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A Glittering Ascent

Persia, India or Rome – it’s not completely clear where backgammon actually originated. A board game dating as far back as the 3rd. century B.C. could well be one of the earliest backgammon games. Or equally, it might be a distant relative, or a very similar game. Opinions are very divided on the subject. The truth is shrouded in mystery.

However, it’s true to say that a board game from ancient Persia was, at the very least, similar to the backgammon of today. From there, it began its likely journey to India and Egypt. Archaeologists also discovered a board game similar to the backgammon of today in the lost Mesopotamian city of Ur. The Romans also knew a game reminiscent of an old form of backgammon: the Ludus duodecim scriptorum or twelve line game. But this game contains one major difference. You had to get past a total of 36 rows, so there was one extra row of 12. And even Palamedes in ancient Greece is said to have invented a board game similar to backgammon to entertain the bored soldiers camped at Troy. So there is no definitive answer to the question of the origin of the first backgammon game, but there can be no dispute over the popularity of this game since the Middle Ages. Countless versions of the game under a variety of names developed from Greece and Turkey as far away as Iceland. Backgammon players were immortalised in paintings, tapestries and in the books of the monks.

Europe succumbed to the game and betting on the game – to the extent that the French King Louis IX banned his subjects from playing it in 1254, and the legendary King Richard the Lionheart passed a law which stated only those of the rank of knight or above could play it. The game enjoyed enormous popularity in England, where it was known as “Tables”. The name “Backgammon” in common use today dates back to the nobleman Edmond Hoyle in 1743. The name is made up of the word “back” and the Middle-English word “gamen” (game). He also compiled the first set of rules of game. These are astonishingly close to the rules of today.