In the course of its recent resurgence, the ancient game of backgammon has excited all sorts of sporty elites.
Prominent fans include the hedge-fund analysts who treat it as a workout for both the mind and the adrenal glands—a speedy way to wager money playing the odds over and over again. (You can play a satisfying match in fewer than 15 minutes.)
Then there are the tech types and neuroscientists who have been using the game to build the artificial brains of supercomputers at IBM’s Watson Research Center. And the socialites who’ve been growing increasingly giddy to enjoy a leisure experience that summons vintage visions of jet-set preps, as in a Slim Aarons tableau of poolside lounging; expect to hear a steady rattle of dice issuing from the yacht decks of Saint Barthélemy this winter.
If forced to pick one moment to represent backgammon’s conquest of the idle hours of our time, I would point to the morning of Sept. 29, 2015, when the MacArthur Foundation announced its “genius grants” and one awardee tweeted that he’d received the news groggily.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are more likely than ever to spend our train commutes absorbed in smartphone games, whose developers, such as Optime Software, report backgammon offerings as consistently outranking their board-game brethren. Then, arriving home, we open mailboxes bulging with catalogs that use backgammon boards as natty props underlining the carefree smiles of models in Fair Isle sweaters.
“Certainly, there is more interest in recent years,” said Max Parker, chairman of Geoffrey Parker Games, an English company widely regarded as the world’s top board-game manufacturer. “We sell out of everything we make.” The backgammon boom has created a new market for Parker’s bespoke boards and competition sets (up to $6,650 at Scully & Scully).
“It’s not necessarily the super-wealthy,” he continued. “It’s now the studious player who will save up and cherish something he’ll hand down to his great-grandkids.”
Backgammon descends from games played in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, but it assumed its modern character only in the 1920s with the introduction of "doubling" to raise the stakes rapidly. This device accelerated its popularity as a gambling game, thereby ensuring its somewhat louche glamour. The game’s snappy pace and snazzy board suited the mood of the Jazz Age and Prohibition speakeasies.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, when the game enjoyed its first renaissance, it was likewise considered both flashily posh and faintly risqué: Doubles, the new-money social club founded at New York’s Sherry-Netherland in 1976, derives its name from the game, and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner took a lot of pleasure from it in his wide-lapeled heyday.
Backgammon expert Chris Bray has written that the game “seems to flourish when there is disposable income.” And yet, each apex of its popularity has followed a financial crash, as in 1929 and 1973. Therefore, I must warily guess that this game will really blow up if the U.S. economy does, too. (Just a hunch.) We should probably consult the most passionate players, who know far more about macroeconomics than I. The top-ranked player in America is Victor Ashkenazi, a vice president at Goldman Sachs.
“There’s a lot of traders and hedge-fund guys playing,” said Bill Riles, president and executive director of the U.S. Backgammon Federation. “They’re probabilistically oriented. The game theory and risk-and-reward aspects relate to business and relate to life.”
Riles’s organization observes that the number of people entering U.S. national tournaments rose 35 percent from 2014 to 2016, and the man himself speaks to the game’s unique combination of instant and delayed gratification: “I can sit down and teach anybody how to play in 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s a very simple game, but someone like myself is still learning about its intricacies after 40 years.”
Some newcomers to the game would have been content, 10 or 15 years ago, simply to play poker. But as veterans of the Texas Hold ‘Em boom of the ’00s know, playing poker well involves a lot of folding bad hands and just sitting there, studying faces. Backgammon, meanwhile, is constant action, which is key to its appeal. As novelist Jonathan Lethem has pointed out, backgammon is “poker’s opposite.” When the New Yorker excerpted his new book about a backgammon hustler, A Gambler’s Anatomy, Lethem told the magazine that backgammon is “as naked as chess: what’s true on the face of the board is undeniable; there are no hidden cards.”
Max Parker tells the anecdote of a billionaire backgammon fiend who, after spending many thousands of pounds buying sets as gifts, asked Parker to suggest something new. Parker proposed his company’s luxury Scrabble boards. The client asked: “What’s Scrabble?” Clearly, this was not the kind of guy who was going to spend two hours on the floor with his kids figuring out where to put a “Q.”
On the contrary, the conversation pointed to a further aspect of backgammon’s appeal in our fast-paced age. As Parker said, “You play a game in nine minutes over a glass of wine, make a deal, and move on to the next thing.”