Roll of the Dice – What's Between Chess and Backgammon?

Chess and backgammon grew up in the same neighborhood and are both thousands of years old. So why is one called the game of kings and the other the game of the unemployed?

Vered Lee
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Vered Lee

In the 1994 film “Korban Ha’ahava” (Love Victim), directed by independent filmmaker Yamin Mesika, Avi Biter and Yarmi Kadoshi sip coffee at a neighborhood meeting place in Jaffa and spend the day thinking about how to, well, spend the day. Meanwhile, until the right decision is made, they pass the time playing backgammon, which symbolizes fate and luck and advances the plot (slowly but surely) toward a decision that involves a gamble.

In another Mesika film, “Kerem Hatikva” (“The Vineyard of Hope”), backgammon is of symbolic significance. Actor Gabi Sasson sits in a restaurant and talks with a friend about a fateful trip abroad, with a backgammon board between them. In other films by Mesika, backgammon is present for atmospheric reasons and as a game that symbolizes Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) culture.

A board from the backgammon exhibition in Acre.

The person responsible for making backgammon a part of Mesika’s films was none other than the late journalist and politician Tommy Lapid. Mesika happened to hear a radio program on which Lapid, who once served as chairman of the Israeli Chess Federation, made derogatory references to backgammon and the culture it symbolizes, and praised the game of chess. Mesika decided to take a stand by emphasizing backgammon in his films, in an attempt to combat the game’s negative image.

The fact that Tommy Lapid’s son, Yair Lapid, who aspires to be the education minister, grew up to be a well-known backgammon player, doesn’t change Mesika’s attitude, and backgammon continues to star as a political symbol in his films. And who knows, maybe Yair Lapid, if he receives the portfolio he wants, will introduce backgammon clubs to schools alongside the chess clubs?

It’s not clear why backgammon and chess which both originate in the East are perceived in Israeli society in such an unequal and opposite way. The origin of chess was blurred in Israel, and it is considered a rational, European game with an intellectual aroma, a game of profound thought that requires strategy and long-term planning. On the other hand, backgammon is still attributed to Mizrahim and Arabs, and suffers from bad public relations.

Peter Bruegel the Elder’s "The Triumph of Death."
Bobby Fischer, 1972.
Jacob Duck’s “Game of Backgammon.”
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Peter Bruegel the Elder’s "The Triumph of Death."
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Bobby Fischer, 1972.Credit: AP
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Jacob Duck’s “Game of Backgammon.”

What don’t they say to disparage this light and enjoyable game? From labeling it a game of dice and luck, which is linked to gambling and doesn’t require thought, to calling it a game that symbolizes idleness and the unemployed. Worst of all, there is total disregard for the thoughtful elements of the game, including elements of statistics and mathematics, alongside long-term thinking that precisely parallels chess, and complex possibilities for calculation along with creativity and skill, which are undoubtedly required of the participants.

Two ancient ancestors

The Treasures in the Wall Museum in Acre is currently featuring “The Royal Game of Ur,” an exhibition of backgammon boards from all over the world. The exhibition is an attempt to change the game’s image and illustrate the fact that it is an international game played worldwide.

In the exhibition, which closes at the end of this month, backgammon boards are on display from, among other places, China, the United States, Georgia and Great Britain.

The history of backgammon is not sufficiently clear, and there is a dispute regarding its country of origin. The first record of the game as we know it today appears in Persian texts, where its invention is attributed to Bozorgmehr, a sixth-century politician and scientist. The game is also mentioned in the writings of the Indian poet Bharthari, who lived at the end of the sixth century. The Iranians insist that they are the official fathers of the game and that it is part of their contribution to humanity.

In history books studied in Iranian schools before and after the 1979 revolution, says Dr. Haggai Ram, a specialist in Middle Eastern studies, you can find expressions of great pride that emphasize Iran’s achievements and ancient culture in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, chess and backgammon.

