Part 3 / The Night Life and Bobby McGammon
Tingles. Paradise Found. A hotel nightclub, thumping disco, busy bar, out-of-town dames ... and backgammon! Never mind the disco, the bar, the ladies.
Fifteen boards, good solid Crisloid bar boards, dark wood frames, cork fields, green and white checkers sliding on green and white pips. Open day and night. Step right up, jump them dice, but the cube is strictly BYO.
My first time, a quiet afternoon, the place almost empty, I just stood there like a country hick confronted by Times Square on New Year's Eve. Stood and tingled. A few tourists were littered at tables here and there. Disco played quietly in the background. A bored bartender smiled at me hopefully. I made his afternoon and ordered a gin and tonic with a twist.
The place was light oak and carpet, a small parquet dance floor off to one side, a central bar, rectangular, and one wall of glass overlooking the golf course. Low tables, low comfy chairs, two levels of floor. Nice.
There were two bar-height backgammon benches in the room, just wide enough for the boards, with space for drink glasses. Padded barstools completed the arrangement.
To play all you had to do was sit down, start noodling the men around the board, and sooner or later someone would sit across and ask to play. It was, in a word, addictive, especially at night when the place was full. Disco booming, ice clinking in glasses, people chattering, glances flattering.
I took to spending eight to ten hours a day, several days a week, hanging out in Tingles, late afternoon to closing. I was looking for backgammon in all the wrong places, but it was the only place there was. Most of the time I'd get several hours of play with strangers whose skills ranged from "How do I set up the men?" to "I beat Magriel in a match." Occasionally money was in play, usually play was just for fun. All I wanted was experience. I made some small wooden cubes and pressed transfer numbers onto them, coating everything with polyurethane. But the cube was still a foreign object to most of the people who played there, most of whom were playing a different game called sex and dating.
Then one night as I noodled around the board, throwing dice for both sides, a nice-looking fellow, in his thirties maybe, in good shape, sandy hair, a little beefy but not fat, dressed casually, sat down and said, "Mind if I pick up the other side?"
In a couple of moves I saw that this guy knew what he was doing. A few moves later I was sure of it. I had two of his guys behind a solid prime, well on my way to a win, when I had the opportunity to pick up a third man. Having a sure gammon in sight, I passed on it and made another move.
"Good choice," he said. "Somebody who knows what he's doing. Name's Bobby."
"Rick," I said, and we played on, occasionally exchanging comments.
Fortunately we came to an endgame I didn't know how to play. I was doubling up on outfield points instead of spreading blots around.
"You don't know how to play this, do you?" He wore a deadly earnest smile.
I shrugged and admitted I was floundering.
"You're okay," he said. "You know you don't know. Here's how this goes." And he ran me through it until he felt I understood it. The concept suddenly became clear and simple.
We got to talking and Bobby told me he was a professional player, he had beaten Paul Magriel once in an eleven point match, and was working in Tingles on a pretty good deal he set up with management. He had played all around the world, had backers for big money games, and backgammon was all he did. He spoke of playing for a thousand dollars a point in Europe. I don't remember his last name, or if he even told me, so I still think of him as Bobby McGammon. He was his own franchise.
Bobby took a liking to me. He knew I couldn't afford to pay him for lessons, so he offered to play with me when he wasn't tied up in his deals. He taught me quite a bit about backgammon.
His deal with Tingles was pretty good. He set up a board apart from the tables, with a sign explaining his background (stressing the Magriel match, of course) and how he worked. The sign hadn't been set up when I first met up with him, which is why I had no idea who he was. The deal was a player could pay him five dollars for a single game. If Bobby won, he got the five dollars and offered a critique of the player's game. If Bobby lost, the player doesn't pay, doesn't get a critique. Bobby offered an eleven point match for twenty dollars, same deal. The other side was to pay straight up and get a critique.
Of course the games in the club weren't his living. That's just where he found his marks ... er ... opponents for the real money games. Na´ve as I was at the time, I never thought that's what he was doing, until one night, late, he came in steamed up and somewhat disheveled.
"What's wrong?" I said when he sat down across the board.
"Aah, I just had to pound on a deadbeat in the parking lot. He owed me two hundred bucks." He tossed down half his drink.
"From a match?"
"Yeah, the welsher. I hate these guys. They want to play but they don't want to pay."
"They want to say they beat the top gun, huh?"
"Got that right. Yeah."
"You get the money?"
He grinned. "I got the money. The jerk. I work out every day."
Bobby was an okay guy in my book. He didn't have to take any time teaching me, but he did, and I've always appreciated that. He was living on the dark side of the game, living by his wits and his skill, and I admired that. After a while, towards the end of that summer he moved on to somewhere else. I think he found the Cape a bit tame and cheap for his taste.
In the meantime, the Tingles beat pounded on. One Saturday night, when the place was packed wall to wall, I had a truly extraordinary backgammon experience. The bar was packed on a Saturday night. I'd been in the place for hours already, gone out for a while and come back. There was only one seat available at backgammon, across from a pleasant gentleman who appeared to be either Pakistani or Indian. I asked if he played and we were off.
We played the fastest, most intense round of games I had ever been in. The dice never stopped moving, the checkers flew around the board, and we were both absolutely rapt. Roll move roll move roll move. Bang bang bang. And it was good backgammon too.
I remember at one point hearing somebody say something. I looked up and realized we were surrounded by about twenty people pressing in to get a better look. They had never seen the game played this way and couldn't get enough. It was wonderful.
I don't know how long we played that way, maybe an hour give or take. Our synapses were a tad fried when we quit. I never saw that fellow again. Tourist, no doubt.
That year there was also a brief backgammon romance that didn't work out. My life's theme! Maybe I shouldn't have won the twenty bucks from her.
After that year I drifted away from the game. The Cape Cod Backgammon Club got too expensive for my meager budget and there wasn't a lot else gammonish going on. Tingles died as a backgammon venue when they replaced some of the boards with Pente boards - a better dating game, apparently. A little while later I got married, taught my wife the game, and a year later when I left she owed me $400 in gammon losses. Needless to say that's money I never saw. I went to live in Rhode Island for several years but I think nobody in that state ever heard of the game, despite having Crisloid right there in Providence. I couldn't find a game to save my life. Then back to the Cape. The Club was completely defunct. Play was defunct. Backgammon ceased to exist and my nice Crisloid boards gathered dust in the closet. Other things filled my time.
Then came the Internet and somehow or other I heard about bots. I downloaded a free Fish and my blood began to run, my heart started to beat, my brain began to twitch. Backgammon was back in my life. And Jellyfish Tutor and Snowie Pro, new books, a new board, new ideas, GammOnLine, GammonVillage, Gamesgrid and Gamesite 2000, and rec.games.backgammon. I have to say, though, that for me, playing online just doesn't come close to the real flesh-and-blood game.
I tried to organize a little local club, a kernel, to get things going, but it fizzled. As of right now, there's just me and Paul and Carl. I've been too sick to play for several months, but I'm starting to get back on my feet and my fingers are getting itchy for the feel of the dice cups and those smooth marbelized Crisloid pieces. I can hear the bones rattling, rattling, rattling, like a snake in the middle of my head.
Watch out brain, here comes the cube!
© 2001 Richard M. Gerace|
Thank you to Ric for his kind permission to republish this story.