by Albert Steg
The doubling cube has come to be such an essential part of competitive backgammon that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when players kept track of game stakes by any other method. This page traces the early evolution of doubling practices and doubling devices from the introduction of doubling sometime in the mid 1920’s through the 1930’s when the jazz-age fever for backgammon cooled, and then deeper into the 20th century.
Readers should keep in mind that for many players from the 1960’s on, “the cube” has come to be synonymous with “doubling,” so if someone in the 1970’s writes “The cube was invented in the mid-1920’s,” they may just mean that doubling was invented then. But doubling is an action, while the cube is a device that has become a synecdoche for doubling. For backgammon historians, “Who invented doubling?” and “Who invented the cube?” are questions with different answers.
Comments, questions, corrections and additions are invited!
All photographed items from collection of Albert Steg unless otherwise noted.
The Verbal Challenge
In Modern Backgammon (April, 1928), the first of the new wave of books devoted to the game (there was no other until 1930), Grosvenor Nicholas devotes much of a chapter to the newly established convention of doubling, where he simply states that a player may “double the stake” (passage at left). That Nicholas makes no reference to matches, or cubes, or any physical action at all points to the verbal origins of the practice, which are also reflected in the first printed reference to the Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia having introduced doubling to the game, in the September 6th, 1930 New Yorker article “Tric Trac, Clic Clac.”
Walter L. Richard provides the most detailed and most confident account of the doubling game’s origins, repeating the Duke Dmitri attribution as “pretty certain” and adding credibility to the story by identifying his opponent (Aksel de Wichfeld of Denmark) while also mentioning the role a John P. Wemple was said to have played in introducing doubling to the New York milieu, where it flourished. A later club history published in 1964, Racquet & Tennis Club: Some History and Some Memories (p.92), credits Wemple, while a 2007 from the same club, Racquet & Tennis Club: An Historical Report (p.148) points to W. Whitewright Watson as having invented “the cube” — by which the writer probably meant doubling itself, not the device. For links to these club publications, see Bill Davis’ Chicago Point article “Backgammon and the Doubling Cube.”
Subsequent backgammon writers of 1930 will continue to describe doubling as primarily a verbal act, even when they will go on to explain how matches or cubes may be used to keep track of both the score and the “doubling privilege, as in the passage at left by Elizabeth Clark Boyden.
“Doubling By Matches”
Late in the year after Grosvenor Nicholas’ book was published, in the Vogue article “Bridge or Backgammon?” (1929) Frank Crowninshield makes clear that players had taken to using ordinary matches to keep track of game value as well as the running score in money play. And they even coined a term for it:
Backgammon, as a game, was a dead and discarded pastime relegated to old men in chimney corners until the practise of doubling — “doubling by matches,” as it is called — was injected into it and gave it a new stimulus . . .
In Crowninshield’s telling, it is clear that a match represents a single point, and you would need enough matches to represent the number of net points the winning player is enjoying.
Elizabeth Clark Boyden describes a wholly different approach the following summer in The New Backgammon (1930): “A match is placed upon the bar whenever an Automatic or Optional Double is made. When the game is finished, the score is reckoned on the basis of a double for each match on the bar. The matches are then removed.” In her method, the score would be “reckoned” and recorded on a scoresheet, so fewer matches would be needed.
Keeping score with matches must have been awfully confusing. In How to Play the New Backgammon (1930) Leila Hattersley addresses a puzzling point near the end of Crowninshield’s account: “…a settlement is made for the net number of matches held by each player.” But why would both players ever have occasion to hold matches? As Hattersley points out, “Never, at any time, can both players have matches before them, because there can only be one winner in a two-handed game” (p.39). Players must also have been tempted to surrender matches to an opponent, as she feels a need to continue, “Under no circumstances should you hand any of your matches to [your opponent], as the account would become confused. The only matches a winner can receive are from the bar.” But then . . . what about when you win a gammon and deserve a further doubling of matches?
