Tavla is more than a game ©Julius Motal
Santiago Brusadin delves into the world of Turkish backgammon and tells us why it’s more than a simple game.
ny average Turkish player could kick my ass at tavla. Any time. So I am not the most appropriate person to impart lessons about it. But I enjoy playing tavla, just as much as I admire how Turks are capable of finding something new and adopting it as national hobby with vehement passion. Take tea for instance: they started to drink it after the First World War, and less than a century later they consume it way more than their own coffee. In the same way, they embraced a descendant of the Roman tabula and made it the most popular game in Turkey. Variants of backgammon are played around the globe, but nowhere with such passion as here. Tavla is more than a game – tavla is national culture. Three characteristic noises give rhythm to the daily life in
Turkey: the ‘buyrun noise’, an all-purpose word pronounced without moderation by any shop’s seller or restaurant’s waiter; the noise of the teaspoon tapping on the tulip-shaped glass of black tea; and the noise of the dice frantically thrown on the tavla board. Tavla is more than a game – tavla is a sound. A board game is just plain entertainment elsewhere, but here if you dare to ask if tavla is more about luck or strategy, you are in for a very long debate. You'll find fearless defenders of both postures. You just throw the dice and it’s up for the Gods of Fortune to decide, some argue. There are 15 opening rollouts and you decide your fate, others claim. Tavla is more than a game – tavla is a conversation. Common activities in Turkey tend to take a long time. The frenetic rhythm of
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the city life might confuse us but there is an inherent slow mode in the Turkish culture. A hammam visit or a family lunch can last for hours. Tavla is no exception. Don’t think you can innocently start a game and quickly get away wrap it up. Get ready for perfecting your moves and strategy while the time dilates. Tavla is more than a game – tavla is an afternoon. You can play tavla anywhere and anytime, but it definitely goes best with smoking nargile. You think, you inhale. You move, you exhale. You battle to death with your enemy in front of you but still share a pipe of peace. Tavla is more than a game – tavla is a ceremony. Tavla allows for setting differences aside, and players meet as equals across the board. It encourages interaction. Tavla is more than a game – tavla is a bridge.
The object of tavla goes beyond moving all of your checkers into your own home board and then bearing them off. It takes imagination and creative risk-taking, demands mathematical calculation and a lot of experience, requires smart tactical decisions, strategic planning, and yes, quite a bit of memorization. Tavla is a blend of primitive instinct and sophisticated analysis and allows a player to directly engage the mind of another human being. Tavla challenges and expands our understanding of intelligence: every move in tavla has consequences, and successful players must learn to anticipate traps and patterns many moves in advance. So, in the end, what is tavla if it is more than a game? Tavla is a state of mind and a metaphor for life. So who’s up for a game?