Backgammon is a game which is apparently very simple. It takes just a few minutes to learn the rules, but is in fact astonishingly complex. It is a game of pattern recognition, mathematics and psychology.

The doubling cube adds dramatically to the last of these elements and is what gives modern backgammon much of its excitement. The fact that it is a dice game means that luck is a factor in the short-term and adds to the excitement. In the long run, however, the best player will win as the luck will even out.

Let's start right at the beginning with the first roll of the dice: Of the 15 possible opening rolls (you cannot start with a double) there is universal agreement on only four of them. With a 3-1 you make your 5- point, with a 4-2 you make your 4-point, with a 6-1 you make your bar (or seven)-point and with a 6-5 you run one of your back men to the mid (or 13)-point.

Of the other 11 rolls there is wide disagreement even among experts on the "best" way to play a move.

Contrast this with chess where if you're not careful you can be 19 moves into a game before anyone is required to bring any original thought into play! Thus in backgammon you can be "out of the book" in two rolls of the dice (this is one reason why many good chess players have changed to backgammon).

Back to the start position. How would you play an opening a roll of 4- 3?

There are at least 4 good possibilities:

A) 24-20, 13-10

B) 24-21, 13-9

C) 24-21, 24-20

D) 13-10, 13-9

Note that 13-6 is not an acceptable play!

Each of these plays leads to different game types (A and B are similar) and the choice of one over the other can be decided by many factors including whether the game is for money or in a tournament, and your assessment of your opponent's strengths in different positional types.

So here we are not even beyond move one and already some of the complexity and subtlety of backgammon is evident. There's much more to come.

Chris Bray will be writing on backgammon in this space on alternate Tuesdays

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