Backgammon is a popular game in many parts of the world today, but it also happens to be one of the oldest games in recorded history. Like Go and Chess, it’s been around for thousands of years—about 5,000, according to historians. Before we dive into backgammon’s rich and storied history, let’s first take a look at how to play the game.
How to Play Backgammon
Backgammon is a two-player game that is played using a board, checkers, and dice. The board is set up with twenty-four long, narrow triangles next to each other—twelve on each side of the board, as shown below.
The board is separated into four quadrants. The bottom right quadrant is one player’s home board, and the top right quadrant is the other player’s home board. The objective is to move all your checkers from their starting positions distributed throughout the triangles to your home board, then to move them off the board.
Players do this by rolling two dice. The sum of the numbers on the dice indicates how many points the player may move his or her checkers. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll skip many of the nuances about where players are allowed to move their checkers and other technicalities of gameplay, but suffice it to say that the sum of the dice roll gives players the opportunity to move their checkers that number of slots forward towards their home board.
Once all of a player’s checkers have reached his or her home board, the sum of the dice roll then allows them to move the checkers off their home board into the side slots. The first player to do this with all of their pieces wins.
The History of Backgammon
Now that we’ve covered the very basics of how the game works, let’s take a look back at how the game has evolved throughout history. The earliest game of backgammon that historians have uncovered dates back to 5,200 years ago from the Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran. The board, which was uncovered by archaeologists in 2004m was made of ebony, agate, and turquoise.
The second-oldest version of the backgammon board, from about 5,000 years ago, was found in 1926 in what used to be ancient Mesopotamia (where Iraq is located today). Archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley first uncovered that board in Ur of the Chaldees, the home of Abraham in the Bible. This board was made of wood with decorations made of bone, shells, lapis lazuli, and limestone.
Along with other early backgammon boards, these discoveries reveal how prominent backgammon has been throughout history and how many cultures had variations on the game. Like many games, backgammon seems to have evolved in many cultures and areas of the world at once. Other cultures across Asia and Europe have evidence of backgammon in their histories, including China, India, Rome, and Greece.
Another possible origin story comes out of Egypt. Sets that appeared similar to backgammon materials were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb along with tomb paintings that depicted people throwing dice over the boards—similar to how backgammon is played today. These particular boards were decorated with lions, an ancient symbol for royalty and royal power. Despite this royal connection on King Tut’s boards, archaeologists believe that even common Egyptians played backgammon during this time period.
India also has a similar game to backgammon in its history—Pachisi, which has become today’s game of Parcheesi in the United States. Parcheesi is typically a four-person game with a similar objective to backgammon: “bear off” all your men from the board by moving them into your home base before you can remove them one by one.
Greek and Roman history contains mention of backgammon-style gaming as well. In Greek mythology, it’s said that Palamedes invented the Greek version of the game to cope with his boredom during the siege of Troy. In Pompeii, archaeologists have found backgammon tables in virtually every villa throughout the town—although the Roman version of the game seems to have been played with three dice instead of the two that we use today.
Ultimately, the exact origin of backgammon is unknown. Like most games, similarities can be drawn across dozens of cultures throughout history, and it’s impossible to tell whether one culture truly came up with the concept before any others. It’s also impossible to know whether multiple cultures had the same ideas around the same time, or whether one culture developed backgammon early and then the idea was shared with other cultures.
In any case, the world of backgammon is complex and ripe with historical facts and stories. In playing the game today, we’re connecting to a practice that is undoubtedly thousands of years old.
Some time later, backgammon spread to countries in Europe like England, Spain, and Italy. A backgammon-like game evolved in England around the time of the Crusades (1095-1492) that was called “tables.” This version of the game was especially popular among upper-class citizens in Europe during the entirety of the Middle Ages and beyond.
The word “backgammon” itself first appeared in print in 1645, likely from the Middle English etymology “baec” meaning back and “gamen” meaning game. Another option is the Welsh version: “bach” meaning small and “cammaun” meaning battle. H.J.R. Murray, author of A History of Board Games Other Than Chess, writes that today’s version of backgammon was likely invented in 17th century England. Hoyle, the famous card game aficionado, wrote the treatise on backgammon back in 1743.
Because of elements of gambling throughout the game play, there have been attempts throughout modern history to ban or limit the game—especially by government authorities and churches. However, the game has prevailed and remains popular across the world in the 21st century—although it has experienced periods of decline in popularity followed by periods of increased popularity.
Backgammon is a dice-based game, and early dice for backgammon and other dice-based games were made of human bones. The earliest known dice were made from animal bones and rolled by tribal priests. While dice have taken many forms throughout history, the six-sided variation that we use today eventually took over as the front runner for its ability to roll more easily than a pyramidal die. As we touched on above, most ancient backgammon boards were made using wood and adorned with more elaborate materials like stones and shells.
The earliest depiction of a modern backgammon board seems to be in 14th century Europe. Many elaborate, ornate boards from this time period still exist today. Today’s boards range from basic to incredibly designed and detailed, as you can see in some of the options we have here.
Although the Middle East sets the standard for backgammon’s prevalence, the game is active today in many other countries including the United States and countries across Europe and Asia. Online versions of backgammon are also popular across the world, and the Internet has made it easier for players to connect with others at their skill level and at a moment’s notice worldwide.
Today’s Backgammon Champions
Backgammon enthusiasts show off their skills every year at the World Championship of Backgammon, held each year in Monte Carlo. There are typically anywhere between 200 and 250 participants in the Championship round of the tournament.
The 2019 champion (there was no 2020 tournament due to COVID-19) is Eli Roymi from Israel, and the runner-up was Petko Kostadinov from the USA. This tournament started introducing a female champion alongside the male champion in 2008. 2019’s female champion was Antoinette Williams from the USA. The 45th World Championship will take place this year in 2021.
The first-ever live backgammon tournament to pay out a prize over $1 million was held at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas in 2007. The event was called the PartyGammon Million tournament, and the entry fee to participate was priced at $10,000, and the winner would single-handedly take home over $500,000. Many backgammon champions from across the globe attended, but Andreas Märtens from Germany ultimately took home the prize. The runner-up for this event was Lasse Hjorth Madsen from Denmark. Indeed, all of the finalists, semifinalists, and quarterfinalists for this particular tournament were either from Germany, Denmark, or the United States.
There are many other opportunities for today’s backgammon champions to participate in tournaments and compete for cash prizes, including the Worldwide Backgammon Federation Championship, the American Backgammon Tour, the Nordic Open, and many other smaller tournaments worldwide.