The Game of Kings Meets a Prince of Death


Gamboling Amid Gamblers Indeed

The nature of narrative is to nurture the spin of everything in the cosmos so as to tell all the twists and torque and tension and torture that underlie even the most mundane and placid surfaces.  That said, when one steps back from certain stories, an honestly simple central message emerges, a notion that intersects with and helps to account for literally everything in the tale, even as the wacky hairpin turns and upsurges of brutality and mayhem seem to indicate intricacy and complication that would seem almost impossible to unravel.

ArtFightTo some extent, this prevalence of a predominant pattern is present in today’s telling, which concerns at the level of the basic plotline one of the most marvelous pastimes that humans have ever devised, albeit backgammon is less popular now than it has often been historically.  The core component of the yarn that the Spindoctor proffers here flows inherently from the nature of ‘the King of Games,’ to wit that managing risk will always confront those who take chances with precipices at which David Bromberg’s advice, in “Diamond Lil,” would be apt to keep uppermost in one’s mind: “A man should never gamble; a man should never gamble; a man should never gamble, more than he can stand to lose.”

Nonetheless, in some senses as a matter of course, every breath that we take is such a wager: whether in crossing the street or staying on the sidewalk, whether in diving in or jumping in or simply wading in little by little, whether in kissing and telling or hoping for discretion, no matter the conjunction that an actor confronts, issues of life and death can come to the fore whatever choices one makes.  Thus, the best that anyone can hope for is to manage the inherent dangers that the world dangles in front of us, with the allure of spun sugar to the hungry infant, so as to maximize one’s joy and potency, to optimize one’s interactions with oneself and others, and to minimize the likelihood of pain and carnage as the steps that make up every journey unfold as we perambulate along life’s highways.

Looking at the life of Marshall Beatty, as the Spindoctor has come to know it—not from God’s perspective, by any means, but with a measure of eyewitness and hearsay and circumstantial knowledge—one might suggest that this dear fellow, whose charm and looks and intellect and passion were lovely, if not legendary, to behold, may indeed have overstepped the bounds of balancing the maximizing and optimizing of the positive with the minimizing of the negative.  But such a judgment is not the purpose of conveying this account.

This rationale, quite frankly, is that the combination of event and context in the saga itself compels a richly detailed telling and an appropriately amazed consideration of ‘how the deal went down,’ as it were.  In the event, before readers consider the dark pass that this scion of significant wealth confronted in Southern France thirty-odd years ago, a setting of the stage seems apropos, itself in a series of interludes that provide first an overview of the game of backgammon, second a very partial but nonetheless indicative account of how the game has shown up in literature over the years, third a précis of Marshall’s life before he became a wandering gambler, and fourth how he and the Spindoctor spent an Aspen year together in which backgammon was a central organizing principle of their relations.

All of these factors, as observers may soon enough note, so constrained the course of events thereafter that one would find most other resolutions of this drama implausible, if not unsatisfactory.   Whatever the case may be, perhaps the witch of the west stated the case most reasonably: “All in good time, my pretties, all in good time.”


Two dice for each player; fifteen checkers arrayed on twenty-four slender triangular landing points; movement that happens along these points according to the pips on the dice, tossed from a cup; rules that permit blockade, capture, recirculation; and over all a race to the finish, which more or less beckons ineluctably as possible for either side to win under most circumstances: these elements, plus a doubling cube that both increases the cost and skill that the game requires, on the one hand, and speeds up action, on the other hand, constitute the game of backgammon.

An entry from the Eleventh Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica portrays a process that is remarkably similar to what transpires to this day, although the cube was still a decade away from its American inception.  “When a player so moves as to place two men on the same point, he is said to ‘make a point.’”  This building process was and remains fundamental to the contest, as does the following assessment.

The text continues, “When there is only a single man on a point, it is called a ‘blot.’  When a blot is left the man{or checker}there may be taken up(technically, the blot may be ‘hit’)by the adversary if he throws a number which will enable him to place a man on that point.  The man hit placed on the bar{that divides the board vertically into two sectors, out of play}, and has to begin again by entering the adversary’s home table again at the next throw should it result in a number that corresponds to an unblocked point.”

As an exercise in counting, pattern recognition, and strategy, backgammon is indubitably unsurpassed and arguably unparalleled among the ‘board-battles’ that mimic conflict and contention in the real world.  One could validate this fact through any number of research strategies: < backgammon strategy “pattern recognition” OR intelligence OR “conceptual ability” counting OR “empirical ability” OR “mathematical ability”> for example, elicits almost 100,000 useful links.

On the other hand, one could simply choose to trust the Spindoctor’s rectitude in this matter, based as it is on almost half a century of experience.  If one can keep the effort in perspective as both diversion and practice, few activities have a greater chance of delivering clarity in a wide range of strategic and conceptual capacities than does learning and grappling with as close to mastery of backgammon as proves possible in a given performer’s case.

Perhaps more critical to a clear-eyed understanding of the King of Games are the social issues that elicit any such activities among a wide section of every single populace that has ever existed.  For the entire term of the multiple historical records that dot the earth, and in most archeological and anthropological investigations of the previous tens of thousands of years of human evolution, people have competed playfully and yet so seriously as at times to bring forth lethal consequences.

PompeiA relatively intricate search demonstrates this well: < games OR gaming OR play competition OR conflict OR contention teaching OR learning OR instructing OR training history OR origins anthropology OR archaelogy study OR analysis> yields a flood of ‘hits.’  Almost fifty million results attend the entry of the terms in Google, for instance.

The meaning of this plethora and variety of interest and documentation is multifold.  It indicates that, whatever moralists may say, “You wanna bet?” is an ingrained piece of the human psyche.  It shows how learning and teaching inherently intermingle with fun and contests.  It proves beyond doubt that some people will avail themselves of superior strategic ability to gain advantages over others.  It demonstrates how those whose birthright includes less access to wealth and opportunity will use such diversions so as to level the playing fields of existence.  One could go on; and on and on and on.

