Backgammon is a popular game in a large part of the world. Books have been written on it, it's been made into computer games and the best of the best play in tournaments. The game as it's known to the western world is, however, incomplete. This writeup assumes that you're familiar with the rules of backgammon.

There is One True Way to use a backgammon board and that way is called "tavli" and is the Greek way of playing. The name "tavli" is derived from the Latin "tabulas." The backgammon board is about 7000 years old and is of Persian or Egyptian origin, though we're not sure what rules were used. Modern rules probably date back at least to the Ottoman occupation of Greece from the 15th to 19th century. It's possible that you'll find it played with similar or identical rules in Turkey, Israel, or elsewhere in the Near East and Mediterranean.


Tavli is a suite of three games played in rotation on the same board. The order is well-defined though a game might be dropped or the sequence changed in casual play. Serious players are strict about it.

Dice are rolled only to decide who goes first in the first game. After that, the winner of the previous game always plays first. Matches are typically played to best of 13 points, though casual matches can be played to less. A player does not have to play out a losing game. He can indicate resignation by picking up the counters and beginning to set them up for the next game.

What these games have in common are the dice rolls and how they're used and the concept of positioning all counters in the home board before bearing off; the main differences are in initial layout and means of "hitting" the opponent's counters. Games are played in the following order:

1. Portes

This is nothing other than your garden-variety backgammon game. Same rules, same positions, same board. Just what you'll find on Yahoo! If you're reasonable experienced, you can avoid total humiliation at the hands of a tavli expert by at least winning one of these. The name means "doors" and a door in this context is what's known in English as an "owned" or "made" point.

2. Plakotó

The name is hard to translate but basically means "weighing down."

Counters are all positioned on the 1-point. The key to this game is that hit blots are not put on the bar and sent back to the 0-point but are left in place underneath the counter of the hitter, who now owns the point. The blot can not be moved until the counter weighing it down is moved. Of course managing to hit counters in your opponent's home board is always a good thing since you'll be able to hold him back much longer because you'll be able to bear yours off later without having to move. When desperate, it's a good idea to think carefully before leaving a blot in your home board. Hits on your opponent's home stretch (your points 1-12) are rarely productive as your goal is to hit him as deeply into his own territory as is possible but they may be used to temporarily reduce his mobility and free another of your counters for movement, or to eliminate a threat posed by an advanced counter targeting your home board.

A good strategy in this game is not to spread your counters too thinly over the board but rather to advance them leapfrog-style as much as possible. A lot in the game depends on reducing your opponent's mobility either by hitting or by blocking. A major coup is hitting your opponent's 1-point (your 24-point), which is, logically, an instant gammon. When seriously weighed down by multiple hits, your best strategy is to retaliate if you can, targeting the space between the bulk of each player's counters, and concentrate on blocking enough of your opponent's moves to force him to abandon a hit and free your counter for movement.

3. Fevga

Also and less commonly known by its Turkish name of Moultezim, the name means "go!" or "leave!"

All counters start at point 0, off the board. This is the most complex of the three games and positioning is everying because there is no hitting at all. Points are owned by placing only one counter on them. Your opponent may not use those points at all. This allows for a lot of scheming and some surprising twists. In this game players start at diagonally opposite corners of the board and both move in the same direction, usually counter-clockwise, not that it makes a difference.

Significant tactical advantages in this game can be gained not only by blocking but also by providing yourself with stepping-stones all the way to your end zone. Stepping stones should be arranged carefully. For example, if you occupy the 11-point and the 17-point, and everything in between is blocked, you don't want your next one to be the 23-point because that would mean that you depend on a single roll--in this case, sixes--to move anything. Also, you always have to leave at least one open point anywhere in your starting quadrant, which can be very awkward when it turns your perfect roll into something that forces you to move a counter that you really don't want to move instead of putting a fresh one on the board. The seasoned player aims to capture the 3- to 8-point stretch early on and leapfrog the counters on it to the 7-12 stretch.

Let me know if something here is unclear and I'll fix it.

Be prepared

Other than the two additional games, there are few differences in the way it's played compared to backgammon elsewhere in the world. One feature missing from tavli that one finds in backgammon is the doubling cube. The cube is an American gimmick introduced in 1931 and has nothing to do with the traditional way of playing. Real Players dismiss it as fancy junk for people who take the game way too seriously. Another difference is that there is no such thing as a triple-score "backgammon." The maximum score for any single game is two and this is scored with either a gammon or a backgammon.

A point that needs to be made here is to use all your counters. You're not required to keep them all on the table for Plakoto and Fevga. In Plakoto you typically place a token two counters on the 1-point and play the rest from your hand under the assumption that they're on the 1-point. In Fevga too, where they all begin off the board, many players fiddle with the counters while they're not in play. Make sure you have fifteen on the board and not fourteen and one that you're sitting on. Failure to use all counters means that you lose the game as a gammon by default.

Etiquette and ambience

Tavli is best played outdoors. It's definitely a summer sport and the ideal atmosphere is a lazy evening on a verandah after most of the dusk mosquitos have dispersed. In winter it's often played in coffee shops and, if you walk into a Greek coffee shop on a Sunday morning, chances are at least one table will be occupied by a pair of noisy tavli players and a gawker or two fiddling with their worry beads and commenting on the game. Bystanders are expected not to offer advice. Tavli is typically not played for money, though a small wager on the outcome of the match is not unheard of.

Being a social game, it's often accompanied by light social drinking. Accompaniments can be either beer or ouzo with a few snacks. Both the game and the conversation get more animated after a beer or two. Talking politics or other "serious" issues is atypical and talk is either just small talk or revolves around the game at hand. Gesturing and cursing is de rigueur in a social game with friends, as anyone of Greek, Italian or similar background will understand. Although it's mostly a man's game and rife with insults of an undisguisedly sexual nature, women are perfectly welcome to join in. Insults, there never being a shortage of suitable expressions for a given situation in Greek, can be adjusted to match the gender of the participants.

Particularly good moves should be concluded by slapping the counters onto the board, as should those moves which are made out of pure desperation. The desired effect is one of maximum loudness without actually making the rest of the counters jump (that's rude). In an urban environment this should be done in measure after 23:00 since the neighbours tend not to take kindly to the noise. The sound effects, by the way, are a significant reason why no self-respecting player will use a board that's not wooden.

Winners and losers

It's not just about winning. It's not even about how you win. Whichever way you win, it is customary that the loser of a close match dispute your skill and complain about his bad luck or everything going your way. Consider the right to gripe fair compensation for losing... and then dismiss his claims, after all you did win. While the winner may make statements to the effect that you didn't stand a chance against him, persistent gloating is bad form. The loser may of course vow revenge and, if both players have enough time on their hands, they might settle the matter by playing a best-of-three series of matches.