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Bearing Off in Backgammon

By Michael StratoThe backgammon bearing off process begins once all of your 15 checkers have reached your homeboard. One might think that to bear off is a simple routine – just bear off as many checkers as you can with the dice rolls you get, which is true in most, but not all cases.

For example, there is certain backgammon bearing off strategy to use when bearing in. There are also some tactics on how to play your dice rolls when bearing off against one or more points your opponent is still anchored on, waiting for a hit, or possibly, checkers he still has on the Bar.

Your typical bearoff scenario is when there is no further contact (hitting) in a game, both players are racing to get their checkers off and of course you try to get off as many of your stones as possible with the dice numbers rolled. This is the simplest form of bearing off in backgammon and there are computer-generated bearoff databases and programs that show exactly how to bear off every possible dice roll, and they even can tell us when to double during the backgammon bearing off stage.

However, when the end of a game is a pure race it is important to bear in and distribute your checkers evenly in your home board so that your dice rolls can be used for bearing off more efficiently. For example, when bearing in make sure you do not leave gaps (points without checkers) otherwise you could have rolls where you can bear off only one checker, or sometimes none at all:

backgammon bear off stage

In the above bear off position, no checkers can be bourne off as one must move the four 4s over from the 5 or 6 points.

To have good distribution and a flexible backgammon bearing off, try to avoid stacking up too many checkers on the same point. Therefore, when bearing in your stones from the outerboard, if your timing looks good and the pip count is close to even, try to distribute them as equally as possible for a smooth bearoff:

backgammon bear in stage

In the above position, Black has better distribution for the bearoff than White and even after a roll like 4-2, Black still has more than 70% chances of winning this game.

However, there are end game scenarios where you face some difficult backgammon bearing off decisions, such as the following:

  • You must bear off against a point that your opponent is still holding in your homeboard, often it is your 1 point.
  • Your opponent is playing a backgame and is anchored on two or more points in your home, which might hinder your bearoff.
  • You are bearing off and your opponent still has one or more checkers waiting to come down from the Bar and may or may not have an anchor as well.

  • These are situations in backgammon bearing off, where you need to figure out the best way to play your dice rolls and diminish the odds of leaving an open checker. And if you must leave a blot, normally you try to bear off in a way that leaves your opponent fewer shots at hitting you.

    For example, there are many bearing off positions versus an anchored point, where one can make an error. Here is a sample of one position, where to bear off as many checkers as possible is not the best play:

    backgammon bearoff

    In the above bearoff position, taking two checkers off the 4 point and moving two from the 6 to the 2 point is not correct.

    It is true that in the above example, one way or another, you have to leave one checker open but the reason why the proper bearoff play is 3 checkers from the 6 point to the 2 point and then bear off one from the 4 point, is that it gives your opponent less chances of hitting your blot. If the checker is left open on your 3 point your opponent needs to roll anything with a 3 to hit you – that is 11 possible rolls (3-1, 1-3, 3-2, 2-3, 3-3, 3-4, 4-3, 3-5, 5-3, 3-6 and 6-3). Whereas if you leave the checker open on the 6 point, your opponent has to roll anything with a 5 to hit you (11 possible rolls produce a 5) but with your 4 point vacant, it is also possible to be hit with a 2-3 or 3-2, which makes it a total of 13 rolls that hit out of the 36 possible rolls in backgammon.

    However, there are some exceptions to backgammon bearing off. Such as in the backgame bearoff position below where you have the mandatory bear off of the 5 from the 5 point but what is the best way to play the 2?

    backgame bear off

    After bearing off the 5 should you play the 2 from the 6 to the 4 point or from the 5 to the 3 point?

    Actually, playing the 2 of this bearoff roll from the 6 to the 4 is better than playing the 2 from the 5 to the 3 point even though you are giving up extras odds that you will be hit on your upcoming backgammon bearing off roll. Let’s count them:

    Position 1: After the 5-2 is played – bear off the 5 and move the 2 from the 6 to the 4 point…

    backgammon bearoff vs. backgame

    …the following 12 rolls will leave an open checker on your next turn: 2-2, 2-5, 5-2, 3-5, 5-3, 3-4, 4-3, 4-6, 6-4, 5-6, 6-5 and 6-6


    Position 2: After the 5-2 is played – bear off the 5 and move the 2 from the 5 to the 3 point…

    backgammon bearoff against backgame

    …only 10 rolls will leave an open checker in the bearoff position above: 2-2, 2-6, 6-2, 3-5, 5-3, 4-5, 5-4, 5-6, 6-5 and 6-6

    So why risk giving an extra two chances in this bearoff position? Well, most often in the backgammon bearing off of a backgame you want to clear from the back or higher points, and stack up checkers on the points in front of where your opponent is anchored – this will make a lot of your forthcoming rolls easier to bear off (because you eliminate the higher numbers), as well as, make it easier to play other moves that don’t bear off a checker. It also gives you some timing in the bearoff because eventually the opponent will have to break one of those annoying anchors blocking you, when he repeatedly rolls big numbers like 5s and 6s.

    Looking ahead one or two moves in the backgammon bearing off process is always a good practice. You can see how forthcoming rolls will make the bearoff slightly easier in Position 1 than Position 2 above, by using the dice grid below to compare how all the 36 possible rolls play on your next turn:

    backgammon bear off stage

    More of the next rolls for Position 1 help for a smoother bearoff than for Position 2. Plus they allow you to follow the rule of clearing from the back and stacking up checkers in front of the anchors.

    Finally, the other backgammon bearing off positions come when your opponent was hit and still has checkers to come down from the Bar; he might be closed out or might be holding one or more anchors in your homeboard. Let’s look at a bearoff position where your opponent is closed out:

    backgammon bearoff position

    You have rolled a 6-4 and can do a greedy bearoff of a 6 and a 4 or just bear off the 6 and move the 4 from the 5 point to the 1 point.

    The difference in equity between the two moves is not big, but by bearing off a 6 and a 4 you will leave a checker open on your following roll if you roll a 6-6 or a 5-5. To bear off a 6 and 4 gives you about a 95% of winning the game with about 5.5% chances of winning the game as a gammon. Whereas if you bear off the 6 and play the 4 from the 5 to the 1 point, your winning chances are reduced to just under 93% although your chances of winning the game as a gammon go up to about 7.2%.

    The above backgammon bearing off position is based on the cube at 1 and is not match play where the current score would have to be considered – therefore in bearoff positions you need to take those other factors into account when they exist.

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