J. Van Cleft Cooper begins the third installment of his newspaper series (at left) on too optimistic a note: “Scoring backgammon is very simple.” Unfortunately, he quickly confuses matches and doubles: “A third double puts four matches on the bar,” when by his method four matches would be the result of two doubles. He seems to skip straight from the initial double to a third double. It’s likely Cooper imported the blunder from Leila Hattersley, who gets the method wrong in exactly the same way on p. 38 of her book!
It’s not hard to see why in 1931 the pseudonymous British author “Bar-Point” would report “The doubling cube has now come into universal use and obviates the old-fashioned and muddling system of matches” (Backgammon Up To Date, 1931).
The Doubling Cube
Grosvenor Nicholas’ explicitly claims credit for the introduction of the doubling cube in the May 13 installment of his 1931 backgammon series for the London Evening Standard. (He refers to himself as “the writer” in the passage at left.) There’s little reason to doubt his claim. As a prime mover in the promotion of Modern Backgammon in the United States, and with his 1928 book being reprinted in early 1930, equipment makers would have been receptive to his suggestions. Also, in a subsequent paragraph, he grants that Backgammon Matches are probably still preferable to cubes owing to their scorekeeping function — not a very self-aggrandizing thing to say.
“About a year ago” from the date of the article would have been May of 1930, just the month when Marshall Field published an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune (at right) that contains the very first image — the first two images! — of a doubling cube discovered to date in any medium. (The ad wins a bonus prize by also providing an amusing image of a chouette in action, thus presenting both of the “modern” innovations in the game.)
Note that Nicholas may have conceived the idea of a doubling cube much earlier than the previous year, or that it may even have been suggested to him by some other player. “Originated and introduced” could simply mean that he was responsible for getting the cubes into production and making them available to the public. In any case, it seems pretty safe to say Nicholas was instrumental in the cube’s emergence as the essential backgammon doubler.
There is a conflicting account, published in 2007, crediting Racquet and Tennis Club champion W. Whitewright Watson with invention of the doubling cube, accessible on Bill Davis’ Chicago Point site, but it appears that the writer may be conflating the invention of doubling with the invention of the cube, a common tendency for players who think of them as one and the same: “An annual championship began in 1925, and was won four years in succession by W. Whitewright Watson, who is credited with inventing the doubling cube, which ushered in the modern game.” But as we have seen, the cube didn’t usher in the modern game, but rather appeared a few years later. It seems likely that seventy-seven years of club lore rightly credits Watson with promoting adoption of doubling in that milieu, but we should be more skeptical about a more dramatic claim that he invented the doubling cube.
The 1930 Cube Style
There is a distinctive style of doubling cube I believe to be the very first one made available that I call “the 1930 Cube style” for easy reference. it is most easily identified by its numerals, which are of a handsome, somewhat florid style that could have been viewed as a bit behind the times in the year 1930. But it is a style that would have been very much at home in the wood-paneled game rooms of venerable New York private clubs furnished in the elegant mahogany and dark leather of an earlier day.
The numerals on these cubes have serifs (the small accents at the stroke endings). Cubes with more modern “sans-serif” numerals in keeping with the art-deco fashions of the day quickly followed, and you won’t see many serifs on doubling cubes for decades thereafter until makers in the 1970’s occasionally returned to them for an old-timey effect. (Though the ‘1’ often gets a serif throughout the century).
The engraved numerals on these cubes are not so much painted as filled with an inlay material so that they are flush with the surface of the cube. Over time, small chunks of inlay tend to fall out, as you can see in the cube at lower right in the above picture.
The cube material, too, is distinctive. A species of the highly decorative bakelite (or ‘Catalin’) that would be used for doubling cubes up into the 1970’s, it has a darker range of colors and a greater tendency to reveal deep faults and discoloration from tiny faults on the surface that have allowed air to invade the interior. (It’s easier to see than to describe — just compare the picture here to ones further down this page). For those interested in these subtleties, the Backgammon in Bakelite page offers many examples for contrast.
