Written by Robert Wachtel
In a previous article, I described the chouette, the basic form of live group backgammon play, as a “king of the hill” competition in which the “king,” called “the box,” plays (and bets) against a team of players, represented by a “captain.”
The captain must ultimately decide on each move the team makes; and so it is only natural that his teammates (“the crew”), whose money is on the line, help him make these decisions. Of course their suggestions, to be persuasive, ought not be mere expressions of opinion. Instead they should be supported by reasoning – and, time and brainpower permitting, by actual calculation. The captain, for his part, ought to give every one of these arguments a fair hearing – and, like a learned judge in a court of law, come to a conclusion based upon all the evidence available.
But this lofty model of polite, rational dialogue is never realized in practice. The chouette style of “full consultation” among team members, which evolved along with the backgammon boom of the 60s and 70s in the New York “gentlemen’s clubs,” instead led to confrontations more evocative of the fight scenes from The Gangs of New York than the starchy deductions of a Perry Mason episode. Indeed, it is quite impossible, in this limited space, to even give you a taste of the venomous sarcasm, hyperventilation, tantrum-throwing and insult that characterized the typical team-captain discussion in this era, especially at legendary New York club, the Mayfair. Suffice it to say that although this environment was endlessly educational and entertaining, and created an intellectual ferment that nurtured every one of the best backgammon players of that generation, it was hardly to everyone’s taste.
It is not at all surprising, therefore, that quite the opposite social decisions were made on the west coast, where “do your own thing” was the non-confrontational mantra of the 70s subculture. In Los Angeles, the chouette evolved in purely “non-consulting” form. Here the crew members were absolutely prohibited, at any point in a game, from communicating their opinions to the captain. This rule made for quicker, and almost frictionless action; but the crew members were forced to stand by like statues while (as usual), captain hacked up the beautiful position they had reached when they all doubled the box. Grinning and bearing it, his teammates cursed the captain, his family, and all of his present and future offspring — under their breath.
Although various hybrids of the two styles have emerged in later years, especially in the flyover states between the coasts, the consulting and non-consulting forms of chouette are still with us. In my next article, I will describe the very different skills that each form requires of a successful player.