2015/07/19

Poetry, Backgammon and Tension

The third verse of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam goes like this:



And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted--"Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

It is one of the poems I'm learning by heart. (Not the whole thing, it is far too long, but the first few verses.) 


Anyway the second line has, to me, a sort of tension:




"Open then the Door!"
Because it would be more natural to say say "open the Door then" but that would not rhyme. So "then" is put in the "wrong" place...


"Open then the Door!"

...and gives me pleasure. It happens in other rhyming poems. And I noticed that I get the same feeling of tension when playing backgammon.



If you don't know anything about backgammon you can go to Wikipedia. Like poker it is a game of chance where skilled players beat unskilled players, eventually. Like poker there are championships for money. You have to understand your opponent and you need to understand a few very basic laws of probability.



And those laws of proability sets up the web of tension over the board which occurs in my mind as I play.



Pieces left alone can be eaten by the opponents pieces. For example is it better to place a piece close to an opponent's piece or further away? It is my turn, I can put my black piece close to my opponents the white pieces...






...or I can put it further away (hard to see, black piece on black point on the right)...






It depends exactly on what you mean by "close to". Just like you, your opponent has two dice. My black piece is on its own and can be eaten by one of the opponents three pieces if he throws the right number. There are 11 (30.1%) ways that he can get a 1 with two dice...





...but there 16 (44.4%) ways of getting a 6...





So just considering this simplified situation it is better to be within 1 place from your opponent rather than 6 places, even though 6 places looks safer:



The reasoning could be that the further away I am from my enemy the safer I am. But do the calculations and you'll find that a distance of 1 is safer than a distance of 6. Maybe that is part of the tension I feel as I play backgammon. Something looks more dangerous but is actually less so.




And over a full game, for points, the tension extends and contracts over time and the 2D space of the board.



I play with friends. I only once went to an offical tournament (in Milano). At the beginning of the tournament the organiser, a large man with a far away look in his eyes, "shook" my hand by letting me touch his fingertips. Hmm, I thought, I must have offended him by in some way. Then I played a game with a thin blonde woman who smoked and gently blew the smoke into my face. She played well, won and I was out of the running. But because of the slippery handshake and the smoke in my eyes I decided that this was the first and last official backgammon tournament I'd play at.



So I play with friends and enjoy the clatter of the dice and the feel of the hard round pieces as I slide them over the smooth wooden surface.





And in the mornings I remember...



Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake my Little ones and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

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