Part 1 / The Girl and the Dummy
For the first three moves of a backgammon game there are approximately 6600 opening sequences. In 1978 I didn't know that. I didn't know cubes, didn't know odds, never heard of Magriel. I was young, stupid, and male, and stupid was my salvation.
At a midwinter party in West Falmouth, I idly watched a couple of people, one of whom was young, female, and devastatingly cute, play a board game. I thought it might be called backgammon. Having no clue about what they were doing, I was merely waiting for them to finish so I might pursue my primary hobby.
Then, the game done, the girl walked over and asked if I wanted to play backgammon.
"No, thanks," I said.
"Oh. Okay," she said, and walked away.
Smooth, huh? Remember I said stupid and male. Add not-too-smooth. But I couldn't admit that I didn't know how to play some dumb game and so the object of my hormonal affection walked away. I left soon after, kicking whatever got in front of me. I believe at one point I stopped to bang my head against a tree.
On the bright side, had I not been so stupid, I would never have learned The Game.
"Would you like to play backgammon?" she says. She has such big, dark eyes.
"Um. Er. Well, I don't know how to play." My mind twists slowly in its juices, groping for something smooth to say. Instead, I shrug.
Now if she had said, "I could teach you" or if I had said "Maybe you could teach me," life would have been different from that moment. She teaches me the game, we play at a shallow beginner's level, begin to date, fall in love, marry, have kids, mortgage, arguments, divorce, bitterness. No backgammon because the game is pretty boring at that level and I would have stopped bothering with it in order to focus on my lady love and alimony.
But because I was stupid and too proud to say "I don't know how to play backgammon," I own a couple of dozen backgammon books, several Crisloid boards, two very expensive neural net computer backgammon games, and a couple of pricey subscriptions to online gamesites. Not to mention eleven cats and no girlfriend.
All in all, it was a good move. (Except maybe for the no girlfriend part. Heavy sigh.)
I digress. When I got home I removed tree bark from my forehead, applied a liberal bandage, and went to bed mad at myself. The next day I hit the bookstores, determined never again to be put in the position of saying "I don't know" to a backgammon woman. Whatever backgammon was.
Way back then backgammon was so big that bookstores actually carried backgammon books. Several actually. Not knowing which was good, I chose the one that carried a familiar name and spoke of glory and grandeur and girls.
Playboy's Book of Backgammon by Lewis Deyong.
I still have it. It's ratty and falling apart, but it was my first love in a long affair.
Playboy's Book of Backgammon cost me $7.95, in paperback. I brought it home, opened it up, and suddenly discovered not a book of rules, diagrams, and esoteric numbers, but an exotic world filled with lively characters playing for glory and money in places like Las Vegas and Monte Carlo and Athens and Paris.
Deyong opened vistas in which backgammon was not an amusing little parlor game. He talked about Backgammon, a Game of Champions and Eccentrics, played from one end of the world to another by Prince Obolensky and Prince Ali of Bittar, Oswald Jacoby, The Computer (carbon based, not silicon), Philip Martyn and Barclay Cooke, and Gregory, the world's oldest backgammon player.
Having hooked me with the action and players in a major tournament in Las Vegas, Deyong then proceeded to teach the game. I just ate it up. Spent twenty bucks on a middling leatherette board, practiced setting up the men, wondered about that big die with numbers on it. I learned to move men without counting. I learned to play both directions. I learned openings. I played countless games against myself (winning them all, of course).
Then I moved on to other books. Backgammon by Magriel, $20 in hardcover. That's where I found the real game. Unimaginable depths opened up in this little arena of my cheap board. Green x's and black o's danced on my retinas.
Other books followed over time, at least a couple of dozen including two real prizes by Barclay Cooke, his Paradoxes and Probabilities, and the first volume of an epic international match Cooke and his son Walter played against Philip Martyn and Joe Dwek, Championship Backgammon. I loved Cooke not only for his witty style and great knowledge, but because he simplified that growling beast, the Cube. It's better to take than to give when in doubt, he said. At the time, pre-bot, that was great wisdom.
I think I bought every backgammon book that showed up on the shelves, including one on using mind control to influence the dice. I had a couple of books written back in the Thirties sitting on the shelf next to Dwek's Backgammon for Profit. I got a subscription to a backgammon magazine out of Las Vegas, edited by a lovely blonde who I dreamed of meeting some day. (Can't remember the name of the mag or her now. Heavy sigh.) I even wrote a book review she published, on The Clermont Book of Backgammon. Major ego boost.
These days I collect Robertie and Woolsey and their sophisticated analyses, and play bots. Hmmm. Bot? Blonde? Bot? Blonde? Ahhh, shoulda gone to Vegas.
But having done all this studying and soaking up of wisdom, I noticed something missing. Something vital.
Opponents. Living, breathing players. And I had no clue as to where to find them. Cape Cod wasn't exactly a hotbed of sophisticated gaming (still isn't). People weren't sitting around in public places shaking dice and bemoaning fate. I knew of the New England Backgammon Club, but that lay way far and away in Boston, not my favorite place to drive to, even then. Intrepid as always, I called and they tipped me to the Cape Cod Backgammon Club and gave me a phone number.
The woman who answered was the president of the club and the director of the tournament. She was very nice, chatted with me, and encouraged me to enter. Which I did. Nervously. Sweaty-palmed. Wearing a jacket and tie. Oh my! How times change.
© 2001 Richard M. Gerace|
Thank you to Ric for his kind permission to republish this story.