|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