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.

Gambling Wizards – Conversations with the World’s Greatest Gamblers by Richard Munchkin

The following is a small excerpt from:

Gambling Wizards – Conversations with the World’s Greatest Gamblers
by Richard Munchkin

For those of you who didn’t know, Richard Munchkin is the brother of backgammon player and author Jake Jacobs.  Who has penned many backgammon books, but is also the author of a great fiction book, The Battered Butterfly.

In Gambling Wizards, Munchkin interviews gamblers from several disciplines.  Interviewees are Billy Walters, Chip Reese, Tommy Hyland, Mike Svobodny (BG!), Stan Tomchin, Cathy Hulbert, Alan Woods and Doyle Brunson.  There’s something for everybody in this book and all of it is entertaining and informative.

From Chapter 2 – Chip Reese (He is speaking of Nick Vachiano, poker and pool player).

The only downside he (Vachiano) had was that when he was winning, he was a hit-and-run guy.  He’s win a little bit and if he lost, he would go for a number (take a big loss).  Most of the time he won, because usually, during the course of a session you get ahead a little bit.  So he booked a lot of winners and very few losers, but when he did book a loser it was a big one.

I remember one time we were playing $300-$600 (seven card stud) at the Flamingo and Nick was losing about $40,000. …The game had been going on a long time and I quit,  There were a couple of other guys who didn’t want to play short-handed, so the game was going to break up.  Nick says, “Hold it.”  …He gets up and takes me to the cage.  He goes to his safe deposit box, and he’s got a big box.  I only had a little safety deposit box – I had about $300,000 in it and I was proud as hell….He opens this big box and he probably had a million dollars in it.  He says, “See this here.  You know me.  I always win and I leave.  This is the only time you get a shot at this money – when I’m going off (losing and steaming).”  He says, “Are you sure you want to quit?”  You can tell when a guy is in heat from gambling.  I smiled and said, “You’re right.  Let’s go back and play.”  He went off for about $200,000 in that game.  He talked me into staying and winning a bunch of money.

You can get Gambling Wizards from Flint’s Carol Cole here Flint Backgammon Boutique  or any online bookstore.

ON A DICEY CRUISE

Sports Illustrated – September 16, 1974

The voyage promised to be rough, with high-rolling in the richest backgammon tournament ever, but a first-class gambol was assured

Esmond Cooper-Key woke up early on a Tuesday morning in his London town house with the feeling, as he later said, that he was about to do something many people, not the least of them being his wife, might consider naughty, or even mondo bizzarro. But the hell with what they might think for the moment; he could either lie back and reflect about obstacles to what was becoming his plan or he could get up and carry on with it. Esmond opened his suitcase and threw in a tuxedo, a pair of sneakers and random garments that his eye fell across. He trotted out to the car, drove to the bank as it opened, wrote a check for cash and headed for Heathrow Airport, where he caught a noon flight to New York.

About eight hours’ worth of champagne later, at Kennedy Airport, Esmond Cooper-Key climbed into a taxicab and asked to be delivered to Pier 84 on the Hudson River side of Manhattan. There, beside the pier, gathering power of sorts from the broken boilers that had stranded her near Bermuda two weeks earlier, rose the astonishing bulk of the Queen Elizabeth 2. From keel to funnel, as high as a 13-story building. From bow to stern, longer than three football fields. Yes indeed, this was the place he was looking for. Esmond plunged through the ring of toy balloons at the end of the gangplank and hurried toward the First-Class cabin he had just booked for the QE 2’s return voyage to France and England that very same evening.

Up on the Quarterdeck, in a room colored maroon and gold and tucked away behind one of the two First-Class restaurants, gaffers were setting up movie lights, cameramen from Paragon Films were tinkering with their machines and pretty girls were tugging into place a board that said DUNHILL INTERNATIONAL BACKGAMMON TOURNAMENT with spaces below for the names of 32 invited players and the results of the matches.

Esmond’s name was not on the list of 32, but he had, after all, once reached the quarterfinal of a junior backgammon tournament at the Clermont Club in London, and he was a friend of some of the assorted elegantini—an earl, a lord and what not—who had been included. Besides that, Esmond had bought his own ticket, which most people had not, for what was until then the richest backgammon tournament ever held. In all there was close to $100,000 to be played for out in the open, not to mention the private betting in a game of which Prince Alexis Obolensky says, “You don’t play backgammon just for fun—always for money, even if you are playing the game with your little daughter, it should always be for money.”

