This evening, I had the opportunity to play one of my favorite games for the first time in years. I think that it's safe to say that I haven't opened my vinyl-covered backgammon set since the night, five days before my dissertation was due, that my now-visiting soon-to-be-Chicagoan friend came over to help ensure that I'd eat my dinner and not feel utterly despondent. He kicked my ass in backgammon, too, but I was wound so tightly regarding the dissertation that (for once) I didn't mind. Tonight, we broke out the old set and went to town.
My first encounters with backgammon came when I arrived at Kenyon as a student. In the early 1990s, the Kenyon bookstore was still a site of, among other things, near-constant backgammon games. (Now, the backgammon sets are still around, but they're not actively played; I don't think I've seen a game since I arrived here as faculty.) The game always mystified me; it seemed to require some kind of occult knowledge. Not until I visited my father's best friend in Florida, in summer 2000, did I have an occasion to learn the game. During that trip, I kept finding my father's friend playing backgammon with his computer in the mornings. Eventually, I started watching what he was doing. Then, he told me how to play. I played the computer a few times. Then, we hunted out his old backgammon board. He defeated me a few times. But then I had it.
As soon as I returned to Ithaca, I bought myself a board--a really cheesy, over-the-top bad-vinyl board (a cheesier, cheaper version of the one you see above). It is two-tone brown, with a plastic handle and garish brass clasps. As soon as he arrived for the summer, I taught my then-somebody how to play. He always played the kidney-bean-colored pieces; I was always the ivory-colored pieces. We bought a notebook and kept score. We used the doubling die to great effect, sometimes building our games up to 32 or 64 points each. We would play for hours, racking up point totals well into the hundreds, sprawled out across my living room floor on hot Ithaca summer days. We took the backgammon set to the laundromat. I have never had such exceptional laundry experiences (except for the previous summer, when our game was mancala).
There's something extremely satisfying about my backgammon set: its pieces are perfectly weighted and deliciously smooth. They make perfect clicking sounds as they're raced around the board, powered by the sometimes frustrating, sometimes delightful interplay of skill and fortune. The dice cups are covered in yet more brown vinyl. I even have a trusty backgammon book, a gift from that then-somebody, that lives in the backgammon case, for easy reference.
What I'm trying to say, overall, is that I would love this game even if it weren't mentioned in Middlemarch--though George Eliot's notice is a powerful recommendation, as well (even though, as I recall, the allusion isn't one that makes backgammon sound like the best of pursuits--which, of course, in the grand scheme of things, it's not).
Now that I am back into the game, I suspect that tomorrow may turn out to be an all-day backgammon marathon--and that I may be twisting others' arms, forcing them to learn the game so that I don't have to wait another three years for my next match. (If you're one of my local readers, you may want to watch out: if you see me prowling the streets of Gambier with what looks like a tiny, striped vinyl briefcase in hand, I may be heading your way for a match-up, whether or not you already know the game.)
source for tonight's images: Wikipedia's backgammon entry.