Senet in Egypt: 3000 BC
Games with pebbles, in spaces roughly drawn out on the ground, are a pleasant way of passing spare time – of which hunters and gatherers have more than one might imagine. In a settled community a flat and permanent surface is a clear improvement on the rough ground; and pleasantly carved pieces are much preferable to pebbles.
The development of board games is an inevitable part of human history. The earliest known example – the senet of the Egyptians – is being played by 3000 BC and is still popular in a recognizable form in Egypt 5000 years later. Beautifully made boards for senet and other such games (with built-in drawers for the pieces) survive from Egyptian tombs.
Backgammon in Mesopotamia: 2500 BC
Among the treasures found at ur is a board laid out as if for the game of backgammon – which remains to this day one of the most popular board games in the Middle East.
Like senet and other board games of antiquity (but unlike, chess, draughts or the Japanese game of go), backgammon involves a large element of luck – since the movement of the pieces along the board depends on the numbers thrown. At this period a number is established by throwing sticks and counting those which fall with a given side upwards. The more economical method of six-sided dice is developed by about 2000 BC.
Egyptian sports: from 2000 BC
Games of throwing and catching, or contests in running, jumping and fighting, are likely to be as old as humanity. But surviving traces of competitive sports are first found among the relics of settled communities.
Wall paintings in an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hasan, dating from about 1850 BC, include numerous pictures of wrestling with most of the holds and falls still used today. In the tomb of an Egyptian child, probably of a slightly earlier date, a set of skittles has been found which are no different in principle from ten-pin bowling. But not until the heyday of Greece does sport play the central role which it occupies in modern society.
Greek athletics: 8th century BC
The ancient Greeks, whose admiration for the healthy human body is revealed in their sculpture, make almost a religion of competitive athletics. It is their custom on solemn occasions, including even funerals, to engage in races. This passion results in the world’s first athletic fixture – the games at Olympia, established according to tradition in the year 776 BC and held every four years.
At first this is just a one-day athletic meeting with a single competitive event. The entire day is taken up with heats for a running race – a sprint the length of the stadium, the equivalent of about 200 metres. In later years more events are added.
The extended games: 7th century BC
The competitive events added to the Olympic games include throwing the discus and the javelin, the long jump, boxing, wrestling, chariot and horse racing and a challenge to test all-round ability – the pentathlon. The ancient pentathlon begins with competition in four disciplines – running, jumping, throwing the discus and the javelin. The winners emerging from these encounters then meet in a fifth and decisive contest, wrestling.
The champions receive a simple token of their victory, a garland of fresh olive to wear on the head. This is essentially a religious festival, in honour of the greatest of the Greek gods, Zeus, whose sanctuary is at Olympia.
Boxing from Homer to the Olympic games
Both boxing and wrestling are particularly associated in the ancient world with the Greeks (though wrestling in Egypt is depicted much earlier). Their inclusion as sports in the Olympic games guarantees them a high profile from the 7th century BC onwards. By then they are already a familiar part of Greek tradition.
In the games which follow the funeral of Patroclus, in the Iliad, a boxing match is followed by a bout of wrestling. Both are described in some detail by Homer.
The prizes in the boxing match are a sturdy mule for the winner and a two-handled mug for the runner-up (wrestling must be more highly regarded, for the prizes on offer in that bout are far more valuable). In this particular fight in the Iliad the loser is Knocked out. His supporters even have to collect his mug for him.
Boxing contests in Greek games are a test of strength and stamina rather than skill. There are categories for different ages (boys, adolescents, men) but no allowance is made for weight, so the larger contestant is likely to win. The bout consists mainly of trading blows to the head, and it goes on until one fighter either gives up or is unable to continue.
Greek boxers tie thongs of soft leather round their fists and wrists, more to protect their own hands than to lessen any damage to the opponent’s face. The boxing ring in this context is merely the circle of spectators. Footwork and tactics play little part, though it is accepted policy to try and make the opponent face into the sun. Swinging blows, rather than more subtle jabs, are the boxer’s stock in trade.
Boxing is added to the sports of the Olympic games in 688 BC. From 652 a terrifying form of contest known as pankration is also included.
Wrestling from Homer to the Olympic games
The wrestling match in the Iliad has a first prize of a big three-legged cooking cauldron, valued at twelve oxen; the second prize is a woman well-trained in housework, a female slave, worth only four oxen. Odysseus and Ajax are the two contestants. They Heave and struggle, but neither is able to achieve the clean throw (flinging the opponent to the ground without falling oneself) which is necessary for victory.
Wrestling is added to the Olympic games in about 704 BC, and a form of all-in wrestling called pankration in 652. Contestants fight in the nude (unlike Homer’s heroes, who wear a loincloth of some kind), after smearing their bodies with olive oil and then rubbing on a fine sand to provide a better hold.
Pankration (meaning ‘all-strength’), is an extreme version of all-in wrestling. In addition to the forms of aggression already familiar in boxing and wrestling, it is permitted to kick the opponent anywhere on his naked body, to twist his limbs out of their sockets, to break his fingers and apply a stranglehold to his neck.
Only biting and gouging are out of bounds, in this most alarming of Olympic sports.
Polo: 6th century BC
The earliest organized team sport, of a kind recognizably surviving today, is polo. The game originates in Persia and probably derives from the training of the imperial Persian cavalry. The traditional date for its emergence is the 6th century BC, when Persian horsemen are an important element in the rapid expansion of the empire – both on the battlefield and in a network of long-range communication.
Many centuries later the game takes hold in India, particularly under the Moghuls (ruling from the 16th century AD) whose cultural roots are Persian.
Hockey: 6th century BC
A sculpted relief, set into a wall in Athens in the 5th century BC, provides a glimpse of an early game of hockey. Six young men, holding curved sticks, are poised to begin as soon as the ball is in play.
The game played in Greece is believed to have originated further east, in Persia. If so, the Persians – originators also of polo – are the team players of the ancient world.
Popular team games
Team games of a popular or primitive kind are likely to share with polo and hockey the aim of getting an object through the opponents’ defences, but they will be played without any special equipment. In practice this means carrying rather than striking the ball or other object.
Ancient games of this kind are the ancestors of rugby football and American football rather than of soccer. They survive in many folk traditions. A typical example is the annual Haxey Hood game in Lincolnshire.
Every January 6, on rising ground between Haxey and Westwoodside, scores of men from these two neighbouring villages struggle and scrum for up to three hours to deliver a leather cylinder (the ‘Hood’) to their local pub – where drinks will be free. Such folksy events are often recent revivals. But local contests of some such kind, on festive occasions, are likely to be almost as old as village life.
The earliest recorded game of this sort is harpastum (‘hand ball’), played by the Romans. A ball is thrown into the air in midfield and play continues, with much pushing and pulling, until one side gets it across a line beyond their opponents.
Boxing in Rome: 1st century BC – 5th century AD
Greek boxers in the 4th century BC replace their soft leather fist-coverings with hard thongs. These protect the fist but do much greater damage to the opponent’s face. It is a step in a direction which the Romans, typically, take to a dramatic extreme.
Boxing becomes one of the brutal attractions in the Roman circuses. Now the thongs on the fighters’ fists have metal studs, and gladiatorial boxing matches are a fight to the death. This is not entertainment of a kind to appeal to medieval Christian rulers. From the end of the Roman empire boxing becomes, for more than a millennium, a forgotten sport.
Sumo: 23 BC
In this year, according to tradition, Japan’s spectacular national sport of sumo wrestling has its first contest. It is won by a legendary figure, Sukune, regarded ever since as the patron saint of sumo wrestlers.
The date is too precise and too early, for this is still a prehistoric period in Japan. But sumo tradition also tells of dramatic events in early historic times. In AD 858, for example, two sons of the emperor Buntoku wrestle for the throne, and the winner succeeds his father. In subsequent centuries sumo is closely linked with the training of the samurai, the military caste.
The end of a tradition: AD 393
The ancient Olympic games survive as an athletic fixture until AD 393, when they are abolished by a decree of the Christian emperor Theodosius. By then they have been in continuous existence for well over 1000 years – an astonishing record for any sporting event.
Centuries later their example is enough to inspire a revival.
Chess in India: 6th century AD
The greatest of all board games, chess, has evolved in India by the 6th century AD. It is adopted in Persia, and the Persian and Arabic term for the end of the game subsequently enters the languages of the world. Shah mat, meaning ‘the king is dead’, becomes checkmate.
The poet Firdausi, writing in the 10th century, gives a delightful account of how chess came to Persia. Ambassadors arrive from India with a chess set, asking the Persian king to work out the game; if he cannot do so, he must pay tribute. His chief minister thinks for a day and a night and then discovers how to play. Firdausi says that the chief minister even goes one better, inventing a new game called nard which duly baffles the Indians.
Go in Japan: AD 735
According to tradition, AD 735 is the year in which Japan’s popular and highly skilful board game, I-go (known in the west simply as go), is introduced to the country from China. The first contest of which there is historical record takes place in 1253.
Go is played not on squares but on the 361 intersections formed on the board by 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines. The board is empty at the start. The players place their small round black or white ‘stones’ in turn on the intersections, attempting always to surround (and thereby remove) a colony of the other colour. When all 361 stones have been laid down, the winner is the player with the greater number on the board.
Dominoes and playing cards: 9th – 19th century AD
Games with marked or numbered objects, which can be distributed at random among the players, must have been popular in almost every human society. The two most lasting versions are dominoes (usually consisting of solid objects of bone, wood or ivory, with each piece representing the throw of two dice) and playing cards (made of paper and arranged in suits).
Both games probably originate in China in about the 9th century AD, during the T’ang dynasty. This is the period of the earliest printed charms, handed out to Buddhist pilgrims. The same technology is easily adapted to the making of playing cards, though the earliest clear reference to these in China is from the 10th century.
Dominoes arrive late in Europe, being first known for sure in Italy and France during the 18th century. The game is thought to have been introduced to Britain by French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars.
Dominoes, in its various forms, remains a relatively simple game of matching the bones in a player’s hand to the available opportunities on the table. Cards, by contrast, offer a wealth of complex opportunities. Each card has a double identity (its number and its suit), so there are many potential groupings within any set, whether in terms of matching numbers, matching suits or sequences.
Moreover cards, being thin and light, can be held in a hand close to the chest. The potential is evident for concealment, bluff, deceit and all the subtle tricks of the games-player. Cards provide the perfect tool for the gambler, and the number of card games devised over the centuries has been legion. Nearly all operate within the basic concept of four suits of numbered cards, which seems to go back to the origins of card-playing in China.
Playing cards reach Europe from north Africa, probably in the second half of the 14th century. The earliest known references in European countries date from the 1370s and 1380s.
The first European packs, hand-painted and used only in privileged circles, follow the system used by the Mamelukes at the time in Egypt – four suits of thirteen cards (in Mameluke hands the suits were polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups). When European printing begins, in the second half of the 15th century, a wide demand to join in this enjoyable activity ensures that playing cards are among the first commodities off the presses.
In the early 15th century, in Italy, a more elaborate pack has been developed, adding 22 picture cards known as tarots to four numbered suits of 14 cards each – and, crucially, adding the concept of trump cards.
For three centuries this 78-card tarot pack is used exclusively for card games. Its more famous use today, for fortune telling, develops in the 18th century. Casanova notes in his diary in 1765 that his Russian mistress is fond of using tarot for this purpose.
Until quite recently players are expected to be able to recognize the suit and value of a card even if it is upside down. But in 1870 a printer introduces the useful convention of double-headed court cards, and numbers in opposite alignment at the corners.
Bowls: from the 13th century AD
The throwing or rolling of stones to hit a mark is certainly among the earliest of human pastimes, but the intention has usually been to knock down the target – as in skittles or modern ten-pin bowling. In medieval Britain a different version of the same idea develops. The purpose now is to roll a round object on grass towards a mark, with the winner being the one who ends up closest.
The earliest images of this kind of bowls feature in English manuscripts of the 13th century. The earliest recorded reference to a bowling green relates to Southampton in 1299, and it is claimed that an annual tournament still held in the town goes back to that time.
The early game is most famous for the legendary moment when Francis Drake is supposedly playing on Plymouth Hoe in 1588. He is urged to hurry when news comes of the approach of the Armada, but he coolly replies: ‘There is plenty of time to win this game and to thrash the Spanish too.’
The game is taken most seriously in Scotland, in effect as a summer alternative to curling. Standardized rules for the game are first established in Scotland in 1849, and it is largely Scottish emigrants who spread it through the British empire later in the 19th century.
Royal tennis: from the 14th century AD
The origins of royal tennis, also known as court tennis, are accurately reflected in both names. The game is a popular sport of the kings of France and of their courtiers by the 14th century. And it is first played in open courtyards.
The early players use racquets to hit balls back and forth above a fringed rope stretched loosely across a courtyard. Details of courtyard architecture, such as the sloping roofs of covered walkways from which the ball bounces back into play, remain a feature of tennis courts after they become purpose-built for the game.
The heyday of royal tennis is the 16th century. By the 1590s there are said to be some 250 tennis courts in Paris. An English visitor comments that there are more tennis players in France ‘than ale-drinkers with us’.
