Backgammon diplomacy takes center stage in Tskaltubo
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never quite trusted the Olympics. During the opening ceremony, some misty-eyed sportscaster always starts gushing, “Every four years the nations of the world come together to compete in a spirit of mutual peace and harmony” . . . and then for the next two weeks, the nations of the world slug it out in a spirit of hubris, breast-beating, accusation, recrimination, judging controversies (figure skating, anyone?), and doping scandals. I mean, it’s enough to make you lose your faith in people.
Well, during a marvelous eight-day trip that my wife and I just made to Georgia (not the Peach state, but the Eastern European country), I got my faith back. Because it turns out that you can bring the nations of the world together . . . with, of all things, BACKGAMMON! Specifically, with two tournaments: the World Backgammon Federation’s Worldwide Trophy Georgia 2017, and the Second Annual International Tournament for Journalists held in Tskaltubo about 250 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi.
Thanks to the imprimatur of our old chum Bob Wachtel, professional gambler and one of the top gammonistas on the planet – and despite our unfamiliarity with either the country or the game – Claire and I observed the former of these two tourneys, and participated in the latter.
But this opportunity was just the first of many displays of hospitality offered us by the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the tournament’s excellent organizers, and the people of Georgia themselves.
Our merry and motley group of three dozen journalists hailed from such countries as Finland, Germany, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, and America. They ranged in gaming expertise from the world-class to the hopelessly incompetent. Claire and I quickly earned our place in the second category, crash-burning in the first match of both the main and consolation rounds (we’re displaying somebody else’s trophy in this picture). But the good manners and impeccable sportsmanship of our opponents rendered our losses fairly painless – one actually apologized for beating me so badly — that’s real backgammon diplomacy.
The non-game-related parts of our trip – food, music, sights, and tours both guided and accidental – were fun and fascinating as well, but I’m here to tell you about backgammon.
The backgammon diplomacy apparatus is simple: a roughly two-foot-square folding board, 30 round checkers in two contrasting colors, two pairs of dice plus a fifth called the “doubling cube,” a scorecard, and a stubby pencil. In serious competition, a pair of alternating timers (similar to chess clocks) are also added, to ensure fair and rapid play. Serious players use a miniature video camera perched above the table to tape their games, then stay up all night analyzing them.
I vaguely remembered the board’s layout from childhood, as the colorful, zigzaggy reverse side of a cheap chessboard – the side nobody used. But I’ve since learned that backgammon, like jazz, soccer, Jerry Lewis movies, and a fellow named Richard Clayderman (look him up), is vastly more popular in countries other than in the U.S.
Especially in the Middle East and its environs. Nearly everywhere we traveled in Georgia, we spotted locals playing pickup games on front stoops and street corners. The action was intense, fast-moving, and noisy, owing to the hard wooden boards and checkers, clattering miniature dice, and constant chatter.
The rules are fairly simple, too. Each opponent tries to advance her, his, or their (in team play) checkers around the board – one clockwise, the other counterclockwise – then “bearing them off” into a snug little tray on the sidelines. The first player with no checkers left on the board wins. During these opposing sprints around the track, there are about as many head-on collisions among checkers (called, straightforwardly enough, “hitting”), as you’d expect if half the cars in the Indianapolis 500 circled the track in the opposite direction.
Whenever a player “hits” an opponent’s checker, it’s banished to “the bar,” a raised penalty box in the middle of the board, where it cringes in embarrassment until its frustrated owner rolls a specific number and it’s returned to the fray. This can take a while, and in the meantime the unlucky roller is said to be “dancing on the bar.” Isn’t that adorable?
The Journalists’ Tournament ran three days, albeit with frequent and lengthy breaks (chiefly to eat and drink). When the last checker had been borne off of the last board, the trophies were awarded at a special after-midnight ceremony in the hotel bar, and the next day at the crack of noon, our group departed for the airport and our flights home, pausing only to gorge ourselves on yet another sumptuous, music-filled feast at the excellent restaurant, In the Shadow of Mekhti.
On the short flight from Tbilisi to Doha, Qatar, and the much longer one from Doha to Los Angeles (11 time zones!) I had plenty of time to think – about the Georgian people, their music, history, and culture, and my fellow journalists – but my mind kept coming back to this crazy, ancient, addictive game. Though frustrating at first, backgammon had rapidly, as P.G. Wodehouse would have put it, “got right in amongst me.” I played the computer version both on the flight over and on the flight back, even though the computer nearly always won. Two nights ago I played it in my dreams. (I lost there, too.)
So what is it about backgammon that makes it so damned appealing?
Well, for one thing, it’s accessible: easier to learn than bridge, cheaper than golf, safer than hang-gliding, less exhausting than soccer, and more widespread than Schaffskopf.
For another, it’s colorful – especially compared with its fusty cousin, chess. During a backgammon game dice rattle and roll, onlookers rubberneck freely, side bets are won or lost, and players slap their checkers on the board with a flourish and a cackle or inch them forward with a wince and a groan.
More importantly, because a dice roll determines the distance (but not the strategy) of each advance of the checkers, luck plays a far larger part in backgammon than it does in many other games and sports. Consequently, although a pro will always beat a novice, in the long run, a slightly more experienced player on a hot streak stands a small chance of defeating an expert whose dice have gone cold. (Unlike, for example, tennis, where even an elite player would be hard-pressed to take a single point – let alone a whole set – from Serena Williams or Roger Federer.) It’s more egalitarian.
All of which makes backgammon, if you’ll excuse a somewhat forced metaphor, a catalyst – a “substance that increases the rate of a reaction without undergoing any change itself.”
That’s how it works in chemistry. In international diplomacy, backgammon increases the rate of friendship – far better than those oh-so-serious Olympics. It gives people of different backgrounds, countries, races, and degrees of physical ability (there are blind players, for example) an excuse to get together, hang out, learn about each other’s vastly different worlds, and engage in friendly competition, at any skill level, without anybody getting badly hurt. Even a brutal rout isn’t as painful as you’d expect, because you can always blame the dice.
Being relatively new to both backgammon and globetrotting, Claire and I went into this nutty adventure with caution – even hesitation. What if we came back missing a wallet or a kidney? But we needn’t have worried: although it’s the most distant country we’ve ever visited, Georgia felt as safe, friendly, and welcoming as, say, Austria. We didn’t even need a visa.
But the trip was much more than a vacation. After spending a week with our new friends at the playing and dining tables provided by our generous Georgian hosts, we were subtly but irrevocably changed. As native Americans, we of course still retained our national identities . . . but I like to think that our international identities grew three sizes. It felt good.
I’d pontificate further, but Claire has set up our board on the kitchen table, and I can hear her rattling the dice like castanets. It’s anybody’s game.
P.S.: Just before I filed this story, Bob Wachtel called my attention to a fascinating TEDx talk by Zaki Djemal, called “Game Changer: How Backgammon Will Bring Peace to the Middle East.” I highly recommend it!