Charlie McCarthy or Mortimer Snerd

by Jake Jacobs
21 January 2020

Jake Jacobs

Once upon a time there was a backgammon player named John Brussel. John played, directed, and conducted Calcutta auctions with dubious humour. He was a nice guy, and since his passing is missed. Shortly after my second book, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FOUR-POINT! came out, in 1997, John told me that his firm did work for IDG, the outfit that published the For Dummies series.

John had taken the initiative to propose they publish Backgammon For Dummies, and that he knew the perfect writer for it. He asked me for a copy of 4pt to go with a submission, and after initial enthusiasm, the executive whose desk it had reached left the company. As had John's contact in the company. A year or so later John tried again. This time he told me it climbed four rungs up the ladder before stalling again. Then John died.

Years passed, and one day Backgammon For Dummies showed up out of nowhere. Perhaps not nowhere, but out of Chichester, West Sussex, which is nearly the same. By now Wiley was the publisher, and they had found another author who was perhaps an even better man for the job. Chris Bray had been writing a backgammon column for the Independent for the previous fifteen years (collected into a series of books, four already by 2009 when Dummies was issued), and so was practiced in presenting practical advice to probationary practitioners particularly lacking in practice.

I suppose this means IDG won't be getting back to me. Though I think I could write an advanced sequel: Backgammon For Ventriloquists. (To be studied by those who don't move their lips while they read.)

While playing in Vegas last spring I picked up Marc Brockmann Olsen's book, and Chris's. Carol Joy Cole's boutique is a one-stop shop. Having not quite forgotten what little I ever knew about backgammon, I was in no hurry to read BFD, but finally got to it this month. While I regret having missed the brass ring, since writing a Dummies book assures fame and fortune ... (Right Chris? Right Chris? He must be dodging the paparazzi just now.) ... I don't regret not having to write it. Beginners books aren't what I like to write, and while there is latitude, writing for the series one must follow the house style.

On page nineteen I find myself asking the question: "Where is the backgammon board in The Garden of Earthly delights?" Chris mentions that it appears there, and another appears in Love's Labors Lost. Never read the latter, but we had a copy of the former in my folks' dining room, and I never noticed a backgammon board. I just tried looking online, but I need a bigger monitor or better eyesight to spot it.

The book is just over two hundred pages, and we are into the forties before early game concepts such as "making points" or "hitting the opponent's blot" are addressed. That's probably the pace you need for a beginner's book, but it is hard to stifle the urge to hit the accelerator. The opening section on Starting and Playing the Game takes seventy-five pages within four chapters. These are: Tackling the Basics of Backgammon; Playing the Game; Looking at Basic Backgammon Tactics; Making the Opening Move. So far so good, though in responding to the opening, doubles are given short shrift. He comments "Most doubles play well in the opening with the exception of double 5 which plays a bit awkwardly because of how the checkers are set up in the beginning of the game." That's a start. Then:

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