The Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia played the earliest version, King Tut had a board in his tomb and the Romans played a strip version (according to an illustration on the back of a mirror). It piggy-backed on trade routes and appeared in Japan, India, China and even Mexico, and when it arrived here, the English took it up with gusto.
Originally known as “tables”, the game of backgammon reflected status and rank, the pastime of a literate and powerful elite. James I of Scotland spent a relaxing last night playing it before his murder in 1437, and Richard the Lionheart forbade all under the rank of knight to play for money. In Backgammon: Its History And Practice (1844), George Frederick Pardon associates the history of the game with a rural squirearchy: “It was a wet-weather resource – a non-scenting-day employment. Foxes wondered at their unnatural repose, and hares were respited.” There was a craze for the game during the late 19th century, but a loosening of the heavy morality surrounding playing cards cast backgammon aside as a popular game. Of course, the shires continued to play, they still do when February closes in and sport is frozen off, but it would take a new invention to revive the game – the doubling cube.
A basic backgammon board is divided into two parts, with 24 triangular points and 30 men, 15 black and 15 white. The object is to move your men (black or white) from their starting positions to your home board by throwing two dice. When all men are in your home board you must then remove them or bear them off. The first player to remove his men from the board is the winner.
A Hit is when you bear off all men before your opponent, for one point; a Gammon when you bear off all men before your opponent and he bears off none, for two points; and a Backgammon results when your opponent still has his men in your home board or on the Bar when your last man leaves the table, for three points.
The absolute minimum of moves to get round the board is 167. There are 36 ways that the two dice can roll and 296 possible throws. An average of eight for each throw means that you need to throw at least 20 times with no setbacks to get home.
The game is simple to learn. Tim Edwards, who made the final of the Turf Club backgammon tournament two years ago, reveals, “I honed my skills during a ski season in Val D’Isère, home to the Banana Bar, with its basement full of backgammon boards, where I made the transition from unsuspecting to marginally more adept player, but I never stop learning.”
Anthony Wilson, now chairman of the Hurlingham Club’s backgammon section, says, “I was fortunate to take a few lessons from world champion Tim Holland when I lived in York in the mid-Seventies.” Enthusiast and tournament organiser Mike Main stumbled across the game while travelling around the world. “I arrived at Mount Athos in Greece to contemplate becoming a monk. After three days spent watching the old men in the village play the game, I was hooked, even though I had no idea of their language,” he says.
Yet anyone who has played more than very casually will know that learning is merely the beginning of a complicated and skilful game, and luck certainly cannot be discounted. A grasp of probability (the heart sinks when schoolroom maths is called to the fore) is es-sential for anyone playing seriously. Hoyle on Backgammon, written in 1748, is one of the classic treatises, but his 18th-century numbers are heavy going. For the holiday player wishing to get on, it is worth noting the following.
There are standard opening moves, widely recognised as correct. Potential rolls at the opening of the game number 36, and every book on the subject advises committing them to memory. Does one run with a 6/4 or make the deuce point? After that, probability is all- important. If you understand it you will win; if not, you need the dice on your side. For committed players it is time to learn the chances of throwing a 12 (three in 36) or a five (15 in 36).
The Twenties invention of “doubling” (allowing the stake to be doubled during the game) changed the game entirely, increasing its appeal among the bright young things and readers of Vogue and Vanity Fair . The knack of doubling at the right time, or refusing and forfeiting, added an edge to both tournament and money play. The introduction of chouette, where one player matched himself against a team, also helped the revival.
There was another serious outbreak of gammonmania in the Seventies, regarded by many as the game’s heyday, following the advent of competition backgammon and the World Championships, launched by Prince Alexis Obolensky in 1964. These are still held annually in Monte Carlo. It was the pastime of choice of the fast set, played by racing drivers, playboys and movie stars. Hugh Hefner played the game avidly at the Playboy mansion and wrote the foreword of the Playboy’s Book of Backgammon. “You can blow your brains on it when playing with the doubling dice,” ex-claims one who played in the Seventies.
Backgammon flourished in traditional club environs, too. efore its closure in 1978 the St James’s Club “was the place to go for backgam-mon”, Johnny Seth-Smith be-lieves. He was taught the game by his father, who was a member. He recalls, “When I was in my late teens I played against one of the best backgammon players of the time in the St James’s Club, Sir Dudley Cunliffe-Owen.
By fluke, I won £100, which was a massive amount in those days. My father wisely reminded me that money was only on loan from a player that good. Sound advice, which I didn’t take. Luck has a pivotal role but in the long run the more skilful player will come out on top.” London’s gentlemen’s clubs – White’s and the Turf, in particular – are still a safe haven for backgammon.
In 2004 the London Backgammon League was founded by the late Edward Baliszewski of the RAC and it now includes the Hurlingham, MCC, Chelsea Arts Club, Home House, Cumberland Club and Roehampton Club, among others, in its friendly inter-club matches. Members are given much encouragement and advice is often on hand for novices. “It is a very social game,” says Anthony Wilson.”We play from October to April and don’t take it too seriously. Five-point matches are the norm; they give both strong and weaker players a chance. Longer matches tend to favour the better player.”
Mike Main set up Backgammon in London, organising evenings in Camden and Fulham, and tournaments, including one in Meribel. “Our London evenings have three tiers – social, playing for pin money and then more serious players,” he says. “The best advice for a novice player is to play against better and different people. If you play with the same group all the time you will learn their mistakes and weaknesses.” Mike is happy to encourage players to come along to one of his evenings, and is also looking for a country venue “where about a hundred players can get together to play over a weekend in spring”. For players outside the capital there are many local clubs with welcoming players. The British Isles Backgammon Association, set up by Michael Crane in 1990, is a good place to start, and the internet is awash with advice.
Alexandra Llewellyn designs exquisite and glamorous backgammon boards and was enthralled by “the most extraordinary game in the world”, when wandering the streets of Cairo with her Egyptian step-grandfather. “I love the idea of games becoming heirlooms. All my boards are wooden because of the noise the play makes on them,” she says. Her collection includes antler, pheasant-feather and nude designs. “The nudes were specifically to distract the boys I play with and give me the upper hand,” she laughs. She is hoping to start a backgammon evening, played on her boards at Julie’s in Notting Hill this year.
Max Parker of Geoffrey Parker Games supplies some of the finest names in the world with the company’s leather boards. “We have made boards for the World Championships, travel sizes for the Orient Express and even a blind board for the singer Stevie Wonder,” he says. “Some of our bespoke boards are in exotic leather, alligator or shagreen, but we do have an ‘off the bench’ collection, too. The Goldfinger 007 board is particularly popular. We can custom-make boards in more than 2,000 colour combinations and the leather is specifically tanned to resist spills and cigar smoke, and a slip agent is used to assist fast play. A championship game takes about nine minutes, so a vibrant, properly made board makes all the difference.” The company is to launch a “design your own board” feature on its website soon.
Backgammon is a universal language. A game for squires and sheikhs, travellers, after-dinner enthusiasts and professional gamers, its combination of luck and skill has tantalised players for more than 5,000 years. Anyone fancy a game?
Alexandra Llewellyn Designs
Readymade boards £1,800, bespoke from £4,000.
For details, call 07714 321860
William & Son
Light-blue leather with yellow and white points and inlaid aluminium counters
(other colours to order), £2,250.
For more information, call 020 7493 8385
Oak backgammon set, 15in, £50.
Call 01732 500200
Red and white calf, £3,275.
For details, call 020 7493 6767
Geoffrey Parker Games
Championship boards made to order from £2,000.
Goldfinger 007 board (right) £995.
For more information, call 01799 599100