Gambling History – Scandinavia

Residents of the Viking world entertained themselves and won sums of money by playing a game called “Tafl.” The word means “table” in Old Norse. Although “Tafl” may refer to a number of board games, including Chess (Skak-Tafl or “check-table”), Fox and Geese (Ref-Skak, “fox chess”, Hala-Tafl or Freys-Tafl), Three Men’s Morris (“Quick-Tafl”) and Nine Men’s Morris, it most often refers to a game called Hnefa-Tafl or “King’s Table.” This game was popular in Scandinavia before 400 A. D. and went with the Vikings to Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Britain, Wales and the Ukraine.

The Board and Pieces

Hnefatafl and its variants were played on boards as small as seven squares by seven squares and as large as 19 squares by 19 squares. These were often made of wood, and sometimes had holes drilled in the middle of each playing square. A beautiful carved board with 13 squares on each side was found at Gokstad, Norway. This particular board had a Nine Men’s Morris layout carved on the opposite side. Some boards were made from walrus ivory, and some were marked out with charcoal or scratched onto the surface of thin rocks.

Gaming pieces were often hemispherical and made of antler, amber, bone, clay, glass, horn, stone, jet, wood or the teeth of horses. For boards with nine by nine square configurations, there were sixteen dark pieces surrounded eight light pieces with an additional king. Boards with a larger number of squares often had twelve light pieces and a king facing twenty-four dark pieces. Some believe that this arrangement represents a sea-battle, with a king’s ship defended by white ships facing a fleet of dark attackers. The colors were sometimes switched, so that the king’s side used dark pieces.

The king piece was called “Hnefi.” The other pieces were called Hunns (“knobs”) and Teflor (“table-men”). The King was usually bigger and more ornate.

How The Game Was Played

Hnefatafl was sometimes played with dice. The throw of the dice would either show the maximum distance a piece could move, or whether the player could move at all. Gamblers tended to use the dice variation; those who wished to play as a game of skill played without dice.

The king was placed on the central square or throne, and was surrounded by his men. The enemy (usually dark-colored) pieces were set up around the edges of the board. Black generally moved first, and turns alternated between the players.

All pieces moved any number of squares, right or left, or up or down, in a manner like that of the rook in modern chess. Diagonal moves and jumps over other pieces were not permitted. The throne and the four corner squares were off-limits to all pieces except the king. The aim of the game was to put the king into one of the corner squares. The king’s opponent won by capturing the king, or by arranging it so that the king and no more than one defender were surrounded on all sides and could not move anywhere.

Because the sides were uneven, most people played two games, so that each player would have a chance to control the king. Players kept track of how many pieces were lost, and this score was used to decide the ultimate winner.

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