hist-games: Historical Games -- FAQ, Part II (Monthly Posting)

Mark Waks justin at intermetrics.com
Tue Dec 2 08:12:46 PST 1997

David Salley wrote:
> [quoting the Brittanica]
>         "That checkers was played in the days of the earlier Pharoahs is
>         well authenticated by Egyptian history and the British Museum contains
>         specimens of primitive boards quite similar to modern ones. ...
>         Plato and Homer mentioned the game in their works and the Romans
>         are believed to have imported it from the Greeks.   ... [T]he
>         earliest publications on record manifest the 12 men on each side
>         and our conventional board.

Okay, now I'm intrigued -- this is quite different from the conventional
wisdom I've heard. I've never seen Checkers listed as a game of ancient
Egypt, and the received wisdom I've always heard is that it's a
middle-of-period descendent of Alquerques, altered to fit a chessboard.
Does anyone know more about this? While I'm willing to believe that it's
considerably more ancient, I'm not going to accept it on the word of a
single non-specialty secondary source. Are there other references that
folks know about? Do we know what these references in Plato and Homer
actually say?

> And now for THIS week's list of games!
>         MANCALA -- Ancient African in origin

"Ancient" seems to be the consistent word for it. I've never heard an
early boundary date placed on it; it goes way back. (Although I gather
that the evidence is mainly based on finding boards; I don't think I've
heard of any ancient written rules, but that isn't surprising.) It
should be noted that the term "Mancala" is often used as shorthand for
an entire family of games that involve moving stones around a board of

The game seems to be consistently African (indeed, seems to be the
primary game family of Africa); while it isn't listed in any period
sources from Europe that I know, I gather that there is some physical
evidence that it was at least known in some times and places, especially
in southern Europe (which traded with Africa)...

>         MARBLES -- Prehistoric, found in nearly EVERY archeological site.

Visible in Breughel's painting of Children's Games, among others...

>         OTHELLO -- 1880's ?

Something like that. Originally called "Reversi": I get the impression
that "Othello" is a trademarked name...

>         POKER -- Earliest reference 1901?

Again, something like that; although it is played in many places today,
Poker is arguably the quintessential American card game. The origins of
Poker get argued all over the place; you will often encounter arguments
that it is a direct descendent of ancient card games, although I find
that more wishful thinking than anything else -- I haven't yet found a
geneology that I find very convincing.

Most of the elements of Poker can be found in period games, however. In
particular, Primero, one of the most popular Renaissance card games, has
a number of these elements, including the idea of specific hands such as
the Flush, as well as raising and bluffing. That's probably the closest
early analogue to the modern game, and the one I most often recommend to
Poker players looking for a period game. (The other one I recommend is
Gleek, which is less similar in details but is a better high-stakes
betting and bluffing game.)

>         RUMMY -- Not a clue, anyone?

I gather that its origins are oriental, but I don't know more than

>         TIC-TAC-TOE -- Ancient Roman

Often categorized as a trivial variant of Merels, although I have no
idea whether there's a genuine relationship there...

				-- Justin

Random Quote du Jour:

"If at first you don't succeed -- destroy all evidence of
 having tried!"
		-- Jhanos

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