Karen Davis: A Community Builder Who Makes Things Happen


By Kaz Wellington


Behind every community you can usually find a handful of extremely hardworking, generous people who tirelessly give their time to create opportunities that countless others can enjoy. It’s the same with the international backgammon community, and there are few more dedicated and selfless proponents of the game than the one and only Karen Davis.

Karen was a founding member of the United States Backgammon Federation (USBGF) Board, serving as Chairman from 2010-2017 and as President/Executive Director from 2017-2020. She launched the USBGF PrimeTime Backgammon magazine in 2010, and now serves as Chairman of the charitable US Backgammon Foundation. When she was inducted into the American Backgammon Hall of Fame in 2021, USBGF President John Pirner said: “… Her greatest legacy to the game is as an organisation builder, most notably of the US Backgammon Federation. Without her vision, her passion, and her incredible energy, the USBGF would not exist today.”

In addition to building up the USBGF, Karen also launched the Cherry Blossom tournament in the DC area and Sunny Florida, and has also won numerous tournament events including the NY Metro Super Jackpot in 2019 defeating Grandmaster Sebastian Wilkinson (UK). Karen’s lifelong contribution to backgammon has been further recognised by her recent inclusion in the Giants of Backgammon-64 list.

As per the 80-20 Rule (aka the Pareto Principle), 80% of all outcomes in life are due to 20% of people doing most of the work. There is probably no better example of this than Karen Davis and her contributions to not only backgammon – but to her professional life in the field of Public Health. After completing a Ph.D in economics, Karen was recruited to serve on the Rice University faculty (one of only three women on the faculty!), and then won a fellowship from the Ford Foundation to serve at the US Department of Health. She was then recruited to a Senior Fellow position at a DC think-tank, the Brookings Institution, with a year as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. She headed the health policy office for President Jimmy Carter for four years, then joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, chairing the Department of Health Policy in what is now the Bloomberg School of Public Health, before moving to New York City to head the $700 million philanthropy, the Commonwealth Fund, for 20 years.

In her professional career, Karen was always driven by a desire to see that everyone who needed health care was able to obtain it. It troubled her deeply that many people couldn’t access preventative care, early care, and modern medications that could greatly improve their prognosis. She is most proud of her efforts to expand health insurance coverage to low-income, children and pregnant women, and to cover young adults under their parents’ health insurance to age 26. Little did she know that this provision in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 would come to benefit her own grandsons.

Given all that Karen has achieved and contributed in life – both professionally and in the backgammon field – one might wonder about her early life and what experiences shaped her. Her beginnings were humble and wholesome. Growing up on a wheat farm in Oklahoma, she spent her time helping her father with farm-work, raising farm animals, hunting, fishing, and taking part in the 4-H Club, an American club where children on farms competed in farm-like activities.

Karen didn’t start playing backgammon until mid-life. The year was 1981, and having finished up a very intense job as a political appointee for President Jimmy Carter, she was working from home writing a book for the John Hopkins Press. It was then that she decided to go out in the evening to play backgammon as a break from long hours sitting at home writing. She loved putting on her cowboy boots and jeans and heading out to the Georgetown bars where backgammon was played. She discovered the Dupont Circle Club in DC where she learned the game observing and listening to discussions in chouettes played by Kent Goulding, Kit Woolsey, Ed O’Laughlin, John Klein, and other fine players who went on to be Hall of Famers, Grandmasters, and Giants of Backgammon. She has worked steadily on her game studying with outstanding teachers like Paul Magriel, Marty Storer, Roberto Litzenberger, and Zdenek Zizka and reading all the leading backgammon books.

As a woman in backgammon, Karen explains that as a whole she has been treated fine as a female player, but she is shocked at how underrepresented women are in competitive backgammon. She has often felt that it would have been nice to have more woman around at tournaments – or to not look around and realise she was the only woman in a Masters Jackpot or Backgammon Masters Awarding Body (BMAB) event, playing at a local club, or in a chouette. So, together with Christine Merser she co-founded Women in Backgammon in 2021 to promote women’s participation, place, and pre-eminence in competitive backgammon.

For women considering getting more involved in the backgammon community, Karen’s message is that getting involved is not only “important not just for your own satisfaction with your growing mastery of the game, but to inspire other women to try, knowing that they are welcome at the backgammon table and capable of holding their own.” All women interested are invited to visit https://www.womeninbackgammon.com/ and explore all the initiatives on offer.

Those women seeking a competitive opportunity should consider entering the 2023 Women’s World Championship, which will be taking place online with entry deadline 1st of July 2023. The online tournament is being run by WBIF in collaboration with Women in Backgammon and heroes.backgammonstudio.com. Women in Backgammon is generously contributing an additional 500 euros in prize money to the prize pool. For more information and to sign up, visit: https://www.wbif.net/. According to Karen, “you can’t win it if you’re not in it!”, so don’t hesitate!

When Karen is not championing public health causes or organizing backgammon community initiatives, she spends time with family. She was blessed with a wonderful daughter who worked for Korean Airlines as assistant to the CEO. Though sadly her daughter passed away mid-life, it does bring Karen great joy to have helped her son-in-law raise her two grandsons – who are now both college students. Her younger grandson is often her backgammon doubles partner, together winning the Michigan Doubles event in 2017!

Karen has never stopped learning new skills and expertise in backgammon. She attests, “the need to get better at all aspects of the game never ends!” Karen once met the Dean of Smith College who told her that “what gives children joy is playing, learning new skills/gaining expertise, and receiving recognition for that achievement.” These are things we can all benefit and gain from backgammon. And there is no better example of that than Karen Davis.

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