“The cruelest game,” the late Barclay Cooke said memorably of backgammon. And, he might have added, one of the loneliest.
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” runs an old blues song: and indeed, among tournament players – from the greenest novices to the most seasoned experts — you hear this sentiment expressed constantly. Very few of us are wired to withstand the wrenching reversals of fortune which are backgammon’s fare du jour. After a beating we crave love and understanding; but who is there to give it to us?
Eavesdrop on a hundred separate animated conversations taking place towards the end of the first or second round of a major event, and you will observe that most of them consist of competitor A, who has just lost, telling a bad-beat story to competitor B; his friend of the moment. B, for his part, is not really listening; nor is he, to be sure, sympathizing with A. No, he is just biding his time, waiting for A to take a breath. At which point B will smoothly launch into his own hard-luck tale. And now, with the roles reversed, it will be A, who tunes out, stalking B’s recitation for the narrowest of gaps into which he can wedge the continuation of his own tragedy.
Of course this pseudo-transaction satisfies neither participant. Each is left with the sense (usually a quite correct one) that no one appreciates or cares about what he has gone through. But that is only to be expected. To seek consolation from those as tormented as ourselves is a bit of a stretch.
The landscape was not always so bleak. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when the game was still played for money, the variation known as backgammon chouette offered the dice-weary a welcome release from the wheel of self-absorption. A form of team play, chouette obliges you (most of the time) to cast in your lot with a number of partners. You plot and plan with them, persuade and cajole them to make your plays, compromise with and defer to them (occasionally), celebrate with them when you win, and (of course!) recriminate them when you lose. You are all, in short, in the same boat; and even when your ship, like the old Titanic, is spectacularly on its way to the bottom of the sea, you are not alone. If misery loves company, you always have it.
But the development of backgammon analysis programs in the mid-1990s brought about a paradigm shift in the backgammon landscape.
The money action – and with it the whole rowdy chouette and proposition player culture – quickly disappeared. A new breed of player – self-trained by the program — became the dominant species. The tournament, with its slow, protracted rhythm and introspective demeanor, provided a medium that rewarded the patient, deep calculations of these chess-like academics. There was something fine and noble in that; but the camaraderie which had made fortune’s slings and arrows tolerable in backgammon’s halcyon days began to go missing. Straggling in from the battlefield of a 15-point match, perhaps lost at double match point to a single joker, the wounded mathematical warrior had no option but to repair to his fortress of solitude, there to brood in isolation over the outrages to which he had been subjected.
Until recently, the only semi-social form of backgammon that has been available to backgammon tournament participants is the consulting doubles competition; but doubles, although a crowd favorite, suffers from a serious structural defect. To participate in a doubles event, the players themselves must form partnerships — a feat more easily said than done. As in the real-life project of dating and mating, or even finding someone to play tennis with, people often hold a quite unrealistic assessment of their own desirability. Let’s say (in any such matchmaking sphere), that I am, on a scale from one to ten, (objectively) a five. Chances are that I think I am at least a six. And usually, I will be looking to meet a seven or eight! I mean, why sell myself short? And so, as at a high school dance nearing midnight, you will observe any number of unattached singles in the moments before the doubles registration closes, still furtively looking about for someone worthy of them. Sometimes, out of desperation, one of these floaters will hook up with another at the last second; but these matches are, understandably, not always happy.
The time-honored remedy for alienation and self-pity is to find something outside of yourself to care about or identify with. That something may be as large as God or the Universe or as small as a goldfish; but most of us cover the middle ground as well, concerning ourselves with the adventures of our country, state, town, church, school, ethnic community, political party or sports team. Maybe you don’t really believe that the group with which you identify is better than others; but it’s fun to pretend. It is through allegiances like these that we derive the empowering thrill of patriotism, the pride of loyalty and brotherhood, and the joy of victory when our group surpasses its rivals.
The good news is that the backgammon world has been slowly developing an alternative to the individualistic model. The French organizer, Eric Guedj, was the pioneer of this trend. For several years, his lovely summer tournament in Cannes featured “The Nation’s Cup,” an event in which 3 or 4-person teams representing various countries faced off, with the winning team’s country, as in the Olympics, receiving recognition as best in the world. The results, however, were hardly official: a country was allowed to field multiple teams if enough of its citizens were attending the tournament anyway; and none of the teams were chosen by the federations of the nations which they represented. But Guedj relinquished control of Cannes in 2009 to WSOB promoter Andy Bell, who in turn discontinued the tournament in 2010.
Stepping into that breach was an old friend of mine, the fun-loving Danish gambler Morten Holm. Morten, brainstorming with Danish Backgammon Federation president, Steen Groenbeck, came up with the idea of a team match between Denmark and “The Rest of the World.” This was by no means an outlandish proposition, since Denmark is by far the strongest backgammon nation on the planet. The match, if anything, would probably favor the tiny Scandinavian country!
The Danes contacted the young phenomenal American Jacob (“Stick”) Rice, who agreed to assemble and captain the Rest of the World team. And it happened! The match, held in conjunction with the world’s toughest open tournament, the Nordic Open, was, as I reported last year; a remarkable success, not in the least because of the high quality of play exhibited by both teams.
I did not qualify for the Rest of the World team last year, though the team did use me as a sparring partner (or as an Austrian friend of mine likes to say, a “training rat”). But this year the Rest of the World was under new management. Stick had stepped aside, and the task of assembling the team had fallen world #1 Masayuki Mochihito (“ Mochy”). A few months before the Nordic, Mochy informed me that I might be able to qualify for the team. There was one spot open, and a difference of opinion existed among his advisors as to who was the stronger player, I or the legendary German star Ralf Jonas.
Ralf and I agreed to a series of three online 9-point playoff matches – and he beat me in two of them, posting a phenomenal 2.4 overall performance rating in the process. I lagged a bit behind this formidable standard, and Ralf qualified for the team. I was demoted to “first alternate”: just a training rat again.
But then one of the team’s chosen, the American expert Neil Kazaross, fell sick, and could not make the journey to Denmark. And so, despite having lost the playoff, I had still made the team: as a “lucky loser!”