x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The Instant Expert: Backgammon, the world's oldest board game

Rick Arthur offers a beginners' lesson in a bit of shake, rattle and roll.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur offers a beginner's lesson on backgammon, a game that's been around for 5,000 years or so.

THE BASICS Backgammon is the oldest known board game in history. Artefacts from Shahr-e Sukhteh in Iran show that it existed around 3000 BC. It is a deceptively simple competition in which playing pieces are moved according to the roll of dice. The winner is the first to remove all his pieces. "Backgammon" probably comes from "back" and the Middle English "gamen", meaning "game" or "play".

THE LAYOUT A backgammon set consists of a board, two sets of 15 checkers (or "men"), two pairs of dice, two dice cups and a doubling cube. Each side of the board has 12 long triangles, or points, forming a continuous open-ended oval. Each player's 15 men go on the board among four fixed points, and move in opposing directions.

THE MOVES Players move their men around the board and into their inner or home board, and then "bear them off". Any checker(s) may be moved so long as the total roll of the dice is played. If the roll were 5-4 ("five-four", not "nine", mind you), one man could be moved five points and then four more points, or four points and then five more points, or one man could be moved five points and another man four points.

SOME NOT-SO-SUBTLETIES Two or more men on a point control it, and one's opponent may not land there. Conversely, that poor little fellow all alone is a "blot", and he may be hit and sent out of the game. So some basic maths and rules of probability are in play - one must know the odds and how to quickly calculate them, how to minimise risk and when to chuck it all in - in the parlance of another game of both skill and chance, when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

SOME EXTRA EXCITEMENT A roll of doubles on the dice is worth double the roll. Thus, if a player rolls 6-6, he gets to move four sixes, not just two. Doubles are almost always good - but you do realise, don't you, that the odds are 36-1 against rolling a specific set of doubles?

SOME MORE EXTRA EXCITEMENT A game is worth one point. But it is worth two points, or a "gammon", if the loser has removed none of his men. It is worth three points, or a "backgammon", if the loser has one or more men out of the game or in his opponent's home board. Now throw in the doubling cube, which is a marker that keeps track of offers to double the stakes. So it's possible to lose a backgammon in which the doubling cube has been advanced from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16, say, meaning a loss of 48 points - though such a scenario would indicate rash play. The Instant Expert has not been so foolhardy since his fearless youth, way back last century.

THE STRATEGY There are three main kinds of games: a running game, which should be self-explanatory and is facilitated by early rolls of doubles; a blocking game, also self-explanatory; and a back game, generally borne out of desperation. Many is the time the Instant Expert has been forced to lie in wait, hoping his opponent will leave a blot or two and that sure defeat can become improbable victory. Running games are boring, blocking games are fun, and back games are filled with existential dread.

LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS Royalty, celebrities and society swells across the decades have had a fascination with backgammon. And the gambling stakes can be high at private clubs and the prizes vast at tournaments around the world, furthering the game's image of being a pastime of the idle rich.

THE VARIATIONS There are many variants of backgammon, and you will see them in the shisha cafes of the UAE, the coffee shops of Turkey and throughout southeastern Europe. Notable are gul bara, in which each player's 15 men all start on the rightmost point on the far side of the board, and in which one man controls a point; and tapa, in which blots are not hit and sent out of the game but are pinned and immobilised.

THE ETIQUETTE It's easy. Be a good sport.


In film

HAVING WONDERFUL TIME (1938) Ginger Rogers spends the night at a summer resort playing backgammon by herself in a scene from this RKO romance-comedy.

BLOOD SUCKING FREAKS (1976) The sick villain plays backgammon with human fingers in this gore fest that some consider a cult classic.

OCTOPUSSY (1983) In the most famous backgammon scene in cinema, Roger More as James Bond cites "player's privilege" to use the loaded dice of his villainous opponent (played by Louis Jordan), then tosses double sixes on his last roll to win a fortune.

RUSHMORE (1998) Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is president of his prep school's backgammon club in this delightful coming-of-age comedy-drama starring Bill Murray and directed by Wes Anderson.

BACKGAMMON (2001) The game is, inexplicably, featured in little more than the title in this forgettable film about the end of Western civilisation.

EMOTIONAL BACKGAMMON (2003) This relationship comedy-drama uses backgammon as a metaphor for the war between the sexes. The tagline: "Love is like a game of backgammon... You take your chances."