Akavelki in the Eschaton
By Simon Barget
In the year 2013 of the era of the Eschaton, Akavelki remains a fringe pursuit operating under its old name of ‘backgammon’.
A is a regular attendee of a club whose location sits a few miles spatially to the north of the London metropolis in a sleepy outreach known as Saint Alban’s. This club convenes on a Tuesday evening at a lacklustre public house and offers its participants a knock-out tournament for a voluntary cash contribution, such contribution fully returned in a prize fund which can total as much as £350 on a good night. A has attended for aeons, the evening in general conferring a great source of anticipated pleasure upon him come Tuesday morning. By profession he styles hair, an occupation which though acceptable to him, does not confer the unbridled pleasure that does Akavelki. The competition. The winning. The exuberant gesture with which he launches the dice from the dice cup. The waiting for dice to settle flat on board surface. The supreme tactility of the movement of the checkers. He is a likeable hot-headed passionate type whose exterior of self-assuredness belies his interior unrest and self-doubt. He is also of the race of the Israelians.
One evening in the Autumn, B turns up to the club for the first time, unannounced. B is known in the Akavelki community as a competent, if not, highly-skilled player and C, organiser and presider of the club welcomes him with enthusiasm, not only because of this competence but also because C is a bestower of warm welcomes by nature. It might be said that this welcome was particularly warm owing to the reputation of player B, but this is a cynical contention and I would dispute it. C asks nothing more than that his participants behave within the bounds of common decency, i.e. he is well-spirited and magnanimous enough to credit them with a working knowledge of social mores and trusting enough that they will apply this knowledge, and this then obviates the need for him to formulate exhaustive rules. And even where he has formulated such rules, he refrains from applying them. That’s really how much of hands-off, easy-going dude C is. B and C engage in amicable pleasantries a propos of nothing much, all whilst B surveys his new surroundings, taking in the ochre lozenge-patterned carpet, the wood panelling, the numerous and inconsequential photographs of the local area hung on the mis-en-relief wallpaper, the wall-mounted TV, all the ornate Akavelki boards laid out like jewelled prizes and he seeks to bid hello to those other faces who are known to him by virtue of his previous dealings in Akavelki and who he knows attend the club and therefore expects to see. B proceeds to pass a remark to the best known amongst them, T, about the pleasant atmosphere, and T receives the remark in a display of accord and a demonstration that these are precisely his feelings too.
A spies B. His interest has been piqued. He wonders who B is, and understanding by way of remarks made by C to A in the order of ‘you finally came, did you?’, which he overhears, C’s animated tone connoting that C appreciates that though B might think he was of a playing ability which left it neither here nor there as to whether he would ever bother turning up, the very fact of his presence seems to suggest that there is still something within this club paradigm that makes it worthwhile attending, and as soon as A perceptively understands this subtle contextual framework, A feels keen to challenge B to a game, which he duly does.
A’s belief in his own Akavelki ability is slightly more complex than the simple aphorism ‘I am the best’, although this wouldn’t be a wildly unreasonable elucidation, if only in the interests of succinctness. In more detail though: A has an unwavering belief in his own ability. No, he’s not blockheaded enough to be unable to concede that there are better players than him in the world, or this would make him the world’s best player, an embarrassing and even outlandish thing to believe. He possesses the prevailing backgammon software of the day whose features include a function that evaluates a player's ability by way of comparing a normalised digression from the computer’s own self-evaluated ‘optimal’ play. So A knows that his playing ability corresponds to the number 7.5, which places him amongst the ‘Expert’ category, a figure known as Performance Rating or PR, and the lower this figure, the theoretically better the player. If he is really honest with himself, he discards some of his matches’ results which don’t support his conviction that his playing strength corresponds to about 7.5, which has the obvious effect of artificially lowering the figure, so his true PR is more in the magnitude of 9.8. But let’s not split hairs. It is a crude measure, and anything can happen. A does not disregard this figure (7.5) nor does he place an enormous amount of reliance on it. It puts him well near the top of the pile as far as this club is concerned. Ostensibly he believes very much in the ‘psychology’ of the game rather than just the science. What he truly believes, is that he feels and is somehow convinced of, and he could not say from where he derives such conviction, that he has this unfettered right to beat anyone he comes across, whether outright beginner or five-time world champion and that from the reality somehow follows the belief. This sounds far-fetched but it’s really true, and this unassailable strength of conviction leads him to believe that he is just an unparalleled player of Akavelki and that you’re gonna have a goddam tough time beating him. If you’ll pardon the inexplicable descent into American vernacular.
