Welcome to Turkey
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain
speaking. If you look out of the left-hand side of the 'plane you will
see Dalaman airport as we approach from the sea. We are presently at
1500 feet and are set for a smooth landing. For those who are on their
first visit to Turkey, don't be alarmed
by the rattling and banging noises you'll hear as we near the runway,
this is quite normal and nothing to be alarmed about, I assure you; it
is merely the rolling of dice and the clatter of checkers as the Turks
You think I'm exaggerating? Then it's obvious you've
not been to Turkey. Tavla is played everywhere in Turkey, shops, cafes,
restaurants, bars, lokantas, hotels, pensions, pavements, even in the
middle of the road! Entire sections of cities are pedestrianised solely
for the pursuit of and pleasure of playing tavla.
I refer to it's Turkish name because although it is the same
backgammon that we all know and love, there are a few small variations
in the way in which it is played. To my knowledge (and when it comes to
playing tavla in Turkey that knowledge is widespread and hard gained)
these rules or variations are not written down but are learned as the
game progresses! For me to explain the little things that quite
unexpectedly catch you out would without doubt warrant a fatwah against
me. So don't come to me for easy answers. I'm no fool! What I am
prepared to do though is recount my own experiences and introduce you
to some of my friends during a week's stay and many games of tavla.
Tavla in Fethiye; where my Turkish brother, Mustafa lives and owns a
jeweller's shop with his brother, Numan and cousin, Seckin, (who,
incidentally don't play tavla) is played in the middle of the street
and is frequently disturbed
by uncaring and unsympathetic council employees and motor vehicles!
These interruptions are essential to the full enjoyment of the gameI
suspect even part of the rulesas they are an occasion for colourful
invective questioning of the parentage and mental capacity of the
perpetrators. Fortunately good taste prohibits any inclusion of the
actual words / phrases used, but take it from me, even if you don't
understand the language, you'll have no doubt as to it's content or
I give nothing away in telling you that normally the matches are played
first to 5, best of 3. Unless of course, you reach 5 first, then it
becomes clear that you have misunderstood and it is first to seven. I
must confess though, I don't have difficulty in mistaking bes (5) for
yedi (7) but it does seem to happen on the odd occasion. Hindsight and
analysis have shown that these occasions coincide with me reaching bes
first,or is this merely, as I've just stated, a coincidence?
The equipment is of some interest to regular backgammon players (not to
mention distress) in as much as the dice are microscopic (as in tiny,
tiny, tiny), the points are all the same colour (if they have a colour
at all) and invariably the checkers appear to be the same colour for
both players! Happily closer inspection
of the latter reveals in fact that one set of checkers are a different
shade or have in some way been smudged to differentiate them from the
This inspection continues throughout the match as you sit
hunchbacked above the board staring myopically at each move, giving a
not too inaccurate impersonation of Quasimodo
signing his name with the quill held firmly between the incisors.
Finally the board is placed upon a small, wobbly plastic table, which
in turn is placed upon a rough and uneven surface giving the whole
ensemble a nautical bent as the whole structure reels from side to side
as though one was onboard the ferry as Charon steers it drunkenly
across the Styx. In fact, at the right (or wrong) time of year, the sun
is so hot you might well believe you are actually nearing Hades.
Just before I carry on I'd just like to describe the dice in
more detail. If you're the sort of player who only plays with precision
dice, beware! Each die face is different from it's five neighbours and
the 1 is a large, round indentation, usually painted bright red. The
fact that this large moon crater
of a dent might, just slightly, bias the fall of the die should not
alarm the purists among you, this supposed bias is more than
compensated for by the fact that Turkish dice are not formed of
right-angles, thus ensuring a fair roll! However, there is fair and
there's fairas you will learn later.
Playing the Game
So, the board is set, you've figured out which men are yours
(the starting positions are a great help), you've narrowed your eyes to
slits, better able to focus upon the dice, you're crouched over the
reeling board (which spookily rejects all attempts of your feet and
knees to hold it steady) and the game begins.
You win the first throw which establishes you have the first
move, you cup the dice in your hands (no dice cups herethe Turks
don't hold with that sissy stuff,
they're hands-on men) and you shake them ineffectively in your palms.
Ineffectively because the occasion, the onlookers, the searing heat
have all conspired to make you perspire, even your palms sweat and the
dice cling like limpets to your skin. Aha! You think you've learnt the
reason why the Turks hold the dice between the first two fingers and
the thumb. Wrong! Look again, they're not sweating, they hold 'em like
that so they can roll the numbers they want! Oh yes they can, I told
you earlier there's fair and there's fair!