An anecdote about the origins of chess, long ago in India, is apt in this regard.  The inventor of the game—or in some versions of the legend, a teacher of the game—had an opportunity to name his reward for creating or instructing others about the way to play.

He made the apparently modest request from the royalty who deigned to give up some of its lucre of a single grain of rice, or wheat, on the chess board’s first square, with a doubling of the amount of carbohydrate on each subsequent square.  Invariably, since fulfilling the mandate would have mortgaged the rulers for close to eternity, the agreement never reaches its finish; in many expressions  of the story, the king has the genius commoner who made up the contest and the reward put to the sword, while in others he awards the intrepid daredevil a seat next to his highness or a life with his beautiful daughter.

The upshot of such a longstanding mythos at least contains the following notion.  Life is full of random inequity and unfair competitions.  In such an arena, all activity that helps life’s participants to envision, strategize, and plan are worth a lot, even if they can also cause a ton of trouble.

640px-6sided_diceIn any case, as with most forms of gambling and many types of gaming, a multi-dimensional and often contradictory dynamic typifies how the sport takes shape in the world, especially perhaps in the current moment when so much is in flux and under dispute.  At least a handful of pointers are worth parsing a little.

One aspect of this free-floating dialectic concerns predation and parasitic behavior.  Undoubtedly, some people—and today’s report illustrates this in some ways—take advantage of greater skill or duplicity or other erstwhile playful facility so as to garner the goods and services and cash that others, less capable or ruthless, own and in many cases have worked hard to earn.  In this vein, whatever benefits attend such tactical intelligence, it must also reveal pathological effects.

Another dimension altogether is the simple necessity that any group of people will inevitably actualize parameters that allow socialized competition.  Whether the ‘playing field’ is primarily physical or largely mental—and in every case, both mental and physical strength and endurance are at issue, such gambols in the realm of gaming must be an unavoidable accompaniment of humanity, if only because never has any group left an impression on the planet of its existence without also providing observers after the fact with some evidence that such pursuits have taken place in that societal nexus.

At least one additional element makes an appearance, in the event as something like a stage for class conflict, or even class war, to occur.  This applies immutably to the countless incidents in which the Spindoctor has practiced gaming, especially backgammon.  With virtually no exceptions at the outset, a potentiation of Robin Hood has transpired at the table, since basically all of his opponents have ‘middle-class,’ bourgeois, or trust-funded roots.

That this point inevitably dovetails with the initial thought is interesting. No doubt, outside of the ivied halls of privilege where the oh-so-lucky Jimbo matriculated, such observations as attend his initial sessions become more complex, multisided, and ineffable.  Thus, this view also suggests the dialectical and paradoxical interplay that games such as backgammon universally bring to the forefront.

ArtFightA penultimate note ought to include the way that the multi-player version of the game takes place.  Chouette, any such backgammon skirmish that involves more than two players, most powerfully embodies how groups and individuals must bargain among themselves to balance cooperation and competition, collaboration and individual action.

One final idea bears mentioning here.  It concerns the absolute need—for healthy bodies and minds—that people have for diversion.  Despite this requisite part of human existence, of course, it all too often these days pops up as one rendering or another of the ‘bread and circuses’ strategy of Rome’s most nefarious and plutocratic emperors.  Without a single doubt, a game like backgammon appears both positively as a constructive hobby and negatively as a destructive distraction from all that nature necessitates for our present survival.

One might continue this discourse till many volumes had come and gone.  Not only is backgammon a nuanced template for pondering how risk and reward, action and reaction, manifest themselves in flesh and blood, so to say, but it also brings out both intensely competitive and remarkably collaborative potentialities.  In particular, chouettes combine these components of attack and parlay, of cooperation and throat-cutting, of individual and group thinking and negotiating strategies, in ways that almost perfectly parallel how actual and successful mediation takes place in combative and many-sided disputes.

The proposal for this article stated the case in arguably a useful fashion.  “A characteristic of our globe these days is this spread of human culture to every space that Earth’s land surface graces.  Moreover, wherever folks have stayed, they have also played.  Thus, a part of this cultural infiltration of people and their pastimes has been the rooting everywhere of certain games, one of which is ‘the game of kings and the king of games,’ backgammon.  From London to Tokyo, from Istanbul to Santiago, from Manhattan to Cape Town, travelers who know BG can find opponents who will at once willingly wile away time and gladly chance their luck in heads-up or group settings.”

For now, having barely skimmed the surface, with a tale to tell that entails thinking about the game, the time to move on is nigh.  Still, before encountering the characters in conflict in today’s story, we might point out a few additional contextual bits about this royal game for royal characters.


Backgammon is decidedly not primarily an Anglo-American pastime, though the import of the doubling cube is definitely an American addition to the contest.  One need only visit Ankara or Athens or Cairo or Jerusalem to see the heartlands of the game, the name of which varies but often includes a variation of the Persian, “Shesh pesh,” for “Six-five” on the dice; Israeli terminology uses “shesh-besh,” Old Turkish for the same quantity.

“Istanbul panorama and skyline” by Ben Morlok – cc 2.0

Naturally, then, Turkey’s Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk includes references to the game in both his fiction and nonfiction.  What he makes clear is that the game has woven itself seamlessly into the fabric of Turkish life, playing as routine a part as family meals or conversations among neighbors about television or politics.

It contextualizes infidelity and slowly requited love in The Museum of Innocence.  It serves as the foundation for a lesson in memory as the main character’s father ponders tactics “in a tight spot,” in The New Life.  It appears repeatedly as a signpost of Istanbul’s and the nation’s mores in The Black Book and elsewhere.  In his account of Istanbul as a place, which he subtitles Memories of a City, he mentions it just once, to show that he has little of his fellow Turks’ passion for the game—he and his mates use the checkers for imaginary games of soccer that they play with marbles.

Surely, innumerable other writers and storytellers from the Levant and Southern Asia bring the ‘king of games’ into their yarns.  Via such characters and characterizations, it has traveled to the New World as well.  Jorge Amado’s Gabriella, Clove, and Cinnamon plays out a story’s thread in which the main character, Nacib, has traveled from Lebanon and brought backgammon to Brazil’s equivalent of the ‘wild West,’ where a coterie of gamblers and roustabouts play the game regularly, possibly even obsessively, in his pub.