The game apparently developed from two ancient ancestors about 5,000 years ago, which compete for the title of the “oldest board game in the world.” The first was the Royal Game of Ur, common in Mesopotamia (which comprised parts of today’s Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The second is Senet, which originated in Egypt. Both game boards were composed of squares, as was a game common in the Roman Empire, The Game of the 12 Signs. The direct ancestor of backgammon is Tabula, which is mentioned in texts from the Byzantine Empire, and is apparently a development of 12 Signs. The game board was identical to that of modern backgammon, and each player had 15 gaming pieces, but their movement was determined by throwing three dice.

Sometime in the seventh century the game crossed borders and arrived in Europe. The Christian Church was not pleased. The gambling that accompanied the game and the fact that it was attributed to Islamic countries during a period of tension between the religions served as an excuse to fight against the phenomenon. But in the 11th century backgammon got lucky and attracted the very same people who were opposed to its dissemination priests in England and France who became dedicated players.

The battle didn’t end so quickly, however. During the reign of King Henry VIII, there were repeated attempts by the Anglican Church to boycott the game, but the battle failed and backgammon captured church leaders once again. In the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, its status was established and it became a popular and beloved game.

The 18th-century British philosopher David Hume was familiar with the wonders of the game. In the epilogue to his important book “A Treatise of Human Nature,” he found time to praise backgammon and note its good qualities. Hume reveals that in order to free himself from the depression and philosophical insanity that enveloped him, he did three things: Ate an enjoyable meal at noon, conversed and spent time with his friends, and played backgammon.

Backgammon was documented by painters from the 16th to the 19th centuries for example, in the 1562 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death,” which contains important information for historians about the lifestyle of 16th-century Europe. Among the many hobbies and preoccupations common during that period, a backgammon board can be identified in the painting. In Jacob Duck’s 17th-century painting “Game of Backgammon,” a group of players are trying their luck and skill in a corner of a house.

But even in art, backgammon did not escape criticism. In many paintings it appears in the context of gambling, promiscuity and Oriental exotica. In the most biting of these, a painter satirically mocked the gambling of the upper classes and portrayed monkeys playing backgammon with a sack of money next to them. Jacob Duck’s “Soldiers and Women in a Tavern” portrays lazy soldiers wasting time on card games and backgammon, accompanied by prostitutes.

Dr. Ram assumes it is possible that European travelers who saw the game being played in a relaxed atmosphere in coffeehouses saw it as conveying idleness. “The Ottoman Muslim world was seen as an Oriental world of promiscuity and an absence of rationality and scientific thinking, as opposed to what the West thought of itself, and backgammon served as an additional element that helped to etch this idea in Western consciousness.”

Your turn, Sallah

There was no need to import backgammon to Israel. Since it was part of the Ottoman Empire, the board was already in place here and the dice mingled with the local atmosphere. “The Zionist project inherited the colonialist concepts of the European cultural discourse,” notes Dr. Ram. “Backgammon was seen by the Zionist project as a game of barbaric, undeveloped cultures, a continuation of the image that developed in Europe beginning in the 18th century, and was warmly embraced here.”

Many people consider Ephraim Kishon’s 1964 film “Sallah Shabati” which was a box-office success and became the first Israeli candidate for the Foreign Film Oscar responsible for the stereotypical presentation of Mizrahim and backgammon’s negative PR. Sallah Shabati, a Mizrahi immigrant, was presented as an inarticulate and unemployed man who sat in the transit camp all day long rolling dice and gambling.

It’s interesting to compare Kishon’s presentation of the game to the film of Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev, “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner”(based on the novel by Iliya Troyanov), in which backgammon is the main character.

Komandarev said in interviews prior to the film’s release: “For the first time there is a cinematic project dealing with backgammon and its philosophy. The film transmits the charm of the slang used by players of the game, the typical jokes, the enigmatic atmosphere in the cafes where backgammon is played. This is the most ancient game that is still played. It exists all over the world. In a sense, the game is part of the story of every character in the film and it guides their fate beyond the boundaries of time and space.”

And yet, in spite of the negative image of the game in these parts, backgammon was drafted into the Israeli army, captivated soldiers and became one of the symbols of reserve duty. In that way it is perceived as a game that may be unsophisticated, yet is mischievous, legitimate and popular – to the point where Israeli society today takes credit for backgammon, as it does for hummus.