Anyway, you think you've sussed out how to hold the dice and
you toss them onto the board. Now before we go any further let's just
clarify a legal roll. As long as no die falls upon the road it is
legal. They might be in separate tables, they might be on the checkers,
it doesn't matter, it's legal.
So, back to your roll. The dice launch themselves from your grip,
bounce upon the board and, at the very moment that they come to a halt
your opponent's hand swoops down like some avenging angel, picks them
up, rolls again and completes his move before your narrowed eyes have
even had time to focus upon where yours fell, let alone on what they
The Turks don't mess about when playing tavla, oh no. It's played at a
lightning pacewell, at least their move is. If you blink, cough,
sneeze or turn your head for a second you'll miss half the game! Their
half! They sneer at our slow play, they think we are women (for those
readers that are women, they just think you're slow), and I can tell
you, in a male dominated society, your masculinity
cannot withstand too many threats. The pace they play at is incredible.
Visually it's a blur but aurally (and here's a major clue to knowing
when they have actually moved) the loud 'crrrack' the checker makes as
it's slapped to the board gives a directional clue as to the pieces
An extremely rare picture of a tavla player at rest.
Now, it's at this time that an optical illusion takes place. As the
checker is forced down, the table legs (wobbly plastic) buckle and the
board is compressed to the ground; but, the checkers appear to be
suspended in mid air, defying gravity. In reality they are awaiting the
return of the board to it's original position. Until one gets used to
this phenomena, it's quite unnerving.
"Er. Sorry, I didn't quite see what my throw was." This is the stock
phrase of the visiting tavla player and is closely followed by the much
used, "What is that in English?" To help you the numbers, 1 to 6 in
Turkish are: bir, iki, üç, dört, bes, alti. Pronunciation is a matter
for the individual and a source of much merriment
for the Turks. More phrases, many more than space permits herein, will
crop up from time to time. What they are I shall leave for the
adventurous among you to discover.
So you make your move. Whatever it isgood or badit will be sneered at.
You can be certain of two things when making your play, 1. Making
points is futile, they'll simply leap over all but a 6-prime with a
convenient double, and 2. All blots will be hit. Yes, I know, you have
to leave blots/builders but I do assure you, if they're within the
range of the dice, then unerringly like some laser guided bird of prey
they'll swoop down upon your checker and with a loud wallop deposit it
upon the bar with a look that says, "Why did you leave that?"
A word of warning here; don't speak of builders. All a builder is to a
Turk is someone who's erecting another pension alongside the other
pensions. It's also wise not to pipcount under any circumstances. All
this will achieve is total embarrassment
for you when, after pointing out (often with a slight hint of
superiority), that you are so far ahead in the race that you cannot
lose this game, that you do in fact, lose this game.
The ease and contempt with which they throw 6-6 to bear off
consecutively is a revelation and a lesson in humility. All over Turkey
you can hear the hissing of deflated egos
In fact the scale of this deflation has been ascribed by certain
meteorologists as the true source of the Sirocco and not the deserts of
Libya as popularly thought.
So, there you have it. Backgammon in Turkey. I know I might have given
you a couple of the rules but there is still more to learn. After nine
years I'm still learning.
I can't relate tavla to you without mentioning a few of the many
friends I played with. Huseyin (there are two of them), Remzi (he's not
a local to Mustafa's shophe comes from a bit further down the road
just to play me; and Sharen, my wife, thinks he looks like Omar
Sharif), Nezir, Ahemt, Birol, Salih and the aforementioned Numan whom I
was teaching, and of course, not forgetting Mustafa himself.
As usual, Mustafa trounced me (as did most of them in their
turn) and I rate him as the best player in Fethiye (although there are
several hundred who might dispute that.) Huseyin is without doubt the fastest
player I've ever metand that includes Phillip Swart who once
thoroughly thrashed me at a NBPS tournament. Huseyin's hands, usually a
blur, have been nicely captured on film by my high speed lens, the
photograph above is of great rarity and should be treasured.
I can thoroughly recommend playing tavla in Turkey. You will
undoubtedly enjoy every minute of it, playing opposite the friendliest
and most hospitable
people you could ever wish to meet. And, if you make it to Fethiye,
give my regards to Mustafa. Mention of my name alone is worth a
considerable discount in his shop, though this can be negated by
beating him at tavla!
Footnote: January 2000.
It's a pity that the world's top
players attending the World Cup Challenge this year are unlikely to
meet the ordinary street and bazaar players. Perhaps I'll be able to
persuade a couple to venture outside the hotel and have a go.
I'll let you know if I'm successful.