Jim Macdonald at Ocean Inlet Park.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
It’s a rainy Saturday morning and Jim Macdonald is worried the weather will hurt his turnout.
But as the clouds clear, the men he is expecting begin to trickle in. They are a diverse group — some with eastern European accents, others with faces weathered by years of fishing or working in the Florida sun.
They are a mix of professionals and tradesmen, retirees and business owners. The common denominator among all of them is a board game that has them hooked.
“This backgammon game,” Macdonald says, “you get addicted to it.”
Macdonald, reigning Florida state backgammon champion in the open division, is the driving force behind this informal band of board-game brothers — officially the Backgammon Club of the Palm Beaches — who gather each day at the pavilion on the southern edge of the Boynton Inlet.
“We’re here every day, rain or shine,” says Macdonald, who started playing the game more than 40 years ago when he was a commercial loan broker in Evanston, Ill.
Now 82 — and a half — Macdonald has become Boynton’s Pied Piper of backgammon, playing at Ocean Inlet Park from 10 a.m. to 1 or 2 in the afternoon, all the while attracting followers. Some once were just spectators who wanted to understand the game.
“I either taught them or they’re very good players who came to join us,” Macdonald says of the group of about a dozen.
Over the years, the players, mostly men — although one woman often joins them — have formed a bond that goes beyond the roll of the dice.
It’s not uncommon for them to go to lunch together after hours of moving checkers — the pieces on the board — from one side to the other. When one member of the group needed a ride to the Veterans Administration hospital in Riviera Beach, Macdonald was quick to lend a hand.
“It’s good to have friends,” says Macdonald, who brings his small dog with him every morning. He also makes it a point to feed cereal to the birds between sets.
While the friendships are fast, it is the challenge of backgammon that keeps the players coming back day after day.
There are, of course, the outstanding players, those who have been rolling dice and moving pieces for decades. But because luck is a part of backgammon, no one is invincible.
“Anybody can beat anybody,” says Jim Cotto, one of the newest members of the group. “It’s an easy game once you understand the moves.”
On this Saturday — after the rain stops and the sky clears — there are three games going simultaneously. There is an eerie quiet at times when all you hear is the clacking of pieces tapping each other as they’re moved.
Other times, you will hear veteran players with accents that emanate from places like Romania or Hungary coaching some of the new players on the strategy that is an integral part of the game, explaining the moves that will help them get their checkers around the board more rapidly.
“They want you to learn,” says Cotto, who still gets guidance in making the right moves — even from his opponent.
Cotto was at the inlet a little more than a year ago when he stumbled upon the backgammon players and just began watching.
“If you watch it long enough, you’ll see that you want to play,” he says.
It didn’t take long before Macdonald asked him if he wanted to learn the game. Before he knew it, he was hooked.
“I never ever thought I would be doing this,” says Cotto, a former chef who had retired from the restaurant business several years ago. “Now, I can’t wait to play.”
That doesn’t surprise Macdonald, who enjoys helping others learn the game.
“The better you get, the more you want to play,” he says.
For some of the players, the daily fix of backgammon is about passing time, about having something to do that becomes part of a daily routine.
“The time goes fast,” Macdonald says.
For others it’s about camaraderie.
“We’re all good friends,” Cotto says. “This is like a clubhouse and I can’t get here fast enough.”
For more information, contact Macdonald at 963-1152 or 385-4991.