BG contextualizes their competitive and friendly relations, at once an outlet for their flirtatiousness and their acquisitiveness.  It is a constant presence in the bard’s estimable tale of chance and will, longing and love, business and predation.

302px-Tieta_Cover1While his better-known meditation on love and human affairs, Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, does not bring the ‘king of games’ explicitly to the fore, the deceased spouse, whose wagers and carousing are the stuff of legend, was a gambler extraordinaire in a milieu in which backgammon was a regular presence.  It also shows up in Amado’s other stories, such as Tieta: the Goat Girl and Tent of Miracles.

One might easily pursue backgammon’s cultural impact on every single Mediterranean culture, after which one could delineate the worldwide spread of the game from this creative cradle.  That will be labor for a later project, however, here and now our task an attempt to account for why a South Carolina Episcopalian became such a devotee of the skirmishes that are omnipresent on the board.

And that effort requires us to dig into England’s uptake of the ‘game of kings,’ which has for several centuries been a noteworthy phenomenon indeed.  In no less a central tome of contemporary mores and thinking than Vanity Fair itself does backgammon make the scene again and again and again.  Becky Sharp is a taskmistress over the board, as is Lady Jane Grey, who learned at her grandfather’s knee.

Becky Sharp – Vanity Fair

One of Ms. Rebecca’s ‘admirers’ upbraids her about her avocation.  “He took Rebecca to task once or twice about the propriety of playing at backgammon with Sir Pitt, saying that it was a godless amusement, and that she would be much better engaged in reading…any work of a more serious nature; but Miss Sharp said her dear mother used often to play the same game…and so found an excuse for this and other worldly amusements.”

Moreover, Thackeray’s The Virginians also includes multiple references to the topic of today’s story.   Mr. Marshall Beatty’s ancestors might very well, as the characters in Thackeray’s novel did, have imported their love for and practice of the game from the British Isles many centuries ago.  Here is a passage from the narrative that makes that clear in ways that resonate powerfully in relation to the story that we are considering here.

A plantation owner who appreciated gospel singing differed decidedly from his predecessor, “the Colonel…for that worthy gentleman had a suspicion of all cassocks, and said that he would never have any controversy with a clergyman but upon backgammon.  Where money was wanted for charitable purposes no man was more ready, and the good, easy, hearty Virginia clergyman, who loved backgammon heartily, too, said that the worthy Colonel’s charity must cover his other shortcomings.”

While British pioneers in statistics and the numbering of the real, as Against the Gods: the Remarkable Story of Risk makes clear, were deconstructing the enumeration of permutation and other attributes of everyday probabilities from the habits of dice games, both the highest practitioners and the common herd of storytelling deployed backgammon in their sagas.  Jane Austen over and over portrays the game as a combination of tonic and social lubricant, in such works as Emma and Pride and Prejudice and more.

One scholar of Austen focuses on BG’s role in Chapter Eleven of Emma, for instance, where the reader finds this.  “Emma spared no exertions to maintain this happier flow of ideas, and hoped, by the help of backgammon, to get her father tolerably through the evening, and be attacked by no regrets but her own.  The backgammon-table was placed; but a visitor immediately afterwards walked in and made it unnecessary.”

Not only did the board and its routines show up in Austen’s fiction, but it was also at least fairly central in her life.  Several biographers have made this argument persuasively, if not dispositively, by referring to parallels between the game of kings in fact and fiction.

“Backgammon is just right for (Mr. Woodhouse), relying enough on chance to offer him an occasional opportunity of victory, especially if the other player is guileful enough to help him win.  No wonder it is also the game that Mr. Bennett plays with Mr. Collins(in Pride and PrejudiceI). …

The image of an almost eternal backgammon game with Mr. Woodhouse is all the more powerful because of Emma’s(and Jane’s) native love of intriguing play. …in which game playing is exciting enough to seem dangerous. …As ever, the game brings characters together precisely in order to divide them,” much as one might make of the matter in life itself, now or in the social activities of Austen herself.

Tales_serialAs close to a crowning glory among such interlocutors as one might imagine possible, Charles Dickens himself builds his works often enough around backgammon.  A mood of despair in A Tale of Two Cities emerges in this way.

“’I am quite glad you are at home; for these hurries and forebodings by which I have been surrounded all day long, have made me nervous without reason.  You are not going out, I hope?’

‘No; I am going to play backgammon with you, if you like,’ said the Doctor.

‘I don’t think I do like, if I may speak my mind.  I am not fit to be pitted against you tonight.  Is the tea-board still there Lucie?  I can’t see.’”

In Bleak House, Hard Times, Dombey & Sons, and many additional interludes, the masterful Sir Charles weaves BG into the story.  It stands for flirtation, for cupidity and other scheming, for the longing for order and the approval of the gods, and for many of the same elements of seeking a muse and amusement that characterize the pastime in the here and now.

One might turn to Fielding or Trollope or any number of lesser lights of the novel in English to make the case indisputably plain.  This battle of wits and charming hobby of all sorts of people has had a part both interesting and noteworthy in the lives that we’ve led and that we’re still leading in the world.

Nor has BG only appeared in print.  In fact, though we have barely scratched the surface here, the metaphorical battle—as diversion, pastime, and avocation, and occasionally as vocation, even profession—has come to the forefront repeatedly in movies.  Several films use the simple title, Backgammon, to set the stage for all of life’s dramas, from love plots to family matters to psychosocial thrillers.  Others include BG in the title as they unfold dramas of love and conflict.

James Bond plays the game with a cheater on whom he ‘turns the tables,’ so to say, in Octopussy.  In the wider culture, one can find multiple points at which backgammon appears as an important, or at least well-known, component of how things operate.  Perhaps one of the most clear-cut of these sorts of situations is in relation to Playboy’s long love affair with the game, which includes the publication of its very own Book of Backgammon.

