Backgammon in England During the Regency

Backgammon is a board or "table" game which has roots going back to ancient times. In fact, most scholars believe it even pre-dates chess, and is the oldest known board game. The game was certainly known in England during the Regency, but the more important question is, was it played during that decade? And, if it was, who were the people most likely to play it? Regency authors may want to know the facts in order to ensure that, should they introduce a game or two of backgammon into a story, they do so with historical accuracy.

A brief look at backgammon up to the Regency . . .

For centuries, most scholars of the history of backgammon have traced it to the Egyptian board game Senet or the wooden board games found in the royal tomb of Ur, in Sumeria, which date from about 2600 B. C. However, in 2004, an archaeological dig conducted in Iran at the famed Burnt City, in Sistan-Baluchistan, yielded an even older backgammon board than that found in Sumeria. The board found in Iran is believed to have been in use as early as 3000 B. C. The board is made of ebony and was found with playing pieces made of turquoise and agate. It is believed these board games were the precursors of the Roman game, Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (The Game of Twelve Lines) which emerged about 600 B.C. A later iteration of this game, known as Tabulae, Latin for "table," was brought to Britain in the First Century with the invading Romans. At that time, it was the single most popular gambling game and drove a gambling craze across the Roman Empire which only came to an end late in the century when the game was finally declared illegal under the Roman Republic.

Though the Romans eventually departed Britain, they left their game behind, where it came to be called "Tables." By that time it had acquired the rules and game board layout similar to that of the backgammon game we know today. During the Middle Ages, "tables" was a popular gambling game amid the English upper classes. By the reign of Henry VIII, once again, its popularity caused it to be banned in England to prevent the heavy wagers which were routinely laid on the games. The game was still being played, illegally, in 1526, when Cardinal Wolsey, who called the game "the devil’s folly," ordered that all "tables" boards were to be burned. It is believed this order gave rise to a new design in the game board. New boards were made to fold down the center so that when they were closed, they looked like a book and could be hidden in among other books on a bookshelf, with the game pieces tucked safely inside. One more attempt was made to forbid the game of "tables" in 1571, but within a decade this ban was almost completely ignored. During the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the game was once again being played openly. By that time it was enjoyed by many people beyond those of the upper classes. Even before the sixteenth century came to a close, many taverns could be found to have a "tables" game set available for the use of their patrons.

As the seventeenth century progressed, the rules for playing "tables" evolved, though at its root it remained a race-type board game. The purpose of the game was to get one’s game pieces, often called "tablemen," around the board and off of it before those of one’s opponent. The moves were based on the results of a throw of a pair of dice. One player moved in one direction around the board while the other player moved in the opposite direction. During the course of the game, at certain points, some pieces were at risk of being taken by the opposing player. These vulnerable pieces came to be called "blots." According to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearance in print of the name "backgammon" for this game was in 1647. It is speculated that this new name derived from the Middle English word "gam" which meant "game," and the word "back." It is believed the new name meant "the game where you can go back." This came from the game play which allowed a blot to be sent back to the bar, or the beginning of the game. Regardless of the derivation of the name, from the mid-seventeenth century, the game once known as "tables" became much more widely known as backgammon.

Though this game was known in England and Wales from the seventeenth century as backgammon, it was simply called gammon in Scotland, where it was equally popular. This same game had a number of names across the Continent, depending upon the country in which it was played. In France, it was called Tric-Trac, while it was known as Puff in the Germanic states. The old name of tables was retained in both Italy and Spain, where the game was known as Tavole Reale and Tablas Reales, respectively. Each country also seems to have had slightly different rules, though the main principles of a race game between two players moving pieces around the board were constant everywhere, as was gambling on the outcome. Giacomo Casanova told in his memoirs of "the self-styled Marquise Desarmoises," who lived by playing backgammon as he traveled around Europe. The Marquise claimed that though he was unlucky with the dice, that was less important than his knowledge of the game. It was that knowledge which enabled him to win fairly consistently.

Backgammon continued to increase in popularity in England through the seventeenth century and was all the rage at the turn of the eighteenth century. However, it seems each group of players set their own rules for the game, until almost a full century after it had acquired its new name. It was not until 1743 that Edmund Hoyle published the first official rules for backgammon. A Short Treatise on the Game of Backgammon was first published in London, in 1743, and was reprinted again and again throughout the eighteenth-century. Another rule book for the game, Back-Gammon. Rules and Directions for Playing the Game of Back-Gammon, appeared in London in 1798. According to the title page, it was printed for H. D. Symonds. It must be noted that Symonds was not an author, but a London bookseller who published and sold hundreds of books from the end of the eighteenth century into the first decades of the nineteenth. Scholars have determined that this second backgammon rule book was lifted almost completely from Hoyle. The rules for the game were not changed but there was some re-wording of the rest of the text. Another bookseller, J. Harris, reprinted Symonds’ version of Hoyle verbatim in 1817, though the original Hoyle rule book was also still in print.

