Tavla in Turkey
Michael Crane
This article previously appeared on
January 2000
The following article first appeared in Bibafax No. 35, July 1996, the newsletter of the British Isles Backgammon Association. I include it here as a taster of what's to come—or in this instance—what's not to come! Clearly the backgammon played in the World Cup Challenge within the Hyatt Regency hotel will be very different from that played outside on the streets, but this article will at least give you the flavour of true, no-holds-barred-in-your-face backgammon—as played by the host nation. —Michael Crane

Welcome to Turkey

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. If you look out of the left-hand side of the 'plane you will see Dalaman airport as we approach from the sea. We are presently at 1500 feet and are set for a smooth landing. For those who are on their first visit to Turkey, don't be alarmed by the rattling and banging noises you'll hear as we near the runway, this is quite normal and nothing to be alarmed about, I assure you; it is merely the rolling of dice and the clatter of checkers as the Turks play tavla."

You think I'm exaggerating? Then it's obvious you've not been to Turkey. Tavla is played everywhere in Turkey, shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, lokantas, hotels, pensions, pavements, even in the middle of the road! Entire sections of cities are pedestrianised solely for the pursuit of and pleasure of playing tavla.

I refer to it's Turkish name because although it is the same backgammon that we all know and love, there are a few small variations in the way in which it is played. To my knowledge (and when it comes to playing tavla in Turkey that knowledge is widespread and hard gained) these rules or variations are not written down but are learned as the game progresses! For me to explain the little things that quite unexpectedly catch you out would without doubt warrant a fatwah against me. So don't come to me for easy answers. I'm no fool! What I am prepared to do though is recount my own experiences and introduce you to some of my friends during a week's stay and many games of tavla.

Tavla in Fethiye; where my Turkish brother, Mustafa lives and owns a jeweller's shop with his brother, Numan and cousin, Seckin, (who, incidentally don't play tavla) is played in the middle of the street and is frequently disturbed by uncaring and unsympathetic council employees and motor vehicles! These interruptions are essential to the full enjoyment of the game—I suspect even part of the rules—as they are an occasion for colourful invective questioning of the parentage and mental capacity of the perpetrators. Fortunately good taste prohibits any inclusion of the actual words / phrases used, but take it from me, even if you don't understand the language, you'll have no doubt as to it's content or meaning!

I give nothing away in telling you that normally the matches are played first to 5, best of 3. Unless of course, you reach 5 first, then it becomes clear that you have misunderstood and it is first to seven. I must confess though, I don't have difficulty in mistaking bes (5) for yedi (7) but it does seem to happen on the odd occasion. Hindsight and analysis have shown that these occasions coincide with me reaching bes first,—or is this merely, as I've just stated, a coincidence?


The equipment is of some interest to regular backgammon players (not to mention distress) in as much as the dice are microscopic (as in tiny, tiny, tiny), the points are all the same colour (if they have a colour at all) and invariably the checkers appear to be the same colour for both players! Happily closer inspection of the latter reveals in fact that one set of checkers are a different shade or have in some way been smudged to differentiate them from the opponents.

This inspection continues throughout the match as you sit hunchbacked above the board staring myopically at each move, giving a not too inaccurate impersonation of Quasimodo signing his name with the quill held firmly between the incisors. Finally the board is placed upon a small, wobbly plastic table, which in turn is placed upon a rough and uneven surface giving the whole ensemble a nautical bent as the whole structure reels from side to side as though one was onboard the ferry as Charon steers it drunkenly across the Styx. In fact, at the right (or wrong) time of year, the sun is so hot you might well believe you are actually nearing Hades.

Just before I carry on I'd just like to describe the dice in more detail. If you're the sort of player who only plays with precision dice, beware! Each die face is different from it's five neighbours and the 1 is a large, round indentation, usually painted bright red. The fact that this large moon crater of a dent might, just slightly, bias the fall of the die should not alarm the purists among you, this supposed bias is more than compensated for by the fact that Turkish dice are not formed of right-angles, thus ensuring a fair roll! However, there is fair and there's fair—as you will learn later.

Playing the Game

So, the board is set, you've figured out which men are yours (the starting positions are a great help), you've narrowed your eyes to slits, better able to focus upon the dice, you're crouched over the reeling board (which spookily rejects all attempts of your feet and knees to hold it steady) and the game begins.

You win the first throw which establishes you have the first move, you cup the dice in your hands (no dice cups here—the Turks don't hold with that sissy stuff, they're hands-on men) and you shake them ineffectively in your palms. Ineffectively because the occasion, the onlookers, the searing heat have all conspired to make you perspire, even your palms sweat and the dice cling like limpets to your skin. Aha! You think you've learnt the reason why the Turks hold the dice between the first two fingers and the thumb. Wrong! Look again, they're not sweating, they hold 'em like that so they can roll the numbers they want! Oh yes they can, I told you earlier there's fair and there's fair!

