Review: Backgammon Openings Julian Fetterlein

Backgammon Openings by Nack Ballard and Paul Weaver.

Reviewed by Julian Fetterlein

(This review was first published in Make Your Point magazine.)

Backgammon Openings
by Julian Fetterlein

When I learnt I was to review this book I considered what I expected of it.

The problem was that you or I could write a book on opening plays in a week or two. Simply feed all the opening plays and replies into a bot, churn out the results, feed them into a publishing package and job done. The question has to be, what can the world’s best opening expert and the world’s best player, spending years of time, add to such an exercise?

Firstly, the results must be accurate. Our mythical “Two week book” would mean we had to rely on evaluation by the bot or perhaps very short truncated rollouts, so we could meet our timescale. We had to sacrifice accuracy and perhaps even truth. Secondly there had to be value added in the verbal explanations so that the reader could apply the principles underlying the decisions without having to memorise every variation. I am pleased to say the book passed these first two tests with flying colours.

The authors confidently claim that more rollouts have been done for their books than all others combined and given a list of over 100 names in the acknowledgements there can be little doubt. Aside from reading the book you will have to accept the assertions of the array of experts who have been wheeled out to acclaim the quality of the analysis.

A couple of welcome surprises also merit praise. My opening analysis includes such mathematical hieroglyphics such as 0.123 > 0.087 +/- 34. Happily this book removes such expressions and replaces them with a clear “Error Scale” ranging from “Tied” through “Mistake” and “Blunder” to “Double Whopper”. It is a testament to the care behind the book that this table is helpfully reproduced as the last page so that it is easily referenced.

There is also an innovative page layout that may prove to be a new standard. Each “Problem” position has a diagram on the top left of the page with the alternative plays, each with their own diagram of the resulting position, being listed in order of merit, on the right hand side of the same page. Where possible the opposite page shows a “mirror image” position where the solution is different.

Diagrams 1 & 2 show positions after splitting with an opening 6-3 and 6-4 respectively, followed by the opponent splitting with 3-2.

In each Black has a 3-1 to play. The solution in one is to make the five point and in the other to hit. The alternative play is a blunder in both positions.

The original idea was to produce AN opening book. The quantity of material was such that the concept expanded into a series. This leads to the obvious question how to make the division between books. One idea is to take an opening roll, say 3-1, then look at all the replies to it on the second roll and a selection of the resulting third roll positions. The authors have adopted the alternative of looking at how to play the roll of 3-1, on the first roll, as a reply to all opening rolls and finally a selection of third roll positions. This apparently has been shown to be a more effective learning tool since the reader sees how the play of the same roll changes according to the position. So the book is a learning tool for the reader to play the opening correctly and not an encyclopaedia of all opening positions.

However the material is organised there will be some constraints. The authors look at the position after an opening slotting 5-1 (13/8 6/5) and show it’s correct to hit with a 3-1 rather than make the 5 point. They then take this principle and extend it to breaking point by looking at an opening 5-2 slotting (13/8 6/4) where it’s still correct to hit, to the strange 5-4 slotting (13/8 6/2) where it’s now correct to eschew the hit, making the 5 point and leaving the offside blot on the 2 point. In contrast it would be good to look at the sequence 5-1 13/8 6/5 followed by double one. Is it better to hit or make both the bar and 5 point? Unfortunately since this book only covers the roll of 3-1 we must wait for a later volume to see the answer. There is however an excellent index, both of second and third roll positions. Hopefully later volumes will cross reference earlier books.

Here’s my favourite position from the book:

Black has opened with a 6-2 and made the standard splitting play (24/18 13/11) White played a 3-2 13/10 6/4, what I call the “offensive duplication”. Black has to play the obligatory 3-1. Making the 5 point leaves 22 numbers that both hit on the bar and make the 4 point. Hitting on the slotted home board point was right in our last slotting example but here it leaves 29 return shots from the bar. Best play is to hit outside and continue to the 14 point, duplicating 2’s, leaving only 1 hit and cover number.

This is all a précis of the author’s tactical analysis. What makes this book outstanding is they combine it with strategic thinking. After the hit Black leads by over 20 pips and should seek to disengage, reduce contact, rather than become embroiled in further complications.

This is a quality book where the meticulous care of the authors will amply reward the reader. Highly Recommended.


Ordering Information

Backgammon Openings: 2007 by Nack Ballard and Paul Weaver. The Backgammon Press. Hard cover. 126 pages (8.5″ x 11″). $39 + s&h. For ordering information, please go to

This book was combed by several excellent proof-readers (and by the authors, dozens of times). However, if you find an error, please e-mail and it will be corrected in the next printing.