66 & All That
An irreverent but astonishingly accurate
and witty history of backgammon

By Michael Crane

A long long time ago, about 5000 years before Jesus Christ became an expletive, there lived a people called the Sumerians. They lived in what is now modern-day Iraq and they had a quiet boring life.

 

One day, a bunch of young Sumerians were chilling out on the banks of the Tigris. One of them turned idly to his mates and said, “I’m bored. It’s bloody ages before anyone invents the TV or the Wii; by which time we’ll probably be dead and forgotten. What can we do to pass the time?”

Sumer - Home of the Sumerians

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“I know”, said one of his peers, Bacchilus Gamenius, “I’ll invent a game for us to play;” and so saying he grabbed a piece of papyrus and some charcoal and drew a rudimentary board upon it. He then whittled some pieces of wood into tetrahedrals and thus invented dice. He then whittled a few counters out of another piece of wood and lo and behold he had invented a new game.

“Wow,” said one his mates, Checkus Bearoffus, “that’s a cool looking game. What shall we call it?”

It's backgammon, Jim, but not as we know it.

“I think we should simply call it Our Game,” proclaimed Bacchilus as he rolled his dice and made the first move, a 62. It was this board that became the blueprint for the board found many years later that was wrongly named, thus robbing Bacchilus Gamenius of eternal fame and any chance of loads of dosh from royalties.

One of the bunch, a soothsayer called, Itoldu Soh, pronounced, “In years to come the people are going to latch onto this and claim this as the first instance of backgammon; even though it looks nothing like it and won’t for thousands of years. But, it’ll piss off the chess people who usually claim to have the oldest game in the world!”

“I think you should have made it a bit more triangular,” said Squintus Myopius,” as he pointed towards the squares on the paper. “After all, we are the inventors of civilisation’s first written language, cuneiform, and that’s as triangular as you can get, innit!”

Bacchilus Gamenius oversees mass production of Our Game

How do we know all this? Well, for the Christmas of 1886, Lenny Wooley’s dad gave him a bucket and spade as a present – and it was this simple gift from Woolies that proved to be a catalyst for young Len. He went out into the snow of his back garden and began digging . . . . and thirty-four years later, still digging (but this time in the sunnier clime of Iraq, and swapping snow for sand) in the city of Ur in the 1920s, he unearthed an early game board.

The very one invented by Bacchilus Gamenius, - ‘Our Game’. Unfortunately, due to a misspelling, Wooley named it The Royal Game of Ur.

For our next incursion into the history of backgammon we move away from 5,000 BC to the more recent, 1,500 BC. Here we find the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs were playing Senet, another board game that appears to resemble backgammon.

But, it’s only a tenuous link – some may say, spurious link, to backgammon as we know it. It looked very like Our Game – it was square and not a bit like a backgammon board. We have King Tut to thank for us knowing all about Senet for one was found in his tomb.

The Egyptians were so fond

of senet they made sets in

the shape of their pets.

Nef & Tut were a cool pair

Here, in Tut’s tomb, Queen Nefertari and Tut are seen playing Senet in wall paintings in the tombs. Although Senet was based upon a board with thirty squares the shape they formed are very unlike the backgammon boards of today. Senet boards were placed in tombs as a kind of good-luck charm for the journey into the afterlife; but how lucky is being dead?
Successful Senet players were thought to be favoured by the gods – a belief founded perhaps on the luck element of the game. So popular was Senet that it is even mentioned in the Book of the Dead – available at all good funeral parlours.

To find a more 'modern' ancestor to backgammon as we know it we travel to India where Pacheesy appears to have originated.

Pacheesy, which pparently

used olives as checkers.

Here, Pacheesy was a four-player game played with six or seven cowrie shells (such shells were used as dice. It was the rampant use of cowrie shells that led a group named, GreenPiss to bemoan the over-harvesting of female cowrie shells leading to a world-wide shortage that lasted until the middle ages); and it too was nothing like backgammon as we know it; but it did share many similarities.