Backgammon remained so popular though the entire eighteenth century that special gaming tables were designed for it. Some were very simple, rough tables, with the points etched into the table top, then hatched or colored to distinguish the opposing players’ points. These very utilitarian tables were most often to be found in taverns and public houses where the game remained a favorite. However, some of the best cabinet-makers crafted some very elegant game tables for those who could afford them. Some were made similar to card tables where the width of the table closed was only half that of the playing surface. When a game was to be played, the table was pulled out from the wall, the folded top was opened, and one of the legs swung out to support it. Other backgammon tables were made with the top the full width of the playing surface. However, these tables often had a dual purpose. The backgammon board surface was sunk below the top of the table to provide the raised edges which players preferred. This depression could also be used to store the game pieces, the dice and other accoutrements. Such tables typically had a top which was fitted in over the backgammon board. In many cases, this top cover was inlaid with a checkerboard, since the backgammon game pieces could also be used as checkers/draughts when someone preferred to play that game.

In fact, many backgammon boards had a checkerboard on the back of the board to enable the board and the game pieces to be used for either game. Throughout the eighteenth century, as they are today, backgammon boards were made in a wide variety of sizes and types. Simple boards, with painted points and game pieces were available for those on a budget. But backgammon boards crafted of fine woods, with playing surfaces made of plain or gilt and tooled leather and/or richly inlaid with precious materials such as ebony, ivory, mother-of-pearl, or brass were available. Game pieces, typically known as "draughts" in England, could range from simple wooden circles to exquisite disks fashioned from a wide array of precious materials including ivory, rare woods, mother-of-pearl or even semi-precious stones such as agate and quartz. A complete backgammon set would typically also include a pair of dice; made of ivory for the best quality games, or bone for the less expensive sets, and a dice cup or two. Dice cups specifically made for a backgammon set were usually made rather small or oval in shape so that they could be stored inside the board with the game pieces when it was not in use. The highest quality backgammon sets had a pair of dice cups so that each player could have their own. Most dice cups were made of leather, though some were made of wood. Backgammon boards also came in a variety of sizes. In most cases, the smaller sets were very popular with avid players who traveled often. They wanted to be able to enjoy a game at any time or place.

Backgammon became so popular with the fashionable set during the eighteenth century that a number of larger towns, particularly spa or resort towns, might have public backgammon rooms. For example, in the second half of the eighteenth century, Cheltenham had a pair of rooms which were open for backgammon. These rooms were coupled with a pair of billiard rooms on the same premises. One set of rooms for billiards and backgammon was available only by subscription, while the other pair of backgammon and billiard rooms was open to the public, upon payment of an entry fee which was charged for each visit. The records of the time suggest that the subscription rooms had much nicer amenities and were much better maintained than the rooms which were open to the general public. More than one mention was made of "gentlemen," the intimation being that ladies did not frequent these rooms. However, it is certain that through the eighteenth century, ladies did play backgammon in private homes, wagering as much on their play as did any gentleman.

As the eighteenth century progressed, backgammon, which had for centuries been a gambling game, often for high stakes, gradually fell out of fashion among the upper classes. Curiously, by the turn of the nineteenth century, though backgammon was still played, it was most popular among the clergy and academics, the same groups which had once roundly condemned it. There were still some older people who enjoyed the game well into the Regency, but they were typically not among the most fashionable members of society. In his book, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: From the Earliest Period, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles, first published in 1801, Joseph Strutt noted that backgammon had fallen out of fashion. Though backgammon tables or boards were still to be found in many country mansions, he wrote that the majority of those game sets had sat unused for years. Some were even missing some or all of the game pieces, the dice and/or the dice cups, thus rendering them useless. According to Strutt, backgammon was no longer considered a game suitable for company, since it could only accommodate two players. Strutt believed that this loss of popularity for backgammon was due to the fact that card games could accommodate more players and were therefore considered more sociable. However, the board game historian, David Parlett, believes that it was not just card games which made backgammon less acceptable in social situations. He suggests that other race-type board games, which could accommodate more players, had become popular in the early nineteenth century, making backgammon seem old-fashioned and unsociable.

Since at least the late Middle Ages, chess had come to be considered the most sophisticated and "serious" board game, often played by royalty and those who were considered wise and well-educated. During most of the eighteenth century, backgammon was a popular and fashionable gambling game which could be played by nearly anyone. Though it required a certain amount of skill, the roll of the dice ensured there was always a luck factor as part of the game. As the nineteenth century opened, backgammon had lost its appeal with the gambling set, and was seldom played at fashionable social gatherings. But there were still many people who relished the game. Chess games took a long time to play, while a game of backgammon could be concluded in a much shorter period of time. Therefore, players who did not have time for a drawn-out game of chess might choose to play a game or more of backgammon. Since a game of backgammon can be played fairly quickly, it was common to determine the winner by a heat of three to five games. Backgammon also did not require the level of concentration needed for a game of chess, thus allowing the players the opportunity for conversation as the game progressed.

