Friday, April 18, 2014

B is for Backgammon

A series on games I wish I'd played more of.

My first encounters with backgammon were empty affairs – literally so, in fact: around the time I was introduced to chess and draughts/checkers [1] I received the sorts of encouraging gifts that grandparents and aunts and uncles buy, which included the occasional set of pieces and a board, the flip side of which often had a mysterious pattern of elongated triangles. I could tell that there was something you could do with this pattern, but I didn’t even know enough to be able to formulate questions, so I just forgot about it.

Years later, I encountered the word backgammon in a novel I read for school: when I was about 13, we read a short-ish novel about a young man in a coastal village in Cornwall [2] who gets mixed up with smugglers. Backgammon plays a large role in the story, introducing various characters and plot twists through the game and the gambling that went along with it.  [3] I didn’t really understand what this mysterious game was [4] so no doubt quite a lot of the context was lost on my 13 year old self.

Fast forward to university, and I had finally over the years learned that the strange pattern on the inside of my chess board was a backgammon board.  On top of that, I had come across an old copy of Hoyle’s Games at a booksellers [5] and had been enjoying playing around with long out of fashion card games and the like – naturally, an explanation of backgammon was also in the book. Cue long hours in my room at residence playing backgammon with a friend.

The first few times, I know we messed it up.  Neither of us had ever played before, and we needed to work out what Hoyle’s explanations actually meant [6] but once we had the hang of it, we spent many hours chatting over a game.  And that's a key: unlike many other ancient games, backgammon is very social.

There are other ancient games of course, with long pedigrees and deeply embedded into their various cultures: chess, go, draughts, just to name a few that will be familiar to nearly everyone.  Backgammon takes its place proudly with them, but adds the dimension of not requiring such deep thought.  This makes it far more conducive to casual play over drinks - oh, you can play chess casually as well of course, but one thing that we learned was that once you do know the rules backgammon is surprisingly easy to teach, and the learning curve is very gentle on beginners - probably because of the random dimension introduced by the dice. 

Because of this, backgammon is a game that you can pull out to play with friends after dinner, or to set up on the pub table, and just play over and over and over again - the rattle of the dice becomes part of the conversation, and the movement of the blots almost incidental...until the moment when you lose and are obligated to pay the next round. [7]

Some other ancient games (dominoes comes to mind) are highly social as well, not to mention the multitude of relatively basic card games, and in communities where they are truly ubiquitous I'm sure that chess and similiarly "difficult" games become social as well.  

But we seem to have lost something over the decades of the twentieth century in that these sorts of social games have gradually faded away.

It would be a shame if these things faded entirely.

1. Strangely, I’m fairly certain I was taught chess before any card games more complicated than snap or fish. Not by any parental snobbery, just a coincidence: I have vivid memories of the games nights my parents and their friends had when I was small, but such events petered out before I was old enough to participate and as we only rarely had family gatherings it’s surprising I learned as many games as I did.

2. This is my impression, decades later, and it makes sense, but I’ll grant that we had just moved out of Cornwall so my memory may be defective. I sadly don’t recall the title or even very much about One important note: It was not Jamaica Inn, this much I am certain of.

3. And now I wish I knew the book, and even more wish I could go back to rewrite the essay I submitted on it because in retrospect I’m sure there were themes of brinksmanship and risk-taking echoed in the way the backgammon games played out in the story and the actions of the main characters. Of course, this is all fragmentary memory so may not be reliable. EDIT 2014/6/6: after much searching, I had given up but today by complete chance came across the book in another context - the title is Moonfleet, by John Meade Falkner, available on Gutenberg here

4. Nor, being a typical teenager, did it occur to me to ask the teacher since it didn’t really seem relevant at the time. I will confess to not having been particularly enthusiastic about reading a book about 18th century smugglers. (at the time my reading list mostly involved things like Dune, various Heinlein, the Prydain books, Tolkein and the like – I felt that “pirate stories” were something little kids would be interested in).

5. You kids today have no idea what an enormous leap forward the internet is.  No, really.  Consider: practically my only ways of finding detailed information on how to play backgammon would have been to go to the library and wrestle with the card catalog, to find someone who knew the game well and get them to teach me, or to go out and buy a backgammon set (even though I already had one!) that included a rules card.

6. I haven’t seen any recent versions, but the older versions of Hoyle’s were written and printed in an age where it was reasonable to assume everyone had an understanding of the basic principles of board, card and dice games, and probably had some passing experience with the game in question – they just needed detailed rules on paper to refer to as a way to polish their play and resolve disputes.

7. My sympathies if you were using the doubling die.

No comments: