Backgammon is probably not the sexiest thing around. Just count how many times in movies a camera pans on Apple gadgets and how many times it pans on a board game of backgammon.

It did so probably once. In the 1983 James Bond film, Roger Moore’s 007 defeats the criminal Kamal Khan in a game of backgammon in India. Not that I had really noticed when I watched it, mind you. Up until recently, I didn’t even know what it looked like and had only come across the word ‘backgammon’ in books – particularly of the Dickensian era.

Do you remember when in A Tale of Two Cities Jarvis Lorry the banker, tells doctor Mannet that he was stressed out? “I am quite glad you are at home; for these hurries and forebodings by which I have been surrounded all day long, have made me nervous without reason. You are not going out, I hope?” And the doctor replies: “No; I am going to play backgammon with you, if you like.”

Hmm. I had said to myself when I read it. What’s this game backgammon which calms down nerves? It was a thought which sat, forgotten, at the back of my mind, until this summer break, when a friend of ours came on holiday carrying a tiny leather case which opened up into a board game. And he was determined to teach it to us, to join the other 300 million players around the world keen on the game. We sat down and stared at very weird board face – it was not unlike a set of pointy shark’s teeth.

There’s two sets of pawns, and the goal is for each player to move their pawns from their starting point to the end point without being caught and made to restart by the opponent along the way. It’s a game of strategy and cunning but of course, it also depends on the luck of the dice throw.

We were intrigued. Then we were hooked. We played it every night and when we got back from the holiday, we purchased our own kit and we kept at it.

Playing backgammon increases the players’ ability to combat stress

What fascinates me most is the fact that this game was played by people who lived 5,000 years ago. A very similar board game made of ebony and turquoise playing pieces, was unearthed on an archaeological dig at Shahr-e Sukhteh in Iraq – popularly known as The Burnt City. Of course in ancient times it was not the misfit Iraq of today, it was then the amazing Mesopotamia, home of brilliant minds.

This board is believed to have been in use as early as 3000BC. Which means it is older than 1,500 years old chess –  and way older than the 60-year-old video games. Activities which span over years and survive historical periods are to be revered.

From Mesopotamia, it reached Egypt and Rome and later it spread to the Muslim world. In AD896, the Arabian historian Mas’udi wrote: “It is a kind of paradigm of how wealth is acquired, which in this world is not the reward of intelligence or ability, just as luck is not a product of skill...”

Ah. How true that resonated – the more you play it the more you realise how real life is a lot like backgammon, and the game at times is a mirror of the patterns of life.

That the game survived to the 21st century is a feat in itself.  Sixteenth century Elizabethans deemed it immoral. Well, nothing surprising there – under Queen Elizabeth scruples were the order of the day (“My Queen I am afraid it is too seductive to have your finger sliding across a wooden board – one may get these terribly naughty thoughts”); but it was banned in England and in other European countries mainly because it spurred on a gambling habit.

However, as happens, the ban made it more popular and backgammon throve defiantly. So much so that by the 18th century, it was the equivalent of the latest smartphone, with fancy spas and resort towns having public backgammon rooms. The common parlance was probably thus:

“I have Backgammon 8 set up in my living room”

“Oh, I just installed a table with the latest Backgammon 10”

According to Google, playing backgammon increases the players’ ability to combat stress and potentially strengthen the immune system. Which is probably why Churchill used to play it every day. His daily lunch with champagne was always followed by a game of backgammon with his wife Clementine at 3.30pm. Not a bad example to follow at all.

May I recommend you try it and join the club too?
Twitter: @krischetcuti

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