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2 July 2023

Sibling rivalry at backgammon has only one winner: not me

Up to London for the first day of the Ashes Test, and all I get is a hangover, Australian ascendancy and a fraternal pasting.

By Nicholas Lezard

Off to London for the first day of the Test at Lord’s. How can I afford to go to Lord’s? you may ask. The short answer is I can’t. The slightly longer answer is: this magazine paid me a couple of days earlier than expected, so I didn’t have to borrow any more money off my brother. This is just as well, as I decided to stay at his home the night before so I didn’t have to face a morning train journey from Brighton. He lives only a few stops away from Lord’s on the Jubilee Line, and has a very nice spare bedroom. And a cat. And a garden. And a high-definition TV. And a functioning marriage. And… well, you get the idea. Not that I begrudge him any of this, for he is amusing and is slightly shorter than me, and when people are introduced to us as a pair we are asked which one of us is the older, which I think is hilarious (I am, by five years).

The only snag with visiting him is that at some point, the backgammon board will come out. Now, I like a game of backgammon. I’m not too bad at it. I once played my friend the excellent journalist Yiannis Baboulias and thrashed him. Greeks think they are the best backgammon players in the world and after a few games he started looking at the board suspiciously, as if I had somehow tampered with it.

My brother’s board, though… a 50th birthday present, it is about the size of a table. The pieces are metal-rimmed, the size of hockey pucks and about as heavy as a cricket ball. There is a great deal of leather involved. And the dice are precision-engineered by Cern in some incredibly fancy way to ensure that there isn’t the slightest possibility of bias. The doubling cube is hefty enough to serve as a murder weapon, deliberately imposing in size to make each deployment by my brother seem more like an act of doom than a tactical way of raising the stakes.

I remember a time when a game of backgammon with my brother was not only entertaining, but carried with it the faint prospect of victory. Those days are long gone. My brother is good at backgammon. Very good. He popped into the Cambridge Open a few days ago and was runner-up, losing to someone who was the 30th best player in the world. My brother writes his own backgammon programs. He captains the MCC team. (I think he founded the MCC team.) He plays every day. I haven’t played since I last saw him, which was when? Neither of us can remember. Probably some time around Christmas.

So I was humiliated even more profoundly than I was last time. In my defence, drink had been taken, and the dice may have been tamper-proof but they were taking the mickey out of me. The number of 1-2 throws I managed was shockingly against any statistical likelihood. Even my brother acknowledged this, as he rolled another handy double. “Well, you make your own luck in this game,” he said, so I killed him with the doubling cube.

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OK, I didn’t really. We went to the living room to watch an episode of Strange New Worlds, the Star Trek prequel I am fond of. That proved disconcerting. Here is how I watch TV: on my laptop, a Lenovo E130 that has seen better days and whose screen, diagonally, is 11 and a bit inches. My feet are bigger than that. And the picture quality is all you’d expect from something you can buy second-hand for £80.

So I had gone from watching everything tiny, and as if through a veil, to watching the most minute detail. I was most amazed by the captain of the Enterprise’s hair, which has been modelled on Keir Starmer’s and is for some reason even more alarming. I was also amazed by the special effects, and not in a way I was expecting. They all looked less convincing: cheaper and more unlikely. I started coming over all Baudrillard. How is it, in the arena of the hyper-real, everything seems less real? Seriously, if I was French, I’d have got a book deal and a TV series out of this thought the very next day. So we stayed up until far too late and played backgammon until I wept.

The next day, crippled by a hangover (me), we went to Lord’s. We were looking forward to a day of Bazball: of exciting cricket where we put the frighteners on Australia. There is a magic in the roar of a large crowd, and an even more potent magic in the roar of a large crowd watching Australia getting beaten.

History records what actually happened. Australia batted slowly but surely, sucking the life out of the bowlers and the crowd. It was one of the dullest days I have ever spent at a cricket match. I left early. When the fun stops, stop.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer the British François Hollande?]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia