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History

The ancient game of Backgammon originated in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, around five thousand years ago. Variations of the game were known to be played by the Egyptians, Sumerians, Romans, and Greeks. The game was typically played on boards crafted from wood, using stones as markers, and dice made from bones or wood.

Medieval illustration of tabula players from the 13th century Carmina Burana.

Objective

It is a two player game where each player has fifteen checkers which move between twenty-four points according to the roll of two dice. The objective of the game is to be first to bear off, i.e. move all fifteen checkers off the board.

Strategy and luck

Backgammon involves a combination of strategy and luck (from rolling dice). Luck plays a large part of the game, but generally the better player will win the majority of games over time. With each roll of the dice, players must choose from a number positions for moving their checkers and consider possible counter-moves by the opponent. The use of the doubling cube allows players to change the stakes during the game.

Tabula, Pompeii.

Backgammon in Europe

It first appeared in Western Europe in the 11th century and became a popular pastime for gamblers. Such was its popularity that more than once it has been banned by Royal decree or religious regulations. The word Backgammon first appeared in writing in 17th century, although no one knows how the name originated. In English, the word “Backgammon” is most likely a derivative of “back” and Middle English “gamen”, meaning “game” or “play”.

Theodore Rombouts, The Backgammon Players, 1634 AD.

Although the game remained popular throughout Victorian times it was starting lose its appeal and may indeed have died out were it not for the concept of doubling. In the 1920s an unknown player in New York introduced the doubling cube and reinvigorated the game.

In recent times, with invention of the internet, Backgammon is again rising in popularity with the advent of online play.

You can read more about Backgammon in the 20th Century here.