Without even having gone into a thorough analysis into it himself, we can set out a few key features of his interior landscape, being: 1) he can use board presence to discombobulate or diminish the other player; 2) he can conjure up the dice rolls he needs at will, when concentrating hard enough and tapping into something other-worldly 3) his intuition is so deep that even the computer programme fails to understand his moves; and 4) he’s Israeli and Israelis are just fucking good shesh-besh players. And A’s unwavering sense of self-belief still holds water when you look at the meticulously ordered results web-page, since he maintains a respectable 55% win-rate after a statistically significant number of matches, impressive, yes, not the best, but well up there, and you know what, sometimes he takes his foot off the gas, and though it’s not in the spirit of competition to suggest this, he sometimes feels that there are things of greater value than winning that match so he gives his opponent more of a chance than they might have otherwise had.
So A is there. B is there. Nothing so much of interest happens at this juncture. They sit down on opposite sides of A’s board. They play for a small wager. B wins a small amount as the luck runs in his favour. A makes no conclusion about B’s playing ability. If he really has to be honest, he hardly even notices B’s moves. Which he always is, because he’s a ruthlessly honest Israelian.
Now it so transpires that though B goes on to lose in the first round of the knock-out tournament, he feels such an affinity for the place, that he has no doubt there and then that he will return the following week. Something about it that B cannot quite put his finger on, something ineffable. We can speculate that B’s return is due to a combination of factors: the relaxed and convivial atmosphere, the sense of openness and airiness of the playing room, the good generally available artificial light often hard to come by in London-based public houses and the inevitable resulting good humour of the other participants which B correspondingly feels and basks in. B has done nothing to make his mark, nothing to corroborate his reputation as a player of high ability but hey, that’s not what it’s all about. Not that this is in any way a contributing factor towards B’s subsequent return. Meanwhile A and B have actually conversed, made small talk, and A has found out that B is Jewish and has lived in Israel and B has found out that A’s son is either due or hoping to study law at the University of Oxford, an endeavour which B expresses great admiration and excitement for and in regard to which A dutifully feigns a corresponding excitement. B discovers that A’s hairdressing salon is located in Regent’s Park Road, literally footsteps from B’s family home in Finchley N3 and a commensurate amount of surprise and interest is evinced in both participants’ reaction to this discovery, and surely then, in some small way they bond.
But on this second occasion, his second appearance, a quite awful and unnecessary thing happens before the knock-out tournament even commences, which B is unable to deal with i.e. handle properly, and the whole thing leaves a very bad taste in the mouth of both affected parties. What happens is this: - B is standing next to one of the side walls in the playing area such that were someone in need of retrieving something from their bag which they had quite innocently and unthinkingly placed behind B upon the wall’s perimeter ledge that abuts the entirety of the wall and forms a barrier between the back of the bench-like sofas and that wall, they would need to negotiate their way past B or ask B to pass the item to them in order to retrieve that item. And this is exactly what happens here. P, a fairly unassuming, kind, if slightly forthright, middle-aged lady, – and longstanding participant -- comes over to collect her bag and in doing so probably doesn’t even see B, or doesn’t think for one moment that B’s physical body might be impending her route to her bag so, in a way, she just charges straight for it, oblivious to any unperceived obstacle, and, instead of negotiating a pass-through by way of verbal request or some spontaneous non-verbal gesture, she simply proceeds to push past B. This presumptuous movement gets B immediately thinking or feeling that this unknown lady has violated a social understanding, that this is just not the way to go about getting bags from ledges, and in that instant where all sorts of thoughts rush through our head, B is trying to work out what the hell is going on here i.e. what he should do or say. But as she’s not quite at the bag yet and would really need to barge B out of the way to reach it, she is now at an impasse, and B decides for better or for worse not to move at all, which decision manifests itself more in a stony and wilful demonstration of non-movement, rather than any real conspicuous action on his part, and P then realises that she cannot retrieve her bag, whereupon she is utterly bemused and casts a look at B conveying daggers. But B still does not move, and P is forced into saying: ‘can you move please?,’ which utterance you might have guessed is far from neutral and is suffused with all the attendant anxiety and frustration that B has unnecessarily provoked in P by sticking to his stupid guns. Just to get her bloody bag; how bloody difficult can it be etc? And B flatly says ‘no’, a response which he, for better or for worse, feels almost paralysed or destined into giving, so that P is then actually forced into barging B out of the way, although this is not akin to some great catapulting shove but more of a flirt or a brush, finally causing B to realise he has to give up the ghost and relinquish his obstinate bag-guarding sentry. And she gets the bag and takes out of what she needs. Thankfully, no participant takes against B, no extraneous person says anything about his, at best, unusual conduct and proceedings retake their usual course. But B is worried; a worry that comes there and back to the less observable parts of his own psyche at times over the evening, which worry is naturally displaced by the distractions of Akavelki and social gathering, but it’s still there. He fears that P has gone away in this absolute certitude that this new, unknown person has just been grossly unpleasant and rude to her and that this certitude will certainly encourage her to make mention of it to other longstanding participants of the club in order to have her suspicion that B is an offensive boor confirmed. And then people won’t like B etc.
