Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Family Game

Every family has a favorite game.  Whether it be board, card, or psychological . . .

Our backgammon board, in play at Darlington House

In our family, at least as how I define it these days, it's backgammon.

I was taught to play backgammon when I was eleven by a cousin of my mother's, named Frances, who visited us in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968, coincidentally during the race riots that gripped the city in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Not exactly a salubrious time for her to visit the Nation's Capitol, but it was a pleasant and noteworthy visit for young Reggie, nonetheless.

Cousin Frances lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was recently widowed, rich, and Republican, all of which she found more than agreeable.  She was probably in her early sixies at the time, and was visiting us while making a sentimental journey "up north" to see her Yankee relatives, driving a brand new Cadillac equipped with "all the bells and whistles" that she had bought especially for the trip.

The counters neatly stacked in a row, having
been successfully removed from the board
during a game

Frances was a jolly sort, who loved telling stories and reminiscing, and was quick to laugh, and I adored her.  She'd loved her departed husband, and missed him dreadfully, but she said she also felt liberated to be on her own again and in charge of her own life and daily schedule after many years of attending to her dear, albeit increasingly infirm, husband's every whim, beck and call.  "I loved him, for sure I did, honey, but now I'm on my own and 'free at last, free at least!'" she'd merrily cry in her lovely southern drawl.  "Now, let's have some fun!"

Frances arrived at our house in Washington several days before the riots began, and was just settling in for an extended visit when all Hell broke loose, and the next thing we knew the inner city neighborhoods were on fire, curfews had been established, schools and public buildings were closed, and members of the National Guard were posted on street corners in the city's terrified white neighborhoods.  It was all very exciting.

A convenient "cheat sheet" for the board's proper set up
provided to members of our city club's backgammon set

We were mostly confined to our house during Frances' visit, both day and night, and had to entertain ourselves.  Watching television was much too grim, given its coverage of the carnage gripping the nation and the limited number of channels available at the time.  Frances loved games, and I remember spending hours on end during her visit playing rounds of gin rummy, double solitaire, and hearts with her and various members of the Darling family.  But I was her primary partner in such activities as I had more patience for, and a greater affinity for, such activities than most of the others in our household.  At one point, having exhausted every card game in her arsenal, Frances asked me if I liked to play backgammon, and if so would I please bring out the board and play it with her.  She was astonished to learn that not only did I not know how to play backgammon, but that we didn't even own such a board.

"That's not right!" she declared. "Every young man worth his social salt should know how to play backgammon!  Come on, darlin', I'll buy you one as a present, and teach you."  Within several hours, and despite the fact that finding an open store that sold such games during the riots was not without challenges, I became the proud owner of a new and expensive backgammon board, a gift from my dear Cousin Frances.

I've been a devotee ever since.

My backgammon skills took off when I went to prep school several years later and joined the school's backgammon club where I fell in with a fast and louche set of Manhattan-raised kids that made me feel like the proverbial country cousin, down from the farm.  But it was a great learning ground for developing my skills, and I came to appreciate the game (and also play it) with a whole new perspective.  My skills were further honed at Yale where I spent many evenings playing backgammon and drinking and carousing with other like-minded afficianadoes, and where I learned the joys—and dangers—of playing it for money.  Fortunately, I (mostly) came out ahead, which was a good thing since I was on a strict (and meager) allowance while an undergraduate there.

Our backgammon board, closed after a game's play

After college I stopped playing backgammon regularly, until I met Boy and we bought Darlington House, where we took to playing the game as a pleasant way to pass the time during our leisure hours.  We play backgammon regularly during the week, too, at our city club which has an active backgammon culture, and where games tables are scattered about the clubhouse to promote such activity.  We recently treated ourselves to a new and luxurious backgammon set from T. Anthony on Park Avenue, as shown in the pictures here in this story.  It is beyond luxe, all leather and pigskin, and is a decided improvement over the perfectly good but not as aesthetically pleasing set that we got a dozen or so years ago from Scully & Scully (also on Park Avenue), which we now bring out only when we have backgammon tourneys during weekend houseparties at Darlington House.

