A Brief History of Backgammon
Said to be one of the oldest games in the world dating back to around 5000 years ago, the exact origin of the popular board game (and now, an online board game), backgammon, has not been determined.
However, strong evidence has been discovered pointing to ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). The oldest game boards were found within a royal tomb at Ur al Chaldees (Chaldea) by an expedition led by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1926. These were called the Royal Games of Ur and said to be the forerunner of Backgammon though the exact rules of the game still remain unknown.
The earliest possible records of the game however where found within Egyptian tombs and temples. These were illustrations depicting people playing the board game and dating back to around 2500BC. Likewise, game board sets were also discovered in the tombs dating to around 3000-1788BC. The game was called Senat, but again the rules to the game remain a mystery as records or writings regarding this have yet to be found.
Great strides on Backgammon game design started with the Romans. They created their own version of the game called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (The game of 12 lines). This game was played on a leather board unlike Senat that used wood. It consisted of 30 checkers, 15 white and 15 black. Movement was then governed by the roll of 3 dice. The game dates back to around 600AD.
During the 1st Century AD, a new version of the game was released. They switched from a 3 X 12 line board to 2 X 12 lines and renamed it to Duodecim Scripta Et Tabula. Also a wooden board set was used for this. Emperor Claudius was a great fan of the game and was said to have promoted it actively which swept Rome into a gambling spree during his time.
By 6th Century AD, Duodecim Scripta Et Tabula was replaced by the name Alea meaning The Art Of Gambling With Dice. The board was closer in design to the Backgammon of today but the set-up and movement of the pieces were still quite different.
Eventually, a board game similar to Alea was being played in the area of South West Asia near Persia. It was called Nard and played very similar to Alea but instead used only 2 dice to move the pieces around. Nard in Persian means Wood as the game was also called Takteh Nard or Battle on Wood.
Nard crept through Asia and was called by different names depending on the country. Making its way from Western India to China during the Wei Dynasty (220-265AD) the game was then called Tshu-Pu. Likewise in Japan, it was called Sugoroku.
Ancient documentation for Nard explains that the each side of the board has 12 points that symbolizes the months in a year; a total of 24 points for the hours of a day and the remaining 30 pieces representing the standard days in a month. The sum of 7 from the opposite sides of the die represents days in a week and the contrasting colors on the board represents the cycle of day and night.
During the European Crusades around 12th Century AD, the Crusaders being exposed to a wide range of cultures from their travels to the Middle East brought back the 2 die version of Alea. Nard was then adopted in place of the former and had become the popular pastime for soldiers and traders alike. The Church had tried to outlaw it many times as it was classified as a form of sinful gambling. Despite that, the popularity of the game grew as it eventually spread to England.
It was first officially recorded in England at around 1025AD. Popular at English taverns, the game was called Tables. Led then by the Cardinal of Woolsey, the Church tried once again to eliminate the nefarious pastime by having the boards burnt. The English however not wanting to lose their favorite board sport designed boards that could be folded up and disguised as books.
With the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1436, the distribution of the written word spread all over the world. By the 15th Century, publications that dealt with recreational games started to appear. However, the word Backgammon first appeared on print in 1645 and was said to have been derived from the Old English words of Baec (back) and Gamen (game) thus Back Game. Another version states that it was derived from the Welsh words Bach and Cammaun meaning Little Battle.
A complete printed documentation of the game was written by Edmund Hoyle in 1743 which became a guide for players during the late 18th to 19Th Century when the game was brought by settlers coming from Europe to America.
During the 1920’s, two events occurred that changed the way Backgammon was played. No one was certain if it occurred in the New York or Boston area but someone came up with a way to double the stakes of the game. They used a device called a doubling cube or dial. The other event that happened was the multi-player version of the game. It was called a “Chouette” which in French translated to “Screech Owl”, a bird commonly attacked by its own kind.
This not only doubled the stakes - with more players playing, the number of wins and losses rose sky high. Backgammon became the perfect gambling game for the 1920’s. In 1931, the rules of the game were officially coded which became the basis for the regulations used for playing Backgammon today.
Backgammon wasn’t just played at casinos, clubs or social gatherings. In 1964 the first official world championship was held in Monte Carlo through the efforts of Prince Alexis Obolensky. The games popularity continued well into the 70’s but started to decline in the 1980’s. The invention and mass popularity of video and computer games was attributed to this.
This however was not the end for Backgammon but rather a new beginning. Software developers and researchers in Artificial Intelligence focused on traditional board games as feasible applications for the technology. Gerald Tesauro at IBM wrote a program that could teach itself to play Backgammon using something called Neural Networking. This produced a formidable AI Backgammon opponent in 1990. Since then, several Backgammon AI’s had been written which includes Snowie written by Oliver Egger and GNU Backgammon, an open-source version which allowed programmers to update and improve it.
Andreas Schneider set-up the First Internet Backgammon Server (FIBS) hosted on a university server in Sweden in 1993. It had over a hundred players playing at any time and could save and watch games as well as rate players according to ability.
The first commercially available Neural Net Backgammon software was developed by Norwegian, Frederick Dahl. It was called Jellyfish and could assign equity values to any possible roll-out or board position. It also allowed advanced analysis for the very first time, allowing players to get an in-depth insight into the intricacies of this strategy-based game.
Websites dedicated to the game as well as on-line casinos and gaming sites have since sprung up all over the internet. The online versions of backgammon allow you to play against an AI opponent, which admittedly isn’t much of a challenge, or against other online Backgammon players, such as PlayGem Backgammon. This has allowed the game to extend its reach to people and places that might prove difficult by conventional means, which greatly increase the community of backgammon players to the size that we see today.
The game has been around for an extremely very long time and with the continued emergence of Backgammon gaming communities online, who knows how far it will reach into the future. In the meantime, we could thank the “internet gods” for the existence of the internet and enjoy our online games of backgammon in PlayGem Backgammon!