 

 
It was a race-game; rolling certain cowrie combinations allowed a player to take an extra roll; the object was to be the first player to get all their four checkers around the board and home; checkers could be hit and taken off the board; some checker positions were so strong that opponent's checkers could not pass them. These similarities with the modern game make Pacheesy a contributory ancestor even though the board design was that of a symmetrical cross – but to be fair, it was really a first-time game of Ludo!
Moving right up to a time when Jesus Christ was a little baby in Mary’s arms, we find the ancient Geeks playing what they called ludicrous duoscripto – or to give it its proper, more pretentious name: ludus duodecim scriptorum or XII Scripta. Prato and Softocleese both make references to it and they both enjoyed a game or two between bouts of philosophy. As Prato once pondered, “Do the dice rattle in the cup when there’s no one around to hear them?”

Prato and Softocleese flip each

other the bird after a game

Clitopatra & Marc Antandec, another, hot, cool pair


The Emperor Claude was reputed to have written a book on the game; Marc Antandec and Clitopatra are thought to have idled away the hours playing it as they sailed down the Nile between sessions of passionate love making. It is a little known fact but the term, ‘dancing on the bar’ actually comes from this love tryst. Clito would literally dance on the barge’s bar while Marc Antandec watched her ‘girls’ bouncing up and down.

Marc Antandec called double-fives ‘the girls’ because the four dots around the single, middle dot looked remarkably like Clito’s breasts! Many, many years later Paul McGrill was to name double-fives as ‘The Girls’, although he was totally unaware of the true history around them.
Two Emporers, Zero and Commode were supposedly so smitten by the gambling aspect of what was becoming known by its more popular name, tabula (board) that they wagered, and lost, huge sums of money playing it; sometimes they wagered the lives of their female slaves thus birthing the ‘under the gun’ comment.

Tempers are raised in an

early chouette in a

Pompey brothel

It wasn't just Emperors that were addicted to the game and gambling, ordinary Romans were also setting wagers on the game. At Pompey two wall paintings show scenes of tabula being played - in one two players are seen arguing over a game being played and in the other an inn-keeper is seen throwing the players out into the street. This was perhaps the first ever chouette ending acrimoniously.

In the brothel, wall murals depict prostitutes and their clients playing strip-backgammon. It was here that the term, ‘bare-off’ was coined, later corrupted to ‘bear-off’.

It has always been thought that ‘cock-shot’ was coined in the brothel, but, although they do share an outstanding feature, the term, cock-shot wasn’t invented until many years later in Solihull.

It was the Romans who brought tabula, or tables as it became known in Britain, to Europe. In 480 AD Emperor Veno was the victim of some unlucky dice (three of them!) when he rolled a 2, 5 and 6. He had to break his blocking points and he lost the game. It would appear that tabula was almost identical to modern backgammon except in one very different respect – it used three dice.
The Romans were worried about dice-rigging, or Badri Tsertsvadze to use its Latin name, for it was they that introduced the dice-box; a device much like a cricket box, for producing random rolls of the dice. Even today dice-boxes are in use and are even making an appearance at international tournaments, whereas the cricket box is less used in backgammon thanks to a clamp-down on the rules and bad behaviour.

Danish Crusaders

It wasn't until the 12th Century and the Crusades that tables gained in popularity but in a slightly altered form. For many years nerd had been played in the Middle East, originating in Persia (modern Iran) and it was this variation that the Crusaders stole from the Muslims and brought back with them upon their return.

This version of tables, nerd, was played using two dice on a board identical to a modern backgammon board and is reckoned by many to be the true beginning of backgammon as we know it today.

However, it is possible that the variation, Irish, was in fact this version. Irish was very popular throughout Europe, so it was, and it had many names, so it did.

