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Christmas with Uncle Jake

"Uncle Jake, will you help us decorate the Christmas tree?"

“Nick, do I look like a gardener?”

“What about singing Christmas carols?”

“Alex, Bing Crosby I’m not. What I will do is tell you a Christmas story. Once upon a time there was a backgammon player …”

“Uncle Jake, that sounds like a backgammon story!”

“Nick, even backgammon players have Christmases. Some of them anyway. I’m a backgammon player, but am I out hustling backgammon at Christmas? No sir! Christmas is a time for family. In our family it’s tradition to stay home and win money playing cards with the grandparents. But this backgammon player I am about to tell you about was not home with his family. Instead, even though it was Christmas Eve he was out at the backgammon club, trying to hustle. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his family, he was just … Well, he wasn’t very responsible. He only had a little money, so instead of using it to at least buy a few presents, he was at the club hoping to win some more. ‘One big score, and I can buy really nice presents for the kids,’ he kept telling himself.

“And there he was playing some of the biggest fish in the club, but the Dice God was turning out to be a real Grinch. Take this game …

“The Captain, ‘Well Read’ Willie, so called because he had failed to understand more backgammon books than almost any player in the Midwest, wanted to play 9/4. ‘We have more men back, we have a double anchor, it’s time for a bold play!’ he declared, boldly.

“Our hero, Feckless Fred, was quite a good player. ‘It’s imperative that we come out. We already have a four-point board, but we also have four men back. Now is the time to try for a lifeline to start moving those men out from his board. Let’s try 23/18.’

“Because Feckless was well respected the Captain, reluctantly, went made his play. The Box rolled 16 from the bar, they fanned with 65 – a parlay that you will note (because the entire crew did) would have worked better the other way – and they got gammoned. Besides losing four points he could ill afford, Feckless got an earful from Willie.

“ ‘I’ve got a prop for you,’ he suggested, as propping Willie was a Christmas present in and of itself.

“ ‘Suppose we made your play, he fanned, we covered, and he fanned again?’

“ ‘I’d redouble!’ said Willie.

“ ‘And?’

“ ‘And pass!’

“So that was the prop: Willie took Black’s side, and paid Fred a point to take a 2-cube as White.”

“Who was right, Uncle Jake?”

“Freddie by a mile! It’s damn near a beaver, which is why Freddie’s checker play was right, too.

“But Fred must have been on Santa’s naughty list, as it might as well have been lumps of coal spilling out of his dice cup. He was down a hundred points when the owner yelled that it was ‘last game.’

“ ‘Start the cube on 8?’ Willie offered. Fred grunted, but notched it up to 8. Then, he caught a break. Willie rolled 33, slotting his ace, Fred came in with 12, and Willie fanned.

“ ‘I’ve got a well-timed ace-deuce game, and, you’re behind a prime. I should beaver, but I just take,’ said Willie. Which justified Freddie’s turning the cube when it really is too good to double. But it was too good to last.
“Freddie’s awkward bearoff caught up with him, forcing him to leave a blot. Willie at last entered, but with 11: bar/23, 2/1(2). Then Freddie rolled 65!”
“Is this a double, Uncle Jake?”

“Barely, Alex. So Freddie took, but at this point he had little hope. Then, Willie rolled 61. Once again it’s too good, but at this point neither player was passing any cube offered, so Willie snatched it up. Freddie rolled another 65, but Willie hit on the next roll, and Freddie fanned and fanned, slumping lower in his chair each time he did.

“ ‘Why,’ he asked himself, ‘did I do this to my family? I could have gotten them presents. Maybe not good ones, but they’re used to my ways. They’d forgive me. Instead, I’ll be borrowing money for food this week. I’m just a bum! I deserve to lose.’ When suddenly …

“Freddie heard a heavenly chorus (that sounded like a duet between Ray Forgerlund a Steve Mellen) singing ‘two-six off the bar!’ And the dice rolled like sugar plums out of his cup, and Donder and Blitzen if they didn’t turn up a 62!

“Willie came in with 54, entering on the twenty, and slotting his deuce. Freddie’s dice came through again with 66, hitting, and taking two men off. Willie threw 33, which wasn’t going anywhere, and then Freddie threw likewise.

“ ‘A hundred and ninety-two points!? I just lost a hundred and ninety-two points!?’ Willie took his eggnog glass and dumped the contents over his own head, because when you’ve lost a hundred and ninety-two points in one game, what difference does a toupee full of eggnog make?

“ ‘What the hell,’ he said, after drying off, ‘It’s Christmas. You were unlucky most of the night, and probably right about the prop. You always are. Here, Merry Christmas!’ Willie piled up a big stack of hundred dollar bills in front of Freddie.

“Just then, they heard a noise. ‘What was that?’ said Freddie.

“ ‘Rats in the attic!’ said the owner, who had wandered over in time to watch the fireworks of the last game. ‘I’ve got to get the exterminator back.’

“ ‘That sounded like something on the roof!’ insisted Freddie.

“They ran outside. Snow was falling, and the sky was hidden under a cloak of white, but they could hear the cry: ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’”

“Was it Santa, Uncle Jake?”

“No, Alex, it was the kind of neighborhood where you heard ‘ho’ a lot. In fact, Freddie looked at the stack of hundreds he was clutching, and thought about getting a room down the street at the NoTel Motel, and inviting some of the neighborhood ladies over for a very special Christmas party.

“But he thought some more, about his long-suffering wife, about his children who loved him, who would be getting up in a few hours to see what was under the tree. He climbed in his car, drove to an all night WalMart, and did his shopping.

“You see, Nick and Alex, Freddie realized that Santa wasn’t some fat guy up on a rooftop. He realized that Santa was in our hearts, in the spirit of giving.”

“That’s really touching, Uncle Jake.”

“Yeah, I’m getting all choked up. And I hate that! I wind up with snot in my beer. Go get a deck of cards, Nick. Your dad told me how big your allowance is now. It’s time for me to teach you some Jacobs family traditions.”

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