FBI Director J Edgar Hoover is wearing his lucky shoes…
We know that backgammon history stretches back many years. It was played in ancient Rome as it’s depicted on a painting in Pompeii and there is reference to the Emperor Nero playing the game for the equivalent of £10,000 per point (presumably everyone had to let him win).
King Tutankhamen even had some boards and dice buried with him, which proves that the Egyptians were playing backgammon over three thousand years ago, at a time when some Europeans were still chasing their lunch with a spear. In fact, the Egyptians invented a mechanical dice box that threw the dice onto the table automatically, thus ensuring you couldn’t cheat.
There are references to backgammon being played in Britain dating back more than 600 years; Chaucer mentioned backgammon in The Canterbury Tales and the poet Samuel Butler wrote about the game during the 17th century. In the USA, Thomas Jefferson found the time to record his backgammon losses in a journal he wrote in 1776, just three weeks before he drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Backgammon history took its biggest leap forward in 1926, when someone invented the concept of doubling (doubling the stakes of a game during the course of play). There has been much debate about where it originated but the most likely origin which has been confirmed in a Harper’s Bazaar article from 1931, is that doubling was first used in Paris in 1926 in a game between the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Aksel de Wichfeld of Denmark.
I like to think that Grand Duke Dmitri was involved because he has a colourful story, having been credited for taking part in the murder of the Russian monk, Rasputin, as well as assisting Coco Chanel in cooking up her No.5 perfume. Doubling created the rich and fascinating game that we play today; it changed backgammon fundamentally.
Since the introduction of doubling in the 1920s, backgammon history has been altered. Players have found that by combining the skill of moving the counters around the board (known as checker play) with the art — and it is an art — of using the doubling cube, a player can become seriously hard to beat. No player can become great without mastering both of these abilities.
The game gradually grew in stature through the 20th century. Winston Churchill recommended it to the Fourth Sea Lord as being better than card games for the Navy during the Second World War, saying, ‘I have no doubt it would amuse the sailors’.
Backgammon became even more glamorous and fashionable in the 1970s; it was almost as popular as Charlie’s Angels, Billie Jean King and flares. Perhaps this was because of the rise of global tournaments. Prince Alexis Obolensky held the first global tournament in backgammon history in the Bahamas in 1964. Later, the World Championships were held in Monaco, where they are still played today. (A Prince? The Bahamas? Monaco? It’s no wonder backgammon started to look glamorous!)
Many backgammon books were written in the 1970s by the top players of the time, and although a few examples of play have since been proven by computer technology to be inaccurate, some of these books have aged well and remain sound in terms of their thinking behind the game.
Conversely, others are quite hard to follow and some read as if they were knocked out in haste to cash in on the backgammon wave.
Some great players emerged in the 1970s, such as the world champion, Paul Magriel, who wrote a great and famous book simply titled Backgammon, in 1976.
The players John Crawford and Oswald Jacoby not only wrote books together, including The Backgammon Book, but they also each managed to have a backgammon rule named after them.