Bonkers For Backgammon

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Katrina Valkenburg wants to play Backgammon with you.

Like the good girl that I was (and still am), when I turned 14 I duly found a job to supplement my growing needs and desires. The job was not unusual for a girl my age, a waitress in a particularly groovy area of Sydney that served great coffee and light snacks.

It was a hang for a certain Bohemian crowd who would sit for hours on end on one cup of coffee, play backgammon and gossip.

The boards were all wooden and inlaid with mother of pearl that had been loaned to the cafe by the manager, a Greek Lebanese by the name of Dimitri. The sound of wooden counters being slammed down on the board was exhilarating and, even though it’s an obvious strategy to put the opposing player off guard, I felt strangely excited.

In the quiet between lunch and afternoon service, he would teach me the game that would become an increasingly important element to my emerging adulthood.

He was a good teacher and I was an eager and willing student. He taught me not only strategy but also tactics to disarm your opponent like the slamming down of the counters. Dimitri, as his name implies, was a lover of all things that could be harvested and that included…well, for one thing…alcohol.

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Although the cafe was unlicensed it didn’t mean that there was none, it was hidden under the counter and was his mother’s specialty – arak.

The word arak comes from Arabic, meaning condensation (a similar sounding, but altogether different liquor is produced in Indonesia and also in Bali). This rather innocuous looking aniseed-flavoured liquor is widely popular in most countries bordering the Mediterranean. It is made by distilling fermented grape juice and is prepared quite simply with water or water and ice.

The mix is usually 1/3 arak and 2/3 water and, once diluted, turns from being clear to a translucent milky-white colour. Those who are regular readers will remember that the same is true of absinthe and other similar anise-flavoured liquors. This is due to the essential oil in anise that is soluble in alcohol but not in water.

For a young and impressionable girl, playing backgammon with a suave, obviously sophisticated European man many years my elder, drinking arak on a Saturday afternoon was intoxicating.

Having once been repelled by the smell of the liquor I quite quickly became enamoured with it.

A couple of years went by before I was given my own backgammon board, not a traditional wooden board like those from the middle east, but a vinyl and fake-felt set that closed up and could be carried as a case.

For years I would practise by myself in bed, always playing the white side, but fairly – as in, I didn’t cheat. Funnily enough, white usually won but that wasn’t the point. I became good, really good at the game.

Soon, after turning 17, I saw an advertisement for a backgammon competition being held in a small, exclusive nightclub in Sydney. Although underage, I never had any trouble being admitted as an over 18-year-old, so I registered for the event.

I had a couple of araks to ply me with fortitude and played about 20 matches before being named the winner – a cash prize of $2,500 – an enormous sum in the mid 1970s. It was then that my disgruntled opponent finalist suggested looking at my driver’s licence for proof of age. As I pulled it out of my wallet I knew I’d been busted. Poof went the elation and the money and out the door I was thrown. No doubt that miserable good-for-nothing reaped the reward.

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However, this setback was what I needed to move forward with my game.

I moved to London and after a number of years working at a drudgy job I took off to explore Europe with a couple of girlfriends in a Combi Van. My backgammon board came with me, resplendent with a new sticker of the Australian flag that had the stars replaced with the ubiquitous leaf of a generation of great Australian wanderers adhered to its outer casing.

The Greek Isles were first, specifically, Ios, well known as the party island. Without a real job, monies were running decidedly low before I figured out that I could gamble on dinner.

I set up my trusty board each afternoon at a table in a local taverna at the harbour where passengers disembarked. They would be hot and thirsty and I had just the solution – a glass of Ouzo (the Greek equivalent to arak) to whet the appetite and get the chat going. Soon enough the chat would turn to my board and then I had them. I told them I wouldn’t play for money but if I won, they could buy me dinner.

All went swimmingly until the local policeman got wind of my scheme and put a swift end to it – he’d seen the sticker on the board and decided that I must be a drug smuggler or, at the very least, user. We’d all seen Midnight Express and the idea of being holed up in some filthy, stinking jail was not my idea of fun.

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So we moved on to Italy where the penalties for being young and naive were not so great. Unfortunately that meant I had to say goodbye to my Ouzo happy-juice. But a solution miraculously presented itself on the very first night – Grappa.

Grappa is another liquor made from distilling the skins, pulp, seeds and stems of grapes. It’s usually served as a digestive but in my case it was an aperitif. A couple of grappa’s, a couple of games with unwitting locals and dinner was served.

Italy soon blurred into France and I was on to Pernod in Val d’Isere and Paris.

The story was always the same – they played, they paid.

Returning to Australia nearly 20 kilos heavier than I’d left attested to my successful game. How unfortunate it was that I didn’t stop off in India on my way home to get a sun tan, drink the local version of arak with fresh Ganges water and get dysentery.

Play, Eat, Leave!

Wine On.

Katrina Valkenburg is a wine consultant and educator.

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