



Speaking of doubling, I'm sure I was also fascinated with the concept that, although it might be proper for a player to double, it might also be proper for his/her opponent to accept the double!  I suspect I first would have believed that to be contradictory!  But I soon learned why it was not.

As I started to learn all of these tactics and concepts and ideas, it didn't take very long before I was hooked!  Backgammon was a great game! 

Match equities, doubling cube windows, advanced anchors, priming battles, blitzes, duplication, diversification, pip counting, free drops, gammon vigorish, holding games, priming games, running games, back games, ace-point games, pay now or pay later, rollouts, losing one's market, re-circulating checkers, mandatory doubles, slotting points... 
Wow!  Who knew! 

You don't always want to hit your opponent's blots!  You don't always want to roll high numbers!  You don't always care if your own blots are hit!  The best play over the board often depends upon the score of the match, or even if you're playing a match (vs. money play) at all!

So yes, although backgammon does use dice and thus does have an element of luck to it, make no mistake - it's a game of skill. In a match to x number of points, the more skillful player might certainly lose a game or two, but will be a big favorite to win the match. The longer the match, the greater the likelihood the stronger player will win it.

Here's a quote I recently came across, that I'm fond of:

Backgammon: the right balance between a board game where there’s real skill in maneuvering the pieces - which of course it has in common with chess - and a gambling game like poker, where you’re betting on probabilistic outcomes. It’s a very nice merger of the two. (Bill Robertie)

Yes, a very nice merger of the two. 

Backgammon is essentially a gambling game, and it's a GREAT gambling game, but it's also the only gambling game I know of that is (almost) as much fun to play if there are no stakes involved at all. (Poker, for example, is very boring if you're not playing for money.) Playing backgammon as a kid we rarely if ever played for money and yet still had a great time playing.  We just treated it as another board game, not as a gambling game.  (But yes, it's even more fun as a gambling game.)

So that's my little backgammon story.  In fact, I'm still learning and improving, almost 40 years after my brother Bill taught me how to play. Sometimes I regret not REALLY getting into it many years ago, and studying it with the same intensity that I've studied chess. (Chess is my other passion.) In MANY ways, backgammon is MUCH more "fun" and "exciting" than chess.

Several years ago I visited a backgammon tournament held here in Los Angeles, just to see what it was like. I discovered a backgammon tourney is nothing at all like a chess tourney! At the backgammon tourney, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and having a great time. In fact, they were chatting with each other during their games, something that just isn't done at a chess tournament! (In chess tournaments there is no talking in the playing room.)

Here's a short article by Phil Simborg, about skill and luck in backgammon.  Also, I'm sure you will enjoy this rather lengthy but very entertaining story about how backgammon was determined to be a game of skill in a courtroom trial.


Here's a recent photo of me (October 2015) with my
brand new $395.00, Wycliffe Brothers®, 21" tournament-size set!


Oh, I almost forgot!  It might be no surprise to hear that after studying for just a week or so via the backgammon books I purchased and checked out of the library, I quickly not just equalized but surpassed my brother Bill in backgammon knowledge and ability... and I began winning a majority of the games we played.  (Like most people, Bill just isn't the type who wishes to improve at a board game badly enough to want to take the time to study it.  Bill just likes to play.)