I never miss an opportunity to teach backgammon to someone, because it makes me feel the way I imagine Eve felt when Adam accepted the apple: a delicious certainty that one will not be alone in hell. That, after all, must be the fate of serious backgammon players who think nothing of neglecting family, job and even health for the greater glory of tossing dice around a board.
So when Bob Levey, a colleague and professional gamesman, asked me to tech him backgammon, I smiled.
Some people refer to a beginning player as a "pigeon," but the term offends me, having been a pigeon once myself. A pigeon is someone who learns the game quickly (not a difficult feat), and starts wagering money before appreciating backgammon's subtlety.
I suggested that Levey learn the game over a pleasant table at Nathan's, because it was at that restaurant that I graduated from pigeon to hawk.
One summer night, while playing a friendly backgammon round with my wife, I was challenged to play by a stranger. Big gold rings on meaty fingers. Shirt unbuttoned to his belt, chest hair struggling to climb out. Tanned. Confident. He was a Miami Beach real estate salesman, and I reluctantly agreed to play, feeling like a puny weakling who had just had sand kicked in his face by a muscled beach bum.
Well, I beat that man, and I'd like to think the prices on a few Florida condos went up to cover his humiliation in Washington. More importantly, I learned some lessons the rule books don't mention: don't drink alcohol during serious play, don't let a slick appearance diminish your self-confidence.
Levey and I broke the rules a bit, sharing a bottle of wine, but confidence was not his problem. In fact, Levey might have begun with too much assurance. Not for nothing is it called "the cruelest game." Although the object is simply to remove all your men from the board before your opponent removes his, the dice add an element of danger that even a professional cannot overcome, that unpredictable twist that can turn a game around with one roll.
And although backgammon is centuries old, the Americans hyped it up in 1925 by inventing a device called the doubling cube, which can increase the stakes geometrically in the course of play as the advantage shifts from one player to another. Fickle dice, rapidly increasing stakes and fast action - a game will normally last about six minutes - give the game its endearing tension. Sure, some people will tell you how relaxing backgammon is in front of a fire on a winter's eve, but at its cut-throat best, the sport can ruin friendships and crumble empires.
Bridge players take to backgammon easily, and Levey did not disappoint his professor.Between the pasta and the main dish, he beat me, albeit with a little help. he felt a bit uncomfortable moving his men right out there in the open where I could watch - card players learning backgammon sometimes feel as if they are parading in the nude - but his mathematical instincts, honed fine in smoky hotel ballrooms at bridge tournaments, were obvious. So was his poker face.
I told Levey the stories beginning backgammon players hear: about the wealthy man in Mexico who will make games last for hours so he can turn the doubling cube often enough to convert a one-dollar game into a $2,000 dollar game; about the pros who offer to play for "a nickel a point" except a nickel in their parlance means $5; about the great sums won because exhaustion led an experienced player to miscount; about the Pentagon computer wizards who have blown fuses trying futilely to program a computer to anticipate every possible roll of the dice.
At the end of the evening, I worried about what I had created. I had put the finishing touches on a gamemaster; Levey stood prepared to combine all his riverboat gambler's tricks with a fledgling skill in backgammon. We may never see him around the newsroom again.