Backgammon and its history

History of Backgammon

Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence, alongside Go and Chess. It is probably about 5,000 years old and may well have originated in what today is Iraq—previously Mesopotamia. Recent evidence supporting this was found when these very early dice (made of human bones) were discovered in the area.

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





Olive tree root Backgammon set

Black figured amphora
showing Achilles & Ajax playing tables during a break at the Trojan War

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".

The Romans were the first to make it truly popular with their version called "Duodecum Scripta et Tabulae" or "Tables" for short.

The Emperor Claudius was a keen player—he had a special board built on the back of his chariot to relieve the tedium of long journeys. Emperor Nero was a prodigious gambler. He played for today's equivalent of $10,000 a game. History does not record what happened to his opponents if they lost!

For many years there were different rules depending upon one's level in society—true of many pastimes. Whilst the officers wagered large stakes it became so popular during the Crusades that soldiers below a certain rank were barred from playing.

The history of any game can be tracked by looking for references in both art and literature. It is mentioned in early literature, both in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and by Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost.

The word backgammon first appeared in print in 1645. No one knows for sure where the name came from, but most scholars agree that in all likelihood it comes from the Middle English baec = back and gamen = game.

Backgammon appears consistently in art throughout the second millennium, most famously in "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch and "The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Brueghel.


The Backgammon Players,
Theodoor Rombouts ca. 1620

Backgammon Players, Jan Steen ca. 1660

Victorian era Backgammon boards

The game continued to be played throughout the latter stages of the last millennium but it had constant battles with authorities and the church who wanted to ban it because of the gambling element. Its popularity continued through Victorian times and it was very popular at country house weekend parties.

Though probably less popular than in Britain, backgammon has been played in the United States since the 17th century. Thomas Jefferson played the game often - including during the three weeks before July 4, 1776, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Backgammon history continued to evolve throughout the 20th century as the backgammon game underwent two stirring changes at the beginning of the 20th century and toward its end. First, the doubling cube was invented adding new elements of strategy.

And finally, for now, the expanding accessibility of fast internet introduced free online backgammon servers, enabling real-time, multi-player backgammon games between opponents of opposite sides of the globe.


However, for the true friends of this versatile game, nothing beats the feel and sound of the checkers and dice being played on an elegant, elaborately made, wood board.





Walnut tree root Backgammon set

Sources: Chris Bray (http://www.bkgm.com), Oswald Jacoby and John R. Crawford The Backgammon Book

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