Finally, the numeral arrangement among these early cubes is very consistent across all examples I have seen. Fiddling around with a doubling cube in search of the number you need is one of the less celebrated traditions of the game. Over the decades, equipment makers have all gone their own way in arranging the numerals on the cube faces, but at this early stage a single scheme prevailed — perhaps because there was only one or a very few makers. The layout pictured here is consistent with the three numerals visible in the first known image of a doubling cube, from the May 1930 Marshall Field & Co. advertisement featured above in the section on “The Doubling Cube.” The origin of the arrangement may have been purely mechanical: a craftsman may have taken a fresh block and engraved the ‘2’; Rotated left for ‘4’; Rotated left for ‘8’; Rotated left for ’16’; rotated forward for ’32’; rotated forward twice for ’64’. Done.
None of this is to say all cubes in 1930 were of this style — only that the style described here seems to have been a common one for the time based on surviving examples. For example, at below left, a detail from a feature on gift ideas for the Christmas season shows a pair of doubling cubes matching the 1930 numeral style, but with a different orientation of numerals — and the two cubes in the picture don’t even match each other!
The most dramatic evidence of this arrangement’s acceptance as a standard of sorts comes from author Ralph A. Bond, whose 1930 books featured drawings of a doubling cube: in his A Primer on Backgammon (July), re-published as A Beginner’s Book of Backgammon (Sept.), and finally in a “newly revised” 3rd printing of Beginner’s Book in December. While the original sketch follows no familiar numeral scheme, the revised version from December includes a new version reflecting the 1930 numeral scheme. To have taken such effort to correct this largely cosmetic feature suggests that the original version was felt to be meaningfully wrong.
Here is one cube that may be definitively dated to late 1930. While the photograph in this Abercrombie & Fitch catalog at first resembles the “1930 style” cubes above, a very close look at the flattened tops of the ‘6’ makes clear they are of a different type.
The A&F cube shares the same 1930 style numeral scheme laid out in the above example. It might be reasonable to imagine that the product manager simply gave one of the earlier cubes to the design department and instructed them to make one like it, but with different numerals. The unique styling of the serifed numerals and their affinity with the nouveau aesthetic of the A&F logo may support the idea that the cubes were styled “in house” rather than being sourced from a third-party.
The cube’s soft corners and delicate engraving (leading to the wearing off of the white paint) also distinguish this piece from its predecessors.
Early Doubling Protocols
To a player today, an obvious advantage of using a cube instead of matches, aside from the clarity of displaying the current point value of a game in numeral form, is that the cube acts as a sign of cube ownership. Today, we routinely “send” the cube, “take” the cube, and “hold” the cube, but this language is conspicuously absent from writings on the subject of doubling in 1930-31. It seems the practice of moving the cube back and forth across the table may have only gradually emerged as the cube began appearing at boards around the country.
For much of 1930, backgammon writers who are otherwise quite meticulous in specifying the protocols for equipment handling, never describe doubling as an act of presenting the cube, and mention only as a side note that placing the cube in front of the player having the doubling privilege is a good practice. Leila Hattersley’s description of doubling in How to Play the Modern Backgammon (below left) is typical.
Ralph A. Bond, whose A Primer on Backgammon (July. 1930) featured the first illustration of a cube in a backgammon book, mentions that it “can be” moved from one side to the other (see passage at right, as reprinted in Bond’s Beginner’s Book of Backgammon), and that upon an initial double, the die is merely “changed to 2.” Even a year later, the British author of Backgammon Up To Date (1931), explains that the cube is “generally” placed in front of the player having the right to next double (p.24). The only writer who explicitly alludes to the idea of cube ownership is the mysterious ‘Oh Tee’ of Backgammon as Played in Hollywood (1930): “By changing possession of the doubling cube from one side of the table to the other, the player who has the option of offering the next double may be indicated” (p.26).
