Backgammon at Rice

The Ancient Game Thrives on Giralda

By Julia Piantini

January 2020

At approximately 5,000 years old, backgammon originated in what is now Iraq. Fortunately, you don’t have to go overseas to play it. Rice Mediterranean on Giralda Plaza is home to a weekly contest.

On Wednesday nights, Rice is mostly empty save for players gathered in the center of the restaurant. Each kicks in $10 to make it interesting, winner takes all. One regular, Leo, started the backgammon group over 20 years ago. The players have only been at Rice for about a year, previously playing at the Biltmore, Fritz & Franz and Starbucks. All have been playing for years, some decades, with various skill levels. One member, Felipe, won third in the Sunny Florida Championship in October; another, Alec, is ranked first in South Florida.

Dr. Karen Davis is a fellow champion as well. She is currently ranked 40th nationally, and this past April played on the U.S. team at the World Team Championship in Montenegro (they placed third.) Now president and executive director of the U.S. Backgammon Federation, when she first came to Florida, she wanted to create a backgam- mon community. “There weren’t a lot of places to play and I loved to play, so I thought, ‘Well I’ll just create them,’” she explained. Her website has a section where teams can register, which is how she found Leo’s group.

Thanks to social media, Davis has built a database of about 200 backgammon players in South Florida (500 in all of Florida). She recently started the aforementioned Sunny Florida Championship; the first was held in 2018 and brought in 66 players. Last year, the tournament attracted 111 players, 20 of which are considered giants in the backgammon world. “She has this contagious enthusiasm for the game,” said Alec.

The night we stopped by, the first round of play ended after about 40 minutes, with Davis and a player named Bo advancing to the finals, where Bo narrowly came out as champion. Though fast-paced and often times frustrating to a novice player, the mix of probability and statistics is where the game’s appeal lies. Alec put it best: “It’s a game where skill meets luck. The dice may not be in your favor, but you got to find a way to play it to your advantage. It’s a great metaphor for life.”