Paul Magriel, Who Was Called the Best in Backgammon, Dies at 71

Paul Magriel playing in a backgammon tournament in Boston in 1981. 

Paul Magriel, a former youth chess champion who traded game boards to become known as the world’s best backgammon player, then turned to poker as his passion for gambling grew, died on Monday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 71.

His death was confirmed by a former wife, Martine Oules. No cause was specified.

After winning the New York State Junior Chess Championship at 19, Mr. Magriel (pronounced ma-GRILL) became fixated by backgammon, the 5,000-year-old dice-and-disk board game that combines luck, skill and speed.

Before the 1970s ended, Mr. Magriel had won the world backgammon championship and published what was acclaimed as the bible of backgammon. He was also writing a weekly column about the game for The New York Times.

In 1977, The Boston Globe described Mr. Magriel, who by then had given up teaching math at a New Jersey college to play professionally, as “probably the best backgammon player in the world.”

 His quirkiness and cunning gave backgammon currency.

“He was a big part of the reason for the backgammon boom that happened in the late ′70s and ′80s,” Erik Seidel, a stock trader who became a professional backgammon and poker player, said in an email.

Mr. Magriel could be philosophical on the subject of games. “Games are controlled violence,” he told Gambling Times magazine in 1978. “You can take out your frustrations and hostilities over a backgammon set, where the rules are clearly defined — in contrast to life, where the rules are not so well defined. In games, you know what’s right and wrong, legal versus illegal; whereas in life, you don’t.”

Paul David Magriel Jr. was born on July 1, 1946, in Manhattan. His father, an immigrant from Latvia, was librarian at the American School of Ballet and curator of dance archives at the Museum of Modern Art. His mother, the former Christine Fairchild, was an architect.

As a child, Paul was remembered as a savant who rarely answered questions and spoke only when he had something to say. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and getting a perfect score on his college boards, he earned a bachelor’s degree in math from New York University. At. N.Y.U., he was a fellow of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Mr. Magriel at a poker tournament in 2012. He was known for uttering a signature “Quack, quack” when betting.CreditCard Player Magazine

He was later a National Science Foundation fellow at Princeton University, where he specialized in probability. He taught at the Newark College of Engineering (now part of the Newark Institute of Technology) from 1969 to 1973.

Mr. Magriel was married several times and divorced. His survivors include a son, Louis, with Ms. Oules, a French-born poker player, and a brother, Dr. Nicolas Magriel, a musician and teacher.

Mr. Magriel made his transition from chess to backgammon in Greenwich Village, at hangouts like the Olive Tree Cafe, while he was a doctoral student at Princeton and on track to become a math professor there.

“Psychologically, backgammon is very different from chess,” Mr. Magriel said. “It’s an exercise in frustration — you can make the right moves and lose, or you can make the wrong moves and win. And chess didn’t have the gambling that I like.”

Mr. Magriel grew increasingly gifted at backgammon, and consumed by it, cataloging, in the era before computers, thousands of potential playing strategies on index cards. And he ascended to more upscale venues, like the Mayfair Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where wagers might be made for $1,000 a point.

Gambling, too, became an obsession. Coupled with that were on-again-off-again brushes with substance abuse and a preoccupation with his own celebrity in the rarefied world of backgammon, his first wife, Renee Roberts, said.

“He had an incredible ability to concentrate his intellect on the things he wanted to know,” she said in a telephone interview. “He had so much promise, but the gambling took him to a place where everyone was relating to him because of his fame.”

With Ms. Roberts, he wrote the seminal “Backgammon” (1976) and “Introduction to Backgammon: A Step-By-Step Guide” (1978). His Times column appeared from 1977 to 1980.

Mr. Magriel made a small fortune from backgammon and later low-stakes poker. Playing poker, sometimes huddled disheveled over a table, he was known for uttering a signature “Quack, quack” when betting (usually a bet beginning with 22, the pair of numbers known in backgammon as double ducks and in poker as ducks).

His more enduring legacy to the card game was his formulation of the M-ratio — a measure, named for him, of how many chips a player needs to sit passively and make only compulsory bets.

For all his expertise in any game that required mental acuity, Mr. Magriel found backgammon to be “the most frustrating, the cruelest.”

“The fascinating thing about backgammon is that it represents an interesting paradox,” he told The Boston Globe in 1977, adding: “People who want a sure thing don’t make it in backgammon. There are risks, yes, but on the other hand there is an enormous amount of control needed, something most gamblers lack.”

In 1977, he played a promotional match at the 21 Club in Manhattan against George Plimpton, the adventurous journalist and author who liked to slip into other careers and write about his experiences. (Mr. Magriel’s original backgammon tutor, years earlier, had been Mr. Plimpton’s wife, Freddy Espy, a decorator and artist.)

In this match Mr. Magriel had a serious handicap: He was playing Mr. Plimpton while blindfolded.

“I have nothing at stake except the honor of my psyche,” Mr. Plimpton told The New Yorker. “My tactics are going to be to talk as much as possible, ply him with drinks, and do everything else I can to befuddle him. If he loses track of a single piece on the board, I win.”

Mr. Plimpton lost.

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