It seems telling also that Grosvenor Nicholas’ Winning Backgammon (October 1930), his second full book on the game, features positional problems in which the cube-state factors into the analysis, yet no doubling cubes appear on the diagrams. These diagrams are handsomely detailed, even including an elaborate illustration of a candlestick to indicate bear off direction — yet he indicates doubling status in bold text on the facing page: “WHITE’S PLAY – WHITE DOUBLED LAST” or “BLACK’S PLAY – NEITHER HAS DOUBLED.” It may be that he and his partner C. Wheaton Vaughan simply didn’t make the leap of graphical imagination necessary to include a cube in the diagrams (after all, Jacoby & Crawford didn’t do it either in their book 40 years later), but that they failed to do so is consistent with the idea that physical holding of the cube to indicate “ownership” wasn’t yet ingrained in practice. After all, even taking the written approach they might have gone with “BLACK OWNS THE CUBE” or “CUBE CENTERED” if meaningful positioning of the cube on the table had become standard — as Jacoby and Crawford frequently do in The Backgammon Book.
Elizabeth Clark Boyden, whose The New Backgammon was among the earliest published in 1930 and lacked any mention of the brand-new doubling cube invention, more than makes up for the omission in her serialized column How to Play Today’s Backgammon, which ran in September-October of that year (see excerpt at left). In the course of an installment devoted to doubling (the 11th of 13 columns), she first describes doubling as a verbal act and then goes on to describe the use of accessories in some detail. Matches are noted as a common device merely used to note the quantity of doubles over the course of a single game. But then her paragraph on the cube is the first to explicitly describe the player wielding the device as a token of action, first turning it to a higher state and then pushing it toward the opponent in a non-verbal act of doubling. It’s a great moment in backgammon!
Half a year later, in the same May 14, 1931 article in which he claims origination of the cube itself, Grosvenor Nicholas describes the proffering of a double with matches in like manner: “He does this by taking a second counter from the general supply, placing it beside the first and moving the two counters a few inches toward his opponent’s side.“ He is also unequivocal about the use of either matches or cubes as a marker of the doubling privilege: “During the play of the game the one entitled to offer the next double is always indicated by the position of the counters which are, as we have seen, always moved slightly toward the side of the player who accepts the double.”
It’s worth noting that the 1931 Laws of Backgammon, published in March of 1931 and printed in W.L. Richard’s Complete Backgammon that May, omit any reference to doubling devices, let alone codify their use in competition. Doubling was still effected in a variety of ways, verbal and manual, so the method was left to the habit of players.
But it appears that by early 1931 the convention of thrusting the cube at your opponent was familiar enough to be represented in the amusing Constantin Alajalov cover for Vanity Fair. Although the checker position is nonsensical, and the sequence of events is collapsed into a single moment, the humor of the image hinges on the familiar indignity of being doubled by a lucky opponent.
The tradition of doubling the value of a game when doublets are thrown on the opening cast appears to have been strong in the 1930’s. In 1928 Grosvenor Nicholas notes the practice is common among “some people” with mild disapproval: “It seems to us to destroy the protection which a player otherwise always enjoys against an increase in the stake, unless by doubling or accepting a double he voluntarily participates in bringing about the increase” (Modern Backgammon, p.36). Writing two years later, Elizabeth Clark Boyden seems to present automatic doubles as a standard practice, but notes that “Many players consider it wise to limit the number of these Automatic Doubles allowed in any one game” (The New Backgammon, p. 26). Leila Hattersley characterizes them as “a still more recent development” than optional doubles and avers that as they “detract from the science of the game, most players set a limit of three on their automatic double, while many of the more conservative omit them entirely” (How to Play the New Backgammon, p.37). While several other authors do not mention them at all, most differentiate between “Automatic” and “Optional” or “Voluntary” doubles.
If the pseudonymous writer ‘Oh Tee’ accurately portrays Backgammon as Played in Hollywood (1930), then Californians were mad for autos! In a wicked twist on the practice, the cube value could be automatically juiced in the middle of a game, even after a player had already doubled: “automatic doubles during play . . . do not affect the possession of the cube.” But in order to keep a lid on things, it seems the tradition was to agree on a limit — “(usually six) . . . after which no further doubles may be called or offered for agreement” (p.26). So if you’re holding a 32-cube and a string of doubles bumps the value to 64, you would lose your re-cube vig. Ouch!
The Laws of Backgammon (1931) includes a surprising variation where “by agreement” opening doublets may either “double the count” or “Add one to the previous count,” which could lead to a game worth 3 points after two sets of doublets were thrown at the outset. However, by default, “Unless an understanding has been reached as to the method and limitation of automatic raises they are not played.”
Another popular variation mentioned in several books of the day was to score by checkers, with the winner harvesting points for each remaining opponent checker and at multiples for any checkers in quadrants outside of home — and then to apply whatever the cube value turned out to be. Of course this means that the closest races are of the least consequence, leading to substantial variations in standard strategy. It’s no wonder Harpo Marx, apparently a backgammon addict of note, was reported to be playing penny-a-point backgammon on a cross-country train journey with broadway star Ina Claire in various papers in early 1931. Chouettes using these extravagant doubling practices along with scoring by checkers must have run up some very large totals!
At a time when “automatic doubles” were popular, and when as several authors imply, 4 or 5 doubles in a game seem to have been frequent, games worth 16 points cannot have been uncommon, and piling that many matches on the bar would have been a mess using the 1 match = 1 point system. The introduction of tri-colored matches of graduated values (perhaps white = 1, blue = 10, red = 50) would have enabled players to use them to count points more economically, in the manner of poker chips, and this appears to have been a selling point of the Backgammon Matches, which probably appeared in early 1931. The sole mention of the manufactured product appears in the May 31, 1931 installment of Grosvenor Nicholas’ series in the London Evening Standard, where he comments that they “are now available,” suggesting that they were only newly on the market in the Spring of 1931, a year after the appearance of the cube (see excerpt above).
Because the doubling cube has endured as the standard doubling device, it’s tempting to think of all other devices pre-dating it, like the march of amphibians out of the water and evolving upwards to human status at the pinnacle of a Darwinian process. But “scoring by matches” got a boost with the introduction of these colored poker chip-like versions well after cubes became commonplace, and even Nicholas allows that “as counters provide also a ready means of keeping a record of the score, they are perhaps more satisfactory [than cubes]” (Evening Standard, May 14, 1931).
Indeed, it seems that despite the advent of the doubling cube, the Backgammon Matches remained in use for some time to come. The wonderful April 1931 Collier’s cover features them in lieu of a cube, and a delightful portrait of Fred Astaire across a backgammon board has them on the table –as well as a doubling cube– several years later. That the match sets appear on auction sites like eBay with some regularity (though not frequently) also suggests that they were manufactured in substantial quantities.
Another natural approach to keeping track of the doubling state as well as the running score took inspiration from the cribbage board. The advertisement indicates that four pegs were provided. Since three pegs would be needed to denote a score over 100, it seems the idea may have been simply to note the winning player’s net score on the appropriate side of the pegboard. That would leave a single peg to indicate the doubling value, with the peg alternating sides to confer “doubling privilege.” But it’s also possible the maker simply didn’t think it through very well. Attempts to locate a U.S. patent registration for the device were unsuccessful. The extreme rarity of this item suggests they weren’t produced in large quantities. Only one specimen is known to be extant, in the collection of Jim Sisti.
The 1931 Cube Style
Here is another distinctive batch of early doubling cubes that I call the “the 1931 Cube style” for easy reference. They remain faithful to the 1930 numeral scheme provided above, but the numerals are now in a distinctive variation of a modern sans-serif style that becomes standard on bakelite cubes for decades to come.
The feature that matches these cubes to the one pictured with Miriam Hopkins at right in 1931 is the somewhat elongated ‘8’ we might call “the skinny snowman.” Subsequent cubes typically have a ‘fatter’ snowman, and often a more pronounced difference between the upper and lower circles. But the ‘3’ on these cubes (almost like an un-closed ‘8’) provides a more clear-cut distinction from the flat-topped ‘3’ on later ones (see pictures below right).
Note that the material of the greenish cube at lower right in the 1931 group, as well as the red one, look very much like cubes in the 1930 group shown higher on this page. They both also feature the filled numerals — as does the opaque green cube, which is of a dull matte finish I’ve not seen elsewhere. The black cube has engraved numerals that appear to have been neither painted nor filled, but given the high gloss of the surface, I suspect a later collector may have ‘polished out’ remnants of the original numeral color. Note also that the December 1930 revised version of the Ralph Bond cube illustration in the 1930 section above clearly featured the new, slender 1931 numeral style.
