Backgammon is an ancient game with a long history all over the
world. This article talks about backgammon's origins, different versions,
variations in rules according to locale, and many other facts of this
wonderful game which is still developing.
Backgammon is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia in the Persian empire or
present day Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It is the oldest known
recorded board game. Backgammon
was typically played on surfaces such as wood, using stones as markers,
and dice made from bones, stones, wood, or pottery and it can be traced
back thousands of years to board games played by the Egyptians,
Sumerians, Romans, and Persians.
Throughout history, backgammon
has been associated with the leaders and aristocracy of these
ancient civilizations as shown by excavated relics and literary
references from Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Far East. Gaming boards
with 3x10, 3x12, and 3x6 squares were found in Egypt and it was known
as the Game of Thirty Squares or
A Senat Game Board
These artifacts date back to 3000 to 1788 BC and the rules as well as the
use of dice for this game remain unknown. Wooden boards were found in
the royal tomb of the Ur al Chaldees, the center of Sumer dated around
2600 BC along with tetrahedral dice and are known as
The Royal Games of Ur.
A set of rules for the game played at that time was found on some
cuneiform tablets dated at about 177 BC.
The Royal Game of Ur
The Romans left evidence of a game called
Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum,
"The Game of 12 Lines," with leather boards and sets of 30 markers, 15
of ebony and 15 of ivory dating back to 600 AD and is thought to be
derived from the Egyptian Senat.
Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum
In the 1st Century AD Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum was replaced by a variant with 2x12 lines
instead of 3x12 lines, as it grew closer and closer to today's version of backgammon.
Backgammon came to Britain with the Roman conquest in the 1st
Century and was also referred to as
a generic name for the board on which it was played.
This pastime was quite popular and a favored game by Emporor Claudius.
About 50 AD, Claudius wrote a history of the game of Tabula
which, unfortunately, has not survived. His imperial carriage was
equipped with an alveus, a Tabula playing board, so that he could play
Tabula is also the game which was primarily responsible for the gambling mania which swept
Rome prior to its being declared illegal under the Republic. The fine
for gambling at any other time except the Saturnalia was four times the
stakes, although this law was only weakly and sporadically enforced.
By the 6th Century backgammon was called Alea, "the art
of gambling with dice". Alea was likely the first precursor to
contemporary backgammon although there were many variations
regarding starting positions and movment.
Backgammon in Asia
In Asia a game called Nard
appeared prior to 800 AD in southwest Asia or Persia.
Nard was played in a similar fashion to Alea and used
only 2 dice to move markers. Also referred to as Nardshir, Nardeeshir,
and Nard-i-shir, Nard was the Persian name for wood products like
the board on which it was played. The game was also called Takhteh
Nard, meaning "battle on wood". An ancient writing describing the
symbolism of the game reveals that:
The board represents a year; each side contains 12 points for months of
the year; the twenty-four points represent the hours in a day; the 30
checkers represent days of the month; the sum of opposing sides of the
die represent the 7 days fo the week; the contrasting colors of each
set of checkers represent day and night.
T'shu-p'u was the Chinese name for Nard, thought to be invented in Western India
and ariving in China during the Wei dynasty (220 to 265 AD), popular
from 479 to 1000 AD, while the Japanese called it Sugoroku.
Nard introduced into Europe via Italy or Spain following Arab occupation of
Sicily in 902 AD. The term Tabula was used by several cultures, making
it likely that the game was spread by the Roman Empire while Nard
was similarly spread thoughout Asia by the Arabs.
The Arabian game Nard appears to be a slightly modifed version of Tabula, perhaps
incorporating aspects of Egyptian Senat. The main difference between
these two old Backgammon games was that Tabula used three dice
while Nard used two. The use of two dice for Tabula later became
Proliferation and Standardization
The first mention of backgammon in English print was in The Codex Exoniensis:
"These two shall sit at tables ..." in 1025, as Tables was played throughout
the middle ages and was popular in English
taverns. Chess overtook Tables in popularity around the 15th Century.
Backgammon was even banned for some time due to its prevalent gambling nature
until the reign of Elizabeth I. In fact, Backgammon enjoyed
popularity in several countries under different names, including:
Tavola Reale (Italy), Tables Reales (Spain), Tavli (Greece),
Tric Trac (France), Backgammon or Tables (Britain), Puff (Germany),
Vrhcaby (Czech), and Swan-liu (China).
