Backgammon is one of the oldest and most popular board games in the world, with a rich and fascinating history that spans thousands of years and many cultures. In this blog post, we will explore some of the origins, developments and variations of this game, as well as some of the rules and strategies that make it so challenging and enjoyable.
Origins and Ancient History
The earliest evidence of a game resembling backgammon dates back to about 5,200 years ago, when a board with playing pieces made of agate and turquoise stone was discovered in the Burnt City of southeastern Iran. This board had 20 slots on each side and five pieces for each player, similar to the modern backgammon setup.
Another ancient board, about 5,000 years old, was found in the Royal Tombs of Ur of the Chaldees, an ancient city of southern Mesopotamia built by the Sumerians. This board had 12 slots on each side and seven pieces for each player, and was accompanied by dice made of bone or ivory. The Sumerians are credited with many inventions, such as the wheel, the first written language and the first known math system.
From Mesopotamia, the game spread to other regions, such as India, China, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Each culture had its own name and variant of the game, such as Nard or Nardy in Persia, Senet or Senat in Egypt, Petteia or Pessoi in Greece, Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum or Tabula in Rome. Some of these variants had different board sizes, number of pieces, movement rules or scoring systems.
Modern History and Development
The modern game of backgammon emerged in 17th century England from a variant called Tables, which evolved from the medieval Anglo-Scottish game of Irish. Tables had a rule that doublets (dice showing the same number) were played twice, and that a player could win double or triple the stakes if the opponent failed to remove any piece from the board. This was the origin of the backgammon term and the name of the game itself, which may have come from the Welsh words baec (back) and cammaun (battle) or the Middle English words baec (back) and gamen (game).
The first written rules and strategy tips for backgammon were published by Edmond Hoyle in 1745, which are still valid today. Hoyle described how to use probability, tactics and positional play to gain an advantage over the opponent. He also introduced some terms that are still used today, such as blot (an exposed piece), hit (capturing an exposed piece), bear off (removing a piece from the board) and gammon (winning by removing all pieces before the opponent does).
In the 1920s, an unknown player in New York City invented the doubling cube, a device that allows players to raise the stakes during the game. The doubling cube has six faces with numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. At any point during the game, a player can offer to double the stakes by turning the cube to show the next higher number. The opponent can either accept or decline. If accepted, the opponent takes control of the cube and can offer to redouble later. If declined, the opponent forfeits the game at the current stakes. The doubling cube adds an element of psychology and risk management to the game.
In 1931, Wheaton Vaughan and his backgammon committee at the New York Racquet and Tennis Club wrote a set of rules that are still used internationally today. These rules standardized some aspects of the game that were previously unclear or variable, such as how to set up the board, how to handle illegal moves or dice rolls, how to use automatic doubles or beavers (special cases of doubling), how to score matches or tournaments.
Variations and Popular Culture
Backgammon has many variations around the world, some of which have different names or rules. For example:
- Acey-deucey is a variant popular among American sailors that allows a player who rolls 1-2 (acey-deucey) to choose any desired dice combination and play it twice.
- Nackgammon is a variant invented by Nack Ballard that has a different initial setup with two more pieces on each side's 23-point.
- Hypergammon is a variant that uses only three pieces per player on a normal board.
- Tavla is a variant popular in Turkey that has different rules for hitting and entering pieces.
- Gul bara is a variant popular in the Middle East that has no hitting and allows pieces to stack on the same point.
- Plakoto is a variant popular in Greece that has no hitting and allows pieces to pin the opponent's pieces on the same point.
Backgammon has also been featured in many works of art, literature, film and television, such as:
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which depicts a scene of a deceased person playing Senet with a goddess.
- The Odyssey, which mentions a game of Petteia played by Penelope's suitors.
- The Talmud, which forbids playing Nard on the Sabbath or with dice made of bone.
- The Canterbury Tales, which describes a game of Tables played by the Pardoner and the Summoner.
- The James Bond film Octopussy, which shows a game of backgammon played by Bond and Kamal Khan with loaded dice and a Fabergé egg as stakes.
- The sitcom Seinfeld, which features a game of backgammon played by Kramer and Newman with human lives as stakes.
Rules and Strategy
The rules of backgammon are simple to learn but hard to master. The game is played on a board divided into four quadrants, each with six points numbered from 1 to 24. Each player has 15 pieces of one color (white or black) that move in opposite directions around the board according to the roll of two dice. The objective is to move all pieces into one's own home board (the last six points) and then bear them off (remove them from the board). The first player to bear off all pieces wins the game.
The basic rules are as follows:
- Each player rolls one die to determine who goes first. The player with the higher number moves first using both dice. If both players roll the same number, they roll again until they get different numbers.
- A player must move one or two pieces according to the numbers shown on the dice. For example, if a player rolls 3-5, he can move one piece three points and another piece five points, or one piece eight points. A player can also move one piece twice using both dice, but only if the intermediate point is either vacant or occupied by his own pieces. For example, if a player rolls 3-5, he can move one piece three points and then five more points, but only if the point three points away is either empty or has his own pieces on it.
- A player can hit (capture) an opponent's piece if it is alone on a point (called a blot). The hit piece is placed on the bar (the middle divider of the board) and must re-enter from the opponent's home board before any other piece can be moved. To re-enter, a player must roll a number that corresponds to an open point in the opponent's home board. For example, if a player has a piece on the bar and rolls 3-5, he can re-enter from the 3-point or the 5-point if they are vacant or have only one opponent's piece on them. If both points are blocked or have more than one opponent's piece on them, the player cannot re-enter and loses his turn.
- A player can bear off (remove) a piece from the board if all his pieces are in his home board. To bear off, a player must roll a number that corresponds to the point where the piece is located. For example, if a player rolls 3-5 and has a piece on the 3-point, he can bear it off. If he has no piece on the 3-point but has one on a higher point, he can move it to a lower point or bear it off. If he has no piece on any higher point, he can bear off any piece from his highest point. A player cannot bear off any piece if he has any piece outside his home board or on the bar.
- A player must use both numbers of a roll if possible. If only one number can be used, he must use the higher one. If neither number can be used, he loses his turn. If both numbers are the same (doublets), he must use both numbers twice. For example, if a player rolls 4-4, he must move four pieces four points each, or two pieces eight points each, or one piece sixteen points if possible.
- A player can offer to double the stakes at any point during the game before rolling the dice. The opponent can either accept or decline. If accepted, the opponent takes control of the doubling cube and can offer to redouble later. If declined, the opponent forfeits the game at the current stakes. The doubling cube can be used multiple times during a game, up to 64 times the original stake.
- A player wins a single game and one point if he bears off all his pieces before his opponent does. A player wins a gammon and two points if he bears off all his pieces while his opponent still.