Not that Esmond came on board to look at money. They did it all with checks, anyhow; one never saw stacks of cash moving across the tables as one often does in Las Vegas. Esmond merely had a notion that he ought to go have a bit of adventure and meanwhile indulge his fascination with backgammon at the world’s first floating tournament. However, six nights later when Prince Obolensky, a father figure of the modern version of the game, arose to speak at the black-tie gala that ended the tournament, it was a celebrating Esmond who walked past and said, “It’s not necessary to hear from you, old chap,” and dismissed Obolensky back to his table until part of the crowd began to applaud for the prince to return to his speech. By then so much had transpired that such a scene seemed not at all strange, and the next morning Esmond claimed not even to remember it.

“Waiter, actually my wife can’t see a damned thing with you standing in front of the window, now can she?” said the old British gentleman.

As the QE 2 pulled out of New York Harbor during dinner hour the waiters found reasons to linger in front of the big windows, polishing away tiny specks with their napkins while the food cooled. The lights of New York are a rare and incredible sight. One of the headwaiters, a man not easily moved, could stand beside a table at a meal and recount tales of torture and mutilation he had witnessed during World War II in Kenya in the same stolid tone with which he discussed aircraft maintenance or snake handling. But the view of New York Harbor reached his soul. “It’s a grand sight, sir,” he said, “one of the grandest that exists, and I’ve seen most of them.”

The lights of New York had barely vanished astern when the auction commenced in the maroon and gold room. An auction in backgammon is what is called a Calcutta pool at a golf tournament; players are sold and the purchaser wins if his player fares well. It is not uncommon for a player to buy himself at an auction by arranging for someone else to bid for him. He ordinarily buys back a piece of himself if he is bought by someone with whom he did not have an arrangement.

The auctioneer on the QE 2 was Charles Benson, 38, who describes himself as a constant gambler who spent four years at Eton studying racing charts. Benson is a racing correspondent for the London Daily Express, for which he tries to pick winners under the name Bendex. When Esmond Cooper-Key walked in, Benson was auctioning Philip Martyn (36, Lincoln College, Oxford, member of the 1964 British Olympic bobsled team). For a year and a half, Benson has lived with Martyn and Martyn’s wife as what Philip calls “our permanent and very welcome guest.”

“Philip Martyn is the world’s first self-professed professional backgammon player,” Benson was saying to a roomful of backgammon players.

Vast sections of America may be astounded to hear that there is such a thing as a professional backgammon player. But, in fact, there are a lot of them. Many with backgrounds in clubs like the Racquet in New York or the Clermont in London refer to themselves as gentlemen gamblers, amateurs who nevertheless play backgammon for very large amounts of money. Others go to backgammon tournaments the way professional golfers go to golf tournaments and hustle the sales of backgammon boards and books as golfers sell equipment. Gentlemen gamblers sometimes hustle a few books and lessons themselves, which makes the distinction between a gentleman gambler and a professional even more vague.

To those who still think of backgammon as that odd foreign-looking diagram on the back of a checkerboard, this may be hard to swallow, but backgammon in the Western world has broken out of the clubby atmosphere in which it flourished for a century as a smart, inbred game not meant for the public. (In the Middle East, they have been playing it in cafes for thousands of years.) People who might never be suspected of playing backgammon have taken it up)—housewives in Fort Worth, Gestalt therapists in Santa Barbara, Calif., retired postmen in Hollywood, Fla. Backgammon is getting as hot as Mah-Jongg and Scrabble were in their day.

With all that action in tournament prizes, gambling, auction sales, backgammon schools, backgammon books and equipment, it was inevitable that agents would be drawn to the scene by the smell of money. Thus came Mark McCormack, agent for professional sporting figures like Arnold Palmer, Rod Laver, Larry Csonka and Jackie Stewart. McCormack signed a contract that made Philip Martyn the world’s first professional backgammon player with a manager. A number of people pick up a handsome, even a semiglamorous, living out of the game. As head of the World Backgammon Club and promoter of many tournaments since he staged a big one in the Bahamas 10 years ago (SI, May 4, 1964), Prince Obolensky, whose face looks like a granite outcrop, is an example of one whose profession is, in fact, backgammon. But Philip Martyn is one of the few who admit backgammon is his livelihood, rather than passing it off as a game he happens to be so good at that he doesn’t need to go to the office very often.

