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‘You forget everything going on in your life’: Aberdeen Backgammon Club is about more than a game

Aberdeen Backgammon Club invited the P&J along to see what they do - and to try our hand at the game

It’s a Wednesday evening at the Sportsman’s Club in Aberdeen – and the group gathered in a room inside the facility is gearing up for its latest meeting.

The Aberdeen Backgammon Club has been running since 2017, and when chairwoman Brenda Rafferty invited me along to see what the group does, I couldn’t turn it down.

You see it’s not just about playing the game – though yes that’s a vital part – but it’s said to have a range of benefits, from helping people with dementia to improving concentration, as well as having a positive impact on mental health.

When I joined them the club was preparing to host the Scottish Backgammon Open  at the Holiday Inn in Westhill. Among those due to take part was backgammon grandmaster Tim Cross, who was also giving a talk.

Rosie Young and Ian Cukrowski play as club members look on. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

Trying my hand at Backgammon at the Sportsman’s Club

The tournament, was taking place for the first time in 12 years and was the first time it has been held in the north-east. Ultimately 52 players took part in it, with Mike Ireland, from England, crowned as the winner.

The event, which ran from May 24-26 was sponsored by the city’s Yilmaz Snack Bar.

And its owner, Huseyin Yilmaz, is among the members at the Wednesday evening session and is sitting in front of a backgammon board when Brenda introduces me to him.

Full disclosure – I had never played before, but help was close at hand.

After meeting everyone I was introduced to the member who had generously volunteered to teach me the basics of the game.

I have to confess that on seeing the backgammon counters on the board I felt slightly nervous.

Ian Cukrowski, who used to own MacBeans, on Aberdeen’s Little Belmont Street, shows me the board – and hands me a book. Backgammon For Dummies.

There was little time to flick through the pages for tips though – despite being a complete newbie – before we begin.

Winner of Scottish Backgammon Open Mike Ireland (left). Supplied by Brenda Rafferty.

What is Backgammon?

A two player-game, backgammon has two sets of counters and is played on a board which has points, which look like triangular spikes,  across its two halves.

The aim of the game is to move your 15 counters or ‘men’ across the points on the board clockwise or anti-clockwise, as one player plays clockwise the other anticlockwise – the board can be set up either way. Ultimately the players are competing to be the first to remove their counters from the board.

The game begins with a single roll of the dice from both players – whoever has the highest dice roll starts the game. After that each player will roll two dice, the dice will dictate the number of moves you can make.

Aberdeen Backgammon Club is growing

Ian describes the game as “a race”, and tells me: “I get the feeling it’s becoming more and more popular. During Covid a lot of people went online to play – online playing is massive.

“There’s backgammon clubs across Scotland, the Aberdeen Backgammon Club is growing really nicely.

The north-east will host the Scottish Backgammon Open for the first time this weekend.<br />Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

He adds: “It gives you a focus of something to do during the week, to go out meet people and be social.”

It’s clear Ian really knows his stuff – and he tells me after my first roll of the dice that the move is a good one! There’s an important rule I keep forgetting, which is to remove your dice from the board after your move – eventually after several reminders from Ian I remember!

Somehow (with a huge amount of guidance from Ian) I end up winning the game.

Beginner’s luck? Most likely. I’m not sure I fully understood the rules – but I can see why people would get engrossed in the challenge!

After Ian’s admirable efforts to teach me the game, I caught up with Brenda. She was mid-game herself with Beth Young, who is a member along with her sister Rosie, who joined the club after deciding to take up a hobby after becoming a mum.

People playing at the Granite City Open 2023 at Westhill Holiday Inn. Westhill. Supplied by Aberdeen Backgammon Club.

A welcoming atmosphere

Brenda quips that Beth, who has been playing since the age of 10, is competitive.

Looking around, it’s clear there’s a mix of ages, and Brenda – who is also captain of the Scottish ladies team – tells me they have a lot of female members. As she pauses play to chat, she points out a couple at the table opposite, who have been playing the game for 40 years.

At the other side of the room is one of the club’s founder members Norman Hessler, who has been taking lessons from the aforementioned Tim Cross, and has competed in contests across the UK.

The atmosphere, while competitive, is incredibly friendly and welcoming.

Brenda tells me she has been playing for 10 years.

Brenda Rafferty says she feels so “energised” playing Backgammon.<br />Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

‘I feel energised playing this game’

On how she became involved in the backgammon scene, Brenda said: “I was in the Borders and I was widowed, and weekends can be quite difficult for people on their own. I thought I needed to find something to do.

“I feel so energised playing this game – even though I don’t always feel great.

She added: “I started going up to Edinburgh. I lived in the Borders, but there was an Edinburgh club – it was 40 miles away and I would go up there to play. Then I moved up here, but there was no club so I started a club through”

It wasn’t long before people started coming along on a Sunday, and this then developed into the current Wednesday meet-up.

Huseyin Yilmaz and Brenda Rafferty. Aberdeen. Supplied by Aberdeen Backgammon Club.

‘It gets you out of the house’

The club, which is linked to the UK Backgammon Federation and follows its rules, has 30 members – with other occasional players who also attend the weekly sessions.

There are also more relaxed Sunday sessions held once a month at various locations, as well as occasional beginner sessions for adults and children at the Westhill Library.

Speaking of the benefits of the game, Brenda says: “It’s good for your concentration. I can play longer matches now than I could earlier on. It definitely does help your sharpness.”

Brenda added: “You forget about everything else that’s going on in your life, because you’re just focusing on the joy of playing the game. You’re not talking about any of your issues or problems, you’re talking about the game – and you get really absorbed in it.

“‘I’ve got health issues and I’ve got caring responsibilities, but when I go there, it’s just time to switch off and get into Brenda mode; it’s just having fun and being yourself.

“For people who are maybe not very good at socialising, you are playing the game and talking about the game, so it’s not frightening.”

Members of the Aberdeen Backgammon Club. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

‘Anybody can win’

While technical skill is one thing, a roll of the dice can change anything – with luck being a factor in how things play out.

Brenda added: “Anybody can win – it’s not like chess. There’s an element of luck and an element of skill. With short games it’s more about the luck, with longer games that’s when the skill element comes into it.”

The club, which doesn’t play for money, has its own league where they compete for a trophy.

And despite winning a game during the evening, I suspect it would take me several more attempts to master the game – so the club’s trophy won’t be falling into my hands any time soon!

  • The Aberdeen Backgammon Club meets every Wednesday at the Sportsman’s Club on Queen’s Road from 7-9.30pm. For more information contact To find out more about the Scottish Open go to
Ian brought along Backgammon For Dummies for me to get some tips from. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson