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The Cover
November 18, 1998

The Backgammon Players

JAMA. 1998;280(19):1644. doi:10.1001/jama.280.19.1644

In the vast literature of 17th-century painting, Theodor Rombouts (1597-1637) is little more than a footnote, appended to such names as Caravaggio, Manfredi, Rubens, and van Dyck. Yet like many a footnote, a Rombouts painting is often more interesting, entertaining, and worthy in its own right than the text it elucidates. Thus, the spectator on gallery rounds who happens upon a Rombouts work can do worse than spend a few moments before it. Monumental, the paintings demand that the spectator stand back if he is to have a proper perspective and maximum enjoyment. Thoroughly secular in content, they do not bother the viewer with halos, wings, or visions of a life beyond as much as they immerse him in the pleasures and excitements of the here and now, none more exquisite perhaps than the fateful uncertainties encapsulated in a roll of the dice. Then, as now, much of gaming was based on skill: the ability to feign, to deceive, to create illusion, in a word, to gammon. But skill was only part of the game. Whether dice game or life game, the outcome also depended largely on chance, the "hazard of the die." And, if games of chance were in fact often metaphors for the game of life, then Rombouts was especially good at creating these oil-and-canvas illusions.