So as Benson was selling his London host, Martyn, at the auction, Esmond Cooper-Key wandered into the maroon and gold room and bid ¬£1,100. Esmond’s smile seemed a bit too bright when he realized his was the winning offer. Already that day Esmond had flown across the Atlantic to begin sailing directly back home, and now he had just paid the top price for a player in the tournament.

“Why did you do that, Esmond?” someone asked.

“I only heard what they were saying about his professionalism, and of course I do know something about Martyn,” Esmond said. “But I don’t know anything really about whether he will win, do I? I mean, one doesn’t follow backgammon players the way one might follow thoroughbreds. Actually, I thought the numbers would keep going up, and someone else would buy him. Well, there’s no use crying, is there?”

Esmond sipped a glass of Mo√´t and leaned on a railing that separated a gallery from the carpeted pit a few feet below, where the auction was in progress and the games would be played. “Some people are spending tremendous sums of money to promote backgammon, and I wonder why,” mused Esmond. “I can’t imagine the masses are clever enough to buy millions of boards, can you? I mean, backgammon is more of an in-here game than an out-there game, it seems to me.”

From reading the invitation list of players, it was clear Richard Dunhill, the deputy chairman of Alfred Dunhill Ltd., intended his tournament to be an in-here affair. “Backgammon is a good promotion for our company because it has a certain snobbish appeal,” Dunhill said. But Dunhill wanted to be certain the tournament was heard of out there. Hence free airplane tickets to New York and First-Class return passage to England on the QE 2 for members of the British press. Hence the invitation of celebrities to keep the press awake once the fascination with galloping checkers wore off. Singer-actress Diana Ross, who would have provided the tournament its only woman and only black in the same body, turned down the trip, as did Playboy magazine Publisher Hugh Hefner, in whose heart of games backgammon has replaced Monopoly. British TV star Spike Milligan came along to chat up the press, but spent much of the time in his cabin writing a novel. “I always thought backgammon was a particular cut of bacon,” Milligan confided at dinner on the night of the gala.

Liberal M.P. Clement Freud, who occupied a penthouse suite, was knocked out in the first round as a player but served as a narrator for the film and phoned in stories to the Daily Express. Bulge-eyed and bearded, Freud (grandson of Sigmund, of course) roamed about the ship scowling and looking perpetually startled, as if he were afraid he might have accidentally said aloud what he had just been thinking, and that was why people were behaving toward him in such a manner.

Richard Dunhill, though, was pleased with his lineup. “It’s been wonderfully traumatic wondering if we would make it,” he said. The idea for the floating tournament was conceived a year before when Patrick, Earl of Lichfield, cousin of the Queen, winner of Male Elegance and Best Dressed awards and a free-lance photographer to boot, phoned up and suggested it. “I rushed out and bought a book on backgammon and became terribly keen on it,” Dunhill said.

By now Benson had come to the last players to be auctioned. “One of them is tall, handsome, witty and well-bred, and the other is Takis,” he said.

Crash! Takis Theodorocopulos threw a champagne glass at the rostrum. Takis, 35, Greek, karate champion and former Davis Cup tennis player, is a gentleman journalist for the National Review and heavy gambler with a fortune somewhere behind him. He was bought for ¬£400 by his friend John Zographos (Greek, 45, called “King Zog,” Cambridge, investments and real estate). Wait, a player had been overlooked. The Hon. Michael Pearson (29, Gordon-stoun, the Household Cavalry, film producer, son of Lord Cowdray, whose family in this century controlled more than 1,500,000 acres in Mexico, with attending mineral rights and the country’s only Atlantic-to-Pacific railroads) was sold for ¬£500. Then Benson himself was peddled for ¬£500, and most of the players retired to the ship’s casino to get in shape for the next afternoon when half of them would be losers. The ship’s casino was a very good place to get accustomed to losing.