The term Backgammon
is said to have been derived in 1645 from either the Saxon baec
(back) gamen (game) or the Welsh bac or bach (little) gammon or
cammaun (battle), with the first being more likely.
theory was that it received its name because it was frequently found
on the "back" of chessboards, although this too is unlikely.
Hoyle's Treatise on Backgmmon
time Tabula using two dice and adopting the rule of playing doubles twice was
much like the contemporary version of backgammon with the exception of the doubling
cube and the counting of gammons and backgammons. In 1743 Edmond Hoyle
codified the rules of play with his Treatise on Backgammon, the
first official set of modern rules in existence.
Modern Backgammon History
1920 to 1960
The doubling cube
was believed to have been introduced in New York in the 1920's by some unknown
gambler, which enhanced the element of skill in the game increasing its
marketability, insuring its place as a popular pastime. Backgammon
was mostly limited to the upper class in private clubs, although several
introductory backgammon publications burst onto the scene.
The rules of backgammon were modified in 1931 in the U.S. to what generally governs the game
today. There was somewhat of a decline in popularity during the
depression and a light resurgence in the 1940's which saw a few more texts
published although no real advances in skill. Interest decreased again during WWII.
1960 to 1990
The popularity of backgammon increased during the 1960's with the
efforts of Prince Alexis Obelensky (Oby) who organized and promoted
tournaments and the first "Official" World Championships in the Bahamas becoming backgammon's highest honor which holds true today.
Oby's backgammon book
A prolific publishing trend of backgammon books started with
Backgammon: The Action Game"
by Oby himself. The 1970's have been frequently described as
backgammon's "Heyday" as it saw huge increases in popularity,
publicity, tournaments and backgammon literature including books,
magazines, and newspaper columns. It moved from the upper to middle
classes and was popular among the younger generation as well.
Tournament purses soared into six-digit sums and backgammon popularity was
widespread throughout the US and Europe.
Several great introductory texts came out including
The Backgammon Book, by Jacoby and Crawford,
Backgammon: The Cruelest Game, by Cooke and Bradshaw,
Backgammon for Profit, by Dwek, and the classic
Backgammon, by Magriel,
referred to by many as the "bible of backgammon". The 1980's
however saw a decline in popularity again, mostly among the younger
generation, likely due to the advent of video games and the excitement
to young minds that they can provide.
learning the intricacies of the game was as strong as ever for the
players that remained and was bolstered by the invention of computer
backgammon which could not only provide a decent opponent but more
importantly could save hours of time by performing rollouts of
positions, giving players a deeper understanding of backgammon game.
1960 to 1990
The computer revolution continued in full force as Gerald Tesauro of
IBM wrote software which could teach itself how to play backgammon
using Neural Networking, creating a world class player in TD-Gammon.
(First Internet Backgammon Server) was created in 1993 by Andreas
Schneider and hosted on an academic computer in Sweden for free.
Over 100 players
with Internet connections could be found playing at any one time with
the ability to save matches, watch matches and compare playing
strengths via a rating system. Frederic Dahl of Norway created the
first commercial neural net backgammon software, Jellyfish,
which could assign equity values to any position and rollout positions
like never before. Bot players appeared on FIBS and a backgammon
newsgroup appeared at
where players could go and discuss all things backgammon.
Olivier Egger introduced Snowie,
a more commercially popular backgammon software with a user-friendly
interface and the ability to import and analyze matches still
considered todays standard. The latest development in backgammon game
software, GNU Backgammon,
will likely give these others a run for their money as it is based on
Open Source, making it free for download and improvement by programmers.
Several serious backgammon books appeared by the likes of Kleinman, Robertie, and Woolsey
and our body of knowledge and use of backgammon software has become so
advanced that most recent books describe concepts and positions backed
up by computer rollouts such as those by
Bagai (who actually corrects mistakes make in previous books) and
Backgammon has acheived somewhat of a steady state, with several
tournaments throughout the US and Europe being well attended. The
Internet provides several backgammon servers which enjoy clientele in
the thousands and the World Wide Web has given birth to a multitude of backgammon
resources such as the one you are at now.