During the Regency, backgammon was seldom, if ever, a game which involved high-stakes gambling. Nor was it played at any high-society gatherings, as it had been at the height of its popularity in the eighteenth century. Many people did still play, companionably, simply for points and/or bragging rights. The Squire might offer the local vicar a game from time to time, or perhaps an ageing grand-dame might play for chicken stakes with her grand-daughters still in the schoolroom, regaling them with tales of her youth, when the game was all the rage. The game was still played by a number of academics, so a pair of college dons might play, or a professor might play a promising graduate student, as an enjoyable form of relaxation. Backgammon was also played for fun within a family circle on a quiet evening at home. Since so many backgammon boards had a checkerboard on the back, backgammon boards were also often used to play a game of draughts by those who preferred that game or had not yet mastered backgammon.

Dear Regency Authors, might there be a place for backgammon in one of you upcoming novels? Perhaps the hero has been involved in a driving accident far from home and is laid up at the home of the vicar in the village where his accident occurred. Having played backgammon with one of his professors while at university, will he be pleased to discover that the vicar has a backgammon set? Will he be even more pleased to discover the vicar’s lovely daughter is happy to play with him to while away some of the long hours as he recovers? Or, might the heroine be beside herself, trying to stop her beloved, if rather rascally, grandfather from playing backgammon for high stakes he cannot afford with some of his old cronies at the local tavern? Will the hero, breaking his journey at the tavern, soundly trounce grand-papa in a round of backgammon forced on him by the old gentleman, and thereby, meet the heroine when he arrives with a very sheepish grand-papa in tow to collect his winnings?

Not only the game of backgammon, but the special objects made for it might come in handy in a Regency tale. Could it be that the hero, the son of an impoverished noble house, has made the painful decision that he must sell the most valuable books in the family library in order to save the estate? Forcing himself to choose those volumes from the shelves himself, will he stumble upon a backgammon board made to look like a book in which he finds hidden the means to restore the family fortunes? Or, might the heroine, cruelly displaced from her rightful position in an aristocratic family, find the means to prove her identity in an old backgammon table? The elegantly crafted table, with a checkerboard top, is now relegated to the schoolroom. But the heroine recognizes it and memories come flooding back to her of a time when her beloved mother kept it in her sitting room and one day, hid a special locket inside the dice cup. A locket which held two miniatures, one of herself as a child and one of her mother. Time and lack of care has caused the varnish to fuse the table top to the lower part of the table, thus keeping the current owners in ignorance of the backgammon set concealed beneath. But the heroine is able to gently dislodge the table top and finds the locket still inside the dice cup, just as her mother had left it. A game of backgammon, a backgammon board or table might be just the thing to embellish a romance set in the Regency.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Backgammon in England During the Regency

  1. Some lovely plot bunnies there! Just to lower the tone, backgammon also found its way into cant, at least by 1811, when a backgammon player was one of the euphemisms for a homosexual man.

  2. Brilliant plot-bunnies, I love all of them!

    Thank you for the insightfull post.I didn’t know backgammon was once called “Puff” in Germany. I had heard the name, but had no idea what kind of game it was.
    The game “Puff” is featured in the German translation of Georgette Heyer’s “The Talisman Ring”: Eustacie complains she has to go to Bath, where the only entertainment for her will be playing Puff with Sir Tristam’s mother.
    In the English version of Mrs .Heyer’s novel, Sir Tristam’s mother enjoys card parties. Whist and Commerce, Eustacie assumes gloomliy.

    • How fascinating, so in Germany at least it was a game for dowagers…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I had heard that substantive changes were sometimes made in translations of English books into other languages in order to appeal to the readers of that language. Interesting that backgammon should be substituted for card parties, especially in 1793, when The Talisman Ring is set, since, from what I can tell, backgammon was still very popular, at least in England, at that time. Maybe it had fallen out of fashion earlier in the Germanic states than it did in Britain. Or, whoever did the translation thought playing “Puff” sounded suitably dull. I sincerely hope Georgette Heyer never read the German translation, I doubt she would have been pleased, since she took such pains with the historical accuracy of her stories.

      And, to join Sarah in lowering the tone, I just discovered that “Puff” was a slang term for a brothel or a lady of the evening in some of the Germanic countries.

      I am glad you liked the post. I have to admit, it was fun to write.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. susana says:

    Fascinating! Thank you, Kathryn!

  4. Am rereading “Emma,” and I notice that Mr. Woodhouse likes a game of backgammon. That fits with what you describe as the image of the game and its players at that particular moment in history.

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