Backgammon or Tavla: History, rules and curiosities of Tutankamon’s favourite game

Backgammon or Tavla: History, rules and curiosities of Tutankamon’s favourite game

Backgammon, known in some regions such as Turkey as “Tavla” is one of the most popular board games in Turkey. It is usually played with guests and friends in houses or cafes withTurkish tea or Turkish coffee. It was already the favourite game for Greeks, Romans and Egyptians as early as 1,500 BC. A golden backgammon set was found in Tutankammon’s grave as one of his treasures. 

History of Tavla or Backgammon

Backgammon is one of the oldest games in history, and since its creation it’s popularity hasn’t faded away. It is said to have originated in Anatolia or Mesopotamia. Archeological research assures that the board game is older than 5,000 years. Evidence of backgammon, tavla boards or “Takhte”, as Persians call it, was found through an expedition in the archeological site Shahr-e Sūkhté in Persia, current Iran.

Looking into ancient art there are many paintings throughout history that represent people, nobility, peasants and urban population playing backgammon. For many years it was the favourite game to play for royal members and intellectuals.  The dutch Baroque 16th century painter Van Hemessen painted “Portrait of a Man and Wife Playing Backgammon”

The game board is traditionally made with bakelite, and even though nowadays you can play tavla boards of plastic, wood, metal and even online, the best players still prefer bakelite boards. 

Catholic Church banning of Backgammon

During the 16th century the Catholic Church banned backgammon. Many board games were burned and selling, as well as playing was prohibited. In order to fight against the law some people started making tavla board games that looked like books and played in secrecy

Backgammon rules

When you start playing Backgammon don’t be fooled by the look of the board! 

It may seem like a simple game, but it has actually quite a few rules and lots of movements that require strategic thinking. Traditionally it is a strategy and bet game, but not everyone plays with money, so it can be played either way. 

The aim of the game and of each player is to get all their stones into their Home board. By looking at the board you’ll see that it has three sections: two Home boards with different colours; one for each player, and the “Bar”: the middle space. The two Home boards have a total of 24 triangles, which are called “Points”.

Each player has 15 pieces or “stones” and one numbered dice with multiples of four: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. These numbers determine how many points you can move. In each player’s turn the dice is thrown and the number that comes out is the number of movements the player can move. But beware! You can only move into one direction and into unoccupied spaces. If you dice a double 6 you are lucky: you can move 6 places four times (24 points) in any way and with any stone you chose. 

“Gammons’‘: Gammons is the name given to the loser of the game that loses double or triple as many points. If you didn’t dice one stone you’ll lose double points. And even worse: You can lose three times as much when one of your stones is your opponent’s Home board.

These are only some of the basic rules. As you can see, the game is not as simple as it seems, but it is very fun and dynamic

Some optional rules are: 

  • Beavers: It is only applied to money bet games. Beavers gives you the possibility of withdrawing the double points you got from the dice.
  • Jacoby rule: Gammons and Backgamons are only counted if the cube (or bet) has been accepted. 
  • Automatic double: If the two players dice the same number at the start of the game all points are doubled during the whole game. 

International tournaments and world best Backgammon players 

Even though Backgammon or tavla has been played for more than 5000 years, the first international competition was very recent. It was only in 1964 when the Russian-US Prince Alexis Obolensky founded the International Backgammon competition. His success and work made him be crowned and remembered as “The father of modern Backgammon”

Some of the most prominent Backgammon world giants are: Masayuki Mochzuki (known as “Mochy“) and Michihito Kageyama (“Michi“) from Japan, and Victor Ashkenazi from Russia. 

Why you should play Backgammon and other strategy games

Multiple scientific researches have shown that playing strategy and memory games improve mental and cognitive skills. Playing backgammon and other board games keep your brain intellectually active and reduce the risk of memory failure, dementia, alzheimer and other memory-related diseases

Playing board games is also a good technique for socialization. In PRODER we have successfully been able to interact with people and share some laughs through playing games with people that don’t share a common language. 

We therefore encourage all people, regardless of their age, culture, gender and other factors to play board games during their free time in their own countries and abroad. Playing tavla or backgammon is a fun experience and you’ll work on your strategic skills that you may use for other parts of your life. 

Irene Adolph Crespo