Anyway, you think you've sussed out how to hold the dice and you toss them onto the board. Now before we go any further let's just clarify a legal roll. As long as no die falls upon the road it is legal. They might be in separate tables, they might be on the checkers, it doesn't matter, it's legal.

So, back to your roll. The dice launch themselves from your grip, bounce upon the board and, at the very moment that they come to a halt your opponent's hand swoops down like some avenging angel, picks them up, rolls again and completes his move before your narrowed eyes have even had time to focus upon where yours fell, let alone on what they fell.

An extremely rare picture of a tavla player at rest.
The Turks don't mess about when playing tavla, oh no. It's played at a lightning pace—well, at least their move is. If you blink, cough, sneeze or turn your head for a second you'll miss half the game! Their half! They sneer at our slow play, they think we are women (for those readers that are women, they just think you're slow), and I can tell you, in a male dominated society, your masculinity cannot withstand too many threats. The pace they play at is incredible. Visually it's a blur but aurally (and here's a major clue to knowing when they have actually moved) the loud 'crrrack' the checker makes as it's slapped to the board gives a directional clue as to the pieces moved.

Now, it's at this time that an optical illusion takes place. As the checker is forced down, the table legs (wobbly plastic) buckle and the board is compressed to the ground; but, the checkers appear to be suspended in mid air, defying gravity. In reality they are awaiting the return of the board to it's original position. Until one gets used to this phenomena, it's quite unnerving.

"Er. Sorry, I didn't quite see what my throw was." This is the stock phrase of the visiting tavla player and is closely followed by the much used, "What is that in English?" To help you the numbers, 1 to 6 in Turkish are: bir, iki, üç, dört, bes, alti. Pronunciation is a matter for the individual and a source of much merriment for the Turks. More phrases, many more than space permits herein, will crop up from time to time. What they are I shall leave for the adventurous among you to discover.

So you make your move. Whatever it is—good or bad—it will be sneered at. You can be certain of two things when making your play, 1. Making points is futile, they'll simply leap over all but a 6-prime with a convenient double, and 2. All blots will be hit. Yes, I know, you have to leave blots/builders but I do assure you, if they're within the range of the dice, then unerringly like some laser guided bird of prey they'll swoop down upon your checker and with a loud wallop deposit it upon the bar with a look that says, "Why did you leave that?"

A word of warning here; don't speak of builders. All a builder is to a Turk is someone who's erecting another pension alongside the other pensions. It's also wise not to pipcount under any circumstances. All this will achieve is total embarrassment for you when, after pointing out (often with a slight hint of superiority), that you are so far ahead in the race that you cannot lose this game, that you do in fact, lose this game.

The ease and contempt with which they throw 6-6 to bear off consecutively is a revelation and a lesson in humility. All over Turkey you can hear the hissing of deflated egos In fact the scale of this deflation has been ascribed by certain meteorologists as the true source of the Sirocco and not the deserts of Libya as popularly thought.

So, there you have it. Backgammon in Turkey. I know I might have given you a couple of the rules but there is still more to learn. After nine years I'm still learning.

I can't relate tavla to you without mentioning a few of the many friends I played with. Huseyin (there are two of them), Remzi (he's not a local to Mustafa's shop—he comes from a bit further down the road just to play me; and Sharen, my wife, thinks he looks like Omar Sharif), Nezir, Ahemt, Birol, Salih and the aforementioned Numan whom I was teaching, and of course, not forgetting Mustafa himself.

As usual, Mustafa trounced me (as did most of them in their turn) and I rate him as the best player in Fethiye (although there are several hundred who might dispute that.) Huseyin is without doubt the fastest player I've ever met—and that includes Phillip Swart who once thoroughly thrashed me at a NBPS tournament. Huseyin's hands, usually a blur, have been nicely captured on film by my high speed lens, the photograph above is of great rarity and should be treasured.

I can thoroughly recommend playing tavla in Turkey. You will undoubtedly enjoy every minute of it, playing opposite the friendliest and most hospitable people you could ever wish to meet. And, if you make it to Fethiye, give my regards to Mustafa. Mention of my name alone is worth a considerable discount in his shop, though this can be negated by beating him at tavla!

Footnote: January 2000.
It's a pity that the world's top players attending the World Cup Challenge this year are unlikely to meet the ordinary street and bazaar players. Perhaps I'll be able to persuade a couple to venture outside the hotel and have a go. I'll let you know if I'm successful.

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