A Beginner's Guide to Backgammon
by Phil Simborg, 2005
Phil Simborg
Some people think Doug is one of the rudest, meanest people they have ever known. Ed's theory is he's hard of hearing and that's why he usually ignores people when they talk to him. But I know he's neither rude nor hard of hearing. With an I.Q. off the charts, at any given moment Doug may simultaneously be thinking about a most complicated theory of quantum mechanics, how to conjugate the verb "sniff" in fourteen Swahili dialects, and trying to remember the name of his 9th goldfish. All I cared about at the moment was how he was going to play the 6-1 as my partner in the non-consulting chouette where our opponent held a 16 cube for more dollars per point than I could afford at the moment, in a game where the outcome might well decide if I will be forced to move in with Claudia so as to have a roof over my head.

While Claudia was a far cry better to take than my previous, almost-human girlfriend, she did have some traits that might be "cute" for an evening, but would surely grate on a daily basis. I had almost gotten used to her ugly habit of spitting whenever she spoke a word containing the letter "T" by anticipating and jerking my head away, but even that was becoming most annoying, given her renewed interest in totalitarian dictators. (You can understand why I didn't point out the tautology of the topic.)

So it mattered more than a little to me how Doug was going to play the 6-1, as breaking the prime and hitting, while increasing gammon odds about 25%, would certainly increase our odds of losing the game by at least 10% and maybe more depending on how aggressive Andy plays the bearoff. At the same time, making the prime would still get us a fair number of gammons as well. Everyone knows that there is no one better than Doug in calculating these odds, and since the odds of the gammon surely increased more than twice the odds of losing, the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach made it painfully clear to me that Doug was going to make the big play. For my part, once the cube gets past about 4, I'm not at all unhappy to sacrifice a few gammons to ensure the win. I was literally praying that Doug might come to the same conclusion, even though my stomach was telling me otherwise.

Finally, Doug reached for the checker on the bar and placed it gently on his opponent's ace point and thought about the rest of the move. I could see the tension in Andy's face, wondering just what decision Doug had made, and probably hoping he was going to hit, as Andy's pockets were deep and he would have been glad to see his game-winning chances go up even if it did increase gammons. All Andy ever thinks about is keeping the box ... probably a throw-back to his childhood where, as the youngest of 4 sons, he rarely got to keep anything. (Many believe Andy had something to do with the gas leak that killed all of his brothers while he and his parents were tied up in a conference with his nursery school teacher to discuss his habit of setting little girls' skirts on fire if they tried to take his toys.)

Well, there probably couldn't have been a worse time for the waitress to come over and ask if anyone wanted another drink. Naturally, Doug completely ignored her, but being a new waitress, the young lady took it personally and wouldn't just walk away. Again, so deep in thought at that moment, Doug's complex brain simply couldn't process such simple words as "Sir, I asked you if you would like another beer." If she had said something like, "I have heard that if you combine two parts of calcium with one part chloride you will get an acid so strong that a single drop would burn through an 8 inch steel plate," he would have jumped wide awake and responded, "That is a silly myth originating from a typo in a University of Kentucky graduate student's Doctoral Thesis in 1986 that was picked up by a Central American underground extremist newspaper and distributed in various parts of Miami and the Keys in the early 90's."

Just as I was about to tell the waitress to please come back later, her hand reached out to tap Doug on the arm and I was too late and knew, at that moment, with the single touch that was about to happen, that I was doomed to spend the next several months with Claudia and her unfortunately ill-named cat, Tattoo. Doug jerked his head up, completely surprised that someone had dared touch him or even try to get his attention in a non-consulting chouette, and all 8 of us around the table gazed, with fear and wonder as to what would happen next. It was then, I got what was perhaps one of the most brilliant and daring ideas of my life.

All eyes were on Doug as his face turned a bright red, his eyes widened, and his mouth began slowly to open in what we all knew was likely to be a tirade that would be heard, and remembered, for miles and months to come. Our eyes turned also to the poor young waitress who, seeing the madness in the face before her, was beginning to realize the depth of the Pandora's box she had just inadvertently opened. As the waitress tried to withdraw, Doug grabbed her arm and held her firmly in his steel grip. We all held our breath and waited. Everyone's eyes were fastened firmly on Doug's face ... everyone, that is, except mine.

Quickly and quietly I reached down to the board and completed Doug's play, making the prime, and just as quickly and quietly, I picked up the dice and placed them back into Doug's cup. While I knew the risk I was taking, it all happened so fast that I really didn't have time to fully consider the consequences of what I was doing. In the world of money backgammon, your word and your honour must be impeccable or you were simply an outcast forever. My entire future as a money backgammon player was hinged on whether or not anyone caught those two quick motions during those few seconds of terror in the bar.

Sensitivity for the more genteel persons who might be reading this account prevents me from giving the full details of Doug's tirade and the extent of the abuse lathered on the poor young waitress, but suffice it to say that if they made a movie of the scene, Jack Nicholson is the only actor who could have done justice to the role of Doug.

Finally, things settled down, and as we all turned our attention back to the board, everyone stared with looks of confusion and amazement. I held my breath, waiting for Doug's reaction, and he looked up at Andy and said, "Your roll."

Phil Simborg is a fulltime backgammon player and teacher.
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