Game Report: Irish, and Early Backgammon

Class: Tables

Number of Players: 2 (possibly 4 in variations, according to Willughby)

Reconstructed mainly from primary source

Date redacted: March 29, 1997

Redactor: Justin du Coeur

Sources: Willughby's Volume of Plaies, c. 1665. Also, Cotton's Complete Gamester, 1672. But the principal source is Willughby, since Cotton is (as usual) relatively cryptic. Also a little bit in Randle Holme's Academy of Armory, London, 1688.


Irish appears to be the direct ancestor of Backgammon, and is quite similar. The name is only known from the sixteenth century, but the rules are essentially the same as those known in versions from a variety of countries dating back centuries earlier. It is the classic Renaissance Tables game.

Note that "games within the Tables" -- that is, on what we think of as a Backgammon board -- were an entire family of games in period. Backgammon was simply a latecoming variant that wound up the sole major survivor of this family. The rules for most were pretty similar.

For now, this reconstruction has no illustrations. I will presume that the reader has a backgammon board, or at least knows what one looks like. I will try to describe the rules in considerable detail, though. The summary at the bottom contains a summary of how Irish and early Backgammon differ from the modern game.

The purpose of the game is straightforward: bring your men around the Tables into your Home Table, and then bear them off. The first person to bear off completely wins.

(Note that movement is the opposite from movement in Ticktack -- in that game, your pieces start at your Home Table, and move towards your opponent.


This is a standard Tables game, so it uses a standard Backgammon board, with 15 men each. Men in backgammon are conventionally small disks; Willughby is explicit that men were canonically about 7/8" around, and about 3/8" high.

Each player should have a Box to throw dice from, and two dice. There was a distinct period terminology for the sides of the die, apparently derived from the French: "ace", "duce", "trea", "kater", "cinque", "sice". These names are also often used to denote the first six spaces on the Table.

It is common to speak in Tables games of "one's own Tables" and "one antagonist's Tables". One's own Tables means the side of the board at which you are sitting; the opponent's Tables means his side. Each side has 12 triangles, each triangle being a space that you can land upon. You and your opponent are moving pieces in opposite directions around the board; that is, if your pieces are moving clockwise, his are moving counter-clockwise. It doesn't matter particularly who goes which way; one common convention is that the edge that the pieces move across from one side to the other is the edge with the better light.

Assume that your pieces are moving clockwise, from your opponent's side to your own. In this case, the left-most triangle on your Table is your 1 (ace) point; the right-most on your side is your 12 point; the right-most on the opponent's Table is your 13 point; and the left-most on the opponent's Table is your 24 point. You are always moving pieces numerically downward, never upward (except when a piece has been taken off the board, and must be replaced elsewhere).

Your ace through sice points (1 through 6) are called your "home".


Place five of your men on your 6 point; three on your 8 point; five on your 13 point; and two on your 24 point, way deep in your opponent's territory.


Begin by rolling for start: each player rolls one die, and the highest roller gets the first throw.

During a normal turn, you put both dice into the box, and roll them out. Each die roll represents the movement of one man. So, for instance, say you roll a 3 and a 5. You can move one man 3 spaces (say, from your 15 to your 12) and another 5 (from the 15 to the 10). You can use both dice to move a single man the combined distance, but this must be taken in two legal moves (so you could move one man from the 15 to the 10, and thence to the 7); however, you must be able to legally land on the intermediate space.

If you have only one man on a given space, that man is sometimes referred to as a "blot", which means that he is vulnerable. If you land on one of your opponent's blots (or "blot the man"), that man is taken. The captured piece is placed off the Tables, usually on the bar in between the two halves of the board, or somewhere else convenient. However, if there are two or more opposing men on a space, they can not be blotted, and you can not land on the space.

When you have been blotted, you cannot move until the blot is replaced onto the board. Instead of moving, you roll the dice to re-enter the piece (or pieces -- it is common to be blotted more than one piece at a time). If you roll an ace, you can enter a piece on your opponent's ace point (that is, your 24 point); if a duce, on your opponent's duce point (your 23) and so on. However, you must be able to legally land on that space -- if he has multiple pieces on the space, then you can not land there. If he has only a single man on the space, then not only can you land there, but you blot the man that was standing in that spot.

Binding the tables -- this is an interesting tweak, which I don't believe survives today. If you have two or more men on all of the points in your Home Table, you have "bound up the table", and your opponent cannot enter any blotted men that he may have. (Since his blots must enter through your Home Table, and no spaces are available to him.) If you have bound up the table, and he has men to enter, then you must "break" or "open" the table. Breaking the table means that all but one of the men on one of your home spaces are removed, just as if they were blotted, and must be re-entered from your opponent's home.

To choose which point must be broken, both players throw two dice. The player with the higher throw gets to choose which point will be broken; however, even if the person who has bound up his home wins the toss, he still must break one point in his Home.

