History of Backgammon |
Oswald Jacoby and John R. Crawford
From the The Backgammon Book
(1970) by Oswald Jacoby and John R. Crawford.|
Compiled by Michael Crane, August 2000, with acknowledgements to the authors and publishers.
Part 3: 18th and 19th Centuries
The Word Backgammon
The earliest recorded use of the word "backgammon" was in 1645,
according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary. H.J.R. Murray,
in A History of Board Games Other Than Chess, says that backgammon,
the modern form of tables, was invented in England early in the seventeenth century.
The two differences
between backgammon and tables that Murray lists are slight but very
interesting: in backgammon (1) doublets are now played twice, and (2)
the triple game, or backgammon, is introduced and defined thus: "when
the winner bears all his men before his opponent has carried all his
men to his home or bearing table". This is more like our gammon than
our triple game, but it's getting there!
Tables was still the more common name used throughout the
seventeenth century. As late as September 21, 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote
in his diary: "I got to my Lord Bruncker's before night, and there I
sat and supped with him and his mistresses ... Thence, after losing a
crowne betting at Tables, we walked home".
Thirteen years later Samuel Butler mentioned backgammon in his satirical
epic poem Hudibras, which may be the first use of the word in English
There are a number of possible sources for the word "backgammon".
For example, in Welsh bach means small, and cammaun
means battle. But since in many early versions of the game players
began with all the men off the board, a less interesting but more
plausible source is Middle English: baec means back, gamen
means game - i.e., a game in which (1) you want to go back home and
back off the board again, and (2) you may be forced back (to the bar)
and to start over. Or perhaps it simply came from the fact that most
chessboards were marked for backgammon on the back.
18th Century Popularity in England
A historian writing over a century ago noted that "at the commencement
of the eighteenth century backgammon was a very favourite amusement,
and pursued at leisure times by most persons of opulence, and
especially by the clergy". In fact, the game was so popular
among his fellow clergymen that Dean Swift once advised a friend in the
country, with tongue in check, to study the game "that he might be on
friendly, that is playing terms with the rector ...".
And certainly debates about hits were easier of settlement than
disputes about tithes from Sir Roger de Coverley - who when he wished
to obtain from the University a chaplain of piety and urbanity, in
short a Christian minister, conditioned that he "should know something
about backgammon". Sir Roger was of course Addison and Steele's fictitious country gentleman, whose exploits entertained the readers of The Spectator
And in 1735 Soame Jenyns composed the following verse:
Here you'll be ever sure to meet|
A hearty welcome, though no treat;
A house where quiet guards the door,
Nor rural wits smoke, drink, and roar;
Choice books, safe horses, wholesome liquor
Billiards, backgammon, and the vicar.
Another writer with a practical bent
proclaimed backgammon "all allodyne to the gout, the rheumatism, the
azure devils or the yellow spleen". A more snobbish and equally
inaccurate fan contended that "from time immemorial, backgammon
has held the foremost position among the elite of popular games. It has
ever been a game for the higher classes and has never been vulgarised
or defiled by uneducated people".
And Hoyle, of course, wrote a treatise on the game which first appeared
in 1743, the year after his book on whist. During the nineteenth
century interest in the game seems to have waned somewhat, though there are still literary references early in the century.
Sir Walter Scott, one of the fashion-setters of his time, was an enthusiastic player, and Lord Byron wrote in Don Juan: "Like a backgammon board, the place was dotted with whites and blacks".
George Frederick Pardon
In the middle of the nineteenth century a historian of games named
George Frederick Pardon wrote a book on backgammon (following in the grand
tradition of Hoyle, his book appeared the year after he wrote one on
whist). In it he made a valiant, relentless, and typically Victorian
attempt to sell the game to the middle classes.
Here is a particularly inspiring excerpt, in his inimitable prose:
The technical terms of
backgammon may teach valuable lessons. ... In the game, it is proper
to "get your men to your table", and to effect it as rapidly as
possible; that teaches hospitality, brisk as its own champagne.
"Cover your man" is another maxim; that shows protection must be afforded to
the helpless, clothing to him "whose looped and windowed raggedness"
demands payment of such charitable imposts; 'tis, moreover, to diminish
the amount of poor's-rate, by encouraging manufactures, and let
political economists prescribe a better remedy.