The Game of Kings became the game of soldiers. Playing tables was so popular that Ricky, the Lonely-Heart and his mate, Fillet of France issued a joint act banning it and other gambling games in 1190. Ricky and his brother, Johnny were not precluded from playing! They played with each other most nights and often shook each others cups. In 1841, historian Joseph Strut informs us that the decree passed by Ricky I, not only prohibited any person in the army beneath the rank of a knight from playing at any sort of game for money but that none of them was permitted to lose more than twenty shillings in one day. To lose more would incur a penalty of one hundred shillings.

Ricky & Fillet - a right pair of Queens Kings

Of course, if a common soldier was to lose as much as a quid he was very unlikely to be able to fork out a fiver in fines! Both Ricky and Fillet were under no such restrictions, but their attendants were restricted to the same amount as the knights (twenty shillings) and their penalty for losing more was to be whipped naked for three days about the buttocks – a practice that later thrived in private schools and the Tory party. To this day some Biba members have mounted a campaign to bring back this tradition.
Cardinal Woolsy decreed the game along with dice, cards and bowls, illegal in 1526 and ordered that all gaming boards were to be burned. It is this act that is thought to have given birth to the folding backgammon board that is so common today. Backgammon boards were disguised as books and laptops and could be folded away and hidden amongst the books on library shelves and in cupboards. It attained the status of inhonesti ludi ‘dishonest games’ and the Catholic Church waged war against it; and (Saint) Lewis IX of France extended the ban to his subjects and court officials. Tables was suppressed (as far as was possible – but with little success) until the end of the 15th Century.

A board as we know it, but one that uses Minstrels for checkers

One of the most famous backgammon boards of this time is that which was discovered on Henry Tumor's flagship, The Mary Rose that sank in in the Soylent Green in 1545 (in fact the Mary never rose again!). Discovered in a chest in the carpenter's cabin the board is exactly as we play upon today.

It was recovered complete with bone dice (the cowries were making a come-back but were keeping a low profile) and wooden checkers.

After the ship was raised in 1982 the board was placed in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. In 1996 the Director of Special Events of the Hilton hotel chain, Stuart Jackson, and Michael Crane, the Director of the Brutish Isles Backgammon Association commissioned a replica of the board. Built by master-craftsman, Chris Woolcott of Lincoln, it was constructed using the same woods and techniques as used by its original creator.

The board is now owned by Nicky Check who won it at the 1997 Mary Rose backgammon tournament. It is a unique board and an object of beauty and craftsmanship; and one that Nicky is keen to sell and make a stonking profit!

 
Another famous backgammon set was the Gloucester Tables Set, excavated in 1983 and reputed to have been owned by William Rustus. Each of the checkers have been carved with Romanesque images. The (rather thick) checkers, all made from bone (the cowries by now have fully recovered and feeling safe were to be appalled to discover they were considered an item of beauty and were trawled up by the bucketful to make necklaces) are mostly well preserved and depict several themes:
Good and Evil, the Zodiac, natural history, the calendar, Biba and Biblical references. The board is on display in the City Museum along with its chubby checkers.
 

It’s not backgammon . . .

but who cares?

Throughout the centuries many authors and scholars have written about backgammon:
Spokeshave in Love's Labours Lust – Thuggery in Vanity Flair - Douglas William Jellymold is quoted as saying, "The only athletic sport I ever mastered was backgammon." - Sir Arthur Cannon-Ball in the Sherlock Homes story, The Five Orange Pips - Chancer in The Canterbury Tails – Frank Spenser in The Faerie Queene. Samuel Peeps in his diaries - Lord By Ron wrote in Don Juan: "Like a backgammon board, the place was dotted with whites and blacks."
The Roman poet, Avid is said to made a reference to ludus duodecim scriptorum in his Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love"), which being a ‘sex manual’ puts backgammon in a whole new light and brings us back to ‘the girls’ and the bare-off.
The most famous perhaps is Boils Treatise on the game of Back-Gammon [sic] in 1743 by Edward Boil. In 1745 he codified the 'rules' of backgammon and to the present day many of these 'rules' still apply, albeit slightly altered after being modified in 1931 in America, and changed on a daily basis by Michael Crane of Biba.