In the game of backgammon each player has to move 15 disks around the board as determined by skill and by the roll of the dice, which obviously means it helps to be lucky. The first player to get all his disks off the board wins. A disk can be “hit” by an opponent if not protected, and must start all over again. A “doubling cube” is used to raise the stakes and test the nerve or sense of the players. If you are offered a double and feel the odds are too strongly against it, you can decline and forfeit the game and cut your losses, or you can accept and perhaps defeat the odds and win extra points. “A good player is one who knows when he has the advantage,” said American Tim Holland. “A mediocre player is one who thinks he has it when he doesn’t. The cornerstone to backgammon is anticipating future moves.”

It is said that among players of equal skill luck is about 80% of the game. Supposedly the superior player will overcome the luck factor and beat his opponent if they play long enough. But a player who can count up to 24 (the sum of a roll of double sixes) and can keep his head clear enough to march his men in orderly fashion is liable to beat a master anytime by shaking hot dice. Holland, 43, who is not reluctant to acknowledge that he is tops at backgammon, estimated that five or six of the 32 players in the Dunhill tournament could be rated among the world’s elite 50.

A few of the best players in the world play not at the Racquet or the Clermont, but at New York’s Mayfair Hotel in a place called The Dump. They are known as Dumplings. Some of the Dumplings don’t get their shoes shined, their sweaters don’t cover their bellies, they have social connections that reach into the wrong Queens and they are too shrewd to be allowed access to big games like the Dunhill tournament.

“You can’t blame Dunhill for not inviting them,” said Holland, who occasionally plays at The Dump but usually at the Regency in New York. “Dunhill has worked hard to build up the Beautiful People aspect of this promotion. Five Dumplings could come on board and take everybody’s money. How would that look?”

Some say the best players are found at none of those places but in sleazy little clubs in Beirut. Obolensky learned to play the game in Turkey.

Jack Vietor is an American, 59, educated at St. Paul’s and Yale, former publisher of San Francisco magazine, grandson of the inventor of Jell-O. Though he has held the Vietor Round Robin Private Backgammon Tournament at his home in La Jolla, Calif. since 1962, Vietor says he is merely an amateur. He says one big problem with backgammon tournaments is keeping the hustlers out.

In the first round of the Dunhill tournament Vietor beat Philip Martyn. Martyn had been twisting in agony in his seat at each throw of the dice, raising his eyebrows as if to ask heaven how things could be going so badly for one who deserved so much better. Vietor was flushed and sweating, lighting cigarettes while previous ones still burned in the ashtray. Both men looked as if the game were as pleasant as sinking in quicksand. “A lot of top players go through pain when they play. They fight as if they think they can control the dice,” said Claude Beer (American, 36, former squash champion, winner of the Clermont Club British backgammon championship in 1970 and the 1974 Las Vegas World Championship). “I always try hard, but it’s not worth agonizing over.”

At the final roll Martyn leaped up from the table and rushed out of the room like a Tex-Mex border-town tourist who just found out that wasn’t chicken in his taco. In a minute or so Martyn was back to shake hands with Vietor.

“It must be a terrible feeling for a pro like you to lose to an old California hacker like me,” Vietor said with a smile.

“Absolutely galling is what it is,” replied Martyn. “Staggering.”

In the back of the room Esmond Cooper-Key steadied himself against the subtle movement of the ship.

Martyn is a tall, lean, athletic-looking man with hair that has turned muddy gray. Besides being on an Olympic bobsled team, he played rugby at college and he drives fast cars. Martyn runs in a park for exercise with his friend Jackie Stewart, and he is married to Nina Rindt, 28, widow of racing driver Jochen Rindt. Talking about backgammon, Martyn describes some fierce primeval struggle that may not be immediately apparent to a casual observer.

“Backgammon is a sport, not a game,” Martyn said after he had calmed down a bit from his loss to Vietor. “It has contact, violence, one-to-one competition like boxing. Good players tend to stay in good physical shape. People used to think you had to stay up all night and drink and smoke to be a backgammon player. That’s silly. One can think much more sharply when the body is fit.

“This is not an intellectual endeavor like bridge, where the players are usually ashen gray and cigarette stained, and it’s certainly not like chess. Backgammon is all out in the open, full of stingers, very aggressive. I went bonkers when I lost to a softer player like Vietor. Backgammon has had the image of rich, bum sportsmen and very private clubs, and some of these sportsmen want to keep it their own private affair, but I want to see backