Celebrating 15 years in backgammon games

THE HISTORY OF BACKGAMMON


Front page of Hoyle's Treatise

Backgammon is said to be the oldest game in recorded history. Its origin stems from a version of this board game that was first played about 5,000 years ago in Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia. In Greek, Mesopotamia means "between rivers". The Tigris and Euphrates rivers bordered this area situated just north of the Persian Gulf in present day Iraq and Kuwait. Between 2900-1800 BC, early civilizations of a very diverse people lived in these fertile valleys. Ur, also known as the home of the Biblical Abraham, was an important city of the Sumerian culture.

The Sumerians are credited with many notable cultural and scientific achievements, some of which were the invention of the wheel, a math system including early concepts in algebra and geometry, and the world's first written language.

Between 1922 and 1934, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered treasures in a joint expedition by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. It was a spectacular discovery; the royal tombs at Ur revealed the Sumerian culture at its peak. In the enormous wealth of treasure unearthed, there is mention of "an inlaid gaming board", this being the oldest known Backgammon board! Four other gaming boards were found in these tombs.

Another version of the game is more than 1,600 years old. It was known in Persia and the Near East as "Takhteh Nard", meaning "Battle on Wood" and was introduced to Europe by the Arabs. The board had 24 points, 30 playing pieces and a pair of dice.

Throughout history, backgammon has been known as a game played by royalty or nobles. However, in many cultures it was played by all classes of society.

The ancient Egyptians played a form of the game on a board of 3 X 10 squares called the "Game of Thirty Squares" or Senet. The Romans played a game called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum or "the Game of Twelve Lines", and later called it tabula, meaning table or flat board.

In England, during the Middle Ages, the game was referred to as 'Tables', in Italy 'Tavola Reale', in Spain 'Tablas Reales', both meaning "Royal Tables". Even in Greece today it is called 'Tavli'. The game in China was called T'shu-p'u, the Japanese called it 'Sugoroko', and both were played on circular boards. The Germans call it 'Puff' and the French 'Le Trictrac', probably because of the sound the dice make when rattled in a cup.

The name Backgammon became known around the mid-seventeenth century when the Saxons called it the "bac" (back) "gamen" (game) since the checkers when hit go "back" and have to re-enter the "game".

In certain societies, backgammon was outlawed. In Japan, during the reign of Empress Jito, it was illegal. In England, in the time of Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey commanded all boards to be destroyed by fire. To continue playing, the English crafted backgammon boards inside hollow books to look inconspicuous.

The "Libro de Juegos" or "Book of Games" of King Alfonso X (1251-1282) of Castille, contained 15 variations of the game. Backgammon has appeared in all kinds of writings from the past, those of Plato and Sophocles and in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, just to mention a few.

The British writer on games, Edmond Hoyle, codified the rules of backgammon in 1745 and for almost two centuries the strategy he recommended remained standard. Hoyle's "A Short Treatise On the Game of Back-Gammon" can be read in its entirety at this link on GammonVillage. These rules were modified in 1931 in the United States, probably having to do with the introduction of the doubling cube around 1925 by a person who today, still remains unknown.

Sometime between the late 60's and early 70's there was a widespread surge in the popularity of the game. The combination of strategy and chance with the ability to use the cube as a double-edged sword, is why this is known as "The Cruelest of Games".

Finally, today, the history of backgammon is taking yet another turn. With the invention of the computer and subsequently, the Internet, people from all over the world can meet and play with each other from the comfort of their homes on a number of commercially available backgammon servers. Computer programs such as Snowie and Jellyfish, often referred to as robots or 'bots', can now be used by every level of player to learn and practice with.

I wonder what the Sumerians would think about all this?

For more information on the History of Backgammon please visit James Masters' A History of Traditional Games .

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Celebrating 15 years in backgammon games