Dice games are among the oldest forms of gambling. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of dice play dating back as long as 10,000 years ago in the Near East and Mediterranean, where four-sided sheep hucklebones known as astragali were used for a fortune-telling practice called “throwing bones.” These rudimentary dice were found accompanied by small coloured stones that could have been used as counters, leading experts to claim that the relics were used for recreational and not religious purposes.
It is known for a fact that astragali were being used for gambling in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) by 7000 BCE. Over the next 4,000 years, the bones were crafted into cubes to make them roll more smoothly. Later still, ivory and wood were used to make the cubes, giving birth to true six-sided dice.
Interestingly enough, these dice predated the invention of the Hindu-Arabic number system by at least six centuries. From 1300 BCE, they were adorned with pips (dots) to mark their faces, a tradition still accepted today. The Mesopotamians also developed game boards; rolls of the dice determined how pieces moved across the board’s surface.
When Romans legions encountered these games, they adopted them as their own and modified the rules to incorporate use of two six-sided dice. They called their new game “Duodecim Scriptorum,” meaning “twelve writer.” That gradually evolved into a wildly popular board game called “Tabula” or “tables” by 300 BCE.
From Rome, Tabula spread to Arabia to become “Nard” and to Iceland, where it would be known as “Ad Elta Stelpur.” In England, an early version called “Taefle and Fayles” was adopted, while France developed “Tourne-case” and Spain came up with “Sixe-Ace.” In Greece the Tabula became “Tavli,” in Turkey it was called “Tavla” and in Bulgaria it led to “Tapa.” All of these are relatives of what’s now known worldwide as “Backgammon.”
The word “gammon,” of course, was derived from the Middle English term “gamen,” meaning “game.” Around 1645, the name “backgammon” was used to refer to a manner of winning in which the loser has failed to remove any pieces from the board and still has one or more pieces foundering on the Bar or in the winner’s Home Board. Over the next century, it became the accepted name of the game itself.
In central Europe and the Mediterranean the board game spawned numerous variations, such as “Plakoto” and “Portes” in Greece and “Fevga,” “Gul Bara” and “Moultezim” in Turkey. It is quite certain that a form of Backgammon was played in the Americas during the time of colonisation. Recent archaeological digs in Jamestown uncovered twelve dice and what appears to be a peg used in a Backgammon-like gambling game.
Not everyone, however, has always been enamoured of the activity. The Roman Catholic Church made a number of attempts to prohibit the game, including an order to burn all backgammon boards in the 16th century. Cardinal Thomas Woolsey (1473-1530) called Backgammon “the devil`s folly.” But the game survived, with boards drawn in dirt or sand and played with small pebbles. British boards were also disguised as folding books, setting the stage for modern hinged Backgammon boards to follow.
During World War I, members of the of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Merchant Marine popularised a version of Backgammon that became widely known as Acey-Deucy, with all pieces starting off the board. It was soon copied in Europe and Mexico before gradually devolving into what’s primarily a children’s game in North America.
The 1970s saw a huge resurgence of interest in Backgammon all over the world. As a result, since 1975 the World Backgammon Championship has been organised annually in Monte Carlo. Also boosting the game since the late 1990s have been backgammon web sites offering online opportunities to wager. And to govern play, the World Backgammon Association was established in 2001 followed by the U.S. Backgammon Federation founded in 2009.
Most recently, Casino Backgammon has been introduced. Starting in 2010 in Las Vegas, it is played against the House on a table layout that resembles just one side of a Backgammon board. And in 2012, the European Backgammon Tour was launched with the backing of betfair. Cooperating with bodies in emerging European backgammon countries, such as Turkey, Croatia and Greece, the Tour seeks to promote modern backgammon as a sport of the mind and top game of skill.