Jack Kissane, backgammon master from Albany, New York, is known in many chouette circles as the fastest pip counter in the world. In a June 1989 Chicago Point interview, Kissane claimed that he can count almost any backgammon position within five seconds.

Now Jack Kissane shares his counting techniques with Biba in this revamped edition of his original article. Enjoy!

Pip counting. How do you view it? An annoyance? A necessity? Just part of the game? Some backgammon players can't or won't be bothered doing a pip count. Others use the count as a crutch, basing far too many checker moves on it. After a hard day of match play or during an all-night chouette, pip counting can be sheer torture, draining our limited supply of "thinking" energy. However, once or twice a game, knowing the count is critical for making the right checker play or, more importantly, the correct cube decision.

Over the years, I have developed a system of pip counting that significantly reduces the amount of time needed to count a position. I call it Cluster Counting. Hopefully, this fairly simple system will help you minimize the drudgery of pip counting and thus increase your enjoyment of the game.

Basically, Cluster Counting involves the mental shifting of checkers to form patterns of Reference Positions (RP) whose pip totals end in zero (with two notable exceptions) for quick, easy and accurate addition. Here are my seven basic reference Positions:


5-Primes. Multiply the midpoint of any 5-Prime by 10 and you have just counted a cluster of ten checkers. This position shows a 5-Prime from the 4-point to the 8-point.

Black = 60

The 6-point is the midpoint and the count for these ten checkers = 60 pips (6 x 10.) This is so because 5s and 7s average out to 6s, and 4s and 8s also average out to 6s.

Reference Position #1:



Reference Position #2:

Closed Board.

Black = 42

This is just a 5-Prime around the 4-point plus two checkers on the ace point.


Reference Position #3:

Black = 70

Five checkers each on the 6- and 8-points.

Reference Position #4:
Black = 30

Two checkers each on the 7- and 8-points.

Reference Position #5:
Black = 40

Five checkers on the 8-point.


Reference Position #6:
Black = 62

Two checkers each on the midpoint and opponent's bar point.


Reference Position #7:
Black = 40

Two checkers on the midpoint and one on the 14 point.

These seven Reference Positions combined with Key Points and Mirrors are the backbone of Cluster Counting.


The two Key Points most often used are the 5-point and the 20-point (opponent's 5-point.) The 10-, 13- and 15-points are also quite valuable.


Position 8: Making use of the 5-point as a Key Point

Black = 40 White = 40

This position shows two examples of counting a cluster of eight checkers all at once as if they were eight 5s = 40.


The 20-point (opponent's 5-point) is the most useful Key Point. All checkers in your opponent's home board should be counted as 20 plus the pips required to get to the 20-point.

Black = 108 White = 89

Black's count is 108 which can be visualized as five 20s + 4 (two each from the 22-point to the 20-point) + 4 (one from 24-point to 20 point).

White's count is 89, visualized as four 20s + 4 + 5 (for the checker on the bar).

..Position 9: Making use of the 20-point (opponent's 5-point) as a Key Point


Mirrors are another important counting tool. Any point on the board plus its mirror-opposite point equals 25. For example, the 5-point + 20-point, the 1-point + 24-point, and the 12-point + 13-point all total 25 pips. It follows that any cluster of 4 checkers in mirror positions total 50. See Positions 10 and 11:

Position 10: Using Mirrors to count a cluster of four checkers.
Black = 50. White = 50

(13 + 12 = 25) x 2 = 50

(20 + 5 = 25) x 2 = 50.

Position 11: Using Mirrors to count a cluster of four checkers.
Black = 50. White = 50

(18 + 7 = 25) x 2 = 50

(23 + 2 = 25) + (24 + 1 = 25) = 50


OK! It would be nice if every time you needed a pip count, the board would consist of clusters as previously described. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. Fortunately, these easy-to-count clusters are relatively simple to form by mentally moving the checkers where you want them.


One Way Mental Shifting involves moving the checkers forward to Key Points or Reference Positions and then adding the forward movement to the value of the Key Points or Reference Positions.

  Position 12: One Way Mental Shifting
Black = 137 White = 121

Black's pip count of 137 can be easily counted in three clusters: 40 (eight 5s) + 33 (RP#4 + 3 pips) + 64 (three 20s + 4.)

Divide White's checkers into three clusters to yield a total pip count of 121. 44 (5-Prime + 4 pips forward, 2 each from the 7-point to the 5-point) + 33 (three 10s + 3 pips from 13 to 10) + 44 (two 20s +4.)


Note that two of White's checkers were shifted to White's 5-point which is occupied by Black's checkers. When shifting one player's checkers, the other player's checker position can be ignored.


Two Way Mental Shifting differs from One Way Mental Shifting in that checkers are shifted either forward or backward to Key Points or Reference Positions and then compensating shifts are made in the opposite direction on the same side of the board or in the same direction on the opposite side of the board. Examine Position 13:

Position 13: Two Way Mental Shifting
Black = 135. White = 142

Black's spare checkers on the 6- and 8- points are on the same side of the board. By shifting them one pip in opposite directions to the 7-point, a 5-Prime is formed. Black's position can easily be counted in two clusters: 70 (5-Prime) + 65 (five 13s) = 135.



White's spare checkers on the 8- and 13-points are on opposite sides of the board. By shifting them in the same direction, in this case left to right, a 5-Prime is formed (RP#1) and RP#7 is also formed. White's position can then be counted in three clusters: 60 + 40 + 42 (two 20s + 2) = 142.

It should be noted that there are often several Cluster Counting choices available. For instance, in Position 13, instead of forming a 5-Prime, you could have shifted the two 9-point checkers to the 8-point and compensated by shifting the two 5-point checkers to the 6-point to form RP#3. This cluster is also 70 pips.


Let's try counting some positions. Below five positions are shown but not described, nor is the adjusted positions (after shifting) shown. Can you spot the shifts? If not, set them up on your backgammon board and they will become clear. When you want to see the description, click on Descriptions and you will be sent to another page with the descriptions, positions and the end of this article.


Position 14

Black = ?  White = ?

Position 15

Black = ?  White = ?


Position 16

Black = ?  White = ?

Position 17

Black = ?


Do not click Descriptions until you have worked out all positions because on the next page all descriptions are shown (although they are each 1/2 page apart).