Twenty-five years ago I submitted an article entitled “Backgammon: Quo Vadis?” to all the national newspapers to see if there was any interest in publishing it. I heard nothing whatsoever and so reverted to writing short articles for the members of the Double Fives Club, run by George and Diana Sulimirski, where I played most of my backgammon.
Three months later an editor at The Independent found my article at the bottom of his in-tray and called me. After some discussion he agreed to publish it – they even paid me! It was well received and they asked for a few more occasional articles. Thus was born The Independent’s backgammon column. A good IT friend helped me to create the diagrams – there were no backgammon diagramming tools in 1994. This was only the second national newspaper column, the original being the late Paul Magriel’s writings in the New York Times in the 1970s.
Fairly soon the column became fortnightly and then weekly, aided by the appointment of Bill Hartston as Games Editor. I knew Bill from my chess-playing days, we got on well and he helped me a lot in those early days.
After two years disaster attempted to strike. A change in editorial policy would see my column, and others, disappear. My pleas for a stay of execution were ignored but then a flood of letters to the editor from backgammon enthusiasts around the country led to a swift change of heart. It is just possible that I, with the assistance of others in the backgammon world including Michael Crane of BIBA, had something to do with that flood of letters arriving!
From November 1996 to March 2016 the column missed publication only once. On the Saturday after her death the entire magazine section was devoted to Princess Diana. The column developed over time and as digital technologies improved it became easier to submit my weekly offering. Now it could be done by email rather than on diskettes. The Independent’s graphics department created superb diagrams, though occasionally a checker or two was mislaid!
I was lucky enough to start writing the column just when the first bots were coming onto the market and so had the use of JellyFish (I helped them to rewrite their user manual), gnubg, Snowie and, of course latterly, eXtreme Gammon (XG). Without those wonderful tools detailed analysis would have been impossible and the columns would not have been as accurate as they were.
From the great bridge writer, Victor Mollo, I borrowed the idea of a menagerie of characters to populate my imaginary chouette. Naturally those characters are drawn from my real-life backgammon friends and acquaintances. The only truly fictitious one is the Dowager Duchess because I wanted to use a country house (Harbinger Hall) as the setting for the stories. Most of the characters can be identified easily if you know the London backgammon players. No prizes for identifying the Prophylactic Pole or the Tempestuous Turk.
Sadly Barry Bigplay, Barry McAdam, is no longer with us. He and I played backgammon and golf together for many years and he will continue to play in the Duchess’s chouette as long as I continue to write. Jeeves and Wooster and Holmes and Watson were later additions to the column and both pairs of characters lend themselves well to giving backgammon lessons.
Apparently, all good things come to an end and In April 2016 The Independent went digital and most of its interesting content, including the games section, was axed. The dice cups went silent and I was cast into the writer’s wilderness. I must pay tribute here to Ray Kershaw who, throughout the twenty-two years of the column’s life, painstakingly reviewed all of my articles before they reached The Independent.
I had already started my own website, www.chrisbraybackgammon.com in 2013 but, with the demise of the newspaper column, in compensation I added a weekly longer article to my website.
In the three years since the column met its untimely death I kept up a regular dialogue with David Parfitt, the games editor of The Times, gently reminding him that such an august publication should surely be able to find room for a backgammon column. Sadly, his opinion always differed from my own.
That is, until very recently. About two months ago I received an unexpected email from David asking me to come for a meeting at The Times splendid new offices next to The Shard at London Bridge. I was more than pleasantly surprised when he offered me the role of backgammon columnist for The Times. They were planning some changes to the Mindgames section of the paper and had decided that they now had room for backgammon. Needless to say, I accepted his offer with alacrity.
And so the Phoenix rises from the ashes and from Friday December 6th there will once more be a weekly backgammon column in a national newspaper. I will have achieved one of my life’s ambitions in writing a column for the newspaper that I have read every day since I was eighteen years old.
This time the diagrams will be created by bglog, the superb diagramming tool created by Simon Woodhead in Australia. Simon has created a special version of the tool just for my own use and that version now creates the diagrams for my website and for The Times. I am deeply in his debt. Ray Kershaw has once more volunteered to review all my articles and so many thanks to him as well.
The first six articles will cover some of the basics but after that the column will be much as it was before although I have more words to play with in The Times. For new readers I have written “An Introduction to Backgammon” which the UKBGF is kindly hosting and to which there will be a link in the first article. The column will be in both the printed and the online version of the newspaper.
Having a column in a national newspaper can only be good for the game and I hope it brings new players into the game as well as educating and amusing those who already play the game of kings.