So, what is it about backgammon that keeps me coming back for more?  It is a game that combines skill and luck, but not so much skill as to be daunting or so much luck as to be dispiriting, and where the tables can turn deliciously and unexpectedly at the roll of the dice.  It is aesthetically satsifying and fun to play, particularly when one is lubricated by a tumbler or two of spirits, and it also has a certain tone—it is a game traditionally favored by and found in the homes and the clubs of the upper classes, as opposed to such baser games as canasta or parchesi.  Not surprisingly, good backgammon boards can be rather expensive.  One feels most comfortable and cosy when playing said game when shod in Belgian shoes or velvet slippers, preferably with red pitchfork-weilding devils or one's monogram embroidered upon them.  In short, it is game that is right up Reggie's alley.

Tell me, what is your house game?

Photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. Lovely little story Reggie. Nice to have the time again, to stop in on my favorite blogs. I always enjoy your stories about saucers and Staffordshire things but usually can't muster a relevant comment!

    Games...backgammon was huge in my fratty house during undergrad. Butcept we were mostly shod in Weejuns and sipping draft been from the KA house back porch during the games. Backgammon and Gin and Spades and Scrabble...the more pedestrian games accompanied backgammon in the house of my upbringing.

    And LFG and I get into cutthroat rounds of Monopoly and Crazy-Eights...all the while you can rest assured that I'm shod in Belgians or some twee slipper of sorts.


  2. Hello Reggie:
    There is so much here in this thoroughly entertaining post: a slightly eccentric cousin, who sounds to have been enormous fun, a reminder of troubled times during the race riots, now so much a part of your country's history, a vignette of yourself both at school and later at Yale, and a glimpse into how, on occasion, life is spent at Darlington House. Wonderful.

    We too have a backgammon set kept on the hall table but not, we fear to say, nearly as expensively stylish as yours. But we do have an inherited, and rather good, set of Mah Jong with original ivory tiles but since spending most of our time in Hungary we are, rather frustratingly, without a couple to partner us.

  3. I've given up on backgammon with Gil, we have two very different ideas about keeping count. And, "No, you were here ..." "No I was there ..." I still like the idea of it, though. Do you use the cube? Did you know it was invented in New York in the early 20th century? Also, interesting that her name was Francis and not Frances—this would comfort the odd female Francis here and there!

  4. ADG: Of course, Spades and Scrabble, too! Boy and I played a wicked game of Scrabble during Irene when we were holed up at DH with a houseguest. Love the game.

    HATAT: I have never met anyonw (knowingly) who plays Mah Jong. I believe my grandmother (MD's mother) played it many years ago. I love the name of it, and the pretty ivory tiles.

    Paul: My goodness, how careless of me, of course she was a Frances and not a Francis! I have since corrected my error. And yes, we do use the doubling cube, it can certainly up the odds spectacularly. Thank you.

  5. Chess is my game....and I play on-line regularly. I do enjoy Backgammon but I am not very skilled and play less than I would like.
    Delightful post as usual.

  6. Reggie/Main Liner...anyone else...do you have an iphone? If so, download "Words with Friends" and let's play Scrabble. Beat ya!

  7. Backgammon is a favorite in our family as well. My brother and I learned at our father's and uncle's knees. We were granted the duties of official dice-rollers and thrilled to such important roles. Never did learn how to add in the wagering aspect.

    I'm sure that the new set is lovely. The counters look as they offer a satisfying coolness and heft in one's palm while mulling play options.

  8. As I love the table so much, I have thought of taking up Trictrac, which is similar to Backgammon.

    Until just recently (and that's another story), I had an Empire center table that had been adapted as a games table, the top lifting off to reveal a felt-covered surface; we used it for Dominoes, a tradition as common in Cuba as the South.

  9. Our game is Scrabble. When I was bedridden this summer we played a version of Scrabble on our iPads - the Celt sitting across the room from me as I groused my way through a winning game. Cards are never played - a prejudice of mine left over from my Salvation Army grandmother's teaching. I also gave up women and song, but kept the wine! Quite boring, really. Just Scrabble.

