Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Backgammon in the Bahamas - Part One
When I was very young, my father taught me to play backgammon...he had been running with a crowd of fashionable people who liked to speak French and play backgammon while drinking wine all night. They played for money too. So he instilled in me a very serious attitude towards the game -- he taught me to be merciless.
There are people who think that backgammon is purely a game of luck because its a dice game -- but a skilled backgammon player knows how to use those dice to their advantage. She knows all her “automatic points” and how to cover her men while capturing her opponent’s men. She knows how to swiftly get to her home board and set it up such that the dice will get her men off the board before her opponent even knows what happened.
My husband refuses to play backgammon with me, he says he doesn’t know this woman who emerges on the other side of the board -- he cannot beat her and she seems so bent on destroying him that he would rather do something less dangerous, like those chain saw chores that have been piling up in our woods. He used to enjoy playing cards with me, Gin, we played Gin for hours when we lived in Bermuda, but that fierce woman took over our card playing too...she is just too good at it, he tired of losing all the time. How did he end up marrying a grifter anyway?
I have only met one person who can foil me at backgammon. My life long friend Anita -- she and I played backgammon as teenagers -- we would sit on the floor for hours and set up game after game after game. We were evenly matched and we were obsessed! The record player would play Bowie’s Changes or The Beatles White Album over and over and we would roll the dice and another game would go by us. We even played over the phone! I would have my board and she would have hers -- this was the ultimate in trust - she would roll her dice, announce what came up, and I would mirror her move on my board - you had to believe the other completely, and you had to be totally honest. My grandmother would walk by me sitting at the kitchen table with my board set up...“Dear, when are you going to get off the phone? Why don’t you just ride down to Anita’s house and play?” I would shush her...“Mom! you don’t get it!” and then I would go back to my game. She didn’t get it -- there was something about playing over the phone that cemented our friendship and our skill.
But then Anita developed the most annoying and ingenious strategy. Early in the game, she would intentionally leave her men open, three or four or five men, so many men, that you were tripping over them, you had to capture them. And then she would fill up your home board with all these men coming back into the game and so you could not build a proper home board...and THEN she would capture your men who had made it all the way to the home board and send them back, back into the abyss. Finally, she would go in for the kill -- she would ever so swiftly gather up all her former prisoners and take them home and start clearing them off the board, while you ran all the way home with you tail between your legs. It was infuriating. It broke all the conventional ideas of the game. And no matter what I did to anticipate her coup, she would undo me. I tried to do the same to her -- but to no avail -- she would crush me, the Swede that she was, quietly, while drinking hot chocolate and nibbling on a Pepperidge Farm cookie, never taking her eyes off the board. This ended our backgammon days -- not our friendship, but she had found the ultimate weapon and our balanced rivalry was ruined, I was defeated.
A few years later though I would find new opponents, or should I say victims? Every once in a while I would stumble upon someone at a party in college who wanted to play, “But we don’t have a board” and I would say “I do, back in my apartment! Let’s go!” It was a nice pickup line, but all I was interested in was playing backgammon and winning five or ten bucks.
In the spring of ‘85 I went to the Bahamas -- to Freeport -- with our college rugby team. My roommate and I line-judged for our team and they asked us to go with them to a rollicking good tournament for Spring Break. Who could pass that up? When they weren’t playing rugby, they were drinking and smoking enormous amounts of reefer. It was a sight to see. On the second or third day on the island, we all went to the beach -- I remember a death defying bus ride and all of us spilling out onto this beautiful beach. We spent the day swimming and dancing and drinking...it was marvelous. But what was even more marvelous was there was a large cabana on the beach that housed an open bar and grill. There I found a group of Bahamian men, old thin boney black men, wearing straw fedoras, drinking Elephant beer, smoking Cuban cigars and playing BACKGAMMON. I was drawn to them like a stray dog -- I watched them play fast and I watched their money, those tropical colored bills going back and forth between them. I wanted to play, but the sun was calling and I had to plan my approach.
The rain came on our last day in Freeport -- the tournament had ended and we had played well. I was wiped out from line-judging in the hot equatorial sun and from the late nights. On that last morning, our hotel was quiet, all the players were hung over and asleep. But I had a plan. I was going to use this rainy day to go to the beach and find those men. I walked down to the bus stop and rode alone in that big unwieldy bus, while the rain came in the windows. I was full of hope about the good game to come and I had a pocket full of just enough cash to buy my way in...