Constable: If you did this during college, you can still do it
With our dinner outing canceled on a cold, snowy night, my wife and I snuggle up on the couch to watch "Rake," an Australian television series about a talented but self-destructive barrister. A scene between the lawyer and his former prostitute brings back college memories, and by the time the credits are rolling, my wife and I are sitting at the dining room table trying to remember how to do it.
"The game is easy to learn, difficult to master," says Tim Mabee, 72, the Naperville man who heads up Pub Club, the state's most successful and longest-running continuous backgammon group. "I've been playing about 30 years and competing for about 25."
Backgammon, a game in which two players roll dice in a race to move 15 checkers around the 24 points on the board, likely originated in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, according to "The Backgammon Book," published in 1970 at the beginning of the last great backgammon craze in the United States. Playing boards were found in King Tutankhamen's tomb. Plato, Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare referenced the game in their writings. Roman emperors Claudius and Nero played it. So did Thomas Jefferson.
Paul Magriel, a mathematics professor and author of "Backgammon," won major backgammon tournaments and wrote a weekly column on the game for The New York Times in the late 1970s, when Pub Club got its start. That's also when my college roommate and I played backgammon for money, with quarters being the currency of choice for the Laundromat washing machines or a game of Space Invaders. Who plays backgammon these days?
"Can I call you right back? As it turns out, I'm in the middle of playing a game of backgammon," says Mabee, who generally plays four days a week, including the Pub Club tournaments, which start at 7 p.m. every Thursday at Crazy Pour, an upscale sports bar at 105 E. North Ave. in Villa Park. The group typically draws a couple dozen players, more than 30 some nights, both men and women, speaking Russian, Georgian, Spanish and English.
"There are so many different professions, languages, and socio-economic levels that we have in our little club right in the suburbs," says Mabee, who grew up in a home where diversity and social justice were important.
Backgammon is the great equalizer, he says. Even the club's 2018 champion, David Rockwell, still lost nearly a third of the games he played.
"The dice introduce all sorts of vagaries," Mabee says. "Anybody can beat anybody."
That's why the club plays seven-point matches, with each game counting for one point. A cube allows players to double the points for a win if they think they have an advantage. Faced with a doubling, a player can resign and lose one point, or play on, and even double the points again if the prospects change.
"Playing one game against an average player, my skill would give me 55-percent chance of winning," Magriel once said. "An hour's worth of games would make the odds two or three to one in my favor, and, if we played all day, my opponent wouldn't stand a chance."
The Pub Club single elimination tourney usually lasts five or six rounds and winds up before midnight. A team of the top Pub Club players will be vying for their fourth straight state backgammon championship on March 3 in Bloomington against the five other Illinois clubs -- Chicago Bar Point Club of Skokie; the Bloomington-Normal Backgammon Club; the Peoria Backgammon Club; the Sangamon Valley Backgammon Association of Springfield; and the Winnetka Backgammon Club.
"It's not clear why it's such a big deal, but this is one of those 'Stanley Cup' trophies where all the names go on the trophy," says Mabee, who didn't make the cut as a player this year for the first time since 2006. Often missing games to help run the club, Mabee says his status as the all-time points leader for the club could fall as soon as next month.
In his younger days, Mabee loved poker. "I play very badly," Mabee says, explaining how opponents could tell if he had a good hand. "There's no bluffing in backgammon."
Artificial neural networks, the technology used to help computers learn, turned computers into chess masters years ago, but only recently got a handle on the game of backgammon. "It has certainly improved play. It's one of the reasons I'm a has-been," says Mabee, who once finished second in the American Backgammon Tour and also owns a 1-0 record against Magriel. "What I like best is the subtlety of the strategy. You always have to have a plan B."
There is a $10 fee to play in the weekly tournaments, although Mabee picks up that cost for first-time players, and players are encouraged to bring a board. For more information about Pub Club, visit pubclubchicago.com, and for more information on the game, visit the U.S. Backgammon Federation website at usbgf.org. The Chicago Open, May 23-27 at the Holiday Inn & Suites Chicago O'Hare in Rosemont, draws most of the top U.S. players, as well as an international roster that includes Akiko Yazawa, who is considered by many to be the world champion, Mabee says.
Mabee's wife, Linda, doesn't play. Neither does one daughter, Elizabeth Uribe of Downers Grove. But daughter Joanna Lein of Tulsa, Oklahoma, heads her state's only backgammon club.
"We're a friendly group," Mabee says of backgammon regulars. "It's a great game for someone with a Zen attitude because stuff happens. One of the most common expressions, especially after losing, is, 'That's backgammon.'"