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History of Backgammon

Author: Dolly Gambler

Backgammon is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia in the Persian Empire (present day Iran, Iraq, and Syria). It is the oldest known recorded board game in history. Backgammon was typically played on surfaces like wood, using stones as markers and dice made from bones, stones, wood or pottery. The game can be traced back thousands of years BC to board games that were played by the Egyptians, Sumerians, Romans, and Persians.

Backgammon throughout its history has been associated with the leaders and aristocracy of ancient civilizations as shown by excavated relics and literary references from Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Far East. Gaming boards with 3x10, 3x12, and 3x6 squares were found in Egypt and it were known as the Game of Thirty Squares or Senat.

The Romans left evidence of a game called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum "The Game of 12 Lines" which was played on leather boards and had 30 markers, 15 of ebony and 15 of ivory, and is thought to be derived from the Egyptian Senat.

In the 1st Century AD Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum was replaced by a variant with 2x12 lines instead of 3x12 lines as it grew closer and closer to today’s version. Backgammon came to Britain with the Roman conquest in the 1st Century and was also referred to as Tabula, a generic name for the board on which it was played. This pastime was quite popular and a favored game by Roman Emperor Claudius.

Tabula is also the game which was primarily responsible for the gambling mania which swept Rome prior to its being declared illegal under the Republic. The fine for gambling at any other time except the Saturnalia was four times the stakes, although this law was rarely enforced.

By the 6th Century the backgammon game was called Alea, "the art of gambling with dice". Alea was likely the first real precursor to contemporary Backgammon although there were many variations regarding starting positions and moment.

In Asia a game called "Nard" appeared in southwest Asia or Persia which looked closely to Backgammon. Nard was played in a similar fashion as Alea and used only 2 die to move markers. "Nard" was the Persian name for wood product like the board on which it was played. The game was also called "Takhteh Nard" meaning "battle on wood". The board represented 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 of the week and the contrasting colors of each set of checkers represent day and night.

The first mention in English print was in The Codex Exoniensis "These two shall sit at tables..." in 1025 as Nard or "Tables" was played throughout the middle ages and was popular in English taverns. Chess overtook Tables in popularity around the 15th Century. Backgammon was banned for some time due to its prevalent gambling nature until the reign of Elizabeth I.

The doubling cube was believed to be introduced in New York in the 1920's by some unknown gambler which enhanced the element of skill in the game, thus increasing its marketability, insuring its place as a popular pastime. Backgammon was mostly limited to the upper class in private clubs although several introductory backgammon publications burst onto the scene.

The Backgammon rules were modified in 1931 in the U.S. and are what generally governs the game today. There was somewhat of a decline in popularity during the depression and a light resurgence in the 1940's but decreased again during WWII.

The popularity of Backgammon increased during the 1960's with the Official World Championships in the Bahamas becoming Backgammon's highest honor, which it still is today. Interest in learning the intricacies of the game is as strong as ever for the players today, bolstered by the invention of computer Backgammon which not only provides a decent opponent but more importantly saves hours of time by performing rollouts of positions giving players a deeper understanding of Backgammon game.