81. Backgammon

My opponent has two remaining pieces on the final point of his home board. It’s my roll. I’ve got three pieces on the second point of my home board and one piece on the final. If I roll doubles, I’ll win. I shake the dice. I pray. Not a religious man, I aim my prayers toward the Great Gods of Backgammon. I ask them, in a tone normally used by hostages pleading for their life, that I might roll doubles. It is as if all the universe has been created for this one minuscule moment of my own personal history. This roll means everything. This roll defines all of human existence. This is the roll to end all rolls. I take a deep breath, I close my eyes, and I release the dice.

And this, my friends, is why backgammon is the best game in the world.

Argue all you want, but if you can create a game that results in this manner of jaw-dropping, gut-clenching, heart-stopping excitement, then you’ve got something special. We’re talking about the Superbowl, the Olympics, the space race, and the California gold rush of 1849 all mixed into one.

It’s dice and checkers, basically. You roll two dice and move your pieces around the board and the first one to get all their pieces off the board wins. Simple. It’s mostly luck, mixed with strategic use of that luck. In a five (or fifteen) minute game you will come to reevaluate your understanding of destiny. This is a game that can encourage risk or spit in your face. This is a game that can give you anything you ask for, only to take it all away in the final roll. There is no game like it.

The game is about 5,000 years old. When I first met backgammon, I knew it as “tavla,” which is what the Turkish call it. Since I was Turkey-bound for a semester abroad, I taught myself how to play (knowing how passionate they were about the game), and I taught a few of my friends before leaving the country. There, I played it relentlessly, teaching a few others, usually over a cheap beer in a smoky bar, while having my amateur skills decimated by the local Turks, who seemed born with an innate bond with the tavla board.

They even know how to roll the dice in such a way to promote doubles.

And doubles will win any game.

It’s deceptively simple while incredibly complex. A new player will make mistakes that they’ll immediately regret or not recognize as mistakes until they’ve lost ten games in a row. It is a game that will let you win, then tear you down from your pedestal to remind you that you’re only human. You will come back for more, and more, and more, until you figure out not only why you lose, but more importantly why you win.

There’s a reason my friend coined the term: “Crackgammon.”

What other game has been so captivating?

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