Playing Backgammon with My Dad

There was a time when I was serious about backgammon. Not great, but serious.

At the serious-but-not-great level, backgammon is played with the reptile brain. For every situation, you learn and lock in a specific right response.

Roll, move. Roll, move. Fast. Confident. You parry when you should parry, zip when you should zip. I played a fair amount that year. I was hitting my personal peak ’gammon, as it were. And then my dad came to visit.

Growing up I had a terrible track record playing games with my dad. That sounds negative. Let me rephrase: my dad had a fantastic track record playing games with me. He played with a light engaged smile: cheerful, thoughtful, victorious.

As we set up the board that day, I felt a little guilty. He hadn’t played since he was a kid, growing up in Israel. I imagined him at age six, rolling heavy stone dice, sitting in some shady spot in the sands of the Negev. I was going head to head against my six-year-old dad and it didn’t quite seem fair.

On his first roll, he went through every possible option. He chose the right one. I was impressed. I rolled, I moved. Boom.

With his second turn, he took the same kind of excruciating approach, considering every imaginable option before making his selection.

Then me: roll, move, boom.

That was the rhythm of the game. He had none of the moves locked in, but he had crazy patience as he worked through a million scenarios. His moves were usually “the right ones,” but every once in a while, he’d make a surprising choice. I watched with horror.

So I didn’t win that game. Or the one after. We shook hands, put the board away, and turned our attention to lunch.

What the hell had happened?

Looking back, I think his triumph came down to three things: he was methodical, he was patient (did I mention he was patient?), and he was fully engaged. I was locked into my automatic moves. He was locked into the moment.

I try to remember those games when I find myself getting into too much of a roll, move, boom state of mind.

We often prize speed above all. And no doubt, the reptile brain has its place. It’s the one I use, for example, when I’m leaping from boulder to boulder, or evading lions. But now and then, in the rush of the day, it’s great to take a breath and summon forth the awesome power of being a present, patient primate.

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