Backgammon, the ancient Eastern game which once captured the fancy of European aristocracy with its mix of skill and chance, is currently enjoying a stylish comeback in the West. In the Middle East its popularity has never faded. There, in fashionable hotels and elegant homes—but also in smoke-filled cafés and narrow alleyways—the sounds of rolling dice, followed by the crisp trie trac noise of moving disks on a polished table which gives the game its most popular Arabic name, fill the night. Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region it is unquestionably the single most popular game and in Lebanon, trie trac, or towleh (table), as it is also called, is practically the national sport.
Men and women, young and old, play it whenever and wherever they have a few minutes free—and sometimes when they haven't. Barbers have been known to keep customers waiting for a haircut and concierges their tenants waiting for a telephone line during a tense game. Middle Easterners often play with great exuberance, slapping the disks on the table, trie trac, with the flamboyance of an orchestra conductor. Wherever the game is played it is accompanied by numerous cups of coffee, and often—especially among older aficionados—by the narguileh or water pipe, whose charcoal is kept glowing cherry-red as players puff and ponder.
Nobody knows exactly where backgammon originated. Some theorists believe it was in India, at least the version known as Parcheesi, which allows four to play. The Arabs, with magnanimity, credit Iran with its invention and, in rare agreement, so do the Iranians.
The legend goes that an Iranian king named Nardashir once called in his wise men and ordered them to invent a game which, like life itself, depended on an uncertain balance of skill and chance. It should also, he said, sum up human existence in the world of finite time. The result was backgammon, sometimes referred to as nard, supposedly after the legendary king.
In backgammon, the 30 disks, 15 to a side, stand for the days of the month. They are black and white, for day and night. The board is divided into four sections or "tables," the four seasons. There are 24 positions or "points" to be followed by the stones on their route, standing for the 24 hours of the day; 12 are on each side of the board, the 12 months of the year. Thus each player has his year. And even the conventional dice used in backgammon are supposed to have something to say about time, for whichever way you add up the opposite faces, six and one, five and two, four and three, you get seven, the seven days of the week.
It's a pretty story, but in fact the game is almost certainly much older. In the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq, for example, archeologists have discovered a table on which a game very like backgammon was played some 5,000 years ago. That's as far as historians have been able to trace it—so far.
In the West the game became very popular in Rome, where it was known as ludus duodecim scriptorum, or "twelve-lined game." As in Arabic, one popular variant was called tabula, and it was not much different from the game also known as "tables," played in medieval England and mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.
The story is told that the Roman emperor, Claudius, was so fond of tabula that he had a gaming board installed in his imperial chariot, firmly fixed so as to take the bumps, to offset the boredom of long trips. For his fanatic devotion to the game Claudius was later wittily lampooned by the playwright Seneca in a work entitled The Pumpkinification of Claudius—written for the amusement of Nero's court after Claudius was safely dead. Roman emperors were traditionally supposed to become gods after death. But not so Claudius—at least according to Seneca. The philosopher-writer condemned Nero's predecessor to a mean fate in afterlife, portraying him as forced to spend eternity trying to play dice with a cup with no bottom; the cubes always rolled out.
In spite of spoilsports like Seneca, emperors, kings and caliphs continued to play the game through history. In 18th-century England backgammon was considered "always a particularly respectable kind of amusement, quite fitting for country rectors, and not derogatory to the dignity of even higher functionaries of the church." For a time European aristocrats considered it their exclusive preserve: "The game of kings, the king of games." With its lengthy and exotic pedigree, it is not surprising that this is the slightly snobbish sales pitch of the jet-set promoters of today's growing fad for backgammon among high society's Beautiful People and in U.S. gambling circles.
Over the past 10 years Prince Alexis Obolensky has probably done more to popularize backgammon in the West than any man since Claudius. With an assiduous promotion campaign, now backed by a major American distilling company, he has taken it from the gaming rooms of a few exclusive European spas all the way to Las Vegas, and the end is not yet in sight. Hugh Hefner, another big booster, has recently had his Playboy bunnies go around to veterans' hospitals distributing backgammon sets, with instructions, free. Others, such as Sir Oswald Jacoby, the bridge expert, are also turning to the game.
The first backgammon tournament in the United States was held in 1964, with a modest total of $40 in prize money. At a tournament attended by international luminaries of café society, sports and films in Las Vegas last January, prize money was a hefty $98,000.
In the Middle East the game is almost always played for the sheer pleasure of matching wits. Tournaments are still held for glory, with silver cups going to the winners. In recent years Elie Zarifé, who is associated with the French-language Beirut daily, L'Orient-Le Jour, has been instrumental in organizing the biggest international events. Players representing 10 nations participated in the tournaments held at Istanbul's Divan Hotel in 1971 and Beirut's Carlton in 1972. Lebanon won both times. Competition came from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and as far away as France and Belgium.
How exactly does the game go? Three common variations are played in the Middle East, but in all of them each of the two players, starting with his 15 disks arranged on one side of the specially marked table, attempts to move all of his pieces around the board and out of the game before his opponent can do likewise. The chance fall of the dice determines the number of allowable steps or "points" to be moved per turn, but the skill of the player determines which pieces he will choose to move, and where.
Say the dice come up three and four. A player can move one disk seven times, or two disks three and four times, respectively, but never coming to rest on a point where his opponent already has two or more of his disks. If the opponent has been able to block a series of consecutive "points" in this way, the player might find himself with no place to move, and thus forfeit his turn. The disks of the opponents pass each other in opposite directions, of course, like two troops of cavalry, and if one of a player's disks comes to rest on an opponent's single disk, that is one unhorsed cavalryman. That disk has to begin all over again, falling far to the rear of his advancing comrades. C'est la guerre. In another version, a player's disk can actually capture an opponent's disk and "escort" the enemy all the way until this piece reaches its goal safely. Then the "prisoner" is returned to the point where he was captured and freed to continue.
Strategies must be decided after each throw. Advance recklessly, exposing single disks and risking setbacks? Or move cautiously, constantly closing the ranks by lining men up on a single point for safety and the chance of blocking an opponent's move? Where will the advantage lie, where the risk? Obviously a mathematician has an advantage; he knows the odds. "Not necessarily," says Aziz Sayegh, a mathematics teacher at Beirut's Haigazian College. "When I concentrate on the laws of probability, I usually lose."
Which may be one more reason why backgammon is not only making a comeback, but has never really gone away.
John O'Neill was a reporter in Cuba, Mexico and his native Canada before coming to the Middle East to freelance while working on a novel.