To put this brief interlude under wraps, so to speak, readers will have a chance to see what the estimable empiricist David Hume has to offer about our ‘king of games and game of kings.’  His canonical A Treatise of Human Nature states the case like this.

“Where am I, or what?  From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras.  I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends.  And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

The Beattie home
The Beattie home


To return to the main thread of our tale for today, which embodies some of the themes and nuances both literary and more generally cultural, another case of life’s imitation of art and vice versa, Marshall Beatty, if memory serves, was more than a few years older than the Spindoctor, whose retirement now draws nigh.  The year 1945 adheres to memories of conversations from an Aspen condo, over the course of many sessions in 1974-75.

Marshall’s family owned mills near Greeneville, South Carolina, in a section of the country where that position meant both significant wealth—one opponent of the Spindoctor’s had to quit our sessions during graduate school when he announced at the start of our final get-together, “I’m gonna have to quit because I’ve decided to marry a mill” who did not approve of gambling and had the promise of a lifetime sinecure to induce compliance—and stringent reaction in matters social and political.  According to interlocutors of Jimbo’s acquaintance, Norma Rae presented a comparatively tame picture of attitudes toward class difference and propriety in the land of spinning king cotton.

From this context of wealth and backwardness, the first set of memories that Marshall shared concerned his elder brother, whom his father described as “a fat lazy bastard” before packing him off to military school when Marshall was a young teenager.  From thence, his oldest sibling decamped to an asylum roughly two years later, where the first child of the Beatty scion died in 1971 or so, perhaps a suicide.

Marshall’s sister apparently conformed to the necessary strictures of bourgeois existence in South Carolina.  At least, Marshall never heard from her directly, and her husband had become general manager of the Beatty complex of mills in and around Greeneville and Spartanburg by the mid 1970’s.

mill south carolinaMarshall himself could have run a course that led to such a track as well.  He hadperformed well academically, in 1964 entering the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus with a scholar’s repute, albeit his tendency to prefer French and Comparative Religion to Math and Business no doubt seemed malapropos to daddy Beatty.

But such choices were not enough to cause a complete alienation of affections.  An eventuality of that sort required something like Veronica, whom Marshall took home for Thanksgiving in 1966, en route to his second semester of junior year at the Palmetto State’s flagship university.

The senior Sir Beatty needed no further information than her straightforward gaze and her childhood in a trailer park to know that she was an “opportunistic golddigger,” according to Marshall.  “He told me that I had exactly one month to get rid of, quote, that slut Veronica, unquote.”

Marshall was a lover and a fighter apparently.  Despite his training in gentle diction and obeisance, “I told him in no uncertain terms to go fuck himself,” steel in his drawl still nearly a decade after the fact.

He received papers from the family attorney within a week stating that he had a right to his clothes, personal effects, bedroom furniture, and the horse of his choosing from the family stables.  Other than that, he was on his own, and sister’s line would be the only ones to experience the family’s largesse.

Though this is dramatic enough to cause all manner of narrative potential, it would not likely in and of itself have thrown together two such oddly matched birds as he and the Spindoctor were together.  Marshall and Veronica both truly belonged in South Carolina, where a lawyer’s life or something more academic might have come about for this beautiful couple that put passion and its promise above fealty or lucre.

TheCulinaryGeek flickr
TheCulinaryGeek flickr

But something oddly grotesque, and weirdly hilarious, transpired at the end of Summer break before this pair’s senior year in Columbia.  Fine young animals that they were, they played competitive tennis regularly.  They would then lounge about Veronica’s apartment on days when neither of them had to work at their waiter-and-waitress positions, where they joined wit and decorum to rake in the tips, no doubt.

On the day in question, consumed by a powerful thirst after three sets, Marshall quaffed an entire quart of tea before he opened up the backgammon board and suggested a few games.  According to his recollection of the moment, the light sparkled and the dice dance before Veronica’s roommate began shrieking, hysterical and disconsolate, from the kitchen.

When Veronica managed to calm the young co-ed enough to get something from her, she sobbed, “Somebody drank all the Kool-Aid!!!”  Marshall says that he heard this as if from a distance, and that the full impact of what she then related struck him as both odd and obvious, somehow.

The ‘tea’ that he imbibed had been a concoction for a later late Summer orgy, laced with roughly sixty hits of LSD.  “I was sure that I would die,” he said, matter of factly.  “I was sure that I should have killed her, but I couldn’t focus.”

Veronica laughed when she spoke of this eight years subsequently.  “I ran out in the hallway after him, shouting, ‘Marshall, don’t go!’”  But he was a quick fellow and following a track from which deviation was not an option.

The Spindoctor has written at length elsewhere about this incident, one of those amazing congruences that couldn’t possibly have happened in spite of its all-too-tangible reality.  The upshot was that, two days later, after Veronica and a friend had camped on the campus quad and watched Marshall’s third floor window obsessively the entire time, remaining awake in shifts, the panes of this privileged single-senior’s-domicile exploded and, first, Marshall’s top-of-the-line speakers, and, thereafter, everything else in the room—that which fit on its own intact and all else chopped down to size—came pouring out to land on the quad before a gawking and amazed crowd that gathered to watch.

When campus cops and municipal police broke down the door, Marshall stood in the center of an absolutely bare space, naked except for the fire ax that he had so recently deployed on furniture and other things that would not exit the window as a single piece.  He was White, if tanned, and a Beatty to boot, or things might have ended much worse for him.


The authorities got a strait-jacket on him before he went ballistic, however, and he spent the next eight months at Babcock, the most mental ward of the State Hospital on Bull Street, near downtown Columbia.  An aunt wanted him transferred to a private facility, but Marshall was coherent within a week and wanted none of that.  He refused to open the dozen or so letters that came from his father, one of the reasons for his lengthy stay, given how “clear and Zen I got within a month.”

One result of this adventure, however, was that neither he nor Veronica finished their degrees.  She basically was with him every day of his ‘commitment,’ and they had left the South for good within twenty-four hours of his release.

