History of Backgammon
Oswald Jacoby and John R. Crawford
April 1970
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 4:  Variations and Rules


When the Spanish arrived in Mexico early in the sixteenth century, they were astounded to find the Aztecs playing a game called patolli, which has enough points in common with some ancient precursors of backgammon and similar board games in Asia that anthropologists sometimes cite the tact as evidence to support the theory that the Indian tribes of the Western Hemisphere originally migrated from Asia.

In The Daily Life of the Aztecs, published in 1961, the distinguished scholar Jacques Soustelle described the ancient Aztec game:

   Patolli was a game with dice, not unlike our game of ludi [Roman backgammon]. The Codex Magliabecchiano shows four players sitting on the ground or on mats round a table shaped like a cross and divided into squares. At one side there is the god Miacuilxochitl, tutelary deity of dancing, music, and gambling, watching over them.

For dice the players use beans called patolli, marked with a certain number of pips; and according to the numbers thrown, they move small coloured stones from square to square on the board. The winner of the game and the stakes was the one who first came back to the square he had started from.


Patolli had a hidden inner meaning. There were fifty-two squares on the board, that is, the same number as the years that are contained by the combined divinatory and solar cycles. Patolli was the most generally played game in all classes, and in it the Indians' passion for gambling could run unchecked. It is still played — or at least it was still played twenty years ago, among the Nahua and Totonac Indians of the Sierra de Puebla.

Eastern Mediterranean

Backgammon is still widely played in the eastern Mediterranean countries, by all classes and kinds of people, from Rumanian fisherman to Greek aristocrats. In 1930 Georges Mabardi, an Egyptian who ran a popular boite for thirsty New Yorkers, wrote a book on backgammon. Here is his description of the perfect backgammon player:

   "The perfect backgammoner? Why, every day on the terrasse of the Cafe Bellevue, overlooking the blue Mediterranean — in Alexandria, my home — I have seen hundreds of perfect backgammoners, playing all day long. From the cradle to the grave, Egyptians play backgammon, the game of the Great Pharaohs. They play well, they play rapidly, they play quietly; they smile and talk a little and they never complain of their luck. They smoke their narguils and drink their cafe turc. They believe that 'luck' is the just, the inevitable, reward of the skilful".   


It would be strange indeed if our game of backgammon were the only game played on the backgammon board. There are many variations, including Russian backgammon and Persian backgammon, but they are especially numerous in the Mediterranean countries. There are the Turkish games of moultezim and gioul, the Greek plakoto and eureika, and countless others, including the U.S. Navy game of acey-deucy, which originated in the Middle East.

In the United States and Europe interest in backgammon greatly revived in the 1920s when some unknown genius playing in one of the American clubs came up with a revolutionary idea. He proposed that, at his turn to play, a player might insist on doubling the stakes. His opponent would have the right to refuse, in which case the game would then end and be scored at the original stake.

The three Royal Princes of France playing tric trac; their father, the dauphin, watches. Engraving by Bonnart, Paris, 1693
Until this simple but ingenious innovation, there were just too many games in which the outcome would pretty much be decided in the first couple of rolls — yet play would have to go on interminably, since there is always a chance of the unusual happening when the unpredictable dice are rolled.

With doubles, the game could still be boring, of course, but it would be boring at doubled stakes. More important, lots of doubles would be refused and new games started more quickly. Thus, doubling increases the risk of winning and losing, and also adds the suspense and excitement of the dare, and sometimes the bluff, to the game.

This same inventive genius, or perhaps a second one, added the redoubling feature, which allows a player who has been doubled to redouble his opponent in the same manner, whenever it is his turn to roll the dice.

Doubling and redoubling has really livened up the game — and we have no hesitation in saying that backgammon is now undoubtedly, the most exciting gambling game there is!


After the introduction of doubling, the game rapidly began to increase in popularity among clubmen, but there was one great problem: there were no laws for the game that were of any value. Each group settled disputed points in accord with their own best judgement, but there were no commonly accepted rules.

Among places where the game became extremely popular was New York's Racquet and Tennis Club. In 1931 Wheaton Vaughan, chairman of the club's Card and Backgammon Committee, decided to undertake the task of preparing laws for the game. First be wrote to all other clubs that might be interested to ask them to send representatives to meetings. Those in the New York metropolitan area did so, and many others announced their willingness to abide by whatever laws were formulated.

The committee met, worked, and prepared laws, which have remained the accepted rules until now. As far as we know, Oswald Jacoby is the only member of that committee still living [1970].

Those laws were good, but not perfect. Some are honoured far more in the breach than in the observance. We have taken the liberty of preparing new laws in conjunction with the International Backgammon Association and the Interclub League of New York that we hope will replace these earlier laws.

International Tournaments

Backgammon received another boost when Prince Alexis Obolensky, conceived the idea of an international backgammon tournament. This tournament has been held in the Bahamas every year since 1964. The first attracted forty entries and was won by Charles Wacker of Chicago. The next was won by John Crawford, and the following three by Oswald Jacoby, and the last two by Walter Cooke.

Each year has seen more entries in the championship, and more entries in the beginners' tournament. The idea of holding backgammon tournaments is spreading rapidly. Obolensky conducted similar events at Las Vegas, and there have been other tournaments in London and Estoril, Portugal.

More and more people all over the world are taking up this wonderful game, and we hope that this book will help many more to discover the fun and excitement of playing backgammon

0.J. and J.C. (April 1970)

The History of Backgammon
Part 1 — Ancient Civilizations Part 3 — 18th and 19th Centuries
Part 2 — Middle Ages Part 4 — Variations and Rules

Other articles on the History of Backgammon
The Backgammon Book, by Jacoby and Crawford

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