"Cover Your Man"
"Get home as quickly as you can" inculcates the culture of domestic
happiness: and suggests a speedy return from even the most festive
scenes, in order to light up eyes that such return renders brighter
than the tapers by which the loved one waits and muses.
"Get home as
quickly as you can"
"Go back" is often said at backgammon, and should be the endeavour of
the wanderer from the path of rectitude, ere the second false step has
Despite Mr. Pardon (who wisely published his book under the pseudonym Captain Rawdon Crawley), the game remained
a favourite of the English upper classes, and it was played constantly
in the nineteenth century in their many clubs and country houses.
Though probably less popular than in Britain, backgammon has been
played in the United States since the seventeenth century. Thomas
Jefferson played the game often - including during the three weeks
before July 4, 1776, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence. He kept a notebook of his expenses, and among the entries are these two:
Lost at backgammon 7/6.|
Won at backgammon 7d/1/3.
Records survive from the mid-nineteenth century revealing that at least one of the Mississippi riverboat gamblers used a portable backgammon set to fleece victims on board the famed Natchez.
In France the game has continued to be called tric trac, a phonetic
name for the sound made as the men were moved around the originally
wooden board. An eighteenth century French writer observed that "tric
trac was a game played by old men and scholars, although at the court
of Paris it was played often and considered a game of nobility and
The typical gentleman of Louis XIII's reign was described as playing tric-trac on a chest covered
with an oriental rug, on which the board rested. And in 1682 Le Mercure
described the Sun King's new apartments at Versailles, in which were
discovered: "A pentagonal table, a square one, a triangular one - all
were used by the King and Queen to play on. All were covered with green
velvet and gold embroidery and dressed with silver candlesticks".
A century later, during the era of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, specially designed
tric trac tables began to appear in the homes of the French
aristocracy. The tric-trac table looked like a small, flat desk; the
centre was hollow and contained the game itself. On the sides, little
holes were made to hold ivory or silver flags that indicate the points.
There were drawers for the pieces, the dice, and dice cups, and the top was covered with felt
for playing cards on one side, and the other had a chessboard or
leather surface to be used as a desk. These tables were fantastically
intricate, inlaid with precious materials, and one table said to have
been owned by Marie Antoinette cost 238,000 francs in gold.
Elsewhere in Europe
The Italians called the game tavole reale, and the Spanish tables reales; both mean "royal tables". The Spanish are said to have learned the game from their Moorish conquerors.
In Germany the French name tric trac was generally adopted. A book on
ancient games published in 1892 gives the following rather dizzying account of something called German Backgammon:
The Entering division
and the Home are common to both players. The Entering division must he
either the right-hand near division, or the left-hand opposite
The pieces enter by throws, and all pieces must be entered before any leave the Entering division.
On throwing doublets the player, after playing those doublets, is
entitled to play the doublets underneath, which are always the
complement of seven. Should he forget to do so, or should be not be
able to do so, his opponent says - "I play your aces", or whatever the
number may be.
On throwing 1, 2, the player can call for any doublets be chooses: but
should he forget to do so, his opponent may say - "I play your
doublets". But this must be done after throwing his dice, but not
lifting up the dice-box.
This is an amusing
game, not merely, from the frequency of taking up, owing to the pieces
all travelling in the same direction, but also from a player being
permitted to play whatever his opponent cannot play; and also whatever
his opponent forgets to play. The game is much longer than the ordinary
backgammon, and the fluctuations of the game much greater, thus
producing greater excitement.
Versions of the game are played in every European country. A so-called Russian Backgammon described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica sounds strikingly like so-called German Backgammon:
All stones are, off
the board at the outset, and are entered in the same table and travel
concurrently around to the same home table. Variants differ as to other
rules. The first stone entered may be moved thereafter, or two men must
be entered before moving. Blots may be hit at any time; usually a blot
must be re-entered before any other play is legal.
Doublets are used twice over, together with the doublets on the
opposite faces (opposite faces of a die total seven); sometimes the
opposite doublets may be used first, and sometimes the caster may roll
a second time after throwing doublets. This privilege is lost if he
cannot use all of his first roll, and sometimes his opponent is allowed
to use what he cannot. Complementary doublets and the second roll are
usually barred on the first turn.
Go on to: Part 4
The History of Backgammon
Part 1 Ancient Civilizations
Part 3 18th and 19th Centuries
Part 2 Middle Ages
Part 4 Variations and Rules