DBC Pierre walks into the pub carrying a backgammon board he has played on since childhood. He confesses that it has also served other purposes during his peripatetic life: “I used to travel with it as my only luggage — just put my undies and cigarettes inside and get on the plane with it.”
The 55-year-old Booker Prize-winning author even credits the game with rescuing him from oblivion. “Backgammon saved my life,” he says, as he sets up at a table in The Duke pub in Bloomsbury. “A friend and I were on the bones of our ass in life from having made bad decisions, and we turned up absolutely flat broke at this club in Mexico and revived our fortunes in games of backgammon and came away ready for a new start. It was like being down to your last throw of dice in life — quite literally.”
Thousands of years ago, backgammon — one of the oldest board games in the world — used to be played with stones in the sand. “As they famously say, it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master,” says Pierre, in a voice that has a lilt of an Australian accent. The aim is to move all your pieces across the two “home boards” according to the roll of the dice. Whoever gets all their pieces off the board first, wins.
“It’s about defence and offence — this is about getting home in the face of an opposing force and trying to stay safe, because if one of your pieces is left isolated, it’s vulnerable to getting attacked and eaten by the opponent — then you have to go all the way back to the start.”
The rattle of dice echoes through the pub, followed by a thud as they hit the board.
I roll, and get a two and a one.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Pierre says reassuringly, before throwing a six and a four.
Born Peter Finlay in Australia in 1961, Pierre moved to Mexico at the age of seven and now splits his time between Cambridgeshire and County Leitrim, Ireland, “depending on my needs for civilisation”. Winning the Booker Prize in 2003 for his debut novel Vernon God Little helped him to pay off the huge debts he had acquired during his “misspent youth” battling drug and gambling addictions. “I’d taken too much licence, too much risk,” he tells me. “My decisions were bad, based on desperate hopes rather than reality.”
Are decisions an important part of playing backgammon well? “Yes — very quick ones. You have to make a judgment call, and in that it reflects life. How and when to play it safe and how and when to take a gamble — we have to do both things to live well. Backgammon teaches you how that works, but in two minutes flat. The more you play it, the more you have that feeling. It’s a tool — kids should learn it in school. It calibrates you for risk-taking. Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don’t.”
Throughout our match, Pierre rolls an impressive number of sixes and fours, and eventually their frequency starts to spook me. He believes that how well the fingertips play is down to how you are feeling: “The beautiful thing about backgammon is that it teaches you about brain chemistry and dopamine and winning and losing. When I was in a bad place in life, if my spirit was low, I would play backgammon badly, but if my spirit was up I would win. It was a question of how to generate the spirit to win.”
He offers some practical pointers. “I can tell you tricks to win the game just by resetting dopamine — simple things.” He tells me to relax and watch my posture to put myself in a more winning frame of mind. “Hold the dice, make yourself big, don’t hunch, keep a wide stance, because you’re competing against another person’s energy.”
Pierre explains that the key is to form a relationship with the dice. “And for that I recommend not using cups to throw the dice — I do believe in having contact with them when you throw them; it’s uncanny how often you can get the numbers you need. You can use your will on the dice.”
It all sounds a bit mystical, and in that respect there are parallels with Pierre’s latest work, Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out Of It. His fifth book, it is part memoir and partly an exploration of the craft of writing.
“The stuff that holds you back from writing is not actually to do with the art of literature,” he tells me. “It’s to do with yourself. It really is a place where all your demons come out to play.” At the heart of the new book is the question of how to channel and transform negative experiences, emotions and energies into “rocket fuel” for writing.
“I’m compulsive and addictive and obsessive in some things, and writing does become addictive,” he explains. “When I started the job of writing, I needed coffees and all kinds of things to feel that I was in the frame of mind — but as soon as I got excited with the words on the page, I didn’t need all that. I was a wreck from the writing, I would sleep fitfully. It was actually very unhealthy — which all addiction is — but it was unhealthy in a healthy way, as at least I was creating something.”
The trigger for writing the book was a visit to a maximum-security prison. “I had a talk about writing with prisoners, and then the guards arrived and pulled us apart and it was a powerful moment to have to leave them there and have no further contact. It tore a piece out of me and stayed with me, and I thought I should continue the exercise of answering their questions.”
Release the Bats also explores the importance of timing and the ancient Greek word “kairos”, meaning “the right moment”. In backgammon, the use of a “doubling cube” can raise the stakes at crucial junctures in the game. “The doubling cube is about understanding when to give it everything and when to capitalise on an opponent’s weakness — the more frightened they are, the worse they will play. It’s a very personal game. It’s a test of how courageous you are.”
And, again, it underscores the importance of risk-taking. “It adds another level to your ability to withstand the pressure of risk, to decide whether to play it safe or go for it . . .
“I’m not saying to take stupid risks but the ability to correctly assess risk is crucial,” he concludes. “You need the right frame of mind. It reflects the story of my life: losing more than I could afford and winning more than I could afford.”
‘Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out Of It’ is published by Faber & Faber
Photographs: Owen Harvey