The dice game played for Christ’s raiment by the soldiers at the foot of the cross is probably the most famous reference to dice in Christian history.  But the dice are a lot older than Christianity.  They probably go backgammon even further than the Theban dice (1573 b.c.) mentioned on p.30-back  to the crude sticks, shells, or bones used for divination by primitive man.  Crudity, however, is no indication of age:  The astragals (ankle bones of sheep used as dice) in the British Museum and Pennsylvania University Museum are not all necessarily earlier than the accurately shaped ivory Thebans, or than some stone dice discovered at Naucratis in Egypt and dated 600 b.c. Astragals were still in popular use even in Roman times (the Latin word for astragal is talus).

Dice (with which I include for the moment astragals ) seem to have appeared in Asia very early.  But their first use there was most likely as motivators in games like backgammon , in which pieces are moved on a board in directions and distances prescribed by the throw of dice.  Backgammon (in one form or another ) is the precursor of practically every modern board and pieces game in which the moves are decided by dice- even parlor games like snakes-and-ladders or the more sophisticated Monopoly.  Boards and pieces for a dice game that must have been very similar to modern backgammon have been found on sites of the early Mesopotamian civilizations, which were 3000 years before Rome.  In fact, backgammon in some form is probably the oldest of all sheu games combining skill and chance though the element of skill involved lies mainly
in the use of one’s knowledge of the possible combinations that can be thrown with a pair of dice,  evidence of its presence (though none of its invention) has been found among the relics of most old civilizations- including the Chinese, Indian, Aztec, American Indian, Celtic, and Saxon.

The dice come out on a typical casino table.  Craps, America’s favorite game of chance, is now played extensively in gambling centers throughout the world.


A Greek vase painting (from 550-525 b.c.) depicting Achilles and Ajax dicing during the Trojan War.  They are probably playing some form of backgammon, which is one of the oldest of board-and-pieces games using dice as a motivaor.

Backgammon is essentially a race game for two players. Each player tries to get all his pieces off the board before his opponent, and the dice determine how often and to what extent the pieces are hindered or advanced.  Each player’s side of the board is divided in half by a bar.  On one side of the bar is the player’s “inner” table (containing six points); on the other side is the “outer” table (also with six points).  There are 15 white pieces and 15 black.  The pieces are moved the number of points corresponding to the dice (the number thrown may be shared by two pieces).  White moves his pieces from Black’s inner table to Black’s outer, then to his own outer and finally to his own inner.  Black moves in the opposite direction.

Arrival at a point already occupied means that the occupying player must return his piece to the bar, from which it may be allowed to move again only when the player throws number coinciding with an unoccupied point.  when a player has got all his men to his inner table he must try for a number that will allow him to release his pieces from the board; if he can achieve this before his opponent, he is the winning poker rules.

There are three degrees of victory: a single win (or “hit”), which is achieved if the opponent has already begun to take his pieces from the board; a double win (or “gammon”), meaning that the opponent has not yet taken any of his pieces away; and a triple win (or “backgammon “), in which the opponent merely has a piece in his own inner table.  The winner of two of three games is the final victor.  Betting by players and backers is usually on a straight ultimate victory, but it may also involve side bets on the different degrees of victory in individual games.


The chart used for the popular chinese game “promotions.”  The chart (made of proper or silk) is divided into different headings, with various civil services appointments listed beneath.  Colored counters are moved upward or downward (“promoting” or “demoting” the players) in accordance with the throw of four dice.

Simplification and elaborations of backgammon exits in profusion all over the world.  All though the many versions, from the Indian pacisi (which is played on a cruciform board) to the nursery game ludo and the countless commercial variants with topical slants that are marketed from time to time (with names like Totoplay, Motogo, nd Grand National)  the idea of race simulation is maintained.  Backgammon itself is played to some extent in Europe and America and is very popular in the Middle East and Asia.  In France it’s called tric-trac, in Italy favola reale, and in Germany tric-trach or puffspiel.  But in the Western world it is by no means as popular as cards or as dice games involving no more than the dice themselves.  In many European cities it is difficult even to find a shop selling the equipment.

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