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How Backgammon Shaped My Childhood

How Backgammon Shaped My Childhood

How Backgammon Shaped My Childhood

by Maria Müller

 

As our company was rolling out our new backgammon curriculum, Story Time Backgammon, and I started teaching the new lessons about the main characters, Peglegra the Bold and Chompus the Great, I was compelled to think back to the time when I fell in love with this game. 

 

I started playing backgammon when I was five years old. I’m Eastern European, so this was the first game my grandfather ever taught me. In fact, when it came to backgammon, my grandfather was the personification of an Eastern European stereotype, which is that we play backgammon everywhere, all the time. 

 

Well, it’s kind of true! At least in Romania, it’s common to see people playing at the beach, on the subway, in the park, in cafes, in front of apartment buildings, et cetera. We have a saying in Romanian that goes Te fac o tablă? which (weirdly) translates to, “Shall we play one backgammon?” 

 

All of this was definitely true for my grandpa and backgammon became our favorite pastime. Little did I know at the time that our games would impact my entire childhood, making me a kinder competitor, a smarter kid, and a better risk taker.



Why a kinder competitor?

As many kids do, I used to have some trouble with sportsmanship. At first, when I lost, I’d get so upset at my grandpa that I’d cry loudly and bang my fists on the table. I was deeply competitive and he didn’t quite know what to do with me. I wouldn’t listen to reason, I wouldn’t accept help, I sometimes wouldn’t even want to finish a game if I saw that I was losing. All he could do was keep playing with me and hope that, as I got older, my attitude would mellow out. 

 

The tantrums and the crying did eventually stop, but not necessarily because of age. I remember watching him calmly roll the dice in spite of my deafening bawling and continuing the game as if I wasn’t the most capricious kid in the world. That was the best gift he could have offered me in those moments: kindness. He never ignored me or pretended that I wasn’t upset; his calmness let me know that he was seeing my reaction, but choosing to not engage because he knew I could do better. 

 

In time, I started finishing every game, even if I had to roll my dice through sobs and sniffles. Then, I slowly started to control my reactions even when my grandpa’s seemingly absurd luck would make me want to leave the room. 

 

The quiet lesson my grandfather taught me by setting an impeccable example has become one of my most precious tools as a teacher. Kindness is made possible by patience and patience comes with practice. The patience I learned to practice as a child now benefits my own students. I offer all of them kindness and let them know through my behavior that I respect their feelings. Just like my grandpa, I can see they’re upset, but I know they can do better. 

Sometimes, setting an example and letting children absorb it (however long that might take!), rather than actively “pushing” or “nudging” them to change, is the best way to make a particular lesson stick.



 

Why a smarter kid?

Backgammon games are usually pretty quick and extremely fun. And the only way to get better at backgammon is, well, to play more backgammon. There is something about the repetitiveness it allows that makes you want to play just one more game every time. 

 

I used to play with my grandpa every week. Until I discovered acting—which became my passion and later my profession alongside being a chess and backgammon tutor—I didn’t have a long list of extracurricular activities. So, backgammon was one of the few things I was doing outside of school requirements that could stimulate so many parts of my brain. And boy, did it stimulate them! 

 

First of all, backgammon sharpened my awareness of everything. In fact, my earliest distinct memories, the ones that stand out from the blur of early life, are of playing backgammon with my grandfather. The game made me more present and allowed me to understand that so many decisions were mine to make. It gave me agency over my choices, helped me make connections, challenged me to use the arithmetic I barely knew, and pushed me to form a strategy. A strategy! I couldn’t walk from the kitchen to the bathroom without tripping over my own feet, but I was coming up with strategies! I was starting to get it.

 

Second, there was so much pattern recognition involved, and my brain thrives on patterns. I began to find backgammon extremely satisfying because it not only helped me observe patterns, it also gave me the analytical tools to act on them. Even at a young age, my facility with patterns meant I could set up the board, identify the best dice combinations, and protect my checkers from getting bumped to the bar.

 

Third, backgammon instilled in me a sense of discipline and self-control. My grandpa never wanted me to act on my impulses and make the first move I saw before studying the board. If I reached for a checker without thinking it through, he would gently touch my hand and say, “Look again.” 

 

The more I played, the better I got. And like all kids, I loved to do the things I was good at. There were particular backgammon games in which things just clicked—things that had never clicked before—and that was the best feeling in the world. I would have “aha” moments constantly, much like the magic moments we include in all of our Story Time Learning lessons. 

 

Looking back, I should’ve known I was grasping a skill when my grandpa would flash a huge grin of pride that I didn’t notice until I was older.





Why a better risk taker?

A big part of playing backgammon is rolling the dice and hoping for the best. My grandpa was— and I cannot stress this enough—an incredibly lucky dice roller. He needed a four-two? No problem! The only number he needed to bump to the bar was a three? Done! He could only win if he rolled double sixes? Say no more! It was like that.

 

Whenever he picked up the dice, he seemed to invoke an incredible force that was completely beyond my control. 

 

I don’t remember the exact moment it dawned on me that luck is huge in backgammon, but I by around age seven I understood that if I wanted to have a good time playing it, I had to be like water: I had to adapt and not get trapped in what I wanted to happen, but to deal with what was actually happening. That realization brought so many others with it. It gave me permission to try new things. 

 

When he played, my grandpa took risks all the time and I just didn’t get it. He had this incredible trust (and perhaps some knowledge of probability) that things were going to work out, that he was going to roll the exact dice he needed to roll and a lot of times, he did. I admired that, so I started copying him. I also wanted to feel free and adventurous. Most importantly, I wanted to have fun. To take risks on the backgammon board felt fun. There were games when I would have almost impeccable strategy and still lose, so why not try new things? 

 

My grandfather commanded a very colorful vocabulary and would often tease me about my backgammon skills or non-existent luck. As a child, I didn’t have the language to talk or return the witty comments he made, but I did want to show him that I, too, could let loose and stop clenching my teeth at every turn that didn’t go my way. 

 

I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I was carrying what I was learning in backgammon to other areas of my life. Improving at backgammon coincided with my decision to do the scary thing of pursuing acting classes at only seven years old. Later on, my growing comfort with risk helped me become a better friend to my third grade bestie who would always win at card games. Ultimately, it helped me patiently sit through other games, classes, and homework I wasn’t able to sit through before. 

 

I feel very lucky to have had a grandfather who was gentle, tolerant, and understanding, and to have discovered a game that I still play with joy and passion every week. His patience was a gift to me that I endeavor to pass down to my own students every time we set up the backgammon board.

 

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To start your own backgammon journey, check out Story Time Backgammon, and begin building life-changing skills the fun way today!

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