The picture at right provides an easy guide for differentiating the 1931 numeral style from ones that would follow. The very sharp corners of the two 1931 cubes is another attribute typical of early cubes, as the vast majority of 1″ and 1.5″ bakelite cubes have soft corners.
These categories are not absolute. Some cubes combine features of the different cube “styles” I’ve described here, which are only intended as points of family resemblance that can be tied to photographs and drawings for which we have known dates. The three cubes at left, for example, bear the early round-topped ‘3’ numeral, but also the “fat snowman” 8’s typical of later cubes. The two green ones have the distinctive bakelite appearance of the older 1930 style as well as sharp corners. The two cubes at the top are a less common 1.25″ size. None have inlaid numerals. But all bear some features that encourage dating them to the early — though perhaps not the earliest — 1930’s.
A 1-inch Cube Variation of the 1930s?
As you will see farther down the page, numeral arrangements on the smaller 1″ bakelite cubes were produced in a wildly random variety, so that you can gather a dozen together at a time and find no two that match . . . with the exception of a meaningful subset that follow a similar scheme to that of the 1930 cubes above. The four cubes at left feature the 2-4-8-16 sequence around the waist when the ’64’ is on top, but now the numerals appear right side up. The ‘2’ is found behind the ’64’ so it’s quite natural to turn to it for an initial double. It’s a very reasonable arrangement, and somewhat of a shame it wasn’t adopted as the standard in the decades to come. Intriguingly, I have only encountered this style in early 1″ cubes, never on the larger 1.25 or 1.5″ doublers of the 1930’s.
The Backgammon Dial Mystery
In addition to backgammon cubes and matches, at least one industrious soul experimented with alternative approaches to doubling counters. The portrait of a very young (and blonde) Joan Crawford playing with first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the only period image or reference to the Backgammon Dial, and only two of the dials are known to have survived. The yellow one pictured below left is in the possession of backgammon writer Chris Bray, and another, in black with white numbers and lacking a platform, is pictured online in the hands of collector Maurice Barie.
Two further devices from the period have also emerged in recent years. The red dial pictured at center seems as though it might have been patterned on the round bakelite mah-jong “bettors” in use during the 1920’s, when that game also enjoyed wide popularity. The flat but very narrow bottom edge suggests that it was meant to stand up rather than lie flat at the side of a board, so it seems to have lost its base — the texture of the bottom surface appears unfinished and likely to have been glued to a platform.
The white cube at right makes up the trio. While the two dials are linked by the distinctive style of the “Backgammon” lettering on their fronts, all three are united by the distinctive and peculiar style of their numerals. These numerals are applied, not painted or carved, and are of ungainly proportion and inconsistent shape. For instance the “1” is much too wide for the accompanying “6,” and the “2” on the cube’s 32 face has a comically heavy top arch. Placement on the surfaces is . . . imprecise. There is too large a gap between 32 and 64 on the red dial, and the numerals on the cube faces are only vaguely centered. All these factors suggest that the numerals may have been hand-scribed, using stencils, and then glued to their devices piecemeal.
A further surprise regarding the 1.5″ cube is that it is hollow, with wafer-thin marbled sides. It weighs less than half an ounce, whereas a similar-sized bakelite cube of its day is something over two ounces. Only on close inspection can one discern the joins (visible in the image at right) where the six sides have been fitted together and polished, with admirable precision. It gives the impression of a prototype, except that it would have been so much easier to have formed a cube out of any solid material.
No other photos or advertisements of these items have emerged, the only other clue being the additional items discovered as a set along with the hollow doubling cube. Pictured at left, they are a pair of rather delicate, beet-red dice cups, an incomplete set of 1.25″ bakelite checkers, and an instructional booklet entitled “Backgammon Modernized.” Unlike the several similar rule guides printed around that time, this one bears neither an attribution of author or company that might have provided a clue to the origins of these doublers, nor any date. True to its title, it includes brief descriptions of doubling and chouette play in prose cribbed from Grosvenor Nicholas’ Modern Backgammon (1928) but rephrased seemingly just enough to avoid violating copyright.
