Takhteh is more than a game for me

March 5, 2003
The Iranian

My grandfather taught me takhtenard (backgammon) when I was 7 or 8. Ever since then, it's been a life long passion.

It took me a while to get the hang of it. When I was little, and still stumbling with the board and trying to figure out my next move, I would grow increasingly frustrated at Gramps beating me for the hundredth time in a row. But, since I am as stubborn as he is, I would never give up.

Takhteh is more than a game for me. It is a scared thing. An addiction. A test of human nature and a clash of the wills. I am not saying I ended friendships over a backgammon game. I am simply saying playing the game with someone taught me a lot about them and may have changed my outlook.

For example, take my mom. She is the BIGGEST CHEATER you will ever meet. And all with this innocent batting-my-eyelash routine. A math whiz since she was three, she expects me to believe that she mistakenly added a 2 + 1 roll of the dice to equal joft-shish (double six dice). All this nonsense revealed a much more moozy (cunning) sense of competition than I had ever expected in her.

My friend Sherry on the other hand was impeccably straitlaced. Holding the game to be sacred, like me, she would never stoop so low as to desecrate its sanctity with two penny tricks like my mom. We played for hours, I mean HOURS, on end. Under the shade of trees, sitting on the grass. In the middle of an ice storm, while on an 8 hour train ride to Quebec City. (I kid you not).

But the only problem was... What a boaster!!! Oh my god, I shuddered every time she seemed to take the upper hand. She would then unleash the most crushing korkoree (boasting) and put-downs of her champion's skills until I was ready to fling the board at her head. I soon found that I could not continue playing with her for the sake of my sanity.

At the highlight of my addiction and in peak takhteh-playing form, I had to move to this little provincial town in Canada where I was the only Iranian around. No exaggeration. I put my takhteh in my suitcase nonetheless. You may as well have tried to amputate my leg than to try to pry my beloved board away from me.

After making some Waspy acquaintances, I shyly suggested to introduce them to the game. To my big surprise, they took to it more ferociously than flies to honey. It got to a point where I could not come out to any social gathering, be it a simple coffee at the local bakery, or a full-fledged Halloween party, without bringing the takhteh.

If I came down the stairs and my friends were waiting for me in their car, I could see their eyes glowing unnaturally in the night like a bunch of crack addicts waiting for their pusher. I had addicted a whole other culture with my disease!

It's funny how takhteh outlines West-East cultural differences. While board games are considered nerdy and feminine in the West, in the Middle-East and Asia takhteh, chess, checkers and others are more testosterone-laden than Russel Crowe's bicep.

In the Iran, you always see men, young and old, gathered at the local ghahveh-khaaneh (coffeehouse) with a murderously serious look on their faces, not even an eyebrow pointing in the wrong direction, as they feverishly kiss then toss the dice and advance or retreat their pawns. This male obsession goes as Eastwards as China and Japan.

In the West, male exploits are largely associated with physical feats such as extreme sports. Not to say that those don't require thought and strategy, but I think it is cool how Middle Eastern men measure themselves solely on the basis of their cerebral power. They are already so deeply embedded in their maleness they don't need to physically demonstrate their power.

Which brings me to another fun aspect of takhteh, which is of course the battle of the genders. The Iranian guys I knew would at first scoff at the suggestion of playing a dasst (hand) with me. Openly scornful and chuckling at my pathetic female desire to show them up, they condescendingly gave me the honor of playing with me.

But I had come a long way since those days where I learned it the hard way from my grandpa beating me at ever turn. I kind of felt like Paul Newman in The Hustler except I didn't take bets (I should have!).

The discomfited look on my male counterpart was reward enough! The first round, they would furrow their brow and straighten up, calling it a fluke, or alternatively, their desire to let me win. But the second round, they predicted, would be "serious". I remember a poor soul who after my seven straight wins kept running after me howling for a rematch.

Of course, not all guys are such windbags. This guy I was dating would play takhteh with me over many competitive -- but at the same time friendly and fun -- games. I had found the perfect balance! So I had to marry him instantly.

Today, when I play takhteh with Grandpa, it is quite a different picture. In a way, it has all come full circle. I remember the first time I realized that poor Gramps was losing to me. LOSING TO ME! This was a big shock to me. I suddenly trembled at this manifestation of his old age. My eyes welled up with tears but I didn't let him notice.

Instead, I started cheating so that he could regain the upper hand and win. Maybe I thought I could slow down the process of time that way. Or maybe it was just a student's way of thanking her teacher.

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