Pips, blot, hit, bar, bearing off, home board, outer board and doubling cube.
Some of these words may have been familiar to Immanuel Lutheran School students, but several of them were totally new.
After a couple of lessons with the Rev. Philip Bloch, they have a better understanding of how the words relate to backgammon.
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The game for two players is played on a board consisting of 24 narrow triangles called points. The triangles alternate in color and are grouped into four quadrants of six triangles each. The quadrants are referred to as a player’s home board and outer board and the opponent’s home board and outer board. The boards are separated from each other by a ridge down the center of the board called the bar.
The object of the game is to move all of your checkers into your own home board and then bear them off. The first player to bear off all of their checkers wins the game.
Being one of the oldest games in existence — about 5,000 years old — it goes along with this year’s Indiana Academic Super Bowl Junior Division theme, “The Fertile Crescent,” which refers to the ancient region of Mesopotamia.
In this year’s competitions, students on the science, history, math, English and interdisciplinary teams will be asked questions about that time period.
Backgammon questions mainly will appear during the math round, but they also could pop up during the interdisciplinary round, which brings together all four subjects.
“That’s why I thought it would be beneficial for everyone to know,” Sandra Franke, one of the English team coaches, said of having all 22 Academic Super Bowl team members learn the game.
“We thought it would be fun to at least be exposed to it and possibly learn something new,” she said. “We don’t know who’s going to be on interdisciplinary yet. We will determine that in April.”
To her knowledge, Franke said this is the first time a game has been incorporated into Academic Super Bowl.
“I think it will be exciting for them if they do play it between now and April and get used to the rules and the setup, and then when they do get questions and they’re like, ‘Oh, I know what that is,’ that’s so exciting to see the light bulb go off,” she said.
Bloch said he learned the game while in high school in Nebraska.
“I had a study hall, and so if we didn’t have any homework, Mike Tuckerman brought his backgammon set with him, a portable one, every study hall,” he said. “We played every day.”
He said he had a backgammon board at home then, but he never really used it.
Once he started playing with his two friends during study hall, it became competitive.
“After you play it enough, you really start to learn the strategy,” Bloch said. “Of course, some of it is still the luck of the roll, but there is a lot of strategy of how to cover yourself and then take the other person off and make them sweat.”
Bloch said he has good memories of playing backgammon with his friends.
“This is an old game, but this is one game that I always loved to play with those guys, and we had a lot of fun matches,” he said. “Sometimes, you were like, ‘Oh, he’s never going to come back,’ and man, here he comes, and I got taken off, and it’s like, ‘Ah!’”
While it has been awhile since those days of competition with his friends, Bloch said backgammon is still a game he knows well.
“One of the things I think is great about it, once you learn it, you can play it long after basketball is over. When you get older, you can get the board out. You can always play it. Ninety-eight in the nursing home, I can still do it,” he said, laughing. “After the knees give out after basketball, football or whatever else, backgammon, I think it keeps you sharp.”
Those are reasons why he wanted to pass on his knowledge to the Academic Super Bowl students.
“Once you learn it, you never forget it, especially if you play it enough so you don’t have to go back and look at the rules because you just know it,” Bloch said. “That’s hopefully what these kids will get. They’ll learn the basic setup, they’ll learn the basic movement, but then they’ll learn the strategy of how to do the combinations so they don’t leave their pieces vulnerable and they can take off the other person and make them start all over again.”
Sixth-grader Dylan Thompson is on the history team, and eighth-grader Mackenzie Waskom is on the science team.
Both students said it was interesting to learn a new game.
“It was kind of confusing, but it was kind of cool,” Waskom said.
“It was confusing, but it was fun after you learned how to do it,” Thompson said.
Even though they didn’t master any strategies after the first lesson, Waskom and Thompson will learn as much about the game as possible so they can answer questions during competitions.
Immanuel will compete in an invitational April 4 at Trinity Lutheran High School, and the area contest is April 27 at Batchelor Middle School in Bloomington.
“It will be good because you will get more points to win,” Thompson said.
“It’s unique because not very many people know how to play the game, and when you get the chance to learn it and show that you know it, it’s pretty cool,” Waskom said.
Franke said the game builds math, vocabulary and critical thinking skills, while Bloch said it introduces kids to something that’s more than just visuals on a screen.
“This is a bit more conversational,” he said. “You’re focused on this, and you’ve got to use your brain, not just your motor skills, so I think that’s good.”
A bonus is the students learned the game while using the 12 backgammon sets donated to the school by five donors.
One person donated money so Franke could order some, while a woman in Nebraska who saw the school’s Facebook post about needing backgammon sets mailed two. Others sent sets they had at home or bought some.
“Our school is really blessed with not just supportive parents but supportive parishioners,” Franke said. “We’re just very blessed.”
She also ordered a few magnetic sets so students can take them home and teach someone else how to play.
“I would love this to be an option for them to do with a friend when they have some downtime instead of automatically going to technology,” Franke said. “Technology is wonderful, but I think we can’t let these games go by the wayside.”