While it might be tempting to think of these dials as failed attempts at doubling devices prior to the “eureka!” moment when the doubling cube was devised, one feature that makes this less than likely is the absence of a “1” on the dials — particularly the red dial, which has ample room on its wheel to have accommodated the extra numeral. Every game starts on 1, after all, and the absence of that starting numeral has always been somewhat of a mystery. A natural inference is that players in this era found their games reaching the ’64’ level through automatic and voluntary doubles often enough that they really felt the need for that ’64’ level on their devices. With the red dial, the opportunity was there to include both ‘1’ and ’64’ — so the absence of that initial value might just suggest the convention of regarding ’64’ as the initial ‘1’ value was already ingrained. This is all pure speculation of course!
If we all stay alert, maybe we’ll find assertional pieces to this puzzle. Please send any useful material to Albert Steg: email@example.com.
Another favorite artifact from the “Modern Backgammon” era of the 1930’s is the non-cubic cuboid doubler that’s come to be known among collectors as the “Doublock.” Early references to six-sided doublers of any shape use the terms “Doubling Dice,” “Doubling Block,” and the more enduring “Doubling Cube,” while “Doublock,” appears only in the English book Backgammon Up to Date (1931), making it perhaps a peculiarly “British” term for it. But in retrospect “Doublock” seems a handy and aptly descriptive way to refer specifically to ones with sides of differing dimensions.
The absence of any drawings or photos of “doublocks” during the 1930-31 heyday of the game suggests that they were a subsequent experiment in form, not an early doubler style discarded in favor of the cube. While it seems most doublocks followed the 1930 numeral scheme described higher on this page, some do not, and as shown in the picture at left, they were made in a variety of materials, from gem-like swirled bakelite to flat opaque yellows.
These flat doublocks have one thing in particular going for them: at around 3/4″ thick they are much less obtrusive when placed on the center of the bar than the common 1.5″ or even 1″ cubes – at least until they are turned. Few players today place a centered cube in the middle of the board, preferring to station it at one side or the other, where there is often a central compartment designed for the purpose. But perhaps because of the original practice of placing doubling matches on the center bar, that seems to have begun as the natural place for the cube — and perhaps doublocks seemed like they might be better suited for that placement.
The portrait of Mickey Rooney at right includes a novel board design, with a central pedestal providing a landing pad for a doublock and presumably for any hit checkers on top of it. Perhaps the doublock will make a return to the bar in the 21st century as baffle boxes, clocks, and score cards take up the limited real estate at the sides of tournament boards.
The ‘Popular’ Numeral Scheme (unknown date)
One further regular numeral scheme is worth recognizing, which we might call the the “popular cube scheme,” because it seems to find favor with a great many players. Its most salient feature is that when the 64 is upward and facing the field, both players can see the ‘2’ right-side up below it so that it is very easy to make the initial double. Another feature is that the opposing faces all form natural doubling pairs (2/4, 8/16, 32/64). Since the ‘4’ face is on the opposite side of the ‘2’, the second double as also easy to effect without hunting, and according to Bill Davis the arrangement provides a possible origin for the term “beaver” where a player who has been doubled flips the cube over as if by a beaver tail before accepting it!
Oddly, this numeral scheme is consistent with the first illustration of a doubling cube in a backgammon book, Ralph Bond’s Beginner’s Book of Modern Backgammon (see above section on Doubling Protocols). I might have been inclined to call this the Bond cube style, but since the illustration only shows three sides, not including the crucial ’64’ face, and there are no unambiguous examples of cubes with this scheme dating to 1930-31, the correspondence seems likely to be a coincidence — especially as the illustration in the quickly revised edition of his book conforms to the 1930 style.
