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Backgammon History

Backgammon is the oldest board game known to man and dates back many thousands of years in history.  The Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires are all known to have played a version in some form and it has been played in hundreds of different countries around the world from ancient times to this day.

The ancient game of Backgammon evolved over thousands of years into the game we know today.  Its oldest known probable ancestor is the Egyptian game called "Senet" (or sometimes Senat, known to the Egyptians as "the game of thirty squares")  which was played on a board of 3 x 10 squares with dice and dates back to at least 3,000 BC.  The exact rules of Senet are unknown and have been lost in history, but it is thought to have involved many of Backgammon's playing principles.

Archaeologists uncovered an old game in 2004 found in the 5000 year-old Iranian city of Shahr-e Sukhteh (Translated in Persian as “burnt city”) which many have called the oldest version of Backgammon ever discovered.  Dated to 3000BC, the find was of a rectangular board made of ebony with sixty markers made from turquoise and agate, and ancient dice. The board is illustrated with an engraved serpent coiling around itself twenty times, producing 20 slots or "points" for the game, instead of today's 24. Other wooden boards have been found in the royal tomb of the Ur al Chaldees, the centre of Sumer, which have been dated to about 2600 BC along with dice and are known as The Royal Games of Ur. Backgammon has been associated with aristocracy and the ruling class throughout its long history.

The Roman game of Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum is thought to be a descendant of Senet and is known to have been played on a similar board consisting of 3 x 12 rows of "points", with dice.  Around the 1st-century AD one of the rows of points was dropped from the game and by the 6th-century it became known as Alea or Tabula (Latin for tables). The Latin word Tabula refers to any board game, but was often used to mean the most popular Roman board game of Alea.  The Emperor Claudius is said to have been so fond of the game he had a board incorporated into his carriage so he could play wherever he went. He is also known to have written on the subject of Backgammon but none of his writings have survived.

In Asia, the game was first noted as Nard prior to at least 800 AD in South West Asia or Persia (Modern day Iran, Iraq and Syria) and has constantly remained an extremely popular game in the region to this day. Also known as Nardshir, Nardeeshir, and Nard-i-shir. Nard was the Persian name for wood productland is thought to refer to the wooden board. The game was sometimes also called "Takhteh Nard" which translates as "battle on wood".  Chinese history relates that T'Shu-P'u, the Chinese name for Nard, was first developed in Western India and was imported into China during the Wei dynasty (220 - 265 AD) becoming very popular from 479 to 1000AD. In Japan the game was known as Sugoroko. The Japanese declared it illegal during the reign of Empress Jito (690 - 697AD) due to problems arising from gambling which have accompanied the game wherever it has been played. Nard is thought to have possibly been introduced into Europe via Italy or Spain after the Arab occupation of Sicily in 902 AD.

An ancient text describes the alleged symbolism of Backgammon in the following way:

The board represents a year; each side contains 12 points for months of the year; the twenty-four points represent the hours in a day; the 30 checkers represent days of the month; the sum of opposing sides of the die represent the 7 days fo the week; the contrasting colors of each set of checkers represent day and night.

The addictive gambling nature of the game has seen it be banned, not only in Japan, but by the Romans and the English at different times in its history.  The authorities during Elizabeth I reign are known to have banned the game in all licensed premises.  Alea is the game which was primarily responsible for Roman gambling mania sweeping across Rome resulting in it being declared illegal under the Republic. A fine for gambling at Backgammon at any time except the Saturnalia holiday was four times the stakes placed, although the law wasn't strictly enforced.

The first documented reference to the game in English was in The Codex Exoniensis first published in 1025 AD: "These two shall sit at Tables...". The name Tables refers to the ancient game of Backgammon.  It was probably brought to England by knights returning from the Crusades. Tables was popular throughout Europe during the middle ages and was an extremely popular game in English taverns at that time.  Chess overtook it in popularity in the 15th-century and by the end of the 16th-century Tables had become a general term for a game played with pieces on a flat board or table.

The first reference to the game as "Backgammon" is dated to 1645 AD and there is some conjecture and debate over how the name was derived.  One theory is that the name was derived from the Middle English or Saxon word "gam" meaning "game" and "bac" meaning "back" and so probably meant "the game where you can go back", a reference to a blot in which a player's marker has been sent to the bar and must start its journey around the board from the start. Another theory is that it is derived from the Welsh words "back" meaning "little" and "gammon" meaning "battle".

The rules to Backgammon were modified somewhat in the early 17th-century when the game underwent a huge popular revival sweeping across Europe where it was known by a number of different names in different countries which have mostly remained in use to this day.

England - Backgammon
Scotland - Gammon
France - Tric-Trac
Germany - Puff
Spain - Tablas Reales
Italy - Tavole Reale
Czech - Vrhcáby
Israel and Arabic - Shesh Besh

Edmund Hoyle published the first official rules for Backgammon in 1743.  Hoyle has become famous for his proper rules for allsorts of games ranging from playing-cards to board games.

The doubling cube (a die marked 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64) was anonymously invented in New York in 1920 for gambling purposes and its introduction led to much of the gaming attraction of Backgammon, favouring the more skilled players capable of judging their chances according to game positions.

During the early 20th-century Backgammon was generally played by the upper class at home and in private clubs.  In the USA in 1931 Backgammon rules were modified again into what generally is considered the proper rules of the game today.

Backgammon enjoyed yet another revival prior to the First World War but its popularity waned during the mid 20th-century only to undergo another popular revival during the 1970s. This revival is in great part due to Prince Alexis Obelensky's (Oby) efforts during the 1960s when he organized and promoted professional tournaments.  The first "official" World Championships was held in the Bahamas and taking part has become Backgammon's highest honour, holding true to this day. The game's popularity shifted from the upper classes to the middle classes during this period and the 1970s are regarded as being Backgammon's heyday with a surge of Backgammon related literature in books, newspapers and magazines.

The game lost popularity during the 1980s probably due to the rise of video games.

Today Backgammon is one of the most popular games in the world, played for fun and professionally for high stakes in just about every country and region found on the globe.  It has most recently found popularity on computers and the internet in game simulations allowing players to play other players all over the world, sometimes for stakes, and in tournaments.  


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