The following week B returns. And for better or for worse he tries not to feel any recriminations over the bag incident. And this is when his luck is more propitious. He wins 1st round, 2nd, semi-final and lo and comes to meet A in the final. They are facing each other for the second time. Now A means business and B can feel it, he’s more than confident, determined, almost gritted-teeth determined. He throws the dice with intent and moves the checkers with an absolute chirurgical precision. His win is easy and A duly congratulates him, and A is wondering, really, can anyone beat him, when he’s in this frame of mind, -- although many have -- and B for his part is aware that although A has a certain facility with the checkers in that he moves them with an obvious well-informed notion as to where they should be placed as to maximise his game-winning chances, he sees many blinding weaknesses in A’s ability in relation to the doubling cube. In short, he is too keen to double the stakes when the odds aren’t sufficiently in his favour. Or so B thinks. But B is far from an authority, just a competent or perhaps very competent player.
And B comes back next week and as the gods will have it, meets A in the final again. Again A wins. Yes he takes home the first prize cash money again, but, who can challenge him? B even believes that A has played very well this time and is a worthy victor and tells him so post match. A is grateful.
Four times B has come. And despite the distasteful ‘P’ incident, he makes it a mental fixture in his weekly calendar. But this is when the real incident happens which relegates the ‘P’ incident to the realm of triviality. A and B are playing each other but now in the optional consolation tournament, and before the commencement of proceedings, probably without much thought, A requests that B shake his dice properly i.e. at least 3 or 4 shakes, because he has noticed that B does not shake his dice properly and without considering that perhaps, just perhaps, this request is merely a thing arising out of A’s complex interior psychology and not something that he has only ever asked B in order to upset B, who has now been unearthed as a criminally under-enthusiastic dice-shaker, this is something that he probably asks everyone, well maybe not a player who he fears or really respects, but anyway, B seems to take this the wrong way, and as a sleight upon his person, and an attempt to control him, which sets off all sorts of interior associations relating to control issues that he has only just started getting to grips and that have featured so heavily in his formative years within his dysfunctional family situation. So B demurs and says he thinks that he shakes the dice ok, and A smarts slightly but mercifully does not insist and the game goes on, but the reason for mentioning this primary disturbance is that we can be certain that it informs and has a bearing upon the main secondary disturbance shortly to follow, where B flatly refuses A’s request that he place the checkers in the checker trays once B has borne them off the board rather than just deposit them willy-nilly on the table surface, which for those not familiar with Akavelki is the entire purpose of the game, i.e, to take off all of your 15 checkers before your opponent has managed to do the same. But now A becomes enraged. He cannot understand why anyone should refuse to acquiesce to any of his entirely reasonable requests. This is the second perverse refusal, is it not? And he really starts to believe that this guy/idiot/nobody we know as B is wilfully disrespecting him by treating the checkers in his board in a neglectful manner, plus having come all the way up to this point in the game after repeatedly not shaking his dice as he should, and yes he is really fuming inside now and does not know how to get this very real wrath out, and on top of that he loses the match, and a few more things are said, but B is being slippery and won’t admit to his wilful neglect and his wrongdoing and A just thinks I have had it with this guy and walks away. A propos of nothing, B goes on to win this consolation tournament.
Well, B is really the blockhead here because little does he know how incensed he has made A, how disrespectful he’s been and he returns next week without the slightest guilt-tinged thought only to find that A refuses to play in the same pre-tournament communal non-tournament game as A, a game where more than two players can play, and B is really almost flabbergasted, because he never could imagine that he had caused such upset, and he starts thinking now that he has upset not just A but also P and god-knows-who-else like he always goes and does, because he is just a difficult person. Yet strangely he still really doesn’t feel like he has done anything wrong, so nothing really more is said, and A plays in one game and B in the other.
