I always found the sight of Marc and the mentors (usually Pete Cain or Richard Russell) playing backgammon strangely familiar. It reminded me of get-togethers where my uncles would shield themselves from the din of the family. They’d immerse themselves in the soothing sounds of dice hitting a walnut playing board.
It was at one such gathering where I was told about a legend surrounding backgammon. It was said that in antiquity an Indian ruler sent a Persian Shah the newly created game of Chaturanga (an early form of chess) as a gift. Attached to the board game was a message saying that this is the world’s greatest game.
The Shah ruminated on the gift he had been sent. He then asked his wisest minister to create a game that is truer to life. His minister was a keen astronomer and philosopher. He created a game featuring a board that had twelve points, to represents the months of the year. He divided the board into four segments to demonstrate the four seasons and made thirty pieces to represent days of the month. Significantly the game required the roll of the dice. The Shah’s minister created backgammon.
The Shah in turn sent the game as a gift to the Indian Raja. The reply attached to his gift said, that whilst chess was indeed a noble game of skill and strategy, backgammon was the better game. Backgammon has all those qualities with the addition of chance. The roll of the dice makes it unpredictable and so it reflects the reality of life.
It is no surprise then that what the ancients considered the greatest game is also popular at the world’s greatest ad school. A game balancing strategy and skill, order and chaos, where grandmasters and novices can play alongside each other. At the SCA what one mentor tells you is good idea might be ripped apart by another. And the partner you worked so well with on the last brief might not be working with you on the next one. Fortunes can change rapidly with the volatile roll of the dice. We have to have the ability to move with the unpredictable.
It is precisely for this reason that backgammon is also known as the cruellest game. You can lose your winning position in an instant. The element of fate makes backgammon a very human game, it can’t be played perfectly.
Perhaps it is because of this imperfect human quality that backgammon was commonly used as a motif in art. It was often seen as the game of raucous taverns. A game played by drunkards and vagabonds.
The aim of backgammon is to get all of your pieces to the home board and then to remove those pieces from the board entirely. A seasoned player can do this in the quickest time possible. Here again the SCA and backgammon are alike. Marc and the mentors masterfully take their students through a furiously fast paced course, with the ultimate aim of getting them out of the school and into the real world of agency life, faster than any other route out there.
If us mere mortals share anything in common with backgammon, it is stochasticity. The peculiar quality of lacking any predictable order or plan. We live complex, cluttered lives and need Lady Luck to occasionally shine favourably upon us.
Thank you SCA for teaching me the rules of the game. Thank you for helping me find my way back to my home board. A few more rolls and I’ll bear my piece off the board.