It is not clear when the cubes pictured above and to the right were made. Anywhere from the 1930’s to the 1970’s seems possible, but my impression is that they are on the later side of bakelite production. Although factories stopped producing decorative bakelite in the 1950’s when other, cheaper and safer plastics had become available, large quantities of the colorful materials remained in stock and in use for decades (uncut bakelite rods still frequently appear on ebay even today).
Pictured above are nine of my eleven 1.5″ cubes in this colorful bakelite style, and 10 of them hew to this numeral scheme. Pictured at right are ten of my 1″ cubes that follow this numeral scheme, and it’s striking that none of the most common 1″ red and green colored cubes of the 1930’s participate in the scheme. The predominance of browns and blacks seems more typical of a 1970’s interior design aesthetic, and brown and yellow checker sets seem to have been very very common for backgammon sets of that time.
Random Numeral Schemes
Against the three recurring numeral schemes presented earlier on this page, we have a great many bakelite doubling cubes that go their own way with scarcely any rhyme or reason. In particular, only a small percentage of the many 1″ bakelite doubling cubes in my collection participate in either scheme, which leads one to suspect they were made by a different hand than the mostly regular 1.5″ bakelite cubes — as opposed to being two size options from a single maker. Note that the one brown cube could have joined the group pictured above.
It’s no wonder we all hunt around looking for a ‘4’ or an ‘8’ when we need one over the board!
If you see a maximum game value of ’64’ as a drawback, octagonal doublers provided two further doublings to ‘256.’ There may be a place for such a device in games played for minute stakes where players enjoy whipping the cube back and forth at every advantage, or live dangerously by playing “unlimited autos,” but it seems these hefty chunks of bakelite were marketed more for novelty or decorative value than for practical use, given how rare it is to see photos of them in action. Although made out of bakelite/catalin materials popular in the 1930’s-50’s, they appear to have emerged in the 1960’s-70s, perhaps crafted out of old stocks of the material. The earliest known reference to one appears in Backgammon: The Action Game (1969), by Obolensky and James: “Doubling blocks are made of different materials such as opaque plastic, ivory, wood, precious metals, or clear plastic. Some are octagonal in shape” (p.140).
In an effort to further “date’ these items more accurately, I am seeking any references to them in catalogues, articles, or photos, particularly ones pre-dating 1969. Please send any useful material to Albert Steg: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Strategic Numeral Schemes
Perhaps in a direct attempt to relieve the annoyance of randomly applied numerals, two backgammon craftsmen devised novel numeric schemes later in the 20th century to give players certainty as to the location of the next face in the doubling sequence. First Lawrence Sonné designed the “Deliberate Doubler” (left), with an arrow on the edge of each face pointing toward the next highest numeral. These cubes first appeared in the 1970’s and are still available in a variety of sizes directly from Sonné at Backgammon Elegance.
Sometime in the 1980’s, Larry Strommen took an ingenious approach with his “Logicube” (right) by arranging the numerals so that the next number in the series would appear simply by turning the cube “downward” from the numeral on top. He also incorporated the variation of replacing the ’64’ with a more useful ‘1’. Had he used a serif on that ‘1’ and a fatter “snowman,” he could have dispensed with the two underlinings he felt necessary on those two faces! Strommen passed away in 2006 and it seems no one has picked up on his design since then.
In Backgammon: The Action Game (1969), Obolensky and James report, “There are now doubling blocks that start with the number one” (p.140), and yet attempts to replace the ’64’ with a ‘1’ over the years have never gained traction. Perhaps it’s just a preference for the familiar, but it seems that the ’64’ on display also has become a settled part of backgammon’s iconography, similar to triangular points with round checkers on them — something that just conveys “backgammon” at a glance.
A Proliferation of Cubes
The sections devoted to cube styles on this page are not comprehensive. Throughout the 20th century there were always backgammon set makers producing their own unique doubling cubes, some very simple and inexpensive and others elaborate and costly. As the internet has made long-distance marketing of products in small-batch quantities easier, many individuals and small companies have stepped into the “niche market” of backgammon equipment, resulting in a great proliferation of board styles, checker styles, and cube styles. Players today have a world of choice.
Comments, questions, corrections and additions are invited!