The Ancient History of Backgammon

Maddy Marcus / June 22, 2020

Backgammon is one of the most popular board games of all time. But did you know it's also one of the oldest games of all time? The oldest known backgammon board dates back as far as 3,000 BC, rivaling games like Chess and Go!

The history of backgammon is rich and fascinating. Whether you're a regular player or not, you're going to want to know the story of backgammon. Keep reading for a lesson on the history of backgammon.

Who Invented Backgammon?

Considering how old backgammon is, it's hard to pin down exactly who invented it.

The story goes that the Indian king sent his minister to Persia with a letter and a chess board. The minister gave the game of chess to the king at the time, Khosrow, with a challenge: Decipher the game's rationale and how to play.

King Khosrow had three days to figure out the game, but could not, no matter how much he tried. After three days, his minister finally cracked the game. 

In return, Wuzurgmihr create the game of backgammon and had it brought to the king of India. Just as King Khosrow couldn't figure out Chess, the king of India could not figure out backgammon.

According to the Shahnameh, an epic Persian poem, Burzoe, a Persian physicist, invented backgammon in the form of a game called Nard. Nard plays using the same board as backgammon, only with somewhat different rules. While the Shahnameh dates back to the 11th century, it claims Nard was invented in the 6th century.

Some believe Nard has been played since 300 AD, as evidenced by its mention in the Babylonian Talmud. However, it's possible that another game is being spoken of.

Nard is still a popular form of backgammon in Persia.

Where Was Backgammon Created?

From what we know, backgammon is most likely an Indian invention.

The Indian book Vairagyasataka, dating back to the late 6th to early 7th century, makes mention of backgammon and its dice. This is the earliest known mention of backgammon in history. It would make sense, as dice games and gambling was one of ancient India's favorite pastimes.

There is, however, some room for debate here. The rules of backgammon appear for the first time in the Persian book Wızarisnı Catrang ud Nihisnı New Ardaxsır, which translates to Explanation of Chess and Invention of Backgammon. This work also dates back to the 6th century -- somewhere between the years 530 and 571.

From what we can gather, backgammon's origins go back to Mesopotamia, known today as Iraq. This would make sense, as the world's oldest dice were discovered in the same area. What's more, backgammon is still a very popular game in Iraq, and a staple of many Iraqi coffeehouses.

It's worth noting that the word "backgammon" wasn't always used to describe the game. This likely started in the 1600s, possibly from the Welsh words "baec" and "cammaun". Together, these two words roughly translate to "back" and "battle".

The Royal Game of Ur

It's very possible that backgammon evolved from The Royal Game of Ur, a Mesopotamian game dating all the way back to 2,600 BC. 

The Royal Game of Ur was a big deal around 2,600 BC. The game was thought to bring forward messages from supernatural entities and Gods, and depict the players' future.

Like backgammon, The Royal Game of Ur was played like a race. The object is to get your pieces around and off the board before the opponents. 

The Royal Game of Ur was undeniably popular. In fact, four Royal Game of Ur boards were found in King Tut's tomb! An Ur board was also found etched into the wall of the palace of Sargon II.

Eventually, interest in the game died and gave way to backgammon. Some say Ur evolved into backgammon, and others say backgammon simply surpassed it in popularity. 

The Backgammon of Yesterday

In 2004, the oldest known backgammon board (5,200 years old) was found in Sistan-Baluchistan province, Iran. The board was made of pure ivory, and the pieces were made of turquoise and agate. These were commonly used materials for backgammon and other board game boards in those days.

Ancient dice made of human bone have also been uncovered from around the same era!

In 1962, the second oldest backgammon board (5,000 years old) was found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Mesopotamia. This is notable as the area that The Royal Game of Ur was played, as previously detailed. Mesopotamia also happens to be where the first known math system, the wheel, and the first written language were invented.

Backgammon Spreads

Backgammon spread across the world like wildfire.

Ancient backgammon boards and pieces have been found in China, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India to name a few places. It was known as "The King of Games" in many areas, and "The Game of Kings" in many others, where it was mostly enjoyed by royalty.

Backgammon reached Europe, France, England, and Italy later in its life. In 1745, writer Edmond Hoyle wrote a book on backgammon detailing the rules, and some popular strategies that are still used today. Then, in the 1920s, the doubling cube was invented.

The Doubling Cube

The doubling cube is seen as one of the most important modern changes to the game of backgammon.

A doubling cube is shaped like any other six-sided dice, except with a different set of numbers. The doubling cube displays the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64. It offers a way for players to bet while playing backgammon.

The cube sits in-between each player. If one player feels they have the advantage, they can double their stakes using the cube.

It's not known who introduced the doubling cube, just that it started to make the rounds in New York City in the 20s. Now, the doubling cube is a common piece in modern backgammon in the west. However, in places like Armenia and Greece, the doubling cube is often not used.

Backgammon Today

Today, backgammon is basically the same as it always has been. It remains a popular pastime, with home versions available from most major board game companies.

The 1960s saw a big surge in popularity for backgammon, partially thanks to Russian Prince Alexis Obolensky. He's known as "The Father of Modern Backgammon" for a time, co-founded the International Backgammon Association, and wrote his own rule book. He also hosted a series of tournaments for the game in Manhattan in the 1960s, attracting many celebrities and royals.

These tournaments increased the popularity of backgammon a lot. For a while, everyone in the Western world wanted to play backgammon! Of course, its popularity never faltered in the Middle East, where it's always remained one of the most popular board games.

In the late 60s, Hugh Hefner started holding backgammon parties at the Playboy Mansion. Hefner spent some of his last days on earth playing the game with his family. The World Championship in Las Vegas popped up in 1967.

In 2009, the United States Backgammon Federation was created to spread the popularity of backgammon further. The federation is made up of the top players and tournament directors of all time. Backgammon tournaments continue to attract attention to this day.

Backgammon has also made its way to most casinos. While the rules of casino backgammon may be slightly different, its presence in casinos shows just how popular the game is. You can even play backgammon on online casinos!

Backgammon Bots

Just like with Chess and other board games, computer technicians have invented "backgammon bots" that can play the game just as well or better than most humans.

These bots are capable of going up against the top players and frequently winning. Modern backgammon players often play against these bots to hone their own skills. The bots are capable of pointing out mistakes the human player may make, allowing them to correct themselves in future games.

The Million-Dollar Backgammon Match

In 2007, PartyGammon.com hosted a $1-million backgammon tournament, the first of its kind.

This massive, 128-person backgammon tournament saw huge popularity and a small revival of the game. It was hosted in The Bahamas, and given wide television coverage. The tournament attracted the world's best backgammon players, and won by Andreas Martens.

Digital Backgammon

Now, you can play backgammon just about anytime you want, anywhere.

There are hundreds of different versions of backgammon on Flash game websites, and hundreds more on the Apple and Android app stores. There's even a version you can play exclusively through iMessage with other iPhone users!

You can play a great version of digital backgammon on Cool Math Games. Click here to check it out!

The History of Backgammon Continues

Backgammon is one of the oldest dice games of all time and doesn't look to be going anywhere any time soon. The simplicity and fun of the game is unmatched, and we're sure to uncover more about the history of Backgammon and its popularity as time goes on. Until then, get that Backgammon board out and get playing.

If you want to play Backgammon, or other popular classic games online, check out the classic games section on Cool Math Games. We've got all the best games for all ages