As an Armenian, playing backgammon was pretty much expected of me since I was young. When I was 5, my mom said that she’d play with me, but I had to promise not to cry when I lost. Notice that she said when, not if. The trash talk starts early in backgammon.
Later, when I was around 7 or 8, we traveled to Michigan to visit my Armenian relatives. I remember my grandfather slapping his pieces down with an audible clack when he would hit my pieces. It was a bit intimidating, though he was otherwise a gentle soul. I understood that it was part of the game.
To this day, my 86-year-old mother asks if I would like a “backgammon lesson”. Even though I’m a pretty good player, she usually beats me.
Backgammon is an ancient game, one of the oldest still played. Its origins can be traced back around 5000 years to Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and it has spread all over the Middle East and the world. If you’re not familiar with it, the basic idea is to roll dice and move all your checkers around a board with 24 positions (the distinctive triangles). To win, your pieces need to be brought “home” and picked up from the board before your opponent picks up all of theirs. Two or more pieces on a slot are safe and block the use of that slot by your opponent, but a single piece is vulnerable to being “hit” and sent back to the beginning of its journey, in your opponent’s home. There is also the excitement of the doubling cube, with which you can challenge your opponent to give up now, or play on for double the stakes.
Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that backgammon and life are similar in many ways. Here are some lessons that both can offer.
- You can make all the plans you want, but random events will change those plans. You need to adapt.
- When you see what looks like an obvious move, wait a moment and consider the whole situation. There might be another option that’s even better.
- You can “make your own luck” by being positioned to take advantage of the most likely events. You need a basic understanding of probabilities.
- If your choices are too safe, you’ll probably lose. If your choices are too risky, you’ll probably lose.
- It isn’t whether you win this particular time; it’s your total average of wins that really counts. Nobody wins every time. A poor player can beat a great player in any given game.
- It’s helpful to know your opponent. You have an advantage if you know what choice they’ll likely make when challenged, or presented with a choice between risky and safe.
- You need to know when a situation is untenable, and be willing to walk away. Continuing stubbornly is unwise.
- You’re stronger in a group than alone.
- A cornered opponent can be dangerous, and may be able to strike back. Don’t get too smug. And if you’re the cornered one, don’t give up hope – huge upsets are possible.
- It’s important to have extra resources on hand if possible. They can be used if an opportunity presents itself.
Do you play backgammon? A good AI opponent on phones is Backgammon NJ. If you’ve got some experience and would like to play another human, I’m open to challengers – I play on the delightfully antiquated but serviceable SimplyBG.com. It supports turn-by-turn games that can be played over time, so there’s no specific time commitment. Let me know by replying to this email.