Interesting facts about Backgammon

Backgammon is one of the oldest known board games.

It is a game played by moving counters on a board or table, the object of the game being a race to a goal, with the movement of the counters being controlled by the throw of two dice. Elements of chance and skill are nicely balanced in backgammon so that each is usually essential to victory.

While the dice may determine the outcome of a single game, the better player will accumulate the better record over a series of many games. With each roll of the dice, players must choose from numerous options for moving their checkers and anticipate possible counter-moves by the opponent. The optional use of a doubling cube allows players to raise the stakes during the game.

The dimensions of a board when opened, for a tournament game, should be at a minimum of 44 cm by 55 cm to a maximum of 66 cm by 88 cm. Each side of the board has a track of 12 long triangles, called points.

There are 15 white and 15 black pieces. Playing pieces may be termed checkers, draughts, stones, men, counters, pawns, discs, pips, chips, or nips.

In English, the word “backgammon” is most likely derived from “back” and Middle English: gamen, meaning “game” or “play”. The earliest use documented by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1650.

Backgammon is probably about 5,000 years old and may well have originated in what today is Iraq—previously Mesopotamia. Recent evidence supporting this was found when these very early dice (made of human bones) were discovered in the area.

There is evidence that several thousand years later the Egyptian Pharaohs were enjoying another board game that may be an ancestor of backgammon. Boards dating from 1500 BC. were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the valley of the Nile, and even at Enkomi on Cyprus, then an Egyptian colony.

The game must have reached Western Europe from the Mediterranean. A thousand years after the Egyptians were playing their version, the Greeks, or at least the patrician Greeks, were playing a form of the game. Plato mentions a Greek form of the game and comments on its popularity. Sophocles attributes its invention to Palamedes, who was said to have beguiled away the time during the long siege of Troy by playing it. Homer mentions the Greek game in the Odyssey. Herodotus claims that the Lydians invented it. In this and other dice games the Greeks evidently had feelings about lady luck just as strong as ours. They called sixes, which were good high rolls then as now, “Aphrodite”, and they called ones a word akin to “dog”.

Tάβλι (tavli) meaning ‘table’ or ‘board’ in Byzantine Greek, is the oldest game with rules known to be nearly identical to backgammon. It is described in an epigram of Byzantine Emperor Zeno (AD 476–491). The board was the same, with 24 points, 12 on each side. Like today, each player had 15 checkers and used cubical dice with sides numbered one to six.

Earlier versions had been mentioned in Old English records from the 8th and 9th centuries, but backgammon didn’t really take off in Europe until the Crusaders caught the fever. It was so popular with soldiers in the Christian army that playing it for money became subject to strict rules—betting was only allowed for the knightly class and above, and even they had restrictions.

The jeux de tables (‘Games of Tables’), predecessors of modern backgammon, first appeared in France during the 11th century and became a favorite pastime of gamblers. In 1254, Louis IX issued a decree prohibiting his court officials and subjects from playing. Tables games were played in Germany in the 12th century, and had reached Iceland by the 13th century. In Spain, the Alfonso X manuscript Libro de los juegos, completed in 1283, describes rules for a number of dice and table games in addition to its extensive discussion of chess. By the 17th century, table games had spread to Sweden. A wooden board and checkers were recovered from the wreck of the Vasa among the belongings of the ship’s officers. Backgammon appears widely in paintings of this period, mainly those of Dutch and German painters, such as Van Ostade, Jan Steen, Hieronymus Bosch, and Bruegel. Some surviving artworks are Cardsharps by Caravaggio (the backgammon board is in the lower left) and The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (the backgammon board is in the lower right). Others include Hell (Bosch) and Interior of an Inn by Jan Steen.

In the 16th century, Elizabethan laws and church regulations prohibited playing tables, but by the 18th century, backgammon was popular among the English clergy. Edmond Hoyle published A Short Treatise on the Game of Back-Gammon in 1753 – this described rules and strategy for the game and was bound together with a similar text on whist.

Though probably less popular than in Britain, backgammon has been played in the United States since the 17th century. Thomas Jefferson played the game often – including during the three weeks before July 4, 1776, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence.

The most recent major development in backgammon was the addition of the doubling cube. It was first introduced in the 1920s in New York City among members of gaming clubs in the Lower East Side. The cube required players not only to select the best move in a given position, but also to estimate the probability of winning from that position, transforming backgammon into the expected value-driven game played in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The popularity of backgammon surged in the mid-1960s, in part due to the charisma of Prince Alexis Obolensky who became known as “The Father of Modern Backgammon”.

Like chess, backgammon has been studied with great interest by computer scientists. Owing to this research, backgammon software such as TD-Gammon has been developed that is capable of beating world-class human players.

The longest marathon playing backgammon is 25 hrs 41 mins and was achieved by Rustam Bilalov (Russian Federation) in Agstafa, Azerbaijan, on 8 July 2018.

The most games of backgammon played simultaneously is 322, achieved by Albena Resort and Ouzo Plomari (both Bulgaria), in Albena Resort, Bulgaria, on 16 July 2016.

The largest online backgammon tournament is 21,940 people and was achieved by Atolye Games, Backgammon Stars, IBB, Vodafone and Cem Öztürk (all Turkey), on 16 August 2020.

Charles Hollander Backgammon Set coast $5 million. The second costliest board game (after Jewel Royale Chess Set – Price: $9.8 million) in the world was specially created for the Charles Hollander Collection. The luxurious piece of art is another creation of the renowned artist Bernard Maquin who designed the Royal Diamond Chess Set, our #5 from this top 10 list. Worth $5 million, the Backgammon Set features 61.082 yellow, black and white diamonds totaling 2071.28 carats.In addition to all of these precious gems, the set also contains 6.77 kg of yellow gold and 150 grams of silver. It took 10.000 hours to create this stunning board game that measures 54 x 39 x 3.5 cm when opened and 27 x 39 x 7 cm when closed.