How often do you hear that backgammon is not just one of the world’s oldest games, but is still played (perhaps in variation) around the world today.
Tawla is one of the oldest and most famous backgammon strategy games in history, as well as a staple in Egyptian cafes, along with Turkish coffee.
The game, I understand, is a balance between strategic thinking and pure luck.
Backgammon is traditionally for two players. The pieces are moved according to the roll of dice, and players win by removing all of their pieces from the board.
Most variants of Tawla share common traits, and Mahbousa (Locked-in) is the most famous variation of the family of table board games in the Arab world.
Like chess, backgammon includes numerous options for moving the checkers, allowing players to pick the right move while anticipating possible counter-moves by the opponent.
The game box is divided into four sections. Two belong to the players at the beginning of the game while the other two constitute the “battle field” where the game takes place. The goal is to move all your pieces into the other player’s field. Each section is divided into six lines, and when you get a certain number–say, for example, four–you are allowed to move one checker four lines forward.
The history of backgammon goes back approximately 5000 years, and interesting enough, a version of backgammon was first played in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian game Senet was excavated, along with illustrations, from Egyptian royal tombs. The oldest hieroglyph representing a Senet game dates to circa 3100 BC. The full name of the game in Egyptian means the “game of passing.”
Ancient Iran, however, is popularly believed to be the land where backgammon was first played. Called Shahr-e Sokhteh (literally “The Burnt City”) in Iran, uncovered artifacts include two dice and 60 checkers (similar to the current pieces of the game) and the set is believed to be 100 to 200 years older than sets found in Egypt.
“Of course it’s an Iranian game,” said an Iranian player I know. “When we play it, we use the Iranian way of counting the results of the dice.” When he plays, he does not take his eyes off the board , and explains that when you roll a one on your dice, you say “Yak,” and two equals “Due,” three is “Sah,” four is “Jihar,” five is pronounced “Benj,” and six is “Shish.”
“As you can see, I got a two and a three on the two die I just threw: I would call it ‘Due-Sah,’ which is exactly what I need,” he points out, while his opponent cringes.
While the game seems simple enough for most to understand, if a player cheats to win, all bets are off. Numerous cheating methods have been used and developed in backgammon and the practice is not uncommon.
“Sometimes I move the checker the wrong number of spaces,” Zakria, a famous player in the Borsa cafe district in downtown Cairo says discreetly. “Some people just trust you when you move the checker fast enough. Moreover, I have some special throws to produce the dice number I desire. It works every time.”
“Cheating in this game is an art, but don’t tell anyone I told you that,” he adds, looking around suspiciously.
Tawla is not limited to a certain age group. At a cafe in Dokki, two young players in their twenties compete for the third time after a long tournament between them.