Just what I need. In a typical week of two evenings of bridge, one of poker, another of Scrabble, yet another of Monopoly. Not to mention seven mornings of taking a deep breath and glaring at 1 Across.
Just what I need. And just what I can't resist. For when you are a Game Freak, not only is the lure of a new arena irresistible, it is slightly embarrassing. High time you learned backgammon, boy - and aren't you ashamed you didn't do so sooner?
Well, to be honest, not really. Dice games had always seemed to depend a little overmuch on chance. The lure of good games is what they demand of the inner soul. Any idiot could roll double sixes.
But that proved to be the typical neophyte's oversimplification. On a recent Thursday night, courtesy of my friend and co-writer on these pages, I learned to play. And I mean learned. Strategy, rules, approach, dangers, when to play safe, "automatic" moves, everything.
I didn't roll double sixes once. Yet I won once (yes, the first game - I'm entitled to a little beginner's luck). And I am here to tell you that backgammon is just plain nothing but flat-out challenging.
From bridge, I am used to thinking of seven things at once - anticipating, planning, guarding against: the whole range of "what if" thinking. From Scrabble, I am used to hoping for a certain set of circumstances (like drawing an "E" on a certain turn). From poker, I am used to controlling the desperate message my body language begins to send when I am in trouble, or in doubt.
But all at once? Surely this backgammon was an uncommon "tester," especially since it looked so simple.
The ground rules were simple enough - you move in this direction, I move in the other. Dice I had mastered in the third grade. The 24 "points" could not have been easier to handle. They were even color-coded, like signs on the New Jersey Turnpike.
You had to leap over the opponent's men, as in checkers? Fine. You had to use a five as a five, and couldn't divide it into a four and a one? Sure, whatever you say. You had to get off the bar before you could do anything else? Heck, I had spent some of the best hours of youth trying to draw a Get Out of Jail Free card.
My collaborator rolled a six, I a five. He took his turn - an unthreatening-looking move in the middle of the board. I rolled. A 4-2. Naturally enough, my hand sprung toward the two "men" buried deep in enemy territory.
"I wouldn't do that," said the voice across the table.
"But why not?" quoth I. "I thought you said the object was to get them around and get them off. I can't just leave them there."
Ah, but I could and should, he said. And he explained the first valuable backgammon lesson: not leaving points uncovered so one can't be "bumped."
On we flew. It was a little tough to tell who was winning. There were no tricks, after all, and no pad bearing a score. I asked at one point, and was stunned to hear I was looking good. I was? My two little guys were still way "over there," right where they had begun life.
Ah, but that was just where I wanted them, said my man. And he explained the rather intriguing theory of "back games" - the curl-up-and-wait tactic that can turn the tables on the overly aggressive or the far ahead.
Finally came the end game, and my dice were just good enough. My 15 men vanished before six of his. The thrill of victory!
Followed, as usual, by the agony of defeat. He smoked me the second time around. We gracefully held off on a rubber game. For the future.
There's no room in my life for backgammon. I mean, I work for a living. And there's social life and family life and good works. Not to mention all those other delicious time-wasting games loved so well.
But I have been wondering for two days now just what would have happened if, when I rolled that 6-3, I had taken the guy in the far right corner instead of the guy right beside him, and had moved him all nine, and . . .