Yesterday I was sorting out some board games (not of the wargaming variety), which currently live on top of the big bookcase in our sitting room. You need a step-stool to see them at all, since the bookcase is nearly 7 feet high, so this was a serious undertaking. I found some amazing stuff up there, but decided to keep only a very few games: apart from some good sets of traditional dominoes, I'll hang on to my best chess set and board, an old set of Scrabble (essential), the base set of Carcassonne (much loved - with a couple of the expansion sets), De Bono's L-Game, a nice old set of Nine-Men's Morris (Merelles), and - last but not least - my Backgammon set, which I haven't seen for about 20 years, and haven't played for 30.
I got to thinking about Backgammon, which I used to play a lot, and enjoy very much. It was a game which I knew of as a small child, but only because there was a board marked out on the back of a folding Draughts (Checkers) board I had. Sometime in the late 1970s I became friendly with a fellow named Miles, whom I got to know during my visits to the National Library of Scotland reading rooms, in George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. I used to spend a lot of time at the NLS at that time, because I was studying for professional exams, and if I removed myself from home distractions and babies and suchlike I had a better chance of getting some heavy studying done (though I seem to have read quite a bit of Napoleonic stuff during these same visits, which suggests my dedication was still a bit lacking).
Miles worked as an assistant at the NLS. When I got to know him better I found that he wasn't actually a librarian - he was pretty heavily qualified as an Art Historian, but he seemed to have got stuck in a temporary job in the Library for something like 10 years. They didn't pay him an awful lot, either; he and his wife rented a grim little flat up a tenement stair in Leith - a bit like downtown Beirut. I met him for a beer one evening, and went to his house for supper. Miles produced an ancient backgammon set, set it up, and during the next hour or two he taught me the rules and we played a few games. I loved it. A couple of weeks later, Miles made a return supper-&-backgammon trip to my place, but this time we played on my old folding board, and the game loses a lot like that. Ideally, a proper board should be boxed in, so you can throw the men around and they slide expertly into the corners, and the dice stay off the floor, and you should have a real wooden "bar" in the middle to place pieces on when they are out of play. The sound and the feel of the game are important, so my utility version wasn't nearly so good. Lesson learned.
Next time Miles visited me he promised to bring his old set with him. This had been his Greek grandfather's. His grandfather had taught him the game when Miles was at primary school (in London - the family owned a restaurant), and had given him his old set. The rules Miles taught me, by the way, were what his grandfather had played - I'll come back to this later.
Anyway, on his next visit, he didn't bring his old Greek set; instead, he presented me with a brand-new and rather posh boxed set - all leather and polished wood - which he had bought in the gift department of the old Jenner's store in Princes Street (long gone). I was suitably overwhelmed, but very pleased, and my new, yuppies' backgammon set, which had very little authentic class but was satisfyingly expensive, featured in our fortnightly games evenings for the next year or so. A couple of house customs grew up:
(1) you always knew which end contained the "home boards" - it was the end next to the wine bottle!
(2) we didn't use the Doubling Cube. Ever. Miles told me that his grandfather said that it was just a device to make sure the player with the most money won in the end, so it was ignored. Miles and I used to play a-penny-a-point, using his grandfather's scoring system (which, again, I shall come back to).
Then Miles suddenly got a job more in keeping with his qualifications, and moved away to That London to work for The Royal Collections, where his first involvement was the cataloguing of historical drawings and engravings at Windsor Castle. My (first) wife was a little shocked by Miles' new status and evident salary; she classified each of my friends as either "vulgar" or "creepy" (I don't know if anyone made it into both categories - she set very high standards for everyone - apart from herself, for some reason...), and I guess that Miles was probably a creep, since he was a very courteous chap.
So that was my Backgammon career on hold. I missed my friend and our games, but I moved on (as one does).
One day a few years later my wife came across my trusty Jenners Backgammon Set (probably on top of another bookcase), and brought it to my attention, which astonished me. Normally my hobbies were beneath contempt, but Backgammon was somehow associated with Omar Sharif, which was very interesting indeed. I must explain that my first wife had a thing about Omar from earliest puberty (no - hers, not his - don't be silly). Omar, you had better believe, was neither vulgar nor creepy; she had seen Doctor Zhivago a number of times, and on each occasion she required some days to recover her equilibrium - she had very little idea of the storyline, however, despite all that study. I digress...
Anyway, possibly because of some imagined link with Omar, I was encouraged to find someone to play with, and eventually I talked a work-colleague, Edward, into coming around for a game. I had to teach him my house rules, but we got on very well, and a new fortnightly series started.
Tragically, it didn't get very far. It was my turn to go to Edward's house, out in the suburbs, when I got a message the day before our meeting that his wife had died very suddenly (in fact she had committed suicide, I am still horrified to recall) and that was definitely the end of backgammon until further notice - the clock is still running, awaiting my return. You can see this would be a bit of a trauma. [The poor lady's demise had nothing to do with her husband's new interest in backgammon, as far as I know.]
Back to this week.
I dug out my old set - cleaned it up (still looks good), and did a bit of online reading to refresh my knowledge of the rules. Hmmm. It seems this is more complicated than I had remembered.
OK - I bumped into the Doubling Cube very early - it states that this is an option, but playing without it is regarded as like riding your bicycle with stabilisers fitted. That's all right - in my book, coolness is not essential. If Miles' version of the game has a long tradition in the village squares and coffee houses of Greece then that has a nobility of its own. I then had a look at scoring systems, and I didn't find Miles' granddad's system anywhere, though I did read that there are a lot of local variations in traditional rules.
Which, at long last, brings me to the point. My compliments to anyone who has got this far (apart from Frobisher, who certainly will not have put up with all those adjectives and stuff). If anyone has any experience of Backgammon (and if you haven't, may I say that I believe it is well worth checking out?), I'd like to run Miles' granddad's scoring system past you. Have you seen it before? It worked well for me for some years, should I be nervous about admitting to this? Are there any ancient Greeks in the house?
The system is:
* The loser of a game pays the winner 1 penny (or whatever) for each of his men (pieces) which is in his own (the loser's) Home Board at the end of the game, 2p for each man which is in his own Outer Board, 3p for each man in his opponent's (the winner's) Outer Board, and 4p for each which is either in his opponent's Home Board or on the Bar.
* This basic total is paid over as it is if the loser has commenced "bearing off" his men before the game ends.
* If the loser has not yet borne off any of his men, the result is a Gammon, which means that he must pay twice the total.
* It can get worse: if the loser has not yet borne off any men, and any of his men are in his opponent's (the winner's) Home Board or on the Bar, the result is a Backgammon, and he pays three times the total.
I think this system does affect the strategy a little, since players will try to minimise the cost of a defeat. If you are interested in the rules of Backgammon, you'll find them here.