A comprehensive history of backgammon – Part I

Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence along with Go and Chess. It is likely 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 this area.

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The board with its twenty-four points and thirty men(or pieces or checkers) has been around for a long time but the game has not always been known as backgammon. Other games which used the same board were Senet and Mancala. The Romans were the first to make it truly popular with their version called “Duodecum Scripta et Tabulae” or “Tables” for short.

Frescoes in many a Roman villa depicted the game in progress as can be seen in the illustration below which was found in Pompeii.

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The Roman Emperor Claudius was a avid player – he had a special board built on the back of his chariot to relieve the tediousness of long journeys. Emperor Nero was a prodigious gambler. He played for what would be $10,000 a game in current terms.

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

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:

“They daucen, and they pleyen at ches and tables.”

and by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The word backgammon first appears in print in 1645. No one knows for sure where the name came from, but most scholars agree that is likely to derive from 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. Often it appears in tavern scenes and often there is a fight occuring at the same time.

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The game continued to be played throughout the latter stages of the last millennium but it was involved in constant battles with authorities and the church who wanted to ban it because of the gambling element – which is not too dissimilar to the current US situation.

Its popularity continued to grow through the Victorian era.

By the early 1920’s the game was quickly losing its appeal. In the Roaring Twenties in New York City the games were just taking too long to play and it was difficult to wager (and thus to win) large amounts of money. We will look at further development in part II of this series.