If there are no blots to be entered, then you can bind up your Tables with impunity. But beware the danger of blotting your opponent, if so...

Note that this whole concept of breaking bound-up tables comes entirely from Willughby; so far, I haven't noticed it in any other sources. (Although there aren't many other sources that talk about the game in great detail.) At this point, I don't know how widespread this particular tweak was, or even if it was necessarily period. But it does make a very interesting addition to the game, and changes endgame strategies in some non-trivial ways. So I tentatively recommend it.

Bearing Off -- When all of your men are in your Home Table, you may bear them off. You continue to throw the dice, but instead of moving, you may take pieces from the points shown on the dice. That is, if you throw a 2 and a 5, you may bear off one man from your duce (2) point, and one from your cinque (5) point. Once a man is borne off, he is out of play, and does not ever need to be re-entered.

Willughby is not explicit about whether you can continue to bear off if you have brought all your men to your Home Table, but then have had some put further back due to blots; I would tend to assume that you cannot, until all your men are back Home again.

A Digression on Inexact bearing off -- There is one major issue which Willughby leaves highly ambiguous: do you have to bear men off by exact roll? In modern Backgammon, when you are bearing off, if you roll a number that you can neither bear off nor move, you may bear off from a lower point. That is, if all your men are on your ace and duce points, and you roll a kater, you can bear off a man from the duce instead, since the roll can't be used any other way.

I don't think that this exact method is likely from Willughby, but two rather different ones are. On the one hand, when he introduces the concept of bearing off, in Dublets, he makes it very clear that you can only bear off by exact roll; indeed, he stresses it. If we use the rule from that, therefore, we would surmise that you can only bear off by exact roll.

On the other hand, he may be emphasizing this in Dublets precisely because it is not the normal case. The way he generally phrases bearing off in Irish is along the lines of "bearing off over the 1 point". He never talks about exact rolls, only about bearing off over the end of the board. Taking that at face value, I get a very different interpretation: that "bearing off" means going out off the end of the board, and exact rolls are probably entirely unecessary.

After playing a bit with each method, I've come to suspect that the inexact bearing off is probably the correct interpretation. The reason is simple: I think that the modern method, although probably not required in the period game, is nonetheless the best strategy. Once your pieces are all in your home table, if you are working with inexact bear-off, what really matters is the raw number of pips you roll; each pip moves one man one space closer to bearing off. You want to manage those pips as efficiently as possible. As it turns out, the modern rule is a good strategy for this: if you can bear a man off exactly on a roll, without wasting any pips, that is good; if you can move a man without wasting, that is also good; only if you can do neither of these should you bear off from a lower space, thus wasting precious pips.

So my best guess is that the modern rule is post-period, and that you can bear off inexactly at all times; however, following the modern rule as a rule of thumb will probably work best anyway.

Regardless, the winner is the first player to bear off all 15 of his men.


A good, solid game, close enough to Backgammon that the modern gamester can learn it in a matter of minutes. A shade slower than Backgammon, but not enough to make it dull. As this is one of the classic Period Games, with versions in a vast number of Medieval and Renaissance cultures, I recommend it particularly highly.


General summary of the high points:

Difference from Modern Backgammon:

Early Backgammon

Backgammon appears to have been invented some time in the first half of the seventeenth century; whether this is period or not, I leave up to the discretion of the reader. This game is quite similar to Irish, so I will only describe the differences between it and Irish. In the summary below, I mention the differences between this and modern Backgammon.


In Backgammon, doubles are redoubled. If you throw 2 duces, you take 4 duces instead (that is, you may move 4 men two spaces each, or any other combination of 4 moves of two spaces), or bear off 4 men from your duce point. Essentially, if you roll doubles, treat it as if you had rolled 4 dice, all with the same value.

The stakes at Backgammon may be somewhat elevated. Under normal conditions, you win simply a single stake. But if you throw doubles on the final throw, to bear off your last men, you win a double stake.

Winning a Backgammon means that you have borne off all your men before your opponent has brought all of his men around to his Home. Willughby and Cotton are inconsistent about how much this is worth. According to Willughby, a Backgammon is worth a double stake, and a Backgammon that is won on a throw of doubles is worth a triple stake. According to Cotton and Holme (who plagiarizes a good deal from Cotton), a Backgammon is worth a triple stake, and a Backgammon won with a throw of doubles is worth a quadruple stake. I strongly advise that the players agree on how they are going to play this before beginning the game, to avoid duels and other such inconveniences.

(Note, BTW, that Willughby does not use the term "Backgammon" to refer to this act of bearing off your men before your opponent comes home; he just uses it as the name of the game. However, Cotton does use the term in this way, and it is common modern usage, so I use it here.)


Backgammon is just like Irish, except:

Early Backgammon differs from modern in that: