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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
6th - 1st century BC
1st - 12th century AD
     Boxing in Rome
     Olympic games suppressed
     Chess in India
     Go in Japan
     Dominoes and playing cards

13th - 16th century
17th - 18th century
To be completed

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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

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: 735

According to tradition,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

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.


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