Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org & Knatz.com / Personal / Stories / pk by Age / College Years /
@ K. 2003 05 28
Board Game Strategies
My one sibling being a sister two years older, my father having become scarce before I was half-way toward ten, there being no other boys my age on the block … me being what I am … I wasn’t much of a game maven by the time I reached college. But boy-oh-man, my friends …
Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis offers a strong portrait of college kids flunking out by playing Hearts twenty-odd hours a day. Columbia had a bridge room that was busy round the clock. There were Columbia guys who can’t have made many classes because they were always down on 42nd and Broadway (yes, Time Square) where there was a chess club upstairs. I heard of guys losing their scholarships because of bridge (or what-have-you), but Columbia was not an easy place, nay, a nigh impossible place, to flunk out of. Columbia College is one of the hardest schools to get into, but once in, they don’t want to lose you. You can do practically anything and get nothing worse than an entreaty from the dean. Maybe you won’t graduate with the class you entered with, but they want to graduate you.
Don’t misunderstand: I never said I didn’t have my share of ahem “time wasters.” I can’t think of any but the several junkies who were less efficient by the university’s official standards than pk. I couldn’t possibly do an assignment unless twelve hours of listening to Dave Brubeck, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Miles … went along with it: and believe me, I was listening a lot harder than I was reading. If Thomas Hardy was assigned, Well, alright … after I read this big chunk of ee cummings … who was not assigned! Once evening arrived, why I had to go out and get plastered, didn’t I? If any other studying was to be done, well the West End Tavern closed at four AM. By the time I arose the next day, at noon … or three PM … well, I had to have breakfast, didn’t I? And then I had to make up for lost time with the record listening.
While all around me guys played bridge, gin, poker … chess … shot pool …
By my senior year, after I’d had it with the bad checks from my junkie friends, I moved in with guys who’d been friends since the first day of Freshman Orientation. They weren’t junkies, only one was also a drunk, but man-oh-man, were the majority (there were several apartments in a clump down on West 112th Street: what we called a duplex with outside-connecting staircase) game players: gin, solitaire, board games. These other guys didn’t have to listen to Miles for twelve hours, but each did have to listen to Beethoven for four hours and then Mozart for another four: or Bach and Beethoven for four and Bartok and Prokofiev for another four.
It was in that atmosphere that I got hooked on accordion solitaire. Fortunately, I won a hand within a week or two of trying and that cured me. But then I sat with them at a new board game, a game from which few of us ever got up. It was called Careers. Hey: careers is something we were supposed to be thinking about officially! Not us. No, we thought about this stupid game: and how to beat DeJong: a general games-master, but a Careers careerist. Anton was very very good. So was Alan. Tapley played a little, but not all day and night. Despite my retarded start with gaming, I became pretty good at it too. Finally, there were four of us who could beat almost anyone else in any given game of Careers: a game where we proved that luck had little to do with outcome. Ah, but among us four: Robert Nelson Spencer DeJong, Anton Klotz, Alan Ravage, Paul Knatz, who would win a given game. Bob of course got a bunch; but the rest of us got our share.
Maybe you can still buy that game, but if you haven’t seen it, in order to proceed, I’ll have to sketch in a bit of the board. The score cards default setting was games of sixty, but we rapidly dispensed with that and played games of one hundred. Career rewards and goals come in three flavors: Money, Fame, Happiness. The score cards, as with stud poker, had hidden parts and parts that showed. Your achievement in Money, Fame, Happiness had to be shown to any other player on request. Ah, but your goal was secret. You wrote your formula for the individual game under a little flap. When we first played, we naturally distributed our goals by mathematical probability 20-20-20=60: or 33-34-33-100 … Soon we felt challenged only if we tried asymmetrical goals: say 20-40-40.
Comparing the game to Monopoly, when you passed Go, you collected your Salary. There was also a Jail, in the same position — diagonally across the board — called Park Bench. If you landed there on a roll or were sent there by any of several other possibilities, you could buy your way out on the next roll by paying half your Cash-on-Hand or wait to roll a low combination of the dice. Other squares offered career Opportunities: Business, Sea, Engineering, Hollywood … Business offered Cash and Salary increases: some Fame possibilities, some risk. Sea offered lots of Happiness but not much Fame, risk, or Money. Engineering had high risk, high Money, little Fame, little Happiness. Hollywood was a real crap shoot: Fame, Money, Happiness, risk … or you could lose big time. All of the careers offered Experience if you got through unscathed: cards that awarded certain powers … or punishments. Experience accelerated the more times you repeated a given career: three times though and you could Retire: a square worth four Happinesses with an option to stay for one additional Happiness on certain rolls. Landing directly on the Start square got you double your Salary. Going to Hollywood skipped the Start square and got you no Salary at all.
OK. One day DeJong has gone into Business, gotten Experience and a beefed up Salary. He’s got a stack of thousand dollar bills on hand. He goes to Sea, builds up more Experience, accumulates Happiness. What the hell is he doing? He’d seemed to be going for Money. If so, he should have won minutes ago. He lands on Park Bench, pays $50,000 or $60,000 to get out on his next move, Retires, gets four more Happiness, lands on Start, gets double his obscene Salary, retires, gets four more Happiness. On the next roll he lands on an Opportunity to exchange cash for Happiness. “I win.”
He shows us his formula: Goal = 100 = 0 Money – 0 Fame – 100 Happiness! Show off!
I’ll try to return here before long to say a few things about strategy: why I think DeJong’s crazy asymmetries often beat more conservative distributions. Of course once Bob had beaten us that way, we all had to beat him: with formulas of 100 Fame or $100,000: even his 100 Happiness.
2015 06 13 1975 early January I visited DeJong in his native Kansas City. He was still living with his family, including his older sister. I was heading back to NYC but had gotten sick in Colorado. I slept on my cousin’s couch for a week, got back on the road but had to stop again in Kansas City and take advantage of the DeJongs to sleep for another week! I knew what a drinker DeJong was, now I saw his whole family at it, and I joined them wholeheartedly. Every night DeJong and I would drink, drink, drink, and play backgammon. By golly, finally a game where I won almost every time. And every next-evening Bob would taunt me: Are you ready for your comeuppance? And I’d grin. He knew what last night’s score was. And he knew what this night’s score was likely to be.
Night before last I played a game of Chinese Checkers with my beloved Jan followed by a game of backgammon. We hadn’t played much recently. Jan won the checkers, reversing our last trend, then she started showing no talent for backgammon whatsoever: all the probabilities aligned against her judgment, all I had to do was sit back and wait for her choices to backfire on her. But it never happened. Like the invisible man she tiptoed through to the bearing off end game without getting knocked back. Backgammon is so great: luck can triumph over skill in any given game: though the odds will out in the end, in any series of games.
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