The Game

During this summer’s dog day doldrums I didn’t have the gumption for art work or writing. My list of ideas for Wild Art stories was bland and way too light-weight to be appropriate during raging fires, hurricanes, deepening social fissures and the pandemic.

Even though I was mucking about in a mud puddle version of the slough of despond, I perked up when it was game time. When late afternoon rolls around, Jim and I shift into fun zone. We jettison the day’s accomplishments or malaise or frustrations. No matter how imperfect our endeavors, or how much of the To Do list is undone, we let it all go.

Lately, we’ve been on a backgammon roll. Whoever wins two out of three games is Owner of the Night. The victor’s title has no special advantage other than glory. The 1,000 point tournament winner gets to choose the game for the next tournament.

Jim typically starts the challenge by asking, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you about ready for a lesson?” He makes a cup of coffee while crackers and cheese march out of the pantry. I take the first sip of cold chardonnay as we rattle the dice to see who leads the first round.

Opening plays are usually standard precursors for upcoming drama.

Backgammon’s mix of skill and luck provides unlimited variations.

Our personalities often influence our strategy styles. Jim values security. He usually maintains a tidy team with pairs of guys safe and sound. (Formally, the checkers are called markers. We call them our guys.) A blot, or lone guy, is vulnerable. My kicks come from taking bold risks. After I roll, I clack my guys loudly on the board.

Sometimes, though, we move out of our comfort zones or habits to take advantage of the opponent’s expectations and sneak in a surprise play.

Other times, a sacrifice play is necessary before you can advance toward your home court. You might have multiple vulnerabilities, so you go by the principle of least pain.

The dice goddess usually gives random rolls.

Once in awhile, odd patterns emerge. It is way too woo woo when each roll of the dice copies the previous roll done by the other. Not once, but three consecutive times. Sometimes the game goddess is extraordinarily generous with a crazy gift of four consecutive doubles. We scream and yell. Tension rises. Perception warps. The underdog must be clever and hope for some luck to shift the odds. No one has all the information.

I admit some of my risks are outlandish and cause me to lose. However, those long shots bring excitement–totally worth not winning. In fact, the long arc of 2021 game scores show Jim winning 4/5 tournaments, but it doesn’t bother me. Here he is looking smuggish after a string of shrewd plays.

In this photo Jim has captured my guy, who is jailed on the bar in the middle of the board. I should have taken a photo of tonight’s game: Jim’s guy is on the bar and it takes him 11 rolls to get out of jail.

My favorite ploy is to knock three of his guys so they have simultaneous time on the bar. That slows Jim down considerably and allows me to gloat.

At the end of each game, we record scores and memorable moments.

Just as Jim’s game style is deliberate, his score sheet entries are much neater than mine.

Our neighbor kids used to love being score keeper for our Canasta games. Note the doodles at the top of the tablet.

I wonder why we are compelled to fill up umpty-ump notebooks with game scores. Maybe it demonstrates historic continuity–although we rarely look back. Maybe pausing to record game events elevates it from a fluffy use of our time to realizing that we are practicing life skills, such as knowing how to lose gracefully.

We inherited the tradition of game time and compulsive score keeping from my parents. My father’s notebooks of tiny graph pages were insanely precise. This one is from Scrabble games.

My dad loved games so much that he played even when he was all alone. A farm boy with four older sisters, he had to play baseball by himself on his home-made diamond. When I was a kid, he had real horse shoe buddies, but he mostly played in the backyard with an imaginary opponent. When my brother saw him playing with a grimace on his face, he asked, “What’s the matter? the other guy is winning?”

Our family was crazy for baseball on all levels. Barefoot neighbor kids enthusiastically joined our incomplete ragged teams on a home-made diamond. We lived and breathed Little League and were avid minor league Angel fans. Of course, we were rooting for the Dodgers when they migrated to LA. I wrote pen pal letters to Pee Wee Reese. I also named my duck after him.

When I was in high school, my dad kept box scores during the 1959 LA Dodger World Series. As soon as a game was over, he’d hot tail it to the school secretary and fork over the scores. She’d call me out of class to fetch and deliver the news to the other students and teacher. The score card looked something like this:

Here’s a score sheet from a decade or more earlier. By the way, 21st century folks in the bleachers occasionally still keep scores with paper and pencil.

