Back to Backgammon

First, a bit of background. My first piece of writing on backgammon was written in pre-blog days, when I’d send such incidental essays to friends via email. As such, it was written without a public audience in mind. It describes my first tournament experience at the Virginia Backgammon Club, and includes frank and colorful descriptions of several of the players I came across there. In particular there were three guys there named Bill, and I referred to them as Big Bill, Good Bill, and Weird Bill.

When I started Polytropos, I put the backgammon essay on the web, as well as my Thailand travelogue, and linked to them from the blog—mainly because the blog itself didn’t have much material at first. A few months after that, I got an email from Good Bill, who had stumbled across the essay via Google. He was amused by it, but that’s not surprising—he was “Good” Bill, after all. What would some of the other people think? I considered taking it down, but by then I had made a practice of writing about backgammon on the blog from time to time, and that first essay serves as a kind of preamble to all the other stuff. I figured, “What are the odds someone else from the club will find it?”

Pretty good, as it turns out. Steve and I went to the Virginia Backgammon Club last night, for the first time in over a year. Earlier in the day I had visited their website to get directions to their new location. I discovered two things:

1. Weird Bill is now the club chairman.
2. There’s a link to my essay right on the club’s main page, titled “A First Timer’s Description of What We’re Like.”

So when we got there I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly hoped that if I just kept my head low no one would put together the fact that I was that guy who wrote that one thing. But those hopes were shattered while we were handing Weird Bill our registration money for the tournament.

“Hey,” he said, “Is one of you guys a writer or something? Does articles, publishes on the web?”

The question was general enough that I could conceivably play dumb, even though I knew exactly what he was talking about. I sort of shrugged, and Steve said “Um, I draw . . .”

Weird Bill continued, “Because somebody wrote something about their first visit to the club and put it on the web, and I thought it was one of you guys . . .”

At that point it was silly to keep playing dumb. “Oh, that,” I said. “Yeah, that was me.”

“You wrote about a bunch of us in there,” said Weird Bill. “We had to sort out which Bill was which from your descriptions . . .”

Some guy with his back to us who was in the middle of a game called out “Weird Bill!” and chuckled.

Awkward silence.

“Yeah . . .” I mumbled, “That was a long time ago . . .”

Thankfully, he didn’t push the matter—or seem particularly upset. Within a few minutes the tournament had begun.

I had no idea how good I was going to do. On the one hand, my frequency of play is way, way down from where it was a year and a half ago. Nowadays I only play a couple of hours every few weeks. On the other hand, since the last time I played in a tournament, I’ve read both volumes of Bill Robertie’s Advanced Backgammon, and absorbed (hopefully) a fair number of insights as a result. Stronger theory, but out of practice—what would it mean?

It meant that I got my butt kicked, but didn’t feel too bad about it. I lost both my matches, but they were both very close. The first one was against Majid, a dignified gentleman from Iran. “You play very well,” he said after he won our match. “Two, maybe three mistakes. That is all.” More importantly, I overheard him later on, telling Good Bill that I had “strong play.” I’ll take the compliment, though part of it is that the guys at the club seem to underestimate us, treating us as perpetual amateurs. I’m just trying to figure out how that can work to our advantage . . .

The worst part about the mistakes I made was that they weren’t based on a poor understanding of theory, but that I instantly recognized them as mistakes moments after I had made the move. Not failures of strategy, then, but of concentration—a result of being out of practice. Also, I know I wouldn’t have made those mistakes playing at the coffee shop. Something about the tournament format is intimidating, despite my best efforts not to be intimidated by it.

Lesson for the day: no matter what the form of competition, a clear mind is essential. First must come the basic skills, of course, whatever those may be, but once the bulk of the strategic decisions and moves have become second nature, what’s left to separate the good from the great is focus, and the ability to keep it no matter the circumstances. It’s as true for backgammon as it is for tennis or even Halo 2.

Question for the day: Does a caffeine buzz help in this respect? It certainly makes you feel more alert, but does it actually help with clarity and focus?