Q: WHAT do Leonardo Di Caprio, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Pamela Anderson and Ainsley Harriott have in common?

A: They are/were all devotees of Backgammon.

The two-player game is one of the world’s oldest board games, dating back 5,000 years. Early evidence of it was found in the ancient civilization of what is now Iraq, and Egyptian Pharaohs later played a version of it. Boards were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

This month a major national Backgammon tournament takes place in Bradford. On Saturday, March 24 and Sunday, March 25 competitors will go head-to-head in the 2018 West Yorkshire Open Championships, held at Clayton Village Hall, and on Friday, March 23 two of the world’s top players will play two UK champs.

Peter Bennet, current Number One UK player, plays Masayuki ‘Mochy’ Mochizuki from Japan and Steve Bibby, current UK Open champion, plays Phil Simborg from Chicago. Both 15 point matches are at Napoleons Casino in Bradford and streamed live on YouTube, along with other matches over the weekend.

The tournament is organised by West Yorkshire Backgammon, which meets monthly at Napoleons. Members also play in tournaments on the last Saturday of each month in Manchester and, in conjunction with the Bradford monthly, an annual Pennine Trophy runs throughout the year.

West Yorkshire Backgammon, part of the UK Backgammon Federation, was set up by Steve Lee, (pictured with Kevin Jones, winner of the 2017 West Yorkshire Open Champnionships) who started playing it in the RAF. “I was in Gibraltar, having a drink in a bar with a mate. We spotted a Backgammon board, we didn’t know what it was so the barman showed us and we had a go,” says Steve. “I was hooked.”

Steve later returned to the game following his wife's death, in 2011. “I hadn’t played for a while. I needed something to do, so one day I Googled Backgammon and started playing online. I found a tournament in Brighton, where one of my daughters lives, and discovered there was a big following in the North, with monthly tournaments in Bradford. I got involved and ended up taking over.”

Adds Steve: “A lot of people play online, but there’s a great social element to our monthly meetings. So many people say, ‘We didn’t realise you could play live games, we thought it was just online’. When I took over the Bradford league there were eight people coming along - now we get a full house, 32 people, each time.”

Backgammon is a game of strategy and luck. Each player has 15 checkers which move between 24 points, determined by the roll of two dice. The aim is to move all 15 checkers off the board first. It is, says Steve, a particularly good game for novices. While skilled players accumulate a better record from a series of games, the dice determines a single game. “There's skill involved but with the luck of the dice, a complete beginner can play the best in the world,” he says. "It's a cross between chess, draughts and snakes and ladders. Like poker, there’s an element of luck - no matter how good you are, it’s down to the dice. It’s a great equaliser.”

For Steve, the appeal of Backgammon is that it “stimulates thinking”. “There’s maths and logic involved, and exciting things can happen. One roll of the dice can totally change the game, right at the end," he says. "I like the social aspect too; everyone is friendly and most players are good losers. It's a game anyone can play. One man is blind from birth, but plays to a high standard. His checkers have contours on which he feels and memorises, then works out the best move. Another man I know of has no arms and plays with his feet.

"I've played tournaments in Turkey, Cyprus, Denmark and Las Vegas. We have a Christmas event each year at Napoleons. ”

The West Yorkshire Open started last year, attracting 80 players. “It was a big success so this year we wanted to go bigger,” says Steve. "This year 128 players will battle it out to become the second West Yorkshire Open champion. As well as the main tournament there'll be side events including consolation, last chance and doubles tournaments. There's also a doubles match between two 12-year-olds, Eli Nixey and David Broomfield, playing Mochy and Phil Simborg.

"We'd like more younger people to get involved, and we're looking to set up a beginners' class. People can come along for taster sessions to find out more."

* Visit westyorkshirebackgammon.co.uk, call Steve Lee on 07964 083551 or email steve@westyorkshirebackgammon.co.uk