Backgammon: “The Cruelest Game” in Film and Literature

Renowned gamesman Barclay Cooke (1912-1981) called backgammon “the cruelest game.” Memorable hyperbole? Perhaps. But vital skills are needed to play: intense concentration, clever strategy, and an ability to see ahead to possible traps—and still the probability of the roll can level the steel nerves of even the finest. That brutal unpredictability translates well to the mystery, crime, and thriller genres, and of course, with sport slang like post mortem, premature burial, under the gun, shot, hustler, and hit, backgammon is practically crying out for a spotlight with the criminal element.

A Free Soul (1931 film, crime fiction)

Creaky, early talkie that’s still worth watching for The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, before he ascended his throne, and the fact that it was filmed pre-code—before the censors stepped into Hollywood and ruined a good chunk of the realism. Based on the book by Adela Rogers St. Johns, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) is the daughter of boozing defense attorney Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore), who has just gotten mobster Ace Wilfong (Gable) off from murder charges. Jan begins falling in love with Ace, which brings consternation with her upper-society fiancée Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard).

“You know, this is the oldest game in the world?” Jan says to Dwight as they relax over a game after dinner. He’s transfixed (best word to describe old Silver Screen googly-eyed longing), replying, “I promise you I’ll make it new, fresh and colorful every day of your life.” She playfully brings him back down to earth with, “What? Backgammon?” A light-hearted moment for sure, but the game’s cameo nicely borders the two worlds Jan, a free soul, finds herself: dangerous, with an exciting mobster on one side, and upper echelon, stylish comfortability on the other.

Here's where battle lines are drawn angering the chess intelligentsia: backgammon is the game that closer resembles not just real war but life in general. You can be lagging your opponent with, say, a checker banished to the bar, reenter by rolling back-to-back double sixes, toboggan around the board, bear off, and win. That doesn't happen in chess.

Try, as a mortal, beating Grand Master Gary Kasparov sometime. Not going to happen—your chances are the equivalent of a flea taking on a gorilla. Like life, the winds swing on the hinges of Lady Luck, and the skilled player knows what to do with that luck. A strong-willed character like Jan Ashe has a cluttered, complex life, but with determination and a few lucky rolls she can persevere.
 

Cape Fear (1962 film, psychological thriller)

“Hello, counselor. Remember me? Baltimore. Eight years, four months and 13 days ago,” Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) says to lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck). Bowden had testified against Cady, and now the ex-convict has come back to settle the score by terrorizing Bowden’s family. Cady has placed a value on his incarceration, and Bowden trying to buy him off with $20,000 isn’t going to settle his psychotic revenge.

Bowden is civil-rights minded, at first, until the thug targets his 14-year-old daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Telly Savalas plays a private detective who warns Bowden, “A type like that is an animal, so you’ve got to fight him like an animal.” A psychological thriller based on The Executioners by John D. Macdonald, with a performance by Mitchum that seems to only grow more chilling with the passing years.

In the dead of night, Bowden has situated his family out on a houseboat to draw out Cady to kill him. Trying to calm their unease, Nancy and Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) decide to play backgammon. Nothing like a game of wits paired with luck to chase away the anxiety of the cat-and-mouse game of murder. Their distraction plan doesn’t last long. Hitchcockian tension mounts when the mother and daughter hear a boat motor approaching from the distance.

Recognized backgammon source, Chicago Point, notes that in the 1970s, Ms. Bergen was a regular at Beverly Hills Pips Backgammon Club. That decade is often considered the golden age of backgammon, with celebrities like Lucille Ball, Hugh Hefner, John Huston, Connie Stevens, and Omar Sharif regularly seen playing.

Trivia (via IMDb): Did the hotel where Cady takes the woman from the bar look familiar? It should, it’s the Bates home from Psycho (1960).  
 

Octopussy (1983 film, spy thriller)

Roger Moore's 6th outing (what a title!) as secret agent James Bond, loosely based on a short story by Ian Fleming. A cartoonish film that was hugely popular and is still enjoyable to watch if you can place your brain in neutral and enjoy the action, beautiful scenery, and Moore's never-ending supply of dry British quips.

Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), working with a rogue Soviet general, plans to detonate a nuclear bomb that will expand Soviet dominance in Europe. In Khan's majestic palace in Rajasthan, India, Bond observes Khan cheating at backgammon. The host's hand drops below the table to rotate in a loaded pair that rolls sixes. Bond uses it to his advantage when challenged by Khan to the game. The stakes are ridiculously high as Bond places a sought-after Faberge Egg on the table to stake his play. Khan accepts, and then Bond claims “player’s privilege” to use Khan's own dice and, of course, wins.

Bond is a gambler by nature, living a cavalier existence, and the game of backgammon suits his character like his well-tailored tux. One can't imagine a game of chess or Go, for example, working here quite the same way. It's the roll of the dice, the living on the edge risk, and speed of the game that enhances the scene. Khan, smarting from the loss, tells his opponent, “Spend the money quickly, Mr. Bond.”

Trivia: Gammon pros will note in the game Khan was playing with The Major (just before Bond takes over) that The Major's home board is locked up and Khan is too far behind, so there is no way even by cheating that Khan could triumph at this point. In addition, the blots on the board change positions from long shots to close-ups in this continuity goof.

Loaded dice may be the only sure-fire way to ensure a player’s win because, with the element of the roll, skill and strategy alone won’t save the admiral’s cat. Al-Mas’udi (896-956) made this perfect analogy about the game in The Meadows of Gold (947 AD): “It was at this time that backgammon was invented and began to be popular. It is a kind of paradigm of how wealth is acquired, which in this world is not the reward of intelligence or ability, just as luck is not a product of skill…. If luck favours the player, he gets what he wants; if it doesn’t, a skilled and prudent man cannot win that which fortune only bestows on whom it likes. It is thus that the good things of this world are apportioned by chance.”
 

“A Gentleman's Game” (2016, short story)

The clacking of the checkers on the hardwood points was the music of honest thought, resounding in silence as it navigated the fortunes told by the pips on the dice. Bruno had for his entire life associated backgammon with candor, the dice not determining fate so much as revealing character.

Backgammon hustler Alexander Bruno is in Singapore, waiting for Billy Yik Tho Lim, a former secret police director, to challenge Lim to a game, when an old-school acquaintance from Berkeley, Keith Stolarsky, and girlfriend, Tira Harpaz, enter The Smoker’s Club V.I.P. lounge. Bruno is a little ruffled. Keith is an entrepreneur blowhard, and Bruno doesn’t want to upset his chances of setting up a game with Lim (who fails to show), so Bruno tells his “chum” why he’s in the bar and offers to meet the couple the following day and show them around.

While Keith sleeps in, Bruno gets to know Tira better. He uncharacteristically opens up a bit about his uneven childhood, and he detects a connection with the cool-as-ice woman. Eventually, they meet up with Keith, who’d stayed up all night playing backgammon against the computer and wants to show off his new-found prowess to Bruno. At first, Keith loses horribly, but Bruno’s concentration snaps when Keith offers him a line of coke, and then he becomes even more bored when Tira’s friend, Cynthia Jalter, stops by and takes an interest in Bruno. Later, at Lim’s Sentosa Cove house, he learns a life lesson the hard way.

This Jonathan Lethem tale appeared in The New Yorker featuring a character that appears in his full-length novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016). Lethem makes backgammon stimulating but never bogs down the story with details a non-player would struggle to understand. Bruno is the Eddie Felson of backgammon.

Bearing off: A few other prominent backgammon appearances include The Barefoot Contessa (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner; Graham Greene’s 1988 novel The Captain and the Enemy, where the protagonist explains how his father lost him in a game of backgammon; and two eponymous films Backgammon (2014) and Backgammon (2016), the first about a man about to be evicted from his home, and the second where couples come dangerously unhinged over a long weekend.

 


David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

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