But the English aristocracy of this same century is also addicted to the game. Henry VIII is a particularly keen player. He builds a court for himself in 1532 at Hampton Court (the one still in use there today dates from 1625 in the reign of Charles I, another enthusiast). Though inevitably a minority sport, the game continues to be played – particularly in France, Britain and the United States. Meanwhile the majority are well content with the ancient game’s modern offspring, lawn tennis.
Curling: from the 16th century AD
Curling, a version of bowls on ice, is well established by the 16th century in two wintry regions of northwest Europe – Scotland and the Netherlands. The game involves sliding an object across the ice towards a fixed mark. Unlike in bowls, the player is allowed to affect the progress of the object towards its mark – either by sweeping the ice clear in front of it (to extend its course) or by brushing surface slush into its path for the opposite effect.
In Scotland the game is played with smooth heavy stones, known as granites, held by a handle attached to the top. The earliest curling stone to have been discovered carries the date 1511.
No such stones have been found in the Netherlands, where the first depictions of the game appear in the mid-16th century in paintings by Pieter Brueghel. It is probable therefore that the early Dutch and Flemish players use lumps of frozen earth or even ice for their stones, with a piece of wood frozen in as the handle.
The earliest book on curling, written by a Scottish minister, John Ramsay, is published in 1811. In 1838 the Grand Caledonian Curling Club is founded in Edinburgh ‘to unite curlers throughout the world’.
Draughts in Spain: AD 1547
The first book on the game of draughts, or checkers, is written in 1547 by Antonio Torquemada. The game is no doubt at this time already ancient, but it is more sophisticated than the very earliest board games, differing from them in two respects. In the Egyptian senet, or in backgammon, the players use all the marked areas of the board, and the purpose is to remove all one’s own pieces before the opponent succeeds in removing his.
In draughts, by contrast, only half the squares are used (the black ones). And, like chess and go, this game is warfare. The aim is not to evacuate the field but to remain in undisputed possession of it.
Billiards: 16th – 19th century AD
One of the minor irritations of her captivity, complains Mary Queen of Scots in 1576, is that her billiard table has been removed. The game is popular in 16th-century France, where Mary probably acquires a taste for it, and it is imported from there into England. The game is played at the time with just two balls, which are struck with the edge of an implement resembling a hockey stick. The table is of wood covered in a green woollen cloth, and the cushions are stuffed with strips of felt.
Early prints show some tables with pockets, others with obstacles on the cloth such as hoops, pegs or miniature military fortifications.
The modern form of billiard cue, using the tip to strike the ball, emerges in about 1760, and the third ball is introduced in France some fifteen years later. But other familiar features must await the 19th century. Rubber cushions and the heavy slate bed of the table are novelties in the 1830s.
By this time the game is taken sufficiently seriously in Britain for there to be an acknowledged champion, Jonathan Kentfield, who holds his position for a quarter of a century until 1849. In the late 19th century a billiards room is an indispensable part of any rich man’s household. But by then the game which will effectively replace billiards is already making a quiet start – as snooker.
Horse-racing: 17th – 18th century AD
There have undoubtedly been horse races ever since humans first learned to tame and ride the animal. In classical times the second day of the Olympic games is occupied with races for charioteers and for mounted riders, and chariot races are among the dangerous and exciting spectacles of the Roman amphitheatres.
Medieval horsemanship is reserved more for the skills of the mounted knight-at-arms, displayed in competitive form in jousts and tournaments. An exception is the Palio, held twice a year in the Campo in Siena and dating from the 13th century. This dramatic dash by horses and riders round the paved circuit of the Campo is a bitterly fought contest between the various contrade (districts) of the city.
The first traces of horse racing in its modern form are found in England. Chester has an unbroken tradition of an annual race since before 1500. But the rapid development of the sport begins with the enthusiasm of Charles II. A keen competitor himself, his support causes Newmarket to emerge as the centre of English racing.
To the glamour and colour of the event itself, racing offers the excitement of gambling in two different contexts – placing a bet on the immediate result, and investing in a young horse whose pedigree suggests that it may win races, money and fame. Study of the relevant factors (in particular the successes achieved by a horse’s ancestors) is soon undertaken in England with academic thoroughness.
The Racing Calendar, giving the results of races, is published from 1727. To this information there is added, from 1791, that of the General Stud Book. The English aristocracy, already fascinated like every nobility by its own pedigree, now extends the same interest to the genealogy of horses.
There develops the concept of the thoroughbred, a term applied to any racehorse which descends (as nearly all do) from one of three stallions imported into England between 1690 and 1730. The three are known, from a combination of their English owners and their supposed region of origin, as the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian.
Whist: AD 1742
The game of whist, in which four card-players compete as two pairs, is believed to have originated in England in the early 16th century. Each pair attempts to win seven or more of the 13 four-card tricks which are available from a pack of 52 cards. One of the suits is trumps, decided by turning up the last card when the pack is dealt to the players.
Whist receives its definitive form with the publication in 1742 of Edmond Hoyle’s Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. It becomes by far the most widely played game of skill in cards, until supplanted in the early 20th century by a more sophisticated version of itself – the game of bridge.
Boxing in London: 18th – 19th century AD
18th-century London is a prosperous, lively and violent place. While horse racing fulfils the English aristocracy’s passion for a blend of sport and gambling, the capital city now develops an equally exciting equivalent at a popular level. In the form of the prize fight, boxing becomes an entertainment again for the first time since the days of Roman gladiators.
At first there is a regional element. Famous strong men from different sections of the city are set against each other by their supporters, who bet on the outcome and contribute to a purse for the winner. There are few rules. The bout involves wrestling as much as boxing (with bare fists). The winner is the last man standing.
By 1719 the sport is sufficiently established for the leading pugilist of the day, James Figg, to be declared champion of England. From 1734 to 1750 the champion is Jack Broughton, who brings an element of order and respectablity to the prize-fighting scene. He devises an accepted set of rules: each round is to continue until a man goes down; once down he can rest for thirty seconds and must then fight again or be declared the loser; no man is to be hit when he is down, or grabbed below the waist.
Broughton also involves young gentlemen in what becomes eventually a fashionable sport. He opens an academy in the Haymarket where he teaches ‘the mystery of boxing, that wholly British art’.
By the end of the century prize-fighting is going from strength to strength. Daniel Mendoza, champion in the 1790s, introduces a new subtlety in the style of fighting and even writes a book on the subject (The Art of Boxing, 1789). He loses his title in 1795 to John Jackson, known as Gentleman Jackson.
This title is justified more by Jackson’s circle of friends than his fighting style. He wins the championship from the much smaller Mendoza by holding his opponent’s long hair in one hand and bashing him with the other. But plenty of gentlemen, including Lord Byron, are eager to learn the pugilistic art in Jackson’s academy in Bond Street.
Prize-fighting takes a major step towards respectability when the Pugilistic Club, with several noblemen among its members, is founded under the auspices of Gentleman Jackson. At the coronation of George IV in 1821 Jackson heads a group of pugilists, dressed as pages, who stand guard at the entrance to Westminster Abbey.
In 1839 a new set of rules (the London Prize Ring rules) are established. Kicking, gouging, head-butting and biting are now declared to be fouls. These rules last until eventually replaced by a new set, devised in 1867 by John Chambers of the Amateur Athletic club. To give the new rules respectability an aristocratic enthusiast, the marquess of Queensberry, lends them his name.
The Queensberry rules make four major innovations; boxers are to wear padded gloves; rounds will last only three minutes; a contestant loses the bout if he cannot rise within ten seconds of being knocked down; and wrestling is not allowed. These proposals are at first considered somewhat effeminate, but they gradually prevail.
From early in the 19th century American boxers begin to appear on the London prize-fighting scene. The first is a former slave, Bill Richmond, who is beaten in a 90-minute bout in 1805. In 1882 the American fighter John L. Sullivan becomes the first world heavyweight champion. Queensberry rules and American champions are now in place to provide the pattern of 20th-century boxing.
Hurling and shinty: AD 1879-1893
Two 19th-century themes – the standardizing of games, and a growing interest in ethnic identity – come together in the official recognition of hurling (also called hurley) and of shinty. Both derive from an ancient Celtic game which features in legend as an accomplishment of heroes.
The game of hurling is thought to have been taken across the sea from Ireland by the Scots in the 6th century. Under the name of shinty it becomes the characteristic sport of the Scottish Highlands. The stick used is known by the Gaelic name camán, and from the same root the Scottish game of shinty is properly called camanachd.
Both games combine elements of hockey and lacrosse, in that the stick can be used to strike the ball along the ground but also has a broad enough head for the ball to be balanced in the air and passed from player to player.
In early games between clans there were unlimited numbers of players. Under modern rules there are fifteen players in a hurling team, and twelve a side for shinty. Hurling is first formalized by the Irish Hurling Union in 1879, with much support provided from 1884 by the Gaelic Athletic Association. In Scotland the many local variants of shinty are provided with a standardized set of rules in a conference at Kingussie in 1893.