Backgammon, along with Go and Chess, is thought to be one of the oldest games in existence. There is evidence that the game originated in the Middle East, specifically Iraq, some 5,000 years ago. The region was then called Mesopotamia, which is where very early renditions of dice, made of human bone, have been discovered. Similar remains have been found all around the Mediterranean basin, in places like Egypt. The game was and remains very popular in coffeehouses. In Persia, it is said to have been introduced alongside chess, which was brought over by a Raja visiting from India.
The game was and remains very popular in Turkey, where several variations of the game – called ‘tavla’ – exist. For example, men and boys play a particular variant, while women play one where there is no strategy involved, only the rolling of dice. Another version, called ‘soldiers’ tavla’, involves players throwing their pieces on the board randomly and trying to flip over their opponents’ pieces to beat them.
Backgammon also travelled West. A board and pieces were discovered aboard the Vasa, a Scandinavian ship that sank in 1628 and was later raised from the sea bed. In 1254, Louis IX prohibited his court officials and subjects from playing the game, such was its grip on popular interest. A board appears in a Caravaggio painting as well as several created by the Dutch masters
In Greece, four variations currently exist and the game remains very popular, with games often taking place outside while an audience watches and listens to the banter between opponents. The game has been described in an epigram dating back to the first century. Because the game is played quickly, matches often involve reaching three, five or seven points.
The board in its current form, with 24 points and 30 checkers, has been around a long time but the game has not always had the name of backgammon. Other games like Senet and Mancala used the same board design and it was the ancient Romans who popularized the game, which at that point was called ‘Tables’. Frescoes in Roman villas all over the empire depict games of backgammon in progress.
Even the elite were fans. Emperor Claudius was said to keep a board in his chariot to alleviate the boredom of long journeys, while Emperor Nero was a notorious gambler, betting large sums on the outcomes of games.
Backgammon is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as Shakespearean plays and medieval art works. The game appears in many pictures of taverns, often surrounded by players brawling. The game remained popular through the Victorian era, when it was often played during parties. Its popularity declined somewhat during the 1920s but it rebounded soon after thanks to the invention of doubling, which started a whole new craze for the game that swept the country and had young and old alike dusting off their old boards and engaging in tournaments and competitions in no time.