B is for Backgammon

Backgammon is a simple game, at least in concept, where one rolls a pair of dice to move the checker pieces around the board.

When I was a kid, there was this weird board on the backside of my checkerboard; I had NO idea what it was there for. As it turned out, it was almost perfect for a game called backgammon. I never learned it, though, until I was in the latter stages of college in the mid-1970s. I went to a bar in New Paltz, NY, appropriately named Bacchus, and saw a bunch of people playing this game. I eventually befriended one of the players, a townie named Anne, and ended up playing a lot of the game.

I discovered that backgammon is an ancient game, certainly invented in some form in southwest Asia, perhaps Persia, before A.D. 800. A version of the game spread from India to China and Japan. It was introduced to Europe by the Arabs. From BOARD and TABLE Games from Many Civilizations by R.C. Bell: “Early in the seventeenth century, a new variant appeared…the old game enjoyed a tremendous revival and swept through Europe, being played in England as backgammon, in France as tric-trac…in Germany as puff, in Spain as tablas reales…”

It is a simple game, at least in concept, where one rolls a pair of dice to move the checker pieces around the board. In the board above, the white pieces move around the board to get all its pieces into its inner board (the lower right quadrant) while the black pieces move around the board to get all its pieces into ITS inner board (the upper right quadrant) before bearing off. The clash occurs when an opposing piece wants to land on your space. A space with two or more checkers is safe, but one with only one checker is vulnerable to be hit and have that piece to start all over again.

All of this is laid out quite well in this rule book.

A lot of the calculation in backgammon involves probability. The odds of getting hit, specifically. Above are all the combinations of two dice. Say you have a piece that’s six unrestricted squares away; it’s quite vulnerable to a throw of 1/5, 2/4, 3/3, 4/2, 5/1, but also 6/1, 6/2, 6/3, 6/4, 6/5, or 6/6, or even 2/2, since throwing doubles means you get four of the number. In other words, there’s a 12 out of 36 chance of getting hit. Whereas being 11 away, there is only a 2 in 36 chance (5/6, 6/5) of being hit.

There is a doubling cube, whereby one raises the stakes of the game, but it can be played without using it; probably sacrilege, I know. I play at least once a month, and I enjoy it greatly.

ABC Wednesday – Round 11

30-Day Challenge: Day 18 – Favorite Board Game

I have always loved board games. I used to play them all the time. As a kid, my favorite game was SCRABBLE, which I used to play with my great aunt, and from time to time as an adult, usually with my in-laws.

With children, I love to play SORRY. As Jaquandor explained, this is a game that by the time a kid is 4 to 6, can play an adult straight up.

I found this out when I used to play with my late friend Nancy’s son Jeff when he was about 6 in 1978 or 1979; I would not give him an advantage and he’d beat me almost half the time. Likewise, my daughter is very good at it. In fact, we often play with her stuffed animals as surrogates as well, with each of us essentially playing two colors, and she’ll often come in first and second, or at least first and third.

I’m quite fond of Monopoly. I could tell you what the purchase price and basic rent for every property on the board; unfortunately, it’s a game that really requires multiple players, and that has not been the situation I’ve found myself in of late. For our wedding, we received an Albany-based Monopoly set that I’m pretty sure we’ve never used.

I went through a phase of playing a lot of Trivial Pursuit in the 1980s and 1990s, but some people didn’t like the fact that I won too often – it’s a curse – and I probably haven’t played this century.

The game I play most often at this point is backgammon. It’s a game I learned at a bar appropriately called Bacchus in my college town of New Paltz, NY from my friend Anne. Then I didn’t play for a long time. Now I play my friend Mary at work at least twice a month at lunchtime. It’s a fairly easy game to play, though it takes a little while to ascertain the best strategy. The board often shows up on the back of checkerboards, and the game is available online, so one can hone one’s skills.

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