Backgammon is one of the oldest games in existence, alongside Go and Chess. It 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.
The board with its twenty-four points and thirty checkers (or pieces or men) has been around for a long time but the game has not always been called backgammon. Other games which used the same board were Senet and Mancala. The Romans were the first to make it truly popular with their version called “Duodecum Scripta et Tabulae” or “Tables” for short.
Frescoes in many a Roman villa depict the game in progress (the players were not always completely clothed)! Here is an example (clothed version) from Pompeii:
The Emperor Claudius was a keen player—he had a special board built on the back of his chariot to relieve the tedium of long journeys. Emperor Nero was a prodigious gambler. He played for today’s equivalent of $10,000 a game. History does not record what happened to his opponents if they lost!
For many years there were different rules depending upon one’s level in society—true of many pastimes.. Whilst the officers wagered large stakes it became so popular during the Crusades that soldiers below a certain rank were barred from playing.
The history of any game can be tracked by looking for references in both art and literature. It is mentioned in early literature, both in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
|They daucen, and they pleyen at ches and tables.|
and by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The word backgammon first appeared in print in 1645. No one knows for sure where the name came from, but most scholars agree that in all likelihood it comes from the Middle English baec = back and gamen = game.
Backgammon appears consistently in art throughout the second millennium, most famously in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch and “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel. Quite frequently it appears in tavern scenes and often there is a brawl going on—I wonder why that could be? Here it is in Steen’s “Backgammon Fight”:
The game continued to be played throughout the latter stages of the last millennium but it had constant battles with authorities and the church who wanted to ban it because of the gambling element—not too dissimilar to some areas of the world today, particularly since America brought in its crass and ludicrous Internet gambling laws (surely they are not long for this world??)
Its popularity continued through Victorian times (see the tranquil image below) and it was very popular at country house weekend parties.
However by the early 1920’s the game was losing its appeal. In the Roaring Twenties in New York City the games were just taking too long to play and it was difficult to wager (and therefore win) large amounts of money. What was to be done?
The Advent of Doubling
Whether the game would have survived we can only surmise but some time around 1925 or 1926 two things that would change the game forever happened at almost the same time.
The first and most important event occurred when some genius (or it may have been a group of them) in either New York or Boston came up with the idea of being able to double the stakes. We must assume that redoubling was invented at the same time and there is no contrary evidence to suggest otherwise. Sadly, despite extensive research, we do not know exactly who invented the concept so all we can do is give a heartfelt thank you to whoever it was!
The doubling cube did not arrive for some years and initially matchsticks were used to record the stakes. The first type of doubling device was a dial. An example—which I was lucky enough to buy on eBay—is shown here:
This device lasted for some time as evidenced by this photo of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. and Joan Crawford (they were married from 1929 to 1933):
Exactly when the doubling cube arrived is not recorded.
The second event was the arrival of the multi-player version of the game that has always been known, even in the 1920’s, as a chouette. Chouette is the French for screech owl, a bird that is set upon by many of its own kind so we can see how apt the name is! It was originally used in the card game Picquet.
Now not only could the stakes be doubled but with more players in the game winnings and losses rose exponentially! Backgammon became the perfect game for the 1920’s.
It is safe to say that doubling, whilst it solved the backgammon problems of the day and introduced a whole new level of skill, was initially very poorly understood. If you read any of the books from that era you will find some very dubious advice indeed. The basic concept of the 25% take-point was not explained in any book until Crawford and Jacoby published “The Backgammon Book” in 1970! Georges Mabardi, author of Vanity Fair’s “Backgammon to Win” (1930) had this view of Doubling: “If two absolutely perfect players engaged in a match, there would never be an accepted double.” Close, but no cigar!
This did not stop people cashing in on teaching the game. Here is Leila Hattersley, author of “How to play the New Backgammon” (1930) teaching at a New York Club (Leila is standing back right).
Similarly the early rules for chouettes didn’t much resemble today’s game, which involves multiple cubes, but it created a form of the game that is still the most exciting way to play backgammon today !
It is not clear how quickly doubling and chouettes crossed the Atlantic but there are no comparable UK backgammon books dating from the 20’s and 30’s of the 20th century