    I've just remembered that somewhere in a closet is a box of Gay Monopoly - of all things.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your essay, Reggie, as I do each time you post.

  10. My cousins taught my brother and me to play backgammon and Rook, which is a card game I never see or hear of anymore, but we had a rollicking good time playing. The Mister and I play Scrabble, and on holidays we drag out our ancient Masterpiece board game and coerce our children to play. A neighbor of ours has a gorgeous needlepoint backgammon board, but yours is fabulous. Enjoy!

  11. Great post! Backgammon was a favorite in my family as well.

  12. Your memories of zestful cousin Frances are charming, and you paint an appealing domestic picture of playing backgammon. I guess that I am not much of a game player--we are more into activities or just plain discussion. I used to consider compilers such as Turbo Pascal as the equivalent of games, albeit solitary ones.

    The Devoted Classicist's story about the game table reminded me that in the last house I rented, there was an Empire mahogany swivel-top card table in the attic along with the ghost (another story), and when I left the owner gave it to me. Since moving out of the country, I'm not quite sure what happened to it. --Road to Parnassus

  13. Adorable story. And those photos are absolutely fantastic. Fantastic. Go Boy!

  14. Backgammon is very close to my heart, I once fell in love with a man playing backgammon at the office and ended up marrying him! and yes we did use the doubling cube, but not necessarily for money, if you get the drift.

    I tried teaching my children to play when they were little but they resented the fact that I did not let them win. They still bring that up now that they are in their 30's. I have finally talked my daughter into playing again and we do often, over cocktails.

    Bridge was the game we played in boarding school, and it is one of the things I am glad I learned at an early age. You can go anywhere in the world and if you play bridge you will make friends very quickly.

  15. Dear Mr. Darling,

    I very much enjoyed your story, and viewing your wonderful photographs (thank you Boy!), and your gorgeous new board.

    I chuckled a little at your comment on backgammon being a game typically found
    within the homes of the upper classes. That may be the case in America, however, my experience of learning how to play backgammon came to me through very different channels. I learned of backgammon while holidaying in Greece with my family as a child. The little old Greek men found congregating daily beneath the grape arbor, close to where we rented our house, taught me their game of "Tavli". They were delighted that a child would take interest in their game, and were very enthusiastic to share it with me. Their choice of lubricating spirits - milky ouzo in tavern glasses.

  16. What a sweet story and remembrance of your cousin! funny how it stayed with you all these years and you still enjoy it so. Now THAT is a superb gift!

  17. Fantastic post! I don't know how to play backgammon, but have great memories of watching some older Persian gentlemen play as a kid. They were friends of the family and anytime a bunch of people were gathered the game came out. It seemed so exotic as they sipped tea and goaded each other in Farsi.

    I also have fond memories of my mother playing double solitaire with one of her good friends. They were lively games that I didn't understand.

    The best memory was one Thanksgiving when my paternal taught my sister and me to play Hearts. We spent the whole long weekend playing Hearts, but spent one delicious evening playing Hearts and watching the Sting.

  18. Yes, playing Hearts while watching The Sting is one of my favorite memories, too, and I also loved watching the elderly Persian men play backgammon.

    My paternal grandparents had a lovely Mah Jong set that belonged to my great-grandparents. I'm not sure what happened to it when they downsized the big house. Perhaps one of my aunts has it, or maybe they sold it in the Great Estate Sale of Madness.

    My parents used to play Mah Jong with my mother's very elderly cousins, but they never taught me or Emmaleigh504.

  19. Please tell me about that fetching sherry or apertif glass in the first photo. The upper portion looks like Waterford's sadly retired Clara pattern, yet the bottom is so manly.
    As a child I was annoyed with backgammon when a girl down the street refused to play anything else. Our house game is nonexistent these days.

  20. I was away at college during the riots and never learned to play backgammon. Cousin Frances was a delight and so was her husband. One visit they took us out to eat at a rather fancy restaurant with strolling violin players. I was most impressed when he gave them a large tip to go away so he could hear our conversation.
    xox Camilla

  21. The information you are providing is good,Our hand made backgammon sets are carefully selected, and of the finest quality.


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