Were you ever mystified by the strange design on the reverse side of a checkerboard? Did you wonder why your board was accompanied by 15 checkers of each color when you need only 12 to play the game? And dice—what did they have to do with checkers?
The first time you watch backgammon, the game that is played on that dagger-point layout, you might be equally baffled. Yet, long before you learned checkers, the chances are that you played a form of backgammon—the familiar child's game called parcheesi. But backgammon is faster, more skillful and vastly more exciting. For the gambler it combines the chanciness of casting dice, the skill of knowing how to play the numbers that come up and the thrill of high stakes. Others can enjoy it almost as much just for the fun of beating their wives—at the game, of course.
Backgammon's origins, like those of chess, are lost in prehistory. It was already so old and so popular when played in Caesar's Rome—with three dice instead of the two used in the modern game—that the layout for ludus duodecim scriptorum, the 12-line game, was found in the courtyard of virtually every villa exhumed from the ruins of Pompeii.
In a splendid new volume, The Backgammon Book (The Viking Press, $10), two good friends and bitter rivals at bridge, Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford, look at this fascinating game from both a historical and an instructional point of view. Their collaboration has produced a handsome volume that combines the best of illustrated histories with the simplest and clearest of instructional writing.
For antique lovers there are beautiful pictures of early backgammon boards. For the modern player who could not care less about old furniture, there are diagrams providing the best play for every one of the game's possible opening casts, as well as the recommended countermoves for many of the throws that follow.
This book should prove useful both to the beginner who has never seen the game played and to the veteran who has not yet completely mastered the use of the "doubling cube," that marvelous gadget invented by some unknown genius whereby the player who thinks he is ahead may force his opponent to play, for double stakes or to resign. As a result, the player off to a bad start can get off the hook in a hurry. Or, if he accepts the double and plays on, he can hope to win twice as much should his dice turn lucky.
I can't remember a book that makes learning a new game more alluring or easier.