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Who is Your Backgammon Coach?

by Christine Merser

In the 1970s, Prince Alexis Obolensky taught me how to play backgammon. My father was a benefactor of the prince, “Obie,” and he played with him often when he was in New York City — all day and well into the night. I’m not sure how much my father ended up paying him, or if he always lost; I just know that my stepmother would make a wonderful dinner, and the two would break for a half hour to eat and then continue to play long after we’d all gone to bed. When I was around, Obie would dutifully play five to ten games with me. He taught me opening moves, overall strategy, and a bit about the doubling cube, but not so much that I recall formulating a strategy around it. Then there were some fun things that he taught me that turned out not to be real, like a bineky (pronounced bine-ne-key), where if both players have the same opening roll of the dice, there’s an automatic doubling of the cube. Maybe he did that so that when he was playing with my father, the cube would start out on two — an advantage for him, I would think. Anyway, in the group I was playing in, which was not the circuit, I was the best of the bunch, so I didn’t pay much attention to developing my game. Then, in the early 1980s, I stopped playing with anyone other than one friend who got better over the years, while I didn’t.

Two years ago, I reconnected with an old boyfriend from the 1970s, who is into the game, and all of a sudden, at this later stage of my life, I began to really involve myself in playing. I am surrounded by very strong players now, and meeting Karen Davis last year, my co-founder of Women in Backgammon, made me sit up and take notice. While she is considered one of the best women players in the world, it’s the way she works at her game that stands out to me. She studies the game and plays for hours each day. She examines her matches and sets goals for what she would like to accomplish. She is purposeful, and I love to be around her. She is committed to helping create a stronger field, which involves including more women in the tournaments.

Then I played in Candace Mayeron’s tournament in California. If you are someone looking to begin playing in tournaments, hers is a great one at which to get your feet wet because while she takes no prisoners in her quest to run a strictly organized tournament, she is relentless in pushing participants to do more, meet others, and play!

I met some women at Candace Mayeron’s tournament, and I learned they all had coaches. I played competitive tennis and rode horses, and I had trainers and coaches in both. It was interesting to me that I’d never thought about having a backgammon coach, so about six months ago, I set out to find one. I had a few training sessions with some of the names on the circuit, and I found them to be, well, not my cup of tea.

Then I watched Zdenek Zizka play in a mixed doubles match that we sponsored at Women in Backgammon. I went back and listened to my interview with “ZZ” and his mother in Los Angeles last December. ZZ hails from Eastern Europe and is currently the youngest backgammon grandmaster in the world . I reached out to him, and two weeks later, I’d had four lessons with him. He analyzed two matches I played last week, and I’ve determined I’m going to be a different player going forward. I have made a commitment of time (which is not something I have in excess in this stage of my life). I want to play more, and I want to win. ZZ’s teaching style is fun, serious, and quick (I’m thankful to be spared from a teacher who goes on and on and on!), and he is positive, but critical. I like critical.

Because of Women in Backgammon and our newly formed circle of women helping women to compete, I have spoken to a lot of “me”s out in the field. I know that having a coach can be an expensive endeavor, but I can see that it’s a critical element to really changing one’s game. Watching our (fabulous!) videos is great, but truth be told, one-on-one coaching is not something that should be ignored.

So I put on my thinking cap to figure out how we can provide coaching for others and ourselves as we seek to take the tournament world by storm. I believe that increasing our awareness of and participation in competitive backgammon depends on women receiving coaching. Here is what I’ve come up with:

Bring on a coach.

ZZ charges $150 per hour. I know that is a lot for some, so I suggest that even if it’s once a month or every two months, you give it a try, but look around to find the right fit. It took me a number of months, and I’m thrilled with where I’ve ended up.

Ask someone better than you to help you.

If you play with someone at a tournament, or in club play, and they are clearly ahead of you in their play development, ask them to play with you now and again and tell you after you make a move what you could have done better. Women love helping women!

Coaching Support from Women in Backgammon.

We are working hard to raise money to provide the support women need to get the coaching that will help raise the level of their game. We award $300 toward match recordings and review for women in each tournament we are supporting (five this first inaugural year). More importantly, we hope to assist with match review and coaching assistance in the coming months as we gain support from our donors. More to follow on this and we welcome your ideas and support!

So, moving forward, watch for me to play more tournaments, and move over; I am in it to win it! Wish me good dice and total focus!

Christine Merser is a writer and co-founder of Women in Backgammon. She lives in Maine and New York City and would love to play if anyone is interested.

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