My dad’s love of games came from his dad. My grandfather supplemented income from a small Kansas farm by tuning pianos throughout the county. He also championed chess matches wherever possible.

He played chess with me via snail mail. We each had permanent 24/7 access to our own tangible pieces on real chess boards. We exchanged letters with chess abbreviated notations for each play, i.e. Nc3-Knight to sq. c3.

Each square has written identification.

Now let’s dip back to games in ancient times. Dice with only four sides were around in 5,000 BC in Harappan, India. Six sided dice evolved around 3,000 BC.

Visit dicemaniaclub website for more images.

Archeologists found a game called Royal Game of Ur–similar to backgammon– in Mesopotamia around 5,000 BC. The combination of strategy and luck of the dice seems to be addictive throughout the centuries in many countries. In 17th century Europe, artists made many paintings of games for taverns. High stakes must have provoked rowdy reactions.

Backgammon Fight by 17th century Dutch painter Steen

Zooming up a few centuries, we find the first computer backgammon in 1992 with Gerald Tesauro’s Neurogammon and then TD-Gammon. It took 1,500,000 games of self teaching for the layers of network to reach a peak. It’s curious that the programmers claim that the computer version of the game excels in winning due to an intuitive feel rather than a systematic analysis.

Of course, most of you probably have favorite games that generate a zesty zippity doo-dah. They teach life skills and confirm our values of fair play and integrity–the fun hinges on mutual trust. We play with utmost gumption while well aware of forces beyond our control. We endure setbacks, then are surprised when they become advantages. When there are no good options, we still must make a decision. We learn to do a minimum of hand-wringing and we never sulk. Losses from our mistakes lead us to ponder the consequences of haste, inattention or foolish greed.

When playing with Jim tonight, I moan over what I think is a fatal error–noticed just a second too late to take it back. He waves his hand and says, ” Every little thing is gonna be all right,” which comes from Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. This is the song that sustains him in times of serious trouble.

23 thoughts on “The Game

  1. I loved every compelling word and image. Loved the dad stuff, of course. My girlfriend Sharon Sue and I sent notes zigzagging across math class, she extolling Maury Wills and me Willie McCovey. 1964. 1965.
    This was the very best.

    Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.


  2. Wonderful !!!! thanks, Michael aka granpa squinty

    On Sat, Sep 25, 2021 at 8:08 PM Gretchen Butler Wild Art wrote:

    > Gretchen Butler posted: ” During this summer’s dog day doldrums I didn’t > have the gumption for art work or writing. My list of ideas for Wild Art > stories was bland and way too light-weight to be appropriate during raging > fires, hurricanes, deepening social fissures and the pandem” >


  3. Wonderful!!!! I love this piece! Such a pleasure, honor, delight and gift to experience this creative capturing of your reflections, observations, artistic expressions of your journey through your art and stories. I’ve played lots of bat gammon and chess in a previous chapter of my life and so appreciate the fun, connections and challenges that games bring to us. The record-keeping you’ve shared, currently and from you and Jim, your dad and grampa is amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it. Thank you so much, Gretchen, for sharing this!!!! Wishing you a peaceful and gentle fall. love, diane

    “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” —Ruth Bader Ginsburg



  4. This did my soul good 😌

    so many wonderful things within it.
    just loved the finish with Young James quote.

    love to see the backgammon art pieces used in your missive, so fitting and so fun to see them each again.

    Your words of introspection are sublime and poke the soul in honesty, appreciated very much. Your Father weighs in so sweetly, n Grampa.

    Thanks for a tangible blessing.


  5. Hi Gretchen I tried to post a comment, but it didn’t “save”. Anyways, loved reading this post. Can see you with the crackers and Chardonnay… Years ago, I got stuck in the Sinai desert with bedouins — I was waiting for the rare bus —- and they taught me Egyptian backgammon: you start with an empty board, and then roll your pieces on; so you can set up your defence quite strategically. We also drank a lot of Turkish coffee! Love to you and Jim David 🍀

    On Sat, Sep 25, 2021, 10:08 PM Gretchen Butler Wild Art wrote:

    > Gretchen Butler posted: ” During this summer’s dog day doldrums I didn’t > have the gumption for art work or writing. My list of ideas for Wild Art > stories was bland and way too light-weight to be appropriate during raging > fires, hurricanes, deepening social fissures and the pandem” >


  6. As always, Gretchen, your story runs much deeper than the title leads one to think. Little nuggets of joy lurk around every corner. And the accompanying art is perfecto mundo! This one is a real gem—I love it!