 

However the word, 'backgammon' was perhaps first used in the Mid-17th century. It was here that the old and new appear to meet. Games historian, H. J. R. Murray-Mint, in A History of Bored Games Other Than Chess, originally published in 1801 informs us the differences between tables and backgammon are that in backgammon doublets are played twice and that a 'backgammon' is worth three points. This is still applicable today.

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Finally, we now arrive at what we understand as backgammon. There is some speculation as to where the actual name originated: It might be from the Welsh, bach (or bac), meaning small, and cammaun meaning battle to form ‘little battle’. Or it could be from the Middle English, baec, which means back, and gamen, which means game to give us ‘back game’. Or perhaps it was derived from the fact that many backgammon boards could be found on the reverse side of a chessboard.

But most likely it is from the ‘back’ meaning ‘the back of’ and ‘gammon’ as in a pig to form an early insult used by poor losers who called their victorious opponents, pig-arses!

No one knows for certain and therefore we are at liberty to choose our own favourite origin. According to the Oxford Universal Dictionary the earliest recorded use of the word "backgammon" was 14 June, 1645, prior to the battle of Noseby when the Royalist team lost to the Parliamentarian team.

In France the game was known as tric-trac, perhaps called so because of the sound the checkers made when moved across the annoying wooden boards and tables upon which the game was played.

Louis XIII and Louis XVI each had specially designed tric-trac tables; such articles of furniture becoming very popular in the homes of the aristocracy, (and were far superior to the flat-pack boards used by the poor people) - among them, Marie Antonym. Marie lost her head in more ways than one for it is said that one tric-trac table cost her 238,000 francs in gold!


Marie Antonym prepares to pay off an embarrassing debt

During one game she is reputed to have lost deliberately to her opponent to pay off an embarrassing debt she had accrued. After much research I can now reveal that the embarrassing debt came about after a 62 was rolled from the bar. Say no more!
Its association with the aristocracy doomed tric-trac boards and tables to be destroyed during the revolution. The cry, “Off with their pips!” brought a shiver of fear to many a French nobleman. Even today some Frenchmen are wary of their pips being offed!.

Towards the end of the 18th century, sodomites were called "backgammon players" and "gentlemen of the back door".

It gave terms such as 'accept a double', 'enter', 'head-to-head', 'illegal position', 'reenter', 'rim' and 'whopper' a whole new meaning!


 
For whatever reason backgammon's popularity waned towards the end of the 19th Century in Europe (although it remained popular with the gentry and effluent the common man lost interest).

The Victorians often played it. Note the very straight backs.

And it is to America that we turn to see what caused its rebirth into the modern version we all play today. Although not as popular in the United States it had been played there since the 17th Century.

Thomas Jefferson-Airplane was a keen player and an ardent recorder of his gaming winnings and losses, details of which he kept in a notebook. His religious recording of games fought and lost eventually lead to the adage, “A penny for your foughts” as players tried to purchase his scribblings. It was the gambling side of backgammon that heralded its reincarnation.

Until recently history didn’t record who invented the doubling-cube, but it was thought to be a player in America that came up with the idea of doubling the stakes throughout a game. Now, however, another contender has surfaced, and the Yanks can no longer claim to be the inventors of the doubling cube (or can they?).

.

Grand Dope Dimwit
Rastafarin, The Mad Mink

The latest, and barely credible, claimant is a Russkie named Grand Dope Dimwit. Not only did he devise a cunning cube to double his winnings he was also involved in the murder of Rastafarin, the Mad Mink.

