Games Ancient Greeks Played for Fun

Most people know that the Ancient Greeks loved sports and worshipped athletes. Much of their leisure time was taken up with running, jumping and throwing the javelin and discus.

This was because they believed that the gods wanted their bodies to be as near to perfection as possible.

According to Quatr.us, it was only men who were allowed to take part in the Olympic games. Women had their own sporting events, which were just as competitive, but the Ancient Greeks liked to play many other games that had nothing to do with sport too.

Games Ancient Greeks Played for Fun
The ancient version of gaming apps – ‘Ancient Toys’ – Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Gods on the Side of Gaming for Ancient Greeks

In Ancient Greece, there was much debate about whether gambling should be allowed or not. Some people were worried about it, but two Greek gods decidedly sided with the gamblers: Hermes and Pan are both known for taking part in gambling, according to mythology.

Other gods and important figures in Greek mythology such as Poseidon, Hades and Zeus also threw dice to decide who would have which parts of the universe. Zeus won the heavens, Poseidon won the sea and Hades won the underworld.

Hermes was known as the god of gambling and gaming, among other things, and players would often pray to him before they bet any money.

This is said to be a practice that still happens today, although for many modern Greeks it’s Christian Saints who would be addressed in such a prayer.

There were also simple games, such as ephedrismos, which was a bit like piggyback, and chasing games were popular too.

There would be two teams and a shell that was painted on one side. The shell would be tossed in the air and which colour was on top decided which team had to do the chasing.

In Ancient Greece, one of the very popular games was known as knucklebones, which had different versions for male and for female players. There is much archaeological evidence about this, including findings of knucklebone pieces.

The game is often depicted in Greek works of art produced at the time. The men treated the knucklebone pieces, of which there were four or five to a game, a bit like dice, and sometimes even painted numbers on each face of the piece.

The women used the knucklebones more like the pieces used in a game of jacks, by throwing them into the air and seeing how many they could catch on the back of their hands.

Single women were also reportedly superstitious about them and thought that if they did well in a game of knucklebones, they were likely to find the love of their life very soon.

Ancient Greeks also were a people who liked to gamble.

Gambling was one of the earliest forms of entertainment worldwide and research actually suggests that games of chance started in Greece, but also in China and Egypt. 

Ancient Greeks gambled with dice and played heads or tails by flipping a coin. It did not matter if they were part of the aristocracy, a peasant or a slave; gambling was part of everyday life and still remains so today.

In 2012, the Greek Reporter told how until the global recession, Greeks were among the most avid of European gamblers and accounted for 20% of sports bets worldwide, which for the size of the population is quite surprising.

With everyone having less disposable cash, the numbers of bets that were placed did not dwindle, but the size of the bets was reduced.

In 2012, the government allowed companies who wanted to operate in Greece to buy licences and raised a lot of money this way.

Games Ancient Greeks Played for Fun
Greek Gods looking down on us mere mortals‘Greek Gods’ – Bart Everson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Greek Legends of Gaming

Greece has also produced some legendary gamblers such as Anargyros Karabourniotis, better known as Archie Karas.

He got a taste for gambling by playing marbles for money when he was younger. He went to work on a ship as a waiter, and when the ship docked in the US he decided to try his luck in Las Vegas. 

One of the first things he did was to change his name because his original one was so hard to pronounce and then he got a job as a waiter in a restaurant in the town. He soon found out that the owner liked to play poker in the ‘back room’.

He realised that he had a talent for the game and he soon moved on to playing poker in the casinos. He eventually made $40 million dollars in three years later in life.

He was so good at poker that no one would play against him so he went against his golden rule and played other games, losing all his money in just two months.

Then there are such legends as Nick the Greek, whose real name was Nikolaos Andreas Dandolos.

It is said his life story would make a great film as he went from rags to riches and back again more than 75 times. It is estimated that throughout his gambling career, he won and lost more than $500 million.

The Greek USA Reporter says that Frank Sinatra and Aristotle Onassis were among his greatest fans.

John Taramas is another Greek gambling legend. He started off by playing blackjack and has written two books on the subject. He was also a highly respected teacher. 

One of the reasons why he was attracted games such as blackjack is because there is strategy involved. It is not just luck that decides if players win, but they also need to understand when they should split their two cards, and when to refuse any more cards.

To be a successful player in blackjack like Taramas, you will need to  know all the strategies and terms related to a game, and this will make them more likely to win.

The margins between being a winner or loser at blackjack is small: with an average of a 43.8% win rate, and a 47.3% loss rate, just a slight run in the player’s favour can lead to a strong winning run.

Taramas was always a very disciplined player and tried to understand when the initial cards were in his favour in order to maximise the hands where he had a better chance against the dealer.

He won millions in Holland before coming back to Greece and getting onto the poker scene.

Other Games Played in Greece

In modern Greece, one of the favourite sets of games is tavli. This is a group of games which are very similar to backgammon, and includes plakoto, portes, fevga, gkioul, and assodio.

They are often played one after the other, the winner of each being awarded points to see who has the most at the end.  Another very popular card game played by the locals is diloti. When you visit some of the Greek islands as well as the mainland, you will see these games being played in the local tavernas for points and for fun, but sometimes there will be bets made on the games too.

Diloti is very similar to a game known as “casino” in the UK where it first appeared in 18th-century London.

It is a game of fishing for cards, and there is some irony that in the winter months when the fishermen cannot go to sea, they fish for cards instead.

Checkers is also a game played quite often along with several other board games. Even the game of snakes and ladders is said to have originated in Ancient Greece and is a retro game that has come back to fashion.

Greek people have always liked dice games as well. The Romans adopted the practice of playing with dice from the Greeks and the British Museum has samples of the dice both nationalities played with.

The dice back then could be carved from stone, crystal, bone, antler or ivory, although they are not made from anything that exotic these days.

The main difference is that the ancient civilizations used to count the number that was touching the surface as the one that mattered, not the one on top.

The Greeks are a nation of gamers, no matter what type they are enjoying. Often, in the evenings when they are relaxing, out come the cards and the dice, or they are connecting to the internet to play in online casinos. 

It is almost a tradition to play games when there is a fiesta or other celebration, especially at the New Year.

Ancient Greeks can take credit for many things in the world today. From the alphabets used in European languages to democracy.

Many words in our dictionaries have Greek origins, and the way we do our maths is closely related to that of the Ancient Greeks.

The Romans loved Greek culture and helped spread it to many different parts of the world. According to BBC Bitesize, the origins of many of our superhero stories and the subsequent films made about them have their roots in Greek mythology. 

With so many fundamental aspects of our modern culture having roots in ancient Greece, it should come as no surprise that we also love many of the games they played. While many have evolved into modern-day variation over the course of time, some are closer to the original than many people realise. 

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