Those who have read Chris Bray’s first book Backgammon - An Independent View know that he is an English expert who writes a weekly newspaper column (for The Independent, hence the title). His latest effort is What Colour is the Wind? A nice if enigmatic title, the explanation for which I’ll let you read for yourself when you purchase this book and turn to its introduction. The explanation is almost as evocative as the title, and in no way employs the phrase “bean burrito.”
Wind is the collection of Chris’ work during the years 1998-2001. In addition to the weekly columns he turned out in the 4-year span there are a year’s worth of monthly articles he did for Netgammon in 1999, and an elegy for the passing of Inside Backgammon. Space is tight in a newspaper, so the articles from the Independent, over 80% of the contents of the book, each fit on a single page. Newspaper backgammon columns in the US have been extinct nearly as long as the passenger pigeon. They were vanishing by the time I took up the game, but I can recall X-22 in the New York Times, and Robertie in (I’m guessing as I read photocopies) the Boston Globe. I also recall another name, Alfred Sheinwold. It is odd to realize it, since I suspect most readers of this review are now scratching their heads and asking: “Who?” but Sheinwold was probably the most widely syndicated of all. I make this guess because Alfred Sheinwold was already in wide, daily syndication with his bridge column. (I think the column probably still exists, the torch having been passed to someone else before Sheinwold’s death, but keeping track of who is doing the bridge column is like keeping track of New York’s Five Families: let’s see, before John Gotti it was Paul Castellano, who took over the Carlo Gambino Family, but before that…)
While we are discussing old bridge writers, this would be a good time for me to pay off a debt. Since interest is piling up in Chris’ account as well, I’m sure he won’t begrudge me. Way back in 1945 a British bridge player named S. J. Simon wrote a book called Why You Lose at Bridge. Simon, who was also a novelist, chose to illustrate his points by putting the example hands into the hands of a set of characters he created. This was especially wise as many of the real-life problems bridge players face hinge on people skills. Instead of simply asking “How do you play 6 diamonds?” and then supplying analysis of the tricky play required, Simon would set the problem up by having the “Unlucky Expert” find the difficult bids necessary to reach that contract, only to lose a bundle because it was his inept partner playing the slam. Had he settled for a prosaic 3 no-trump, playing it himself, he would have achieved “the best result possible, if not the best possible result.”
The merits of Simon’s approach were obvious, especially to the second Brit in line for a thanking. Victor Mollo was a prolific author, leaving dozens of titles as a legacy, but it was a certain handful that made him immortal. In 1965 he introduced us to the Bridge in the Menagerie, the doings of the Rueful Rabbit, Timothy Toucan, Charlie Chimp, and most especially to the wizardry of the Hideous Hog. (No hand was impossible for the Hog, though they sure looked impossible to ordinary mortals. Seven spades played in a 3-2 trump fit? Child’s play for the Hog! He could work magic, though once the contract was so impossible that he was forced to eat a card!) Chris, Danny Kleinman, me, and many others, all of us owe a debt to Simon and Mollo.
Chris has his own menagerie. He leans toward alliterative names – the Tempestuous Turk, Quentin Quickcube, etc. Sigmund Freud famously remarked that “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” but I think even the good doctor might take a second look at the naming of one character the “Prophylactic Pole.”
As mentioned, each problem is dealt with in a compact space. If you’ve never written an article you might think that it is three times as hard to write a 3-page article as it is to write a 1-pager, but actually when it comes to level of difficulty, it might be the other way around. At least it is if you do it well. Chris does it well.
This problem comes from the finals of the World Championship in Monte Carlo in July, 2000. Thomas Holm playing the black checkers trailed Katie Scalamandre 5-away, 2-away when he rolled this 53. Half the roll, as they say, is easy. After the forced hit of bar/22* three out of the five possible choices for the five are worth a second look. You might: come out 21/15; hit with 10/5*; or cover with 6/1. Thomas chose to hit, but I think most players would be inclined to simply cover with 6/1, and their inclination would be right.
A beginner might then see this as an easy problem; after all “I saw the right move right away.” What he might not have seen is some of the match score nuances that affect (or should) the decision. I am treating these nuances in my current book on match play, and can say that Chris does a fine job of delineating them in a short space.
Trailing near the end of the match Black seeks to reach a position with a gammon threat, and then double as soon as one arrives. As a rough strategy this works fairly well for a number of similar scores. However this is only part of the story. If Black wins a doubled gammon White is laying a gammon price of .732 or about 50% more than she would be for money. On the other hand, if White should win a gammon with the cube centered, she would win the match. Black then is laying a gammon price of .985 or DOUBLE what he would for money. White’s objectives are to avoid getting gammoned herself, but also to gammon Black if possible. Breaking a good point, and leaving four blots with two exposed to direct shots at a time when White has the better board goes further toward achieving the enemy’s objectives than it does your own.
As is often the case, the dice gods having a keen sense of irony, Thomas was cruelly punished. Katie entered with 11, a number that hit two, but would have fanned. Chris notes that Katie would have had a take after fanning, though who knows what might have happened. The key, though, is not that her then anti-joker would have led to exactly the position Thomas sought. That was a fluke. The key instead was that by covering he denied her the crushers that would lead to the position she sought. After hitting Katie won a gammon and with it the World Championship.
Having enjoyed Chris’ book, I am pleased to help him clear up a mystery. On pages 182-183 he treats a position from the famous UK versus USA duplicate match of 1973. The American team of Barclay Cooke and his son Walter defeated the British duo Phillip Martyn and Joe Dwek. Barclay published the first 8 games in Championship Backgammon in 1980, the first appearance of an annotated backgammon match. Barclay promised to follow up with more books covering the remainder of the match. (Chris states that there were 40 games total, but I seem to recall that there were 64.) Barclay died soon after, and the record of the remaining games vanished. Last year Bill Robertie told me that David Dor-el, author of The Clermont Book of Backgammon had approached him. It seems that David, who now lives in California, has the missing games, and was interested in publishing them. Unfortunately he had an inflated estimate of the value of the material. I don’t know if the phrase “millions of dollars” was used, but certainly he was unaware of the sad reality that for most of us, sitting by the nearest off ramp with a sign reading “Will Write about Backgammon for Food” would constitute a pay raise. Perhaps someone who knows David will persuade him that making a contribution to history (his part in it duly noted) will bring him riches greater than gold.
Meanwhile, the rest of you can do your part by going out and buying Chris’ book. You’ll enjoy it, and by buying it you will help keep Chris away from the off ramp.