Friday, June 28, 2013

Fireworks in Fitzroy as Battle Unfolds on the Backgammon Board

A classic contest unfolded recently on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday afternoon in a sleepy Fitzroy café.

The game was Backgammon and the stakes were high – the loser was buying coffee. And no animals were harmed in the making of this story – although a soybean was milked for a flat white.

The use of Backgammon in a cyclist’s training program was first publicised back in 2011 and has since become an important cross-training tool. Experts say that competitive road cycling is 85% mental so it is vitally important to exercise the mind as well as the body…and what better way than with Backgammon?

If you’re not familiar with the game, then don’t worry too much – I’m sure it won’t impede your journey through life…although you might struggle with this article. Basically it is a simple 2-player board game that relies on both luck (the roll of the dice) as well as strategy…but more skill than luck, as ruled by a U.S. court in 1982 when the state of Oregon tried to argue (unsuccessfully) that Backgammon should be subject to the state’s stringent gambling laws as it was a game of chance (like Poker or Blackjack).

I usually try to make time for at least 4 or 5 games per week. Backgammon is a good café sport because it doesn’t take up too much space on the table, it can be played with one hand leaving the other one free to hold your soy latte and it doesn’t generate too much offensive language…unless you find yourself in this unenviable position:
Whacked, sent back and nowhere to attack! Red is in big trouble.

Backgammon has become an important part of the Melbourne mountain biking scene over the last few years and it’s not uncommon to see a game being played before, after or even during many events. Over the coming weeks I will present a series of articles about Backgammon that are well-timed for those cycling fans staying up late to watch SBS TV coverage of the Tour de France. There is no better way to wile away the boring early periods of long stages (you know, the bit when a doomed breakaway group is 25 minutes up the road from a disinterested peloton) than with a few games of ‘gammon.

Backgammon itself can also make a wonderful spectator sport, although I’m still yet to convince any café staff of this fact. However, I know that the readers out there on the Internet are interested, so here’s a blow-by-blow (or perhaps whack-by-whack) account of a very entertaining battle I had with DC from The Fitzroy Revolution.


Winning the initial dice roll with a 3 & 2, I opted for an opening move favoured by Obolensky & James, whereby 2 pieces are moved in to a slightly more risky but also more attacking position. Obviously there’s a lot of debate about this opening roll. For those who are interested (don’t be shy now), Nack Ballard and Paul Weaver discuss how to play an opening 3-2 in their engaging article, In the Beginning.

Employing a bold, offensive strategy, I whacked DC whenever possible, and although I sacrificed 3 pieces in the process, I was able to keep 2 of his trapped in my home board whilst bringing in some reinforcements to start building a wall with the aim of keeping him there. In a match like this, playing to 9 points, I am often happy to start with an aggressive opening game.

DC was ahead on the pip count (due to the 3 pieces I had lost) so my strategy focused on blocking up his home board (with the 5 pieces I now had back there) and inflicting some painful whacking when he eventually left something exposed (hmmm, that didn’t come out right). I sensed the game turning in my favour and offered to double the stakes to 2 points, which DC accepted.
This patient strategy worked well – I was able to whack him hard in his home board and use my available reinforcements to block him in completely. It is always hard to come back from the closeout position and I easily came away with the 2-point lead (thanks to my earlier offer of double stakes).

Game 2

In the second game, it was a different story. Although I played a similar strategy, shortly after offering a double things turned around for DC. He promptly whacked and then re-doubled me (to 4 points) before closing me out and winning by a gammon (I had yet to bear any pieces off the board) This doubled his victory score to 8 points, which, in a match to 9 certainly put me on the back foot.

Game 3

With DC now only 1 point from victory in the match the Crawford Rule came in to effect, prohibiting either player from offering a double in the subsequent game. This meant that I would have to claw back a single-point victory before raising the stakes in the following game.

Our next opening rolls were identical, invoking the Murphy Rule, which helped me by automatically doubling the initial stakes. Building on this fortuitous opening I took 2 points from the 2nd game to bring the score to 4-8 (in DC’s favour).

Game 4

It was clear that this match was now heating up and it brought back memories of Hugh Hefner’s famous Backgammon parties at the Playboy Mansion...except for the fact there were no bikini clad models on hand to polish our dice.
Hugh Hefner has been hosting Backgammon parties for many years

I tried my hardest to channel Hefner but all I could think about were those emails about the cheap Viagra which I seem to receive a disproportionately high number of – I prefer to support my local Pharmacy rather than shopping online.

With nothing to lose, I once again doubled the stakes again early on. Given different circumstances, I’m certain that DC would have countered my double with the beaver.

This would have put me in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to accept or refuse the beaver.

  “A player who accepts a double may immediately redouble (beaver) without giving up possession of the cube. The opponent (the player who originally doubled) may refuse the beaver, in which case he resigns the game and loses the current (doubled) stakes. Otherwise, he must accept the beaver and continue the game at quadruple the stakes prior to the double.”

I pushed any thoughts of the beaver out of my mind, continued the aggressive tactics and managed to close him out with a gammon to take another 4 points and even the score at 8-8.

This was quickly becoming a classic match – one for the ages – and I tried hard to shift my channelling from Hugh Hefner to the world’s greatest ever Backgammon champion Falafel Natanzon
This man earns a living by finding wealthy people who want to lose to him in cash-only private games.

In my mind I would like to think that the tension in the café was palpable and that curious onlookers had started to gather round, murmuring in hushed tones as we took our turns, debating the merits of each move, watching eagerly as the drama unfolded. But in reality the only murmuring was that emanating from a small child inside a pram that was blocking the only thoroughfare to any potential onlookers and all that was being unfolded was a blanket, by his mother, after he threw up on it.

Final Game

It was now 8 points-a-piece, with the match to be decided by the winner of an exciting final game that at various times, saw both players completely closed-out with pieces off the board. While I had the initial ascendency, DC countered and managed to close me out one final time before successfully bearing off all his pieces. Another gammon, but this was not important – all that mattered was that he won the game to seal overall victory in the match. I would be buying the coffee on this occasion. 

I made a small promise to myself after this battle – in the future I will come out better prepared, more motivated, more aggressive and more determined to whack, roll big dice, beaver the doubles, raccoon the beavers and continually improve my game until one day, hopefully, I can ascend to Backgammon heaven with an invitation to a game at the Playboy Mansion.
Playing in this illustrious company has been a childhood dream of mine (for various reasons).

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