Next week (no. 6), and B now wins the tournament outright, but nothing much of consequence happens outside this. Week 7 is eventless. Neither player features in the final. Week 8. Fireworks. Real violent earth-shattering disfiguring conflict. Shouting, screaming, primal expression, expletives, the lot, bar blows. The largest tournament turn out so far, 24, and the room is full. B is a whisker away from not coming as he’s shot from that day’s run, but he comes and who is he drawn to play against, at random? Correct. But look how blockheaded B really is. Because he’s about to go up to A and make preliminary and respectful mutterings about sitting down to play. Not in the slightest has he entertained the notion that A will simply not play him. Meaning not that A could force B to be cast out of the tournament, but that A has bowed out of the tournament rather than have to endure the ignominy of having to sit opposite this person from whom ‘hatichat hara mizdayen batachat’. B goes through to the next round with an effective bye and no shame whatsoever. A is not even in the region of the draw-sheet table that’s how much he has moved on, when B, who has no idea at all, asks C what’s going on, why has B’s name been crossed out from the drawsheet, whereupon C plainly and matter-of-factly informs B that ‘ A’ won’t play him’. And you know what, B just thinks ok, that’s a surprise but that’s his business and not mine, and why should it reflect on me, B? Could you ever come across a person so unsuspecting, blind, callous and unaware of his effect on other people?
But here’s the conflict. After his graceful bowing out gesture, although of course there was no option available to him, all A wants now is to get stuck into a juicy game of Akavelki, i.e. to play in a communal non-tournament game and although he probably might have seen B sitting there about to start against F, who, i.e. B, is waiting for his quarter-final opponent, he is forced into doing almost exactly the same thing that P was forced into a few weeks ago, namely, the pushing of B out of the way so that he can do what he needs to do, which is to sit opposite F himself. But B has other insane ideas, does not budge and A is forced into mouthing expletives which he really doesn’t want to do, but which are necessary in the circumstances in the form of the rhetorical question: “why don’t you just piss off?”. But believe me when I say this, for it is not a word of a lie, because B does not piss off at all, far from it, he does not move an inch, because in the blinking of an eye he has decided he must goddam stand up for himself for once in his pathetic little life seeing that he’s 38 already, despite perhaps being fully culpable and vile and reprehensible, and he responds to A: ‘who do you think you’re talking to here?’ With some emphasis and some presence and even a measure of gusto. And this is just the last straw for A, in whom something clicks, and he raises his voice and proceeds into an entire disquisition on how B has upset not just him but next to almost everyone in the club since that sorry day he turned up, and no one will have the guts to say this apart from A who is an honest Israelian, and by now the public house has become almost silent, and you know what, B just sits there impassive, as if he’s done nothing wrong at all and like it’s water off the duck’s back. He even appears quite calm about things. Incidentally, P just happens to be sitting next to F and has finally and thankfully got corroboration on what she really knew beyond any doubt, that B is a little cunt, and in the end, C is forced to come and adjudicate after a very subdued and compassionate entreaty by a further player, M, to settle their scores. And, I’m sorry, but this is where it gets ridiculous, as B now repeats to C what he has just stated to M, that he is happy to play with A in this very game here, after the ‘why don’t you just piss off’ and what has just been said. I mean, who the fuck does he think he is, Jesus of Finchley? And C is out of his mind because he actually reprimands A for his language and says it cannot be tolerated, and A says well ok, he won’t come here any longer, and he leaves the public house.
Well that’s basically it. That night A sends a long email to C saying how much he loves playing and explaining the situation basically as recounted above and C drafts a long deliberate reply wherein he expresses first and foremost gratitude for the lengthy email explanation, that he can fully understand A’s position of course but must nevertheless remind A of the essential nature of a club set-up, being that all sorts of people will come along with all sorts of idiosyncrasies etc and that one must be flexible and understanding in one’s attitude, in order to get along with them, even forgiving, and yes A is naturally incredulous but he agrees to bury the hatchet, he will shake B’s excrement-covered hand if just for C’s sake, and C is grateful and relieved because he has thankfully restored order and now all he wants is a simple confirmation from B to which end he drafts a perfectly expressed, wonderfully apposite email whose very basic request he’s certain B will and cannot decline; which is that next time B comes, he will give a sufficient degree of notice of his arrival, that he will shake A’s very clean and dextrous hand, and that he will submit to a short chat with C before the evening’s proceedings commence in earnest.
And how do you think B replies?