The game of Tab, sometimes spelled Tâb, and in Arabic – الطاب, also known as Tab Wa-Dukk, is a Middle Eastern game, that has both, luck and strategy, components. Many Tab boards have been found carved into stones, in Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries, however their dating is problematic, and we do not know if they have been carved by the Bedouin in the last few hundred years, or if they date to antiquity. Tab has been continuously played in Egypt at least since the Middle Ages until today and its rules are known.
Tab board near the Dier monument in Petra, Jordan. Photo: Dan Gibson, 2003, nabataea.net.
The earliest known mention of Tab is in a poem by the Medieval Arabic Mamluk poet from Egypt, Ibn Daniyal (1248 – 1310 CE), preserved in a manuscript (Mukhtar [min] Diwan Shams al-Din Ibn Daniyal, Ms. Istanbul Aya Sofya 4880, fol. 159a) with his poetry, in Turkey.
And I fell in love with the boys, then reverted
To being young, till I went back to grade school.
Every fawn intoxicates and thus kills his lover.
When he gives him the wine of spittle to drink.
I studied cheating, till I
Became the imam of dice (ki’ab) playing.
Then I gambled among them with date pits
And with ad-dukk at times and at-tab.
I played pigeons among them. How (often)
Did I thereby hunt every swift bird!
English translation from Rosenthal, Franz. Gambling in Islam. Brill, 1975. p. 45.; and Rosenthal, Franz. Man versus Society in Medieval Islam. Brill, 2014. pp. 380-381.
Detailed rules for Tab have been published for the first time in 1836, in a book by Edward William Lane, called “An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians”. Lane traveled to Egypt twice, in the 1820s and 1830s, and observed Egyptian Bedouin and Felaheen (peasants) play various games, whose rules he recorded.
Since Tab is a game of the Egyptian poor and Bedouin nomads, it did not have fancy manufactured boards and pieces, as opposed to games like Senet, Aseb, Mehen, and Hounds and Jackals, all of which were the games of royalty and the wealthy. The Felaheen and the Bedouin simply dug holes in the sand to make a temporary playing board or carved them into rocks, and used pebbles of two different colors to play.
Although Tab has been played historically on boards with an odd number of cells in width, varying from 7 to 29 cells wide, in the rules below I have chosen to standardize the board to 4×11. The more columns there are in the game the smaller the impact of the luck factor and more use of strategy, but as the gaming boards gets wider so too the duration of the game gets longer. Width of 11 cells is a good compromise between the duration of the game and the reduction of the luck aspect.
Although historically, the number of the playing pieces varied, sometimes equal to the width if the board and sometimes less, as recorded by Lane, in the standardized rules below I have set the number of pieces per player always equals to the width of the board, namely 11 pieces, for 4×11 board.
Both, Lane and Walker, have indicated that when playing with single sided pieces, it is rather difficult to memorize which pieces have visited specific location in the game and thus changed their status. Due to this problem. I have added to the rules, that the playing pieces should be two sided so that the players do not need to memorize which pieces have visited the last row and which pieces have not, as was in the original game played with pebbles, which did not have two distinct sides. The pieces can be merely flipped over, thus marking their status.
Tab board in Petra, Jordan on the rocks behind the first row of small shops as one walks from the parking lot to the Government Resthouse. Photo: Dan Gibson, 2003, nabataea.net.
The naming terminology of various game components in Tab comes from Arabic. Each cell on the board is called Beyt (house). Each playing piece is called Kelb (dog), or plural Kilab. Each throwing stick is called Tab, which is also the name of score 1, or plural Teeb. All pieces that sit on their home rows are called individually Nazranee (Christian), or plural Nazara. Once the pieces move off their home row they get “converted” and are now called Muslim (Muslim), or plural Muslemeen. A stack of multiple pieces is called Eggeh.
Most rules have been described by Lane, but a few additional clarification were made by Damian Walker, as well as myself.
- Tab is a 2 player game.
- It consists of a 4×11 playing board, 4 throwing sticks with one side flat and the other side rounded, used as dice, and 22 two sided playing pieces, 11 per player, usually colored white and black.
- Prior to the start of the game, the players position their pieces on the board on the outer home rows (rows 1 and 4), closest to each player.
- The players decide who goes first by agreement or by casting lots such as a toss of a coin.
- All 4 throwing sticks are thrown at the same time. The score is determined as follows:
- If one throwing stick landed on the flat side and the other three landed on the round side the score is 1.
- If two throwing sticks landed on the flat side and the other two landed on the round side the score is 2.
- If three throwing sticks landed on the flat side and the fourth one landed on the round side the score is 3.
- If all four throwing sticks landed on the flat side the score is 4.
- If all four throwing sticks landed on the rounded side the score is 6 (note NOT 5), which is the maximum obtainable score.
- Score of 5 is not present in the game.
- The scores 1, 4 and 6, give the player another turn to throw the sticks. The player keeps throwing the sticks repeatedly until they score 2 or 3, at which their turn stops.
- Each individual throw score allows the player to move either the same piece that number of spaces, or different pieces that number of spaces.
- Scores from different throws cannot be combined into a single move.
- The first score of the game must be a Tab (1), so the player who goes first keeps throwing the sticks until they score a 1. After scoring a 1 they get to throw again.
- After all throws of an individual turn have been made, the player moves their pieces. Pieces move to the right of the player’s 1st and 3rd rows, and to the left of the player’s 2nd and 4th rows.
- Pieces in their initial position cells (Christians) can only be moved on the score of 1 (Tab). Once the Christian has been moved off its initial position cell it gets converted to a Muslim and from then on can be moved on any score. There is no need to flip over the piece once it got converted from Christian to Muslim, because its current status is obvious by its location on the board.
- If a player scores 1 (Tab) and still has Christians to play then they must move their right most Christian off its original cell. However, if they do not have Christians left then they can move any piece.
- A player can land their own piece onto a cell occupied by another of their own pieces, in which case the pieces get stacked. The stack can contain any number of pieces.
- A stack can be moved together as if it was an individual piece.
- A stack can be grown by landing on top of other friendly pieces or other friendly stacks.
- A stack may be split up on a score of 1 (Tab), by removing the top piece and moving it to the next cell. Multiple pieces cannot be removed off the stack.
- If a stack goes back to a previous row (i.e. from row 3 to row 2, or from row 4 to row 3), then it gets reduced to a single piece and all other pieces get removed off the board. If such a move is the player’s only choice then they can skip their turn on that particular throw, in which case they either throw again if they scored 1, 4, or 6, or skip their turn completely.
- If a player lands onto a cell, with an exact score (i.e. lands, but not simply jumps over), with an opponent’s piece or stacked pieces, all of the opponent’s pieces from that cell get removed from the board.
- A player can knock out multiple opponent’s pieces in a single turn.
- Once a piece has reach row 3 it may chose to go back to row 2 in a clockwise direction, instead of going forward to row 4 (the home row of the opponent). Pieces can go back and forth between rows 2 and 3 without any change in their status.
- Muslims are forbidden to return to their own home row. As David Parlett, quoted by Damian Walker in his book, pointed out, “apostasy is forbidden.”
- If a piece is moved from row 3 to row 4 it gets flipped over. That piece can only go to row 4 if the following two conditions are met:
- The pieces has never been on the opponent’s home row before. (i.e. it was not flipped over)
- There is at least one opponent’s piece still sitting on their own home row. If the opponent’s home row does not have any of their pieces on it then the player cannot move their pieces onto it.
- Once the player’s flipped over piece has landed on to the opponent’s home row, it can only be moved in the following situations:
- The player has no pieces left on their own home row.
- The piece is not stacked.
- The player does not have any unstacked pieces left.
- Once a player gets all of their pieces knocked off the board, they lose the game.
- The throwing sticks have uneven probability for different scores, as compared to a six sided cubic dice, which makes them more frustrating and exciting at the same time.
- The most frequent dice score on throwing sticks is 2 (probability is 6/16).
- The next most frequent dice scores are 1 and 3 (probability is 4/16).
- The least frequent dice scores are 4 and 6 (probability is 1/16).
- Due to this uneven probability of scoring it is advantageous to the player to keep gaps between theirs and opponent’s pieces of either 1 or 3 cells. Gaps of 4 or 5 are even better. However, gaps of 2 are more dangerous since the probability of the opponent scoring a 2 is highest and therefore the piece can get easily knocked out.
- For the same reason, playing the game with a six sided cubical dice instead of the throwing sticks significantly ruins the experience of the game, since it equalizes all probabilities of the scores and these stratagems stop being applicable.
- Since a player can throw the sticks multiple times in a single turn they have different probabilities for scoring per turn, as opposed to per throw. The following table summarizes all probabilities:
Throwing Sticks Score Probability per Throw Probability per Turn 1 25% 28% 2 38% 60% 3 25% 40% 4 6% 8% 6 6% 8% Rethrow 38%
- From the above table it can be inferred that on average it will take about 4 throws to score a Tab, and therefore convert a Christian into a Muslim or to split a stack.
- Pieces on the 4th row (opponent’s home row) are safe from being knocked out, as long as there are no opponent’s Christians still sitting on that row behind them, because enemy Muslims are forbidden to return to their own home row.
- Rows 1 and 4 can be used as ambush locations to knock out opponent’s pieces in rows 2 or 3, as long as they themselves are safe from being knocked by near by opponents’s pieces. Above listed probabilities can be used to determine which pieces is safer in relation to an opponent’s piece.
- Stacking pieces does not make them safe, but rather more vulnerable to being knocked out all the same time. However, stacking can be used to getting faster to the opponent’s home row, where they can be safe, by jumping on top of each other and leaping forward, in a single turn.
- Another use for stacking pieces is to get them out of the second row faster where they are most vulnerable.
Tab board located on the rocks to the right of the Urn Tomb, almost overlooking the theater in Petra, Jordan. Photo: Dan Gibson, 2003, nabataea.net.
- Lane, Edward William. An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians: written in Egypt during the years 1833,-34, and-35, partly from notes made during a former visit to that country in the years 1825,-26,-27, and-28. J. Murray, 1860. p. 346-349.
- Walker, Damian Gareth. A Book of Historic Board Games. Lulu. com, 2014. pp. 65-75.
- Crist, Walter, Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, and Alex de Voogt. Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games Across Borders. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. pp. 158-160.
- Hyde, Thomas. De ludis orientalibus. 1694. pp. 217-223.
- Depaulis, Thierry. “Jeux de parcours du monde arabo-musulman (Afrique du Nord et Proche-Orient).” International Journal for the Study of Board Games 4 (2001). pp. 53-76.
- De Voogt, Alex, Ahmad BA Hassanat, and Mahmoud B. Alhasanat. “The History and Distribution of ṭāb: A Survey of Petra’s Gaming Boards.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 76, no. 1 (2017): 93-101.
- Professor Ahmad Hassanat’s complete list of all carved Tab gaming boards in Jordan, with a Google map and photos, collected for this paper.
- Hassanat, Ahmad B., Ghada Altarawneh, Ahmad S. Tarawneh, Hossam Faris, Mahmoud B. Alhasanat, Alex de Voogt, Baker Al-Rawashdeh, Mohammed Alshamaileh, and Surya VB Prasath. “On Computerizing the Ancient Game of Ṭāb.” International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS) 10, no. 3 (2018): 20-40.