  7. I love the game blog! Simple pleasures and rituals help hold sane space amidst the crazy. And it’s just plain fun! And pulling in your family game history had me swimming in memories of my raucus tribe gathered at the dinning table playing cards, playing ‘dictionary’ (my mom invented that game far before it became a thing) playing spoons! Thank you!

    Was it really a whole week ago we shared whale magic? My soul is still soothed.

    Here on the ridge the Ravens are gathering for their autumn caucus, dancing in the evening glow, this too soothes my soul.

    Rain dancing in my dreams. 🌧🍁🍂🍄🌚

    Sent from my iPhone



  8. As always a delight to read your blog stories – your way with words are both dynamic and invigorating! The accompanying artwork reveals how integrated the backgammon board has been in many of your designs be it consciously or not…ah, the games we play!!


  9. Thanks for the memories, Gretchen! Your Dad loved games of all kinds. His effort to teach me tennis was not successful, but a good time was had by all (including the spectators). And, such a good picture of Granddad R. This whole blog was ful of gems (love the setting with wine and cheese–and Jim’s coffee–in the evening and what it all does for the soul.) Please keep coming with the pihotos and personal musings!
    P.S. Your Dad only had 3 sisters: Esther, Catherine and Emily.
    Love from Cousin Lynda


  10. Gretchen, I FINALLY found the time to read your great art/ essay today! What fun! I have missed games so much, especially with Co-Vid, that I began to play on my Kindle (in an effort to avoid even more screen time on the computer).

    I can play Scrabble — and often do when I’m eating. I pride myself on the fact that I beat A.I. (I call him AL) about 75% of the time. I change up the rules and it keeps me on my toes ….. I consider it one of my “Alzheimer’s hedges”. The other game available to me on Kindle is a word- search sort of game and I like that, too.

    But oh, to play backgammon again. I have a set but have forgotten how to play. And how I would LOVE to play a live person! I need to stop by the Senior Center, now that it’s open again, and see if they have any sort of a game time ….. Seems to me they used to have card tables set up in one room where people could bring Scrabble or cribbage or whatever and find someone to play with. I never did learn Bridge. Hmmmmmmm.

    Anyway, thanks for the visuals and your words. Great fun in just that.

    Love and welcome to the cooler temps of fall, with hugs, Margaret

    On Sat, Sep 25, 2021 at 8:08 PM Gretchen Butler Wild Art wrote:

    > Gretchen Butler posted: ” During this summer’s dog day doldrums I didn’t > have the gumption for art work or writing. My list of ideas for Wild Art > stories was bland and way too light-weight to be appropriate during raging > fires, hurricanes, deepening social fissures and the pandem” >


  11. Just read this aloud to my 8 and 10 year old daughters, who love scrabble and Yahtzee and game night… but often days are so full that game night is the prize at the end of the week. This was so colorful and instructive… Ada asked that we comment to say we love this essay. Asmara also loves the Bob Marley song. We are all excited to play games on this rainy day!


  12. Oh Gretchen, how I enjoy this record you have made and the story you tell! Excellent writing with wonderful illustrations. This writing makes me eager for more!


  13. Gretchen, I LOVED the Game Blog!! Your perceptions and descriptions are so delightful, and the accompanying artwork completes the mood. Tom & I especially like Cribbage and have kept records of our games since he taught me how to play in 1994. We have also kept the scoresheets from exceptionally high combined scores from Scrabble games. (Tom is INFURIATING, as he can’t spell, but he takes risks and is always able to create 3 or 4 words in one turn WHILE using a double or triple word square!) We also enjoy Farkle, and would play that each night by phone when he was spending weeks away traveling for work. And then there’s Hearts and Spades Smith-Johnsen tournaments up at our Big Bear cabin, and some rowdy Apples to Apples games on CubScout family camping trips. What great memories you have stirred up!


    1. I remember fabulous game fun with you in your cabin. Yes, it’s exhilarating to hear about your game traditions. Yea for Tom’s powerhouse short words–that kind of score makes me scream and yell. Karen, your letter here is a big treat for me.


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