What Is Backgammon?
Backgammon is a classic two player game played with checkers on a specialized board. The board is split into four quadrants, with each player having their own home and outer sections. There are twenty-four triangles called “points” spread out six to a quadrant, with the numbering for each player beginning in their home board and ending in the opponent's home board. Players can only move to empty points or to points that have a single opposing checker, which are called “blots.”
The objective of the game is to return all of your checkers to your home board before “bearing them off”–removing them from the board by rolling dice and taking a checker from the corresponding points. The first player to clear their pieces from the board wins.
History of Backgammon
Backgammon was created approximately 5,000 years ago. It likely began in Mesopotamia, near modern day Iraq, before spreading worldwide in the ensuing centuries. The more modern style of backgammon originated as a Roman game that we now call “Tables.” The game became popular in Rome and before long even their Emperors were wagering huge sums of money on single games.
After enjoying many years of popularity, interest in the game began to waiver in the early 20th century. It was then that the concept of “doubling” was introduced, through which players could propose that the stakes be doubled partway through the game. This was combined with new rule sets that allowed additional players to join in. With doubling in place and four player games becoming more popular, the prize pool for games of backgammon could be a hefty sum. This all played well with audiences in 1920s America, who I imagine were looking for more thrills than traditional backgammon had allowed.
Basic Rules of Backgammon
Players begin with fifteen checkers each: two on the twenty-four point, five on the thirteen point, three on the eight point, and five on the six point. Both roll one die to begin and whomever rolls the highest number goes first. Players agree upon doubling procedures before the game begins, but a player can typically request a double at the beginning of their turn, which then yields the right to double to their opponent, represented by the transference of the doubling cube to their side. Either player can request the first double and doubles can be refused at the cost of the current stake represented on the doubles cube.
Each player rolls two dice on their turn, with each number representing a move they can make. Both moves must be made, but they can be made in any order and on either a single checker or two different checkers. During any given turn, a player's aim is to progress to their home quadrant while hitting blot points along the way to move the opponent's checker to the middle bar, thus disrupting their next turn. While you have a checker on the bar you have no choice but to use your rolls in an attempt to return it to the field of play.
Once all fifteen checkers are in a player's home quadrant they can begin rolling their dice to bear checkers off, but so long as there are other legal moves to make bearing off is not mandatory. When bearing off, the checkers are removed according to the rolls, but if the roll doesn't match the position of a checker then they must bear off a checker from a higher point, or, barring that, from the highest point available. Whomever finishes bearing off their pieces first is the winner.
Lebanese Backgammon (Tawle) Games
Shesh Besh is a Turkish variant of backgammon with nearly identical rules. The key differences are the lack of doubling and the scoring system, which only awards a three point backgammon to the winning player if the loser has a checker on the bar.
Mahbooseh, or Plakoto, is a backgammon variant popular in Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. In this version all fifteen checkers start on a player's first point and there is no hitting a blot. Instead, landing on a blot traps your opponent's piece in place until your checker leaves the space.
Types of Backgammon Boards
Traditional Backgammon Sets
Traditional wooden inlaid backgammon boards are split into two halves and surrounded by a wooden barrier. In my experience these are what you'll see most often, but modern day players have more options than ever before.
Luxury Backgammon Sets
There are, for instance, luxury backgammon boards that are leather bound with felt interiors and have checkers carved from pearl. These boards function in the same way and still have an inlay, but they are well made and aesthetically pleasing for those who take backgammon seriously.
Travel Backgammon Sets
For a bigger difference, one can look at the trendy roll-up backgammon boards that have become popular among traveling players. These boards are made of leather and they do not feature an inlay, so they are uniformly flat all around. This makes it a little trickier to keep your dice from rolling away, but the owner can just roll the pieces up in the board and walk away after the game is done.
Star Backgammon Boards
Star Game Sets is the largest manufacturer of game sets in Turkey by far. Having begun business in 1977, the company rose to global status by 1999, and now they produce approximately 300 different tabletop games.
One of their most popular products is their Magic Star Turkish Backgammon Board Game Set. This wooden board measures 19.2" X 12" x 2.8" when closed and retails for $46.50 at time of writing. Consumers have praised the build quality of the board and the ornate aesthetic, not to mention the reasonable price for the set. However, some have complained that the dice are too small, and that the case lacks both a doubling dice and a latch to hold the board closed.
Regardless of whether you prefer a traditional backgammon board or a trendier redesign, the game is here to stay. Variants like Shesh Besh and Mahbooseh help to breathe new life into the game, while the practice of doubling allows gamblers to satiate their desire for higher stakes. Best of all, backgammon is a true global phenomenon with excellent accessibility, so there's nothing stopping you if you'd like to pick it up!