Greek Backgammon tables, the boards upon which Tavli is played today, have their origins in the game played in ancient Mesopotamia. Backgammon is, perhaps, the oldest known game still in play and there are as many variations on the game as there are countries that play it. In ancient times as today, the game was played on wooden boards, or tables, using stones as game pieces and numbered dice made from bone, stone, wood and ceramics. Throughout its history, Backgammon has been a game for the nobility and the wealthy. Both documents and relics have associated Backgammon with the aristocrats of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Far East.
Greek Backgammon Tables: The Rise of Tavli
Centuries after the Egyptians began playing Senet, their version of Backgammon, the Greeks were enjoying their own form of the game. Still called Tavli, or tables, the game has remained popular throughout Greek history since ancient times.
- Plato mentioned the game and its popularity.
- Sophocles attributed it to Palamedes, claiming that he played the game during the siege of Troy.
- Homer mentioned it in the Odyssey.
- Herodotus claimed it was invented by the Lydians.
Today, Greek Backgammon, tables, or Tavli, is considered the signature game of Greece. There, in cafes and parks, anywhere people congregate, you will find them at tables playing Tavli.
The classic Greek Tavli is composed of three variations: Portes, Plakoto and Fevga, which are played in order until one player wins seven times. In each, the checkers are moved based on the die roll, which determines the points. Portes, which means doors, is only slightly different from Backgammon. Two checkers together form a door or wall where the other player cannot place their pieces. Plakoto, the original Greek version of the game, comes from the Greek verb plakono, to place something onto something else. In this variation, it is permissible to place your checker on top of your opponent's checker. Fevga, which originated in Turkey, means "to run." The game is fast and you need to watch your positioning in order to make it to your home quarter first.
General Rules Governing All Three Variants
The following general rules, which do not match the rules of Backgammon, apply to each of the variations that make up Tavli.
- The object of the game is to remove your checkers from the board. This can only begin when all fifteen of your checkers are in your own home quarter of the board. The first to do this wins a single winning point. If the loser has not managed to remove at least one checker, then the winner receives two winning points.
- Two dice are rolled and the two numbers are separately turned to moves. If one of the rolls cannot be used, it is lost. However, if at least one move is possible, the player must move even if the move is a bad one. Rolling doubles allows the player to move four times. No doubling cube is used.
Portes: Doors and Striking
Two features that stand out in the game Portes is the use of doors and striking. By placing two or more of your own pieces on a point, you create a door. This does two things: It creates a barrier for your opponent, especially when you have built more than one door in a row. Doing this makes it difficult for him to move his pieces. It also protects you from your opponent's attempts to strike your pieces. Striking is a strategy that allows you to pick off a checker that stands alone on a point. When a piece is struck, it is removed from play and placed on the bar that runs between the two game surfaces. You are not obligated to strike your opponent's pieces, but it is an option and so the advice is to build doors as quickly as possible.
Plakoto:Covering Your Opponent
In Plakoto, the players place all their pieces in their respective starting quarters and the winner of the first game rolls first. The pieces move according to the die roll and this continues until all the pieces are fully in play. As in Portes, it is good to make doors in this game as well to avoid being covered. This is when a single piece of yours is under the piece of your opponent. If this happens, it cannot move until your opponent uncovers it. As play continues, if you do manage to cover your opponent's last piece that is still at its starting point, then you win double.
Fevga: Running the Course
In this version, the game pieces are placed at diagonals. The winner of the last game rolls first with the points being worked out in the same manner as Plakato. The main difference between Fevga and the other two games is that only one piece is needed to close a point and it cannot be struck or covered by an opponent's piece. Because of this, if one of the players is so closed-in by his opponent that he is unable to play any dice, his opponent must open at least one place for him to play.
Greek Backgammon, tables, Tavli, call it what you will, is a game of speed, strategy and luck. The ancient Greeks appreciated the last by referring to a roll of six as "Aphrodite" and a roll of one as "Dog." Modern Greeks appreciate the game for its challenge and play it everywhere. If you are seeking a fun Backgammon challenge, try Tavli, the Greeks have sworn by it for two-thousand years.