The History of Backgammon

A Brief History of Backgammon

by Michael Strato

The oldest and greatest of games, Backgammon has a long and very intriguing history - it has been known by many different names and variants for more than 5,000 years!

Archaeological evidence unearthed in the year 2004 - specifically the oldest known board, made of ebony with playing pieces of agate and turquoise stone - shows that a variant of the game was first played about 5,200 years ago in the legendary Burnt City of the Sistan-Baluchistan province in southeastern Iran.

The second oldest backgammon board, about 5,000 years old, was discovered in 1926 by archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley in the digs of the Royal Tombs of Ur of the Chaldees, an ancient city of southern Mesopotamia built by the Sumerians, the same civilization credited for the invention of the wheel, the first written language and the first known math system.

Variants of backgammon were played later by many early cultures, in China, India, Egypt, Greece and Rome from where it spread to numerous countries to enjoy eras of immense popularity and earn the title of "The King of Games". In some societies it could only be played by the upper class, aristocracy and royalty and thus is also known as "The Game of Kings".

History of Backgammon

Backgammon being played in Medieval times.

Later backgammon reached Europe, to England, France, Spain, Italy and Holland. The modern game of backgammon is alleged to have stemmed from a version called tables played in 17th century England, one that evolved into a game where doublets were played twice and one would win twice or triple the stakes when an opponent would fail to remove or get home any of his checkers.

Certain passages in literature indicate the name backgammon was first used around the mid-1600s although the exact origin of the word is not clear. It may have come from the Welsh words baec (back) and cammaun (battle) or possibly the Middle English words of baec (back) and gamen (game).

The famous writer of games, Edmond Hoyle, published a treatise on backgammon in 1745 with a set of  rules, and even some strategy tips, that still ring true today.

Then in the 1920s, the invention of the doubling cube by an unknown player in New York City upped the stakes and sparked new interest and excitement to the game. Backgammon became quite popular in that era and in 1931 the New York Racquet and Tennis Club's backgammon committee, headed by Wheaton Vaughan, wrote a set of backgammon rules that are the actual source of the standard rules used internationally today.

From the 1960s through to 1980s, the game was a huge fad and backgammon boards were a fixture at most clubs and discothèques in North America. Many big live tournaments were organized, including the first World Championship, and people young and old, from all walks of live, were playing the game everywhere night and day.

The birth of that era is credited to Prince Alexis Obolensky who organized the first major international Backgammon tournament in The Bahamas in March, 1964 and later his first major European Backgammon tournament in Monte Carlo in 1973. Prince Obolensky was the President of the World Backgammon Club of Manhattan, New York and passed away in 1986 at the age of 71.

While the game has seen its share of 'golden eras' its popularity has never waned in the nations around the Mediterranean. Throughout the Middle-East millions play the game everyday. It is very common in Turkey and Greece, and their neighbouring countries such as Bulgaria and Armenia. In fact, in Greece the game is considered to be the "National Pastime", three variants are played, and one guesstimate from a Greek tournament director suggests that 90% of the population play the game!

Today thousands of backgammon aficionados connect by computer from the privacy of their homes to meet and play with others from around the world on what is known as an Internet backgammon server.

The birth of the machines has also brought about the evolution of the backgammon bots, computer programs that have learnt the game through neural networks. A few of these 'robot' programs have reached very high skill levels matching and even surpassing those of the world's top humans. Avid players now use these programs to evaluate and improve their own skill levels by studying positions marked as errors by the computer. You can learn how to use one and get it here... GNUBG – A Guided Tour.

Finally, Backgammon reached new heights in popularity with the first-ever live backgammon tournament to pay out a minimum of one million dollars - the PartyGammon Million event was held at the famous Atlantis Resort in The Bahamas from January 21-25, 2007. The tournament was attended by many of the globe's champion players and was filmed for a television series that was seen in numerous countries.

See the coverage of that and other live tournaments by GammonLife's News Team in our Tournaments section.

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