The Roots of Backgammon

The word “backgammon” probably comes from the Saxon word baec, meaning back, and gamen, meaning game, suggests a game in which the players are sent back. Chaucer, the English author of the well-known short story collection “The Canterbury Tales,” alludes to a game of “Tables,” played with three dice, in which “men” were moved from the opponent’s “tables.” Chaucer lived in the middle to late fourteenth century, meaning that the game is at least that old. Archaeology, though, suggests that backgammon is much much older than that.  

The roots of the modern backgammon game date back to ancient Sumer, a collection of city-states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in what is now southern Iraq. Sir Leonard Wooley1, when researching the ancient Ur of the Chaldees, the Biblical home of Hebrew patriarch Abraham, described what may have been a backgammon board on the back of a game board excavated at Ur. The ancient games of Senet, Thau, and Seega bear strong resemblances to modern backgammon, indicating that these are the forerunners of the modern-day game.

Senet is one of the oldest board games known to man. Senet (or Senat) is the Egyptian word for ‘sister.’ Drawings of the game were found in the tomb of Merknera (3300-2700 BC) and although there have been claims made that other games predate Senet, archaeologists have not been able to confirm that any other game is from an earlier era.

About 4,000 years ago, in Ancient Egypt, Senet became known as a powerful talisman for the dead. It was believed that better players of Senet had special divine protection and therefore the game was often placed in the tomb alongside the departed along with other useful items for the perilous journey onward after death.

Senet is a probable ancestor of backgammon. Over 40 ancient Egyptian boards have survived. The board had 30 squares, or “houses;” three rows of ten squares each.

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