The Art of Backgammon

Jul 02, 2014

For centuries, in the countries surrounding the eastern Mediterranean, men have sat in cafés kibitzing as they play backgammon. At tables invariably scattered with small cups of muddy coffee, they linger for hours, their heads bent over playing boards with harlequin fields of elongated triangles, constantly throwing dice and moving checkers. You can’t miss the sharp crack as the players slap down the playing disks after each roll of the dice. Their objective is to remove all their own checkers from the board before their opponent can do the same with his, and they are continuously mulling over ways to keep the other guy from winning. To these men, the excitement of strategizing is inseparable from the pleasure of socializing with friends. That’s the essence of backgammon in this part of the world, where Syria, Iran, and Iraq, the countries roughly corresponding to ancient Mesopotamia, spawned the precursors of backgammon more than 5,000 years ago—making this one of the oldest two-player board games in the world.

The game spread throughout the ancient Near East and Persia, where it was commonly known as nard. With the expansion of the Moorish empire beginning in the seventh century, backgammon spread to most of the known world, reaching as far west as Spain in the eighth century. Subsequently, soldiers returning from the Crusades introduced the game to Britain, where it had become so popular by the 18th century that its rules were formalized by games authority Edmond Hoyle. Crucial developments occurred in the 1920s, when gaming clubs on New York City’s Lower East Side launched backgammon in the United States and a backgammon high roller introduced the doubling cube, which helped speed up play, elevate strategy, and make gambling central to the game’s addictive appeal—though less so in the Muslim world, since the Koran forbids gambling. The stakes can be very high. There are breathtaking tournaments (the most prestigious, the annual World Backgammon Championship in Monte Carlo), million-dollar tours, and online multiplayer games with participants from around the globe playing for money in real time. Recently, however, the old satisfactions derived from strategizing and socializing have been returning to the game. “There’s no question that backgammon in the U.S. and in Europe, Japan, and Australia is moving in the direction of a mind game with elements of critical thinking and measured risk taking,” says Perry Gartner, president of the U.S. Backgammon Federation.

There’s also great interest in fine backgammon sets, some of which deserve to be called works of art and can cost several thousand dollars. Ranging from
handsome examples in leather or wood to exquisite Chinese lacquered sets and fanciful Egyptian and Syrian boards inlaid with mother-of-pearl, like the players who use them, backgammon sets represent the global reach of this exhilarating game.


Exclusively at “Tips for Playing Backgammon”
Backgammon, by Paul Magriel. Published in 1976, considered the bible of backgammon.
Backgammon Boot Camp, by Walter Trice. Based on a series of online articles for beginners.
Modern Backgammon, by Bill Robertie. For intermediate to advanced players.

Written by Carol Reed. Photography by Lucas Blalock.

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