A love affair with backgammon


By Naomi Young
Saugus contributor

Backgammon is a competitive game that involves strategizing ways to win. It often results in thrilling and spectacular endings.

Shesh besh, as they call it in Israel as well as in other Middle Eastern countries, is a favorite pastime. Growing up in Mahane Yehuda, an open farmers market in Jerusalem, I would often see men sitting in smoky cafés, puffing smoke from ornate glass hookahs, playing cards or backgammon. I still remember the loud sound of the dice rolling on the board of the inlaid wood box. Each move by the players created a loud reaction by the men surrounding them. Everybody knew the next best move or what it should have been. 

My father and brothers enjoyed watching the game, too. They were not gamblers, and they only played each other at home for fun. They were all great players. As luck would have it, Dennis, my soon-to-be husband, liked to play the game, too. I knew I had made a good bet when I saw Dennis playing backgammon with my family members. I knew the deal was sealed, as he was now accepted into the family on a whole new level. As he was learning from the best, many times he lost but he still won their hearts.

Dennis and I also liked to play the game together. In fact we even played on our wedding day! That’s right. After I was all dolled up with my wedding gown and having done my own hair and makeup, we had an hour to kill before it was time to pick up our officiating rabbi from his house. So what’s a girl to do? All dressed up with somewhere to go, a little later, I played backgammon with my dashing man dressed in his wedding suit. That is when I knew I made my best move, marrying my best friend.

Over the years we took our backgammon set with us to many different locations we travelled to. It was always in our trunk along with a blanket to play with on the beach, or it was in a suitcase to mark a new destination we visit. We played throughout Europe and even on the peak of the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii. Keep rolling and fast-forward 42 years later, you’ll find us still playing with that same backgammon set.

Writer/artist Naomi Young reflects on her love affair with backgammon. Courtesy image.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, we began a championship tournament. Every night, we set aside a time to play until someone wins seven games. This is a fun way to connect and add excitement to the day’s end; it also sharpens our cognitive thinking. How could we lose? During the games we enjoy each other’s company and share the day’s events. To make the best of a bad situation, we’ll often enjoy a glass of wine, savor light and healthy snacks, and have Alexa play easy listening music in the background. 

All went nice and dandy until Dennis started scoring doubles and triples to win games, and multiple games in a row at that. That’s not the way I wanted it. Before too long, I claimed that the only reason he gets so many doubles was because his red dice were rigged. So we switched dice and he now used my white dice and I still lost to him. All of a sudden, it wasn’t fun anymore as I didn’t enjoy losing. I was blaming everything from the weather in Florida to his choice of music. I complained that The Kinks and Herman’s Hermits were not my idea of nice romantic evening music and he replied that my Leonard Cohen songs were putting him to sleep. 

By now, we weren’t clicking our wine glasses with enjoyment or communicating much with each other. Instead, we would just have a mad race to the finish, stuffing our faces with potato chips and any junk food we could find. Nevertheless, we kept on rolling. After each evening where he would win I got to see Dennis do the Soupy Shuffle dance or the Freddy Dance. In seconds he was transformed into a 7-year-old happy child skipping on the floor. 

How could I be mad at him? A few times, after I lost 7-0 I got to witness him do a steamroll dance that he made up, rubbing in his victory. I deserved it; after all, his winning score of 1,114 points to my 948 points was really impressive. 

Do I feel defeated with my losses? No. Winning 948 points is still something that would make my dad very proud. Winning those 948 points, almost beating my father’s prodigy, is still a nice achievement in my book. And besides, there’s no one I’d rather lose to. Win or lose, I’m still having a fun time together with my best friend.

Life is like a game. It’s a roll of a dice. With Dennis by my side, I always feel like I am the big winner!

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