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Tavli – Greek Backgammon

Last updated on July 15, 2022

This Deluxe Backgammon post is about the game of tavli, a Greek variant of backgammon. It doesn’t matter where you go in Greece, one thing will be certain. In every kafeneio (café), there will be people playing tavli. It is a national pastime. Even in Greek-owned cafes elsewhere in the world, the game will be played. In appearance it looks very similar to the ‘western’ version of backgammon, however, there are different rules in tavli.

Tavli

The word tavli literally means “board” in Greek. However, tavli is not a single game. Tavli actually consists of three types of game, which are traditionally one after the other in a match of 3, 5 or 7 games. The three games that make up tavli are:

Plakotó is a game where a single checker can pin another checker on a point.

Févga is a game where one checker by itself can secure a point.

Pórtes is very similar to Western backgammon, but with a few minor rule changes.

There are also configurational differences in the way the boards are set up at the start of play. More details about the rules of each of these games can be seen in the post on Backgammon variants.

Févga starting positions. Tavli or Greek backgammon.
Févga starting positions.

Common rules

The three games of tavli do have the following rules in common:

  • The players share a single pair of dice. The dice are rolled by hand, not from a dice cup.
  • In the first game, each player rolls a single die and the higher number goes first. That player rolls both dice again to begin their first turn.
  • After the first game, the winner of the previous game starts the next game.
  • The first player to bear off all of their checkers gets one point, or, if the winner bears off all of their checkers before the loser has borne off any, they get two points. There is no backgammon in tavli.
  • No doubling cube is used.

The generation gap

Typically, the traditional style of play where all three games are used is played by older men. The younger generation tends to stick to Pórtes, which is very similar to western backgammon. The older players are also less likely to welcome you to play. This is not because they aren’t friendly, but because their English may be limited. The younger Greeks will almost certainly speak English and will be happy to play with foreigners. If you do get a game, be prepared for plenty of banter. It is quite normal for the winner to tease and taunt the loser, however, this is always good-natured. Gambling is also common. This is not always for money. Perhaps the loser of a match will be expected to pay for the coffee, a round of Ouzo or for a sweet delicacy such as loukoumi.

Plakoto starting positions. Tavli or Greek backgammon.
Plakoto starting positions.

Pace of play and atmosphere

Tavli is played very quickly compared to western backgammon. It’s a vibrant, raucous game where insults are traded freely, but in good spirit. Unlike western backgammon, you do not need to wait for your opponent to pick up the dice. You pick them up yourself while your opponent is making their move. However, you must not roll the dice too early. Your opponent must finish making their move before you can roll the dice. As a result, if you roll too early, the roll does not count and you have to roll again.

Tavli is definitely an addictive pastime and it is enjoyed by Greeks of all ages. Many hours are spent playing with friends and family at local cafes and at home, mostly while sipping on a coffee, or a glass of ouzo. Next time you are in Greece stop by one of the many cafes and watch a game, you may be invited to play. Otherwise, take out your luxury backgammon set and try a game or two of Greek tavli.

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