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.
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.
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.
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.
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.