The history of backgammon is long, complicated, very incomplete and fascinating.
The exact origins of the game remain unknown, though there is much
conjecture, a good deal of it both ingenious and farfetched.
Bones to Die
Backgammon is a dice game, and dice games seem to have developed in
every part of the world. At first tribal priests rolled the bones of
animals to predict the future but since predicting the future is at
best a hazardous business, it wasn't long before people began to roll
the bones and bet on the outcome.
It is not hard to see how dice, our modern "bones",
evolved. Our primitive ancestors may have carved four, eight, twelve,
or twenty faces on their gambling bones, but there are two good reasons
why the six-faced die with numbers or pictures on each face
evolved fairly universally. The first is that it is rather easy to
build a cube. The second is that the cubic form is best for rolling; a
pyramid tends to stop fast when it hits, and an octahedron or a form
with even more faces tends to roll too much.
Once dice had been invented, the next step was to use them to move game
pieces around a game layout. Games of this kind seem to have developed
everywhere and some may be early ancestors of backgammon.
The most ancient possible ancestor of the game to be found so far dates
back some five thousand years to the ancient civilization of Sumer
which flourished in southern Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq. During
the 1920s Sir Leonard Woolley, the British archaeologist, excavated Ur
of the Chaldees, the Biblical home of Abraham. In the royal cemetery
he found five game layouts which bear some slight resemblance to our
backgammon boards. They were made of wood, intricately decorated with a
mosaic of shell, bone, lapis lazuli, red paste, and red limestone set
in bitumen, and adorned with animals and rosettes.
Soon after Woolley's discovery, in another part of ancient Mesopotamia,
archaeologists found a similar
gaming board. This one was less lavishly decorated, but under the
board, in neat piles, were found two sets of playing pieces and dice.
One set of men consisted of simple black squares, each inlaid with five
lapis dots; the others were shell squares engraved with vignettes. Each
player apparently had seven men and six dice.
There is evidence that several thousand years later the Egyptian Pharaohs
were enjoying another board game that may be an ancestor of backgammon.
Boards dating from 1500 BC. were found in King Tutankhamen's tomb in
the valley of the Nile, and even at Enkomi on Cyprus, then an Egyptian
colony. One board contains Queen Hatshepsut's name, and with the board
were found lion-headed pieces, the ancient symbols of royal power. Wall
paintings in many Egyptian tombs portray people playing the game,
suggesting that it was played by common people as well as by the
However much the Egyptian game differs
from what has evolved into modern backgammon, the Egyptians had one bit
of equipment we might envy; a mechanical dice box. The dice were put
into it, shaken up, and thrown out onto the table. Like everyone else,
the ancient Egyptians played their game for money and invented this
machine to guard against cheaters (always a sign of higher
civilization). The Greeks and Romans later adopted this device in their
versions of the game.
India or China?
But where did the first versions of backgammon originate? We don't know and may never know; a reasonable guess would be India or China, the two civilizations we have inherited most games from.
Each produced a game of pure skill. The Indian game was chess.
The Chinese played a version similar enough to show that there must
have been commerce across the Himalayas. But the connection between
either version of chess and backgammon is tenuous indeed.
There is, however, sufficient similarity, between backgammon and another ancient Indian game,
Parcheesi, to suggest the latter as a possible remote ancestor.
Parcheesi is primarily a four-person game, played on a board, in which each
player has several identical men. Unlike modern backgammon, the men
start off the board (as they do in the Navy game of acey-deucy and in some other forms of backgammon).
The Backgammon Book by Oswald Jacoby and John R Crawford
In Parcheesi a player who rolls a doublet makes his play and then takes
an extra roll; in acey-deucy
a player who rolls an ace-deuce (1-2) plays it and any double he
wishes, and then gets an extra roll; in backgammon a doublet number is
played four times, which is the same as two plays.
The object in Parcheesi, as in backgammon, is to "bear
off" all your men from the board, and in both games a player must bring
all of his men into his home sector before be can start to bear them
off. Further, in both games a single man or "blot" is a
weakness since an opponent can play to that point and send that man off
the board. And in both games two or more men on a point are very
strong; in Parcheesi even more so than in backgammon, since an opponent may not even pass such a point.
A number of versions of backgammon can be found throughout the Far East. In China there is the game called shwan-liu. In Japan they play sunoroku, which omits the bar. In Korea they play ssang-ryouk; in Thailand, len sake or saka; and in Malaya, main tabal.
It's all Greek
But the game must have reached Western Europe from the Mediterranean. A
thousand years after the Egyptians were playing their version, the
Greeks, or at least the patrician Greeks, were playing a form of the
game. Plato mentions a Greek form of the game and comments on its
popularity. Sophocles attributes its invention to Palamedes, who was
said to have beguiled away the time during the long siege of Troy by
playing it. Homer mentions the Greek game in the Odyssey.
Herodotus claims that the Lydians invented
it. In this and other dice games the Greeks evidently had feelings
about lady luck just as strong as ours. They called sixes, which were
good high rolls then as now, "Aphrodite", and they called ones a word
akin to "dog".
Alea jacta est
In Rome the game long remained one of the most popular among the patricians. It rivalled the Circus Maximus as a pastime and was regarded as the sport of emperors. Indeed, the excavators of Pompeii found a backgammon table carved in the courtyard of almost every villa.
The game had three names in Rome and was apparently played with three dice instead of our two. It was called "alea", or dice; "tabulae", or tables; and the more descriptive name of "ludus duodecim scriptorum", the twelve-line game, for the twelve points on each side of the board.
Though Julius Caesar may have said "Alea jacta est"
(the die is cast) when he crossed the Rubicon, there is no evidence
that he played any particular dice game. Other Roman emperors did,
however; one even had a special room in his palace designed for dicing.
And according to Suetonius, the emperor Claudius was so fond of the
game that he wrote a book on it and had a table mounted on
his chariot so he could play while travelling! There are also records
that say Domitian was an expert player and that Caligula was a cheat.
And there are reports, fanciful or otherwise, that Marc Antony played ludus duodecim scriptorum with Cleopatra.
Apparently some resourceful Romans also used the game to play a classical version of strip
poker. A painted glass exists that depicts a young man and a girl
seated in front of a backgammon board; they are partially undressed,
and nearby on the floor are pieces of clothing.
The inscription, "Devincavi", means "I think I've beaten you".
Nero, among his other excesses, is said to have played
the game for as much as the equivalent of 15,000 dollars a point. The
emperor Commodus is reported to have turned the imperial palace into a
grandiose gambling casino. Indeed, it is recorded that at one point he
was losing so badly that he appropriated a large sum from the imperial
treasury, ostensibly to finance an expedition to the African provinces,
promptly went back to the tables, and lost every cent.
At Pompeii a fascinating wall painting was found portraying a
backgammon tale in two scenes. In the first, two players are arguing
over a game in progress; the second depicts an innkeeper throwing
the two fighting opponents out of his establishment. So the game was
apparently enjoyed by ordinary Romans as well as the aristocracy.
The game continued to be played in Rome after the establishment of
Christianity. A marble slab was found among the Christian artifacts in
Rome in which a backgammon board had been carved; in the centre is a
Greek cross, and there is an inscription
which roughly means "Our Lord Jesus Christ grants aid and victory to
dicers if they write his Name when they roll the dice, Amen".
The Roman legions must have brought tabulae
with them through Europe. But except for the fact that the name
survived in Britain as "tables", it does not appear that Rome's
conquered lands were immediately receptive. It seems to have been the
return of the Crusaders that effectively spread the game throughout Europe.
Go on to: Part 2