It is hard to imagine that when a couple of friends sit down to play backgammon, they are doing what the Pharaohs did over 5000 years ago. This great game is the oldest board game in the world and artifacts have been found which date back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.
Backgammon is an extremely popular board game which has a long and rich history. While the exact origin of backgammon is not certain, there have been several ancient games which have been linked to its development and spread. The name of backgammon is thought to come from the Old Saxon words for ‘back game’ or from the Welsh term meaning a ‘small battle’.
In recent years, backgammon has made a comeback and is a popular weekend pastime for youth, especially while on vacation, at the beach, occasionally in pubs and bars. The online version of the game that has reached the remote gambling world is also making waves as more and more people are being exposed to the skill and excitement of backgammon.
Click for details on how to play and backgammon terminology/glossary.
Senat and Royal Games of Ur
The earliest known version of backgammon is the ancient game called senat. This game is believed to have been played by the royalty and aristocracy of these ancient civilizations and this was proven by the relics found in excavations in Persia, Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Far East.
The oldest senat boards date back to 3000 – 1788 BCE and were discovered in the royal tomb at the Ur of Chaldees. Boards with 3x10, 3x12 and 3x16 squares were found and were known as the Game of Thirty Squares (also senat). Rules of the game that were played at the time were found on some cuneiform tablet, dated at around 177 BCE. These games that were discovered in the tomb of Ur became known as the Royal Games of Ur.
Other senat boards have been discovered in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and in King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Nile valley. The boards bore great resemblance to the boards used in today’s version of backgammon and were made of wood. Dice were also used to play backgammon in ancient times and some dice were discovered in the Ur excavations. Animal bones would be shaved down and shaped into a six faced cube for optimal throwing. The checkers used in the game were made from stone and the discovery of these boards helps us understand more about the rich history of modern day backgammon.
Roman Roots of Backgammon
Ancient Romans and Greeks were also part of the developing culture of backgammon. This game is mentioned in the writings of Homer, Sophocles and Plato, which attests to the spread of popularity of the game in ancient times.
The Romans called their version of backgammon by the name Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (LDS). This name, meaning the Game of Twelve Lines, is believed to be a direct descendent of the Egyptian form of the game, senat. LDS was played on a leather board, and not on a wooden board like senat, and used 30 markers – 15 ebony and 15 ivory. This version of backgammon dated back to 600 CE.
In the first century of the Common Era, LDS was replaced by a variant which used a 2x12 line board instead of 3x12 lines, bringing it closer to today’s version of the game. It made its way to Britain with the Roman conquests of the first century and changed its name to tabula, which was a generic name of the board on which the game was played.
Emporor Claudius was responsible for the spread and popularization of tabula during his reign. It is believed that Claudius wrote a history of the game in about 50 CE but unfortunately, this document did not survive. Claudius’ imperial carriage was equipped a personal alveus (a tabula playing board), so that he could carry on with his favorite pastime during his travels. A gambling mania swept through Rome during and after Claudius’ rule and he is believed to be directly responsible for this phenomenon. Gambling was eventually outlawed by the Republic and carried heavy fines, even though the rules were only sporadically enforced.
During the course of the 6th century, tabula was replaced with name alea which meant ‘the art of gambling with dice’. Alea’s board was much closer to today’s version of backgammon, but there were still some differences with the setup and movement of the pieces.
Asia Discovers Backgammon
In 800 CE a game called ‘nard’ was being played in South West Asia, near Persia. Nard was played similarly to alea, but used two die to move the 30 checkers around the board. Nard was the Persian word for ‘wood’ and it referred to the name of the board on which the game was played. The game was also sometimes called ‘Takteh Nard’ which means ‘battle on wood’.
An ancient writing piece was discovered which elucidates the symbolism of the game of nard. It explains that the board itself is representative of a year – each side contains 12 points for months on the year and the 24 points symbolize the hours of the day. The 30 checkers represent the days of the month and the total sum of the opposing sides of the die symbolize the seven days of the week. The boards contrasting colors denote the night and day.
Nard was popular in other parts of Asia too and was called by different names in various countries. The Chinese called the game Tshu-pu which is believed to have originated in Western India and made its way to China during the Wei Dynasty (220-265 CE). The Japanese also had a version of the game and called the game Sugoroku.
Europe and the Middle Ages
Backgammon’s name was changed from nard when it arrived on the European continent following the Arab occupation of Italy. Backgammon was a popular pastime for soldiers and traders and even though the Church tried to outlaw it several times, it was unsuccessful. The beauty of backgammon is that is does not need to be played on an official board and it could be scratched out in dirt and played with stones. A pair of dice could also be carved very quickly and painted and then abandoned if necessary.
The first official mention of backgammon on British soil was in 1025 when the Codex Exoniensis was produced. The game was referred to as “Tables” and was very popular at English taverns throughout the Middle Ages. At one stage, an additional attempt at banning the game was instituted by the Cardinal of Woolsey who ordered all the games to be burnt because they were the devil’s pastime. The Englishmen were cleverer than the cardinal and came up with the solution of producing boards which could fold up into book-like forms in order to disguise the board. This type of board is the most common form used today.
Backgammon Becomes Official
In 1743, a famous writer and gamesman called Edmund Hoyle published a work on backgammon. Hoyle strictly outlined the rules of the game and provided invaluable documentation on the game’s origins and history. Hoyle’s Treatise of Backgammon is what guided players during the late 18th and early 19th century when the game was making its way from Europe to the America.
New settlers arriving in America took backgammon with it and it soon became a popular household game, along with chess. It was during this time that joint boards were produced enabling both chess and backgammon to be played on one common board.
Backgammon in the Early 20th Century
The era of modern backgammon began in the 1920s when the doubling cube was introduced in New York City. This cube was intended to enhance the element of skill in the game and ultimately helped spread backgammon’s popularity. During this period the game was still a pastime for the rich and was played in exclusive clubs and salons.
Backgammon’s rules were officially codified in 1931. These rules formed the basis of the regulations which govern backgammon playing today. Interest in backgammon decreased during the Depression years but had a mild peak once again during the Second World War.
In the late 1960s backgammon finally received international recognition when the first World Championships were held in Monte Carlo. Prince Alexis Obolensky (Oby) is credited with being the modern-day reviver of backgammon playing amongst the wider population. Oby organized the World Championships in the Bahamas and was also responsible for publishing the first backgammon bestseller titled “Backgammon – The Action Game.”
The 1970s have been referred to by many as backgammon’s heyday. Backgammon experienced a great surge in popularity, publicity and tournaments. Huge amounts of literature on the game were also produced including weekly newspaper columns on strategy. The game stopped being one played only by the rich in clubs and became open to young and old alike.
Some of the most famous books written about backgammon in this period are “The Backgammon Book” by Jacoby and Crawford, “Backgammon – The Cruelest Game” by Cooke and Bradshaw and “Backgammon for Profit” by Dwek.
Tournaments became the hottest attraction for backgammon players and they were held around the United States and Europe. Some of the top tournaments ended up giving away prize money worth six digits and were inundated with applicants.
The 1980s saw a decline in the popularity of backgammon. This is partially attributed to the advent of household video games. The younger generation was enthralled by this latest craze and board games were marginalized in place of interactive video games which were taking the world by storm.
Computerization of Backgammon
Prior to the explosion of the online gambling world, a computer revolution was taking place in which players were able to play backgammon on the computer. IBM produced software which could teach itself how to play backgammon using Neural Networking. In 1993 Andreas Schneider created FIBS (First Internet Backgammon Server) which was hosted on an academic computer in Sweden. FIBS allowed players who had access to the internet to play for free and at any time of the day over 100 players could be found visiting the network. The players were able to play, watch and compare matches through FIBS.
In the 1990s Jellyfish was also produced which was the first commercial neural network of online backgammon software. This unique software could assign equity values to positions. Snowie was another online backgammon software package that had an easier to use interface and also allowed the importing and analysis of matches.
The earlier development of these network server programs which enabled remote backgammon helped the online casino world greatly when it was born a decade or so ago. Like chess, many of backgammon’s top players are computer savvy because the game requires sharp analytical skills and an eye for detail. These skills which are usually attributed to computer users are essential elements of backgammon. Those players who were involved in the computer world were not surprised to find backgammon as a major contender to be placed on the list of games being offered at the newly opened online casinos.
Online backgammon can generally be played in two forms – against the computer or against other online players. The online backgammon world has allowed the game to spread to people and places it had never reached before and has added a side to the game that was yet to be discovered.
Backgammon has been around for over 5000 years in one form or another. The online backgammon era which is currently occurring is simply yet another stepping stone in the dynamic evolvement of this amazing game.
Posted by Denise Marie