When Life Is a Roll of the Dice
Alex Kuczynski, 2004
New York Times, July 8, 2004

They say the most difficult part of an addiction is the moment you hit rock bottom and are forced to admit to yourself and to the world that you have a problem.

But there is an even greater and perhaps more embarrassing challenge: announcing that the monkey on your back is — Geek alert! — online backgammon.

Like all obsessions, it began innocently enough. Six months ago, there was nothing in my past to suggest that I would develop a weakness for backgammon. I had played the game only twice in my life. And lost.

The problem originated with a well-intentioned Christmas gift of a backgammon board from a houseguest. My husband, who used to gamble on backgammon matches as a teenager, taught me to play, and I found there was something enticingly authentic about the game. Unlike chess, a game of skill and prodigious memorization, backgammon depends in large part on skill, but the final outcome is up to the triumph or treachery of the dice.

After the holidays, my husband’s enthusiasm waned. Perhaps it was the fact that he had won $30 from me, and my resulting mood — somewhere on the emotional Richter scale between quitting smoking and passing kidney stones — was clouding the household atmosphere. But then the Internet — just as it had so richly rewarded me with deliveries of shoes, crackers, pet food and books — came through.

Within minutes, I found companions at sites like itsyourturn.com and dailygammon.com. Soon I was inhabiting a universe of equally obsessed players, from every skill level, from all over the world.

Backgammon, which may have descended from the ancient Indian game pachisi, is played on a board divided into two halves, with 12 points on each side. The object is for each player to move 15 markers from their designated starting points around and off the board, with the roll of the dice indicating how far each marker goes.

Markers can attack unprotected markers, and there are certain strategies that winning players typically deploy.

For serious players, one game is usually part of a longer match. A doubling cube is used to up the ante of each game. Tournaments can require play of up to 21 games.

I discovered a deep, narcotic satisfaction in online backgammon, as opposed to face-to-face play. First, I always had a large pool of enablers willing to indulge my habit. Second, because of the sheer volume of play the Internet sites can offer, my game improved. I would play 100 matches at a time, making a move on one board, then moving to the next. The constant turnover, the visual stimulation, the subtle mathematical mental engagement — it was like having a margarita after work.

Players can roll through moves as quickly or as slowly as they want; typically, each move has to be made within a set time period, which can be as short as 24 hours or as long as 30 days. But the format also allows for players who want to play in real time — and chat in real time, through typewritten messages that accompany game moves — to do so.

The conversation that passed back and forth was the element that supplemented obsessive entertainment with an the element of compulsive curiosity. First, the noms de guerre that players chose got my imagination churning: there was Centenarian, who played awfully quickly for someone 100 years old; the consistently dour Mr. Happy from Stockholm; Demented and Deranged, the waitress from Louisiana who, indeed, proved herself deranged and whom I eventually had to add to my “ignore” list; Monsieur Lachame, the snooty player from Paris; Dubai King, who lives in Dubai, but who often logs in from Dallas, London or Paris; and Jones, from Southampton, N.Y., who always lets me win.

Just as people will unbosom themselves to a bartender or hairdresser or a priest tucked behind a confessional screen, they will also share their deepest secrets and beliefs with an online backgammon buddy, a sympathetic phantom who remains anonymous yet also comfortably identifiable and usually lives far, far away.

I had a 21-game match with a truck driver from Texas who logged in his moves from the road, along with little snippets of original poetry. I played with a woman who over the course of a nine-game match confessed to me that she had returned to her estranged husband and in so doing had made a terrible mistake.

“You can’t imagine what it is like to live in a place like this and have no friends,” she wrote to me. “I have no one to talk to. And the only people I can call friends are online. It’s pathetic.”

An exotic dancer from the Bronx tried to pick me up, misled by my androgynous tag name, and then stopped playing with me once I told her I was a woman. I had long discussions on the state of human nature with Zanudah, a 67-year-old contractor from Washington State who disagreed with my statement that humanity is generally one-third bad and two-thirds good.

“You’re wrong,” his message came back. “I can personally guarantee you that the opposite is true.” (Later I learned that his nickname was given to him by his Russian wife; it translates loosely as misanthrope.)

Zanudah, whose real name is Hank Hassan, told me that the idea of virtual travel was what appealed to him.

“I have friends all over the planet,” he said when I called him on the telephone. (I’ll admit I was nervous. What if he turned out to be a mean old jerk, instead of the funny player with a knack for words I had known for so many months? But it was fine. The only downside is that he now e-mails me political jokes.) “Will I meet them? Maybe not. But I can chat with someone in Russia, or in Finland. I can feel that I am part of the world out there, and not living in a small town in Washington State.”

Terry Cole, the supervisor for the Wastewater Treatment Department for Findlay, Ohio, told me he used to play chess at itsyourturn.com but found that the backgammon players were more talkative, so he switched.

“Maybe that’s because it’s less of a cutthroat group than the chess players,” said Mr. Cole, who is 49. In 2000, he started playing with a woman named Kim in England. “She’d say something funny, and then I would say something, and we just seemed to get along,” Mr. Cole said.

The woman from England then got on the phone. The couple met when she traveled to the United States in 2001 and were married in 2002; their son, Brandon, was born last July.

“We started out with a bit of general chit-chat, really,” said Mrs. Cole, 45. “We started to tell each other everything. And he told me all sorts of serious things, like one of the great regrets he had in his life was that he never had children. And we met. And my family thought I was crazy. And well, we are not young. But here we are.”

And they owe it to It’s Your Turn, the brainchild of Patrick Chu, who until six years ago worked in the computer industry. Mr. Chu and a colleague used to play chess during lulls in the workday but came to feel that it looked unprofessional to have a chessboard set up in the middle of their office. They searched for a Web site so they could play sub rosa, but didn’t find one they liked.

So Mr. Chu, who had long tired of the braggadocio and Hollywood style of Silicon Valley, quit his job, moved to Durham, N.C. (he graduated from Duke University in 1988 and loved the area), and started It’s Your Turn, a site that offers chess, backgammon and other games. Members pay $17.95 for a six-month subscription and can play up to 200 simultaneous games. Mr. Chu said it pays the rent.

Like dealers of another sort, Mr. Chu only samples the merchandise to make sure it’s good. For that matter, “none of my friends play,” he said. “Not even my fiancée.”

Another site, DailyGammon, was founded by Jordan Lampe, a 34-year-old who works at a hedge fund in New York and limited himself to the briefest of e-mail correspondence with me. His mother, Linda Lampe, who helped design the Web site, told me that her son had designed a version of backgammon for hand-held devices.

“I understand how it becomes a bit obsessive,” she said. I asked her how often she played.

“Oh, every day,” Mrs. Lampe said.

How many times a day?

“I am too embarrassed to say,” she said.

After spending one spring Sunday playing for four hours, I realized that maybe I, too, had an embarrassing problem. Dr. Eric Hollander, the director of the Compulsive, Impulsive, and Anxiety Disorders Program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told me that I was simply practicing a form of self-medication.

“Everyone has their own optimal level of arousal,” he said. “If you’re understimulated, you’re bored, and if you are overstimulated, you’re uncomfortable. This is a way of regulating that process.”

Dr. Hollander said he regulates his own mental processes.

“I recently got a BlackBerry, and I have this compulsive e-mail checking now,” he said.

The addict, of course, tries to rationalize a habit by showing that there are others with bigger problems. In my case, I chose to rationalize by comparing myself with Stefan Fatsis, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who took a year out of his career to play on the pro Scrabble circuit and wrote a book, “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players” (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), about his experience.

I am a normal person with a rich, complex and fulfilling life, I told Mr. Fatsis, who made sympathetic uh-huh noises and said that he, too, had a little problem with online backgammon.

So what was our deal?

“The first reason is this,” he said. “You are not as normal as you think you are.”


“The second, larger reason is that there is something that compels us toward these complex pastimes,” he continued. “The thing I discovered was that my mind was built in such a way that it needed to have this impossibly complex challenge that is outside the mainstream of what I do on a daily basis.”

(Of course, his journey was a bit more complex than mine. For years, he spent several hours a week memorizing thousands of Scrabble-approved words that were often meaningless to him because he didn’t need to know their definitions. I, on the other hand, spent a half-hour memorizing the odds that I will roll a 1, or double 6’s. O.K., I also bought four books on backgammon. But I only read two of them.)

Some people justify their obsessive playing by considering it a form of self-improvement, he said.

“Then again, when you’re sitting there playing 70 simultaneous games of online backgammon, you’re not thinking, oh gee, this is going to make me a better person,” Mr. Fatsis said. “It’s a drug addiction without the drug.”

We said goodbye. But not before making a promise to play backgammon sometime.

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