They traveled throughout North America for a couple of years before they settled in Aspen, where Marshall got his real estate license and they became notorious as both lovebirds and gamblers.  More or less, this is where a Spindoctor entrance occurs.


Marshall and Veronica ended up in the Roaring Fork Valley because they had Mormon_row_barn_grand_teton_national_parkpassed through in their sojourns, and they had both skied there prior to any formal family comeuppance for Marshall’s passion for his non-pedigreed lover.  The Spindoctor found himself in Aspen for reasons much more random and mundane.

Those rationale stemmed from his experience ‘off the leash and on the prowl’ at Harvard.  For several months, fueled by his National Merit Scholarship, he had ridden a wave of beginners luck in poker.

Then one night, the battles among the players of seven card stud and draw and their variations just didn’t gel, while five enthusiasts skirmished among themselves in a backgammon chouette, a variation of the contest that permits a theoretically unlimited number of gamblers to fight out their carnage on a single score sheet.  An inveterate practitioner of pattern recognition, the nineteen year old version of Spindoctor quickly noted that this was the game that graced the back of cheap paper checkerboards, with their imprecise dice and flimsy plastic checkers.

By contrast, the sturdy briefcase that contained the playing plane at Radcliffe gleamed with lustrous leather points, and a velour rolling surface made the glassy clatter of dice mimic a muted set of bass notes.  The twenty-one rolls of a pair of standard dice, in their thirty-six permutations, led to an ebb and flow of positional battlements that appeared almost unimaginably complex and martially delightful to the uninitiated youth who watched with fascination as the ‘captain’s’ and ‘box’s’ seats changed as a sitter won or lost in turn.

Each challenge that grew from the clunky starting position combined racing with capture and blockade, opportunism with the potential for much deeper conceptual strategies.  For whatever reasons of disposition or fate, this kingdom of dice, this arena of action’s simulacrum, grasped hold of a young Spindoctor’s psyche with a grip at once fierce and alluring.

In the event, he was playing, for much the same ‘stake’ that he still risks, within thirty minutes of first observing the tides of fortune that ruled the play on that day, as well as during all prior and subsequent matches.  Like Charles Darwin, the Spindoctor has always sensed an astoundingly efficient utility in the way that backgammon operates.  Yet this may be less Darwin’s observation that the contest served as a ‘tonic for the mind’ than a rationalization of Jimbo’s own fiendish delight, which sported sources both more random and less salubrious.

No matter what, in the ivied halls, essentially, his predilection for gaming had led his administrative overseers at South House in Radcliffe to recommend a hiatus in his studies.  He had an ‘in’ for a thespian’s opportunity in New York City, an unpaid twenty-five hour a week course of performance and practice that would have meant working fifty hours a week in Manhattan just in order to make ends meet. (public domain image) (public domain image)

Such, to say the least, did not appeal to an already socially-democratically leaning Spindoctor as equitable or fair.  He set out on a trek to Los Angeles with twenty dollars in his pocket.  The great Peter Frisch himself set the just turned twenty-one year old Jimbo on the entrance ramp to I-80 across the Jersey line.

The young wanderer, through a truly incredible set of adventures—that involved an MK Ultra veteran’s profferal of a ride from the Iowa-Illinois border to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where he met and roomed with an all-Army boxing champion before a new happenstantial boss’s diet of cocaine and hookers had caused a heart attack and the necessity of finding gainful employment elsewhere than the panic ridden town at the mouth of the Roaring Fork River—did himself end up working around Aspen as a bellhop, a job which he had already practiced while at Harvard for plus-or-minus twenty hours a week.  He had never heard of Aspen, let alone that it was a Winter sports and wild-orgy capital of the entire planet.

When an early-season broken leg ended any pretensions of claiming the title of ski-bum, a sport that he literally had only seen from afar anyway in televised Winter Olympics competitions, he began to sniff around for backgammon opportunities.  He had money, and he knew how to play the game.

The actual introduction of today’s two characters—a past version of the Spindoctor and a youthful but still elder Sir Beatty—took place through a different player, who had in his turn fleeced Marshall at poker.  “He was the better player, but I had more money—just like us at backgammon,” nodded Marshall’s poker nemesis.

He said this after I’d won several hundred dollars for the second of third time.  He had already announced that “our little lessons are through!”

Taking this information into account, I responded, friendly and intent at the same instant, “I’d love to meet him.”

“I’m sure you would.”  He smiled, wanly.  “He’s a charmer.”  So Lee set us up.

And indeed Marshall was charming, six foot two, slender and dapper, smile just so, eyebrows arched with the perfect blend of come-on and irony.  Veronica, his mate, was dazzling, a whisper of exotic perfume and huge doses of je ne sais quoi.

Their condo, comfy but not too commodious, overlooked run number something or other, just off of Aspen’s slopes, where they both pretty definitely toned themselves for the six months that had just begun, plus or minus November 10, 1974.  Marshall’s ‘day job,’ inasmuch as he ever had one, entailed selling units such as this to young or aging ski addicts; “Everybody who’s anybody’s gonna want a little hideaway in Aspen,” Veronica purred, as Marshall size up that I was not one of the set to which his love was referring.

So we played backgammon.  And I was the better of the pair, at checker play by a fair margin and at the handling of the cube by a huge differential.

But the game is not chess, or go.  My handsome opponent won at least his fair share of games, though my score inched up through the teens and the twenties and the thirties.  We were paying for five dollars a point: “something meaningful,” Marshall had suggested when the matter arose at the outset.

vinoWine and snacks graced the first five or six hours of our tete-a-tete.  The first joint wafted its Panama Red aroma around midnight, just after he’d spun a platter from the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and a Spindoctor chortle at the song had indicated that pot would meet with approval.

“Now, if you’re up for it,” Marshall announced, offhandedly, setting down his dice cup, before pausing with an implication of naughty, naughty.  We were in the midst of a complicated game, the sort that the Spindoctor favors.  An inquisitive look invited the rest of the sentence.  “We can have a little treat.”

Hunter Thompson’s work had not yet graced a Spindoctor nightstand, nor was his political campaign for mayor yet on the radar of the naïve and uninitiated.  But everyone new that the ‘treat-du-jour’ in Pitkin County, Colorado was cocaine that seemingly entered the region daily on any number of private jets that screamed into the rarefied airspace here from all over the world.

“Ooooh, he’s a virgin!” Veronica giggled at my admission that this would be the first time that I’d done a line.

“Well then,” Marshall pronounced quietly, with a wicked little smile, “we’ll have to be gentle with him.”  We all laughed.

Veronica said something in what sounded like spot-on, unaccented French, and laughed at Marshall’s coloring a bit.  His retort, also in nearly perfect French, but with a hint of South Carolina up country, turned her giggle into a thoughtful smile.  “Well, we’ll just have to see.”

Four or five lines went up the virgin nose, and callow fingers coated callow gums with the dregs that the rolled hundred dollar straw left behind on the mirror.  Veronica and Marshall partook in equal measure, polite hosts that they were.

And the early morning, well past three, proceeded to dawn, at which juncture Marshall’s arrears amounted to forty-two points, down from over sixty an hour earlier.  The final game of the night, to those unfamiliar with the game, would be difficult to convey in all its perfection and horror.

Marshall had affirmed early his propensity for accepting doubled stakes whenever he held the ace point, even if other assets or possibilities were absent, a rarity among those who didn’t want to lose their asses in the tallying of the score.  This game ended up as a contest between a Spindoctor prime, which absolutely prohibited escape, and half-a-dozen Beatty checkers on the one point.

More to the point of imagining Marshall’s winning chances, not horrible if he held a strong inner board to contain any of Jimbo’s unluckily captured last-minute checkers, the Beatty home board had collapsed onto his one, two, and three points, which meant that his hopes of victory were miniscule at best, while his potential to lose a double or triple game were substantial.

The cube, on Jimbo’s side of the board, meaning that he alone could use it next, Backgammon_DoublingCubestood at the somewhat lofty height of thirty-two, which on its face made this game worth a hundred sixty dollars, with opportunities to double or even triple than under circumstances of Jimbo’s removing his checkers prior to Marshall’s taking anyone off the board.  And this phase of the game had begun, with all the probabilities decidedly in the Spindoctor direction.

For reasons that concern the disadvantages of having an odd number of checkers remaining, in spite of his near-guarantee of winning, and high likelihood of gaining some multiple of the cube value, Jimbo elected to redouble to sixty-four.  He was busy tallying that the expected seventy-four points would yield an hourly rate for the twelve hour session of nearly thirty dollars an hour, not bad wages for a bell hop whose room was free, up the mountain at Snowmass.

The only problem with these computations was that Marshall had snatched up the proposition without expression, though he did grin when Jimbo jumped at the sixty-four cube that nestled opposite him across the backgammon board.  “It’s your roll,” Marshall noted levelly.

Again, the details here will mean little to non-backgammon players.  The upshot was that the Spindoctor reached a position in which—against an absolutely perfect defensive position, which Marshall had long since buried on his lower points—his equity would be 95%; the actual series of rolls was so unbelievable that this situation remains the number one example of hideous impossibility become possible in the course of half a million games or more of the Game of Kings, what the brilliant analyst, Barclay Cooke, called “the cruelest game.”

Anyhow, when Marshall turned the infinitely expandable doubling device to 128, Jimbo dropped and paid off a hundred and ten dollars—the twenty-two point difference between his plus-forty-two and the value of the dropped cube—before exiting into a light snowfall in the Aspen morning, just shy of seven o’clock and dawn.

In the course of the wild madness of that last game, Jimbo had wondered if he would receive payment even if he won.  He considered the possibility that this was a clever cheater—after all, Marshall had admitted his prowess as a juggler and a magician early in the evening, after Veronica—indiscreetly, perhaps, given the dour look that her lover had shot in her direction at that point—had suggested that he provide a display of his proficiency with “your new wooden balls, sweetie!”

Whatever the true situation may have been, the Spindoctor had sworn never to seek this fellow out again.  He assumed that Marshall would not call.  Yet he did, quite soon in fact.

“I know I was unbelievably luck that last game,” he drawled over the phone.  When I said nothing, he continued, “and I’m sure that over time you’ll make a tidy profit playing against the likes of me.”

Again I had nothing to offer in reply.  “But I’d really like to learn to be a better player.”

So for eight months or so, till the end of July, this unlikely duo played backgammon four or five times a month.  And indeed, for such a one as the Spindoctor, the five thousand dollars or so that he banked was well worth the time, though toward the end, Mr. Beatty was a massively more formidable foe than he had been at the beginning, and Jimbo’s good luck was the only reason that he won till he left.

He did depart the Front Range, to return to college and actually study history for his final year at Harvard.  He rarely thought of Marshall Beatty, except in recalling the “bad beat” of the one improbable game.  Till much later, he never heard a thing about what he has since learned.


When the campus in Cambridge permitted a Spindoctor’s return, Marshall was ready to feed on hapless aficionados of the ‘cruelest game’ who had the temerity to gamble above their heads.  According to more or less reliable accounts, he cut such a deep swath through the caches of cash among such players that he soon found himself only able to find action for significantly higher stakes.

us backgammonAnd that presented various conundrums.  Having made himself mostly unwelcome among the folks who willingly wagered modest but potentially costly sums—stakes ranging from five to ten dollars a point, more or less—he confronted a landscape that began with playing for ‘quarters,’ or twenty-five dollars a point, and ranged upward from there to games that involved initial bets of a hundred dollars a game or so.

Not that the potential losses were unmanageable, on the contrary despite the hideous fallout in Aspen’s low-end real estate market in the realm of oil price shocks and stagflationary interest rates, Marshall was far from destitute.  He could gamely gamble for such quantities of cash—on a really bad night losing a few thousand dollars or so—without risking life and limb, or his and Veronica’s next meals or mortgage payments.  And he kept primarily winning; he was a scrapper, a tactical wizard, and relentless with the cube, even if his races still tended toward rudimentary play—at once too conservative and too optimistic.

However, precisely for these larger and yet still middling amounts, the level of skill was the highest, the competition most intense, the likelihood of encountering some clever shark who could plunder one’s resources the greatest.  Nonetheless, Marshall delved into this marketplace and made money, albeit not at the rate that would accommodate the style of life that he wanted to accustom himself to.

Throughout North America, he plied what for most players was at best a slightly profitable hobby into a trade.  While the exact rationale for moving further afield is beyond a Spindoctor’s ken, a reasonable guess is that travel and a slower rate of winning meant that his capital pool—a key component of every successful gambler’s labors—was constantly at risk.

At any event, in the Summer of 1984, despite interest rates and general economic strains that made the timing suspect, Vernonic and Marshall found a friend who was in the powder-trade, in which a market niche adjacent to the ski slopes—where a very different powdery substance prevailed—was always advantageous, and who, moreover, wanted a place of his own in Colorado.  A cash deal resulted, and more or less a hundred grand further padded the Beatty pot.

Immediately thereafter, he and Veronica made a grand tour of Europe and the good_evening_istanbul_by_kayshgk-d4uwks9Mediterranean—Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf States, among others—where he found all the action that he wanted and then some.  He never had a losing streak longer than a week; and he met, for the first time, some of the stratospheric high rollers whose monied roots dipped into Gulf oil and geopolitical royalties that promised unlimited funds to pay.

Apparently, the allure of playing for such an ante proved irresistible.  At five hundred or a thousand dollars per point, making twenty points per week—and his ‘profit target’ was more like fifty points every seven days—meant that increasing the personal investment fund that was his aggregate cash position was again attainable.

And the paradox of carrying his suave politesse among such contenders was that for the most part they were not only less capable players than he was but also were a far sight worse than the typical opponent for fifty dollars a point in the United States.  Thus, though the margin of safety had to be somewhere between nonexistent and as thin as a strand of hair, Mr. Beatty began to disport way above his head.

He fit in with the social set, no doubt of that.  Quiet smile and opaque equability resplendent under all circumstances, the Spindoctor can imagine the conversational turn when he first broached the subject of stakes in such a context.  “We should play,” he would intone, a smile tickling his lips, his eyes wide behind his tinted glasses, “for something meaningful.”  He would pause to gauge the effect of his words.

“Don’t you think?” he would conclude.  This is what he had said to the Spindoctor in 1974.  Only instead of the ‘nickels and dimes’ option that he pondered in the previous decade, a much bigger pie would be in play.

Facing him, the handsome, bejeweled, slickly attired fellow, as likely as not an actual Prince of one sort or another, would have nodded.  “So would you prefer five hundred or a thousand?”

money bills economyAnd whatever Marshall initially suggested, the follow-up was telling too.  “Pounds or dollars?  You’re American, right?  From the Southern States, if I’m not mistaken.”

And Marshall would smile broadly at the identification of his accent, even were he using his serviceable French, a lilting drawl so much less noticeable than when he left Greeneville with a curse from his father that followed his exit.  He’d shrug and tilt his head at the suggestion that he was a hick.  And then he would acknowledge that dollars would be dandy.  And for a month, he won a little and lost a little and realized that at this level, the money was affecting his killer cool and capacity to face down brutal redoubles and such.

In such a situation, a little known but ironclad rule of this sort of ongoing battle would inevitably have come into play.  The classic text, Chance, Luck, & Statistics, states it as follows: “If two players sit down to an equitable game of chance, the stakes being the same on each round, and if the first has ten times the available capital of the second, then the odds are 10 to 1 that the second player will be ruined before the first.”

Moreover, more unfortunately still from the point of view of the estimable backgammon contender at the center of this story, this deficiency rises exponentially as one faces more and more opponents similarly situated, i.e., with an advantage in terms of capitalization.  While Marshall had absolutely never read Horace Levinson’s introductory statistical monograph, he with equal certainty understood the issue intuitively.  When he first met the Spindoctor, he had been recovering from a period of ruin, against an at least somewhat inferior poker player who had immeasurably more money than Marshall did.

Nice Gilbert Bochenek
Nice Gilbert Bochenek

In Southern Europe, where Marshall set down roots to run his operation, he was playing again against lesser opponents, in terms of their capacities on a game-by-game, or even a session-by-session, basis.  But these scions of aristocratic and plutocratic wealth much more heavily dwarfed Marshall’s paltry few hundred thousand dollars in seed funding than a mere ten-to-one edge; as well, as noted, a coterie of these hungry young bettors were soon flitting around the parlors and cafes where Marshall would meet his foes, whom he hoped, consistently, to transform into his marks.

In such a situation, according to Levinson, the hapless challenger in Marshall’s position “is in effect playing a single game against an adversary who is immensely rich, and if he continues, his ruin becomes certain.”  This is what a youthful Mr. Beatty had encountered in an Aspen poker game already and what he sensed as the looming possibility in and around the villas where he played in Monte Carlo and the environs thereabouts.

What happened next is uncertain.  Quite likely, playing tight and setting strict loss-limits for a time, Marshall made some money; he was the superior player in every chouette or head-on-head session that he entered.

But as noted above, the Spindoctor’s friend back in Pitkin County, sixty-five hundred feet above sea level, had on different occasions acknowledged his honed abilities as a magician.  Also as pointed out previously, in the hideous session that came down to a huge game that Marshall won that November six o’clock morning in 1974, the Spindoctor had wondered whether fancy handed dice manipulation might have been a factor in the million-to-one adverse result.

In any event, the deployment of such legerdemain became at least an occasional weapon in Marshall’s arsenal.  And his rate of winning rose apace.  He was, within six months or so, well on his way to a million dollars ahead of where he had found himself when he and Veronica first rented some rooms and began their enterprise in Southern France.

If he had spent his victory money conservatively, no doubt, the totals would more likely have exceeded two million dollars or more ‘in the black.’  But he loved lavishing gifts on Veronica more or less equally as much as she loved his lavishing ways.

He swore that he would forego further fraudulence as soon as he had banked a million dollars, a fund a thousand times the maximum single point loss that he could experience.  Whether such a turning over a new leaf would have happened is anybody’s guess.

While he was minding his interests and scamming his increasingly discomfited

rivals, they no doubt were checking up on him.  Whether or not they discovered his having lost his inheritance, they certainly came to know that the reason that they didn’t play at Marshall’s home was that he had “cheap lodgings,” his generosity toward Veronica in the nature of clothes and jewels and other personal accoutrements rather than in terms of expensive rent.

Furthermore, these at least generally sophisticated men of business and the world, to a man ‘to the manor born,’ knew either intuitively or empirically the edge that they should have had as a consequence of their favorable capital position.  And they would have noticed Marshall’s shift in mien, to an almost sublimely confident belief in his victory on any given day.  Something had to explain that change, and the elucidation was clearly not a rich uncle’s generosity.

Perhaps more relevant still, having grown up with backgammon in their nursery schools, they would also have discerned the slight uptick in Marshall’s double-sixes and other long-odds victories.  It needn’t have been constant or blatant to be observable.  Once more, an explanation was necessary.

The conclusion, under those circumstances, would have turned a whisper into a chorus.  “He must be cheating.”

And the clock would have begun to tick on Mr. Beatty’s life expectancy.  Perhaps he bought Veronica, unannounced, a big insurance policy.  He almost certainly would have detected his foes’ suspicions, his psyche’s fine-tuning to such things at an almost preternatural level after the Kool-Aid incident in Columbia twenty years prior.

But his hands were indeed ‘faster than any eye,’ apparently, because no one could catch him in the act of manipulating a die in his favor.  “What can we do?” the frustrated accusers clearly must have asked.

And the answer, to men who regularly wagered a million dollars a year on casino games, would eventually have been palpable.  No one’s hands, after all, could be faster than a camera, an ‘eye-in-the-sky,’ so to speak.

When one day the scene of a chouette shifted to a private room, perhaps at Monte Carlo itself, Marshall would have almost definitely been especially cautious.  If the venue had continued in such environs, however, perhaps he allowed himself a single coup per session.

In any case, whenever that slip had transpired, those arrayed against him would have had irrefutable evidence that a pattern of behavior was behind their affable and oh-so-courteous adversary’s long string of victories.  And once these men had established this fact, which they knew would at some point become common knowledge among future competitors, only one possible end result was available.

Once again, as in the case of the Wicked Witch, the ‘only question was how to accomplish’ the necessary culmination.  And the final countdown to Marshall’s ultimate play had begun.

“Col de Braus-small” by Ericd cc 3.0

A Gambol Too Far, a Gamble Too High

Crushed and broken at the bottom of a thousand foot drop, more or less instantly dead of shock and trauma, consciousness obliterated: did the experience contain a moment of recognition?  Could it possibly have been truly accidental?

Such questions as these are unanswerable in terms of empirical certainty, while they are silly in terms of common sense probabilities.  Almost certainly, Marshall had a stunned sense that he had become a victim, even that his victimization was both unavoidable and his own doing; equally so, the eventuality was no more likely inadvertent than a political coup, when an observer must doubt that such a convenient outcome for money simply cannot rationally and probably be a random event.

Well might someone who encounters this story ponder its deeper parameters, its life lessons, its wider social significance or implicit contextual consequences.  For example, with enough information about the ongoing love connection between Marshall and Veronica, with further evidence about the Beatty family and its place in mill town South Carolina, with greater depth of insight about the expectations that Marshall had for manifesting his own development and personality, a chronicler could easily express many additional layers of meaning here.

As matters stand, though, a few points have adequate salience to state confidently.  Most obviously, to rob the rich and get away with one’s skin, one had best make a score and accomplish an exit without detection: repeated slicing away at the sausage (as the Chilean aphorism states the case, “robarse el salchichón”) of loot that underlies aristocratic wealth, no matter how clever or artful, will inevitably result in eventual exposure, with disastrous outcomes at best.

One might go on in this vein of balancing risk and gain.  Though the subject matter involved in this exercise may ultimately merit only a superficial rating, one can with some precision nevertheless express equities and prospects that accompany actions of a certain predatory cast that one conducts against equally rapacious rivals.  No matter the short-term benefits that attend this type of ledger, the bottom line entry will probably read, “Rest in Peace.”

At a more psychological or psychosocial level, thematic elements are also possible to imagine, despite the limitations on the data that are available for this telling.  For instance, one can certainly posit that, as Marshall’s little MG arced downward toward rocks hundreds of feet below, his consciousness quite plausibly approximated a winsome wish to have been happier with less cash flow, so that he might have reveled once more in Veronica’s embrace.

Even if he clung, till the final pounding smash-up, to the belief that he simply had to provide a definite well-heeled lifestyle to keep Veronica’s loyalty and love, one can clearly conjecture that, before the physical decimation took place, he might have wondered if such choices were not only worth the cost but also truly necessary.  The consciousness that complements such a final scene, almost by definition, cannot be readily knowable: no one can have come back to tell onlookers what it was like.

xM56RPerhaps a merely animal response is the final experience of life as regular breath and routine ideation.  In such a view, whatever mixture of terror and acceptance, of resignation and horror, that one feels is no more profound than an expletive, like “Oh shit!” or an interjection, like “Ouch!”

For purposes of providing some semblance of closure for a scribe and his readers alike, maybe something like the following will let us exit with a measure of equanimity and aplomb.  First, while playing at life as if it were a game is common enough, and as defensible as otherwise, the finishing touches bleed and hurt more than any loss on the board will ever do.

Second, and most relevant in terms of analyzing the societal implications of this tale, this occurrence really did occur, and if one wants to make sense of the world, this particular happenstance must be part of the skein that one ends up creating to reveal the nature of life as we lead it.  This brilliant man’s hurtling to his doom is a piece in the contemporary mosaic, a metaphor for all our fates, a nexus of contemplation and instruction to consider for everyone sentient enough to stare wide-eyed at the abyss.


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