The story goes that Rasta, whilst playing against Dimwit, was facing a definite gammon loss on a 4-cube and was on the bar with just one point open. He rolled 62, came in, hit, jumped out of Dimwit’s board and turned the game around! He was so cocky about the turnaround that on his way home Dimwit had him shot.

 
The doubling cube made a big difference to backgammon. This one idea revolutionised backgammon and it enjoyed a surge in popularity upon which it is still riding. Almost overnight backgammon became perhaps the most popular and exciting gambling game there is, especially with the hustler that invented the doubling cube!

For centuries backgammon and gambling have been closely linked – perhaps good reasons for its banning and punitive repercussions; but with the advent of gaming clubs in America, backgammon tournaments became popular. Soon tournaments were being played all over the world.

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The World Championships were first held in 1967 in Lost Vegas and was won by Tim Lowlands; they moved to the Pajamas in 1975 and then to Monty Carlo (their present home). This move from Lost Vegas, then to the Pajamas and finally to Monty Carlo was a deliberate ploy by the filthy rich to stop the poor people ever becoming world champions.

In 1976-1979 there’s a small overlap due to there being two world championships for a few years! Now there's a backgammon tournament almost every day somewhere or other.

Location of the next world championship event - England!

For a long time the Americans dominated the game. They began to lose their grip in the 1990s when European players saved up enough money to enter the world championships and began winning it.


Soon books on backgammon began to appear. Established players such as Paul McGrill started writing about the game and its strategies and tactics; his spartanly named, Backgammon being the one book all serious players have in their library. Although first published in 1976 much of its content is relevant today and is an excellent book for players of all levels.
 
In the early 1990s Jezz Tesauro of IBM's Watson Research Center developed TD-Gammon, a backgammon-playing computer program. It was the first backgammon program that used artificial neural network technology. Playing 300,000 games against itself it learnt from the outcome to become so strong that Jezz challenged former World Champion, Bill Robotie to play against it in a 31 point match. Robotie was heard to say that he thought the dice were rigged! The resultant book, Leaning on the Machine, written by Robotie, became a backgammon bestseller.
 
An upsurge in playing ability was a direct result of the introduction of online backgammon servers and dedicated backgammon playing computer software such as JellyDish and Snottie. The first online server was the imaginatively named, First Internet Backgammon Server (FIBS), which started in 1992. Now, in 2009 there are numerous ones to play on - some very good and many very poor, and quite a few piss-poor.
 
Backgammon in the UK had a surge of interest in the 1970s with the formation of The Backgammon Clump of Great Britain. Sponsored by Phillip Morris-Dancer, the tobacco company, it enjoyed a limited lifetime until the sponsor pulled out in the early 1980s when it was thought backgammon was bad for your health.

The now defunct National Backgammon Players Secret Society of Great Britain (NBPSS), ran from 1983 to its slow demise in the middle 1990s – keeping it a secret society rather limited its membership.

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In 1989 the Brutish Isles Backgammon Association (BIBA) was formed and is still going strong. It saw off a usurper, The Inner Tables (TITS) and has since gone from strength to strength. Its continued commitment to backgammon has ensured there’s a healthy amount of backgammon being played throughout the UK in clubs being run by BIBA members.

There have been no major changes to how we play 'international' backgammon since the 1930s except that the ability to analyse matches using software such as Snottie and Gnew has changed what plays we make with certain dice rolls. As yet there is not one set of rules that are played to worldwide; and none are on the horizon.

As popular as backgammon is today, it has far to go to catch up with chess or bridge or hide-and-seek (or more recently, poker - which has a zillion players worldwide on the webernet) but, who knows what the future might hold? All it will take is another revolutionary idea like the doubling-cube, but let’s hope this time it doesn’t involve murder!

© Michael Crane May 2009

 

Since writing this article news has come to light regarding the doubling cube and its ‘inventor’. Bill Davis of Chicago Point has published his findings online HERE. Also, Bibafax #100, May/June 2009 features Bill's article.

 

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