Life imitates backgammon
I’m not much of a game player. I played games mostly from social pressure, to which I used to be susceptible. When I say games, I mean games that aren’t sports—board games and card games mostly, I guess.
From childhood, I remember mainly Monopoly, maybe because Monopoly games were grueling tests of endurance for me and stuck in my mind. I was interested as long as I didn’t think about how the game would likely drag on. I could stand the race to buy up the good properties, but once the prime spots were off the market—even if I owned them—I was ready to do something else.
Pete, my father, taught me my first card games—Tonk and draw poker. My friends taught me War and Dirty Hearts and checkers and dominoes, along with Chinese checkers and Parcheesi. I won’t even discuss Old Maid. In high school and college, I played bid whist and gin rummy, Life and Sorry, pool, and Mille Bornes when I was a French major. Somewhere in my 30s I played Uno.
At some point I learned to play chess, encouraged and nearly brow-beaten by a couple of fanatic friends. I liked it, but not much. At first I thought my lukewarm attitude was because the chess I experienced was slow and deliberative, and I like games to be fairly snappy.
When I discovered fast chess, I realized that speed wasn’t the issue, and what kept me from being a fanatic like my chess friends was that I didn’t take the game as seriously as they and lots of others did. I played games for fun, and if I wasn’t having fun, I didn’t want to play.
Chess people, on the other hand, hardly ever seemed to be enjoying themselves, even when they were winning. I liked winning, but losing didn’t spoil my day, and my slacker attitude annoyed serious players and kept me odd man out, as usual.
Then a buddy of mine taught me backgammon, and everything changed. I spent much of the late-'70s smoking dope and playing backgammon, all day long when I could.
Backgammon hit my spot. Unlike chess, rolling dice ensures that there’s plenty of chance in backgammon, and I like working the odds. Backgammon’s not all chance, like Candyland or roulette, and a skillful player can win most of the time, but the best player is still going to lose some, and the worst player is going to win some. I like that.
Backgammon is like life—anything can happen at any time. You can be way behind on points and catch a couple of good rolls and win. You can be way ahead and catch a couple of bad rolls and lose.
And every turn in backgammon is best thought of as a new game, a fresh chance to improve my position so something good can happen. Backgammon’s interplay of position and probability keep me in the moment, and that’s a very good thing.