The onset of winter brings with it the lure of winter sports, by which of course I mean indoor backgammon tournaments. When people ask what I do to keep fit, I reply that backgammon is my sport – although few of them seem to grasp the huge demands that backgammon can make on the human body.
I learnt the game on a plane when I was about 10 or 11 years old. In those days I flew as an unaccompanied minor – this was 1975 or so – and was sitting next to a rather precocious American child of similar age who had a backgammon set. In a bravura display of beginner’s luck, I learnt the game and managed to beat him on the short hop between London and Munich. I felt very pleased with myself and upon landing persuaded my aunt to buy me a very handsome set in coffee-coloured leatherette with a gorgeous brown velvet playing surface.
This early introduction to a healthy sport has served me well throughout my adult life. In summer it gets me out into the fresh air of the upper pool at the Marbella Club, where I play epic backgammon sessions with Beijing-based art dealer Fabien Fryns sustained by Coke Zero and Havana cigars (the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions), and in winter it is a simple matter of moving the playing field indoors.
The best backgammon tournaments I can recall were ones that I used to arrange with Mark Birley at this time of year back in the mid-1990s and which, for a couple of years, were sponsored by Audemars Piguet. Mark was kind enough to offer his house as the venue; a citadel of civilised values in a world that was already getting pretty barbarous. These tournaments were superb affairs: great dinners – I seem to recall an excellent chilled lobster soufflé; good wines – I still drank; a little musical accompaniment; and of course a perfect playing surface for the sporting element of the evening.
The finals were always played on the Centre Court, so to speak, of backgammon, Mark’s very own Hermès board. It had a leather-covered frame, but the playing surface was tapestry and, callow neophyte that I was in the ways of the world, I asked Mark why he had chosen a tapestry surface, when I would have thought that a leather covering would have been more in the Hermès line of country.
In answer, he rolled the dice almost soundlessly onto the playing surface and explained that he found the reduction in noise compared to playing on a traditional leather or wooden board much less disturbing. These considerations were important, bearing in mind that he was a man who, when I once rang his house and asked to speak to him, was told that he was unable to come to the phone because he was “busy relaxing”.
Of course what I like about backgammon is the sporting apparel – it is a game best played in a dinner jacket, and over the years I have come to realise that comfort is as important as smartness, when, as can happen, the dice rattle till dawn. Accordingly I tend to play the game in a blue needlecord dinner jacket based on one worn by the Duke of Windsor (his was bottle green). This superlative piece of sportswear was made me for me by Terry Haste some 15 or so years ago and, like all the best items of sportswear, it is a true crossover garment. Although it is perhaps not quite as versatile as other items of sportswear – should I happen to have to rush straight from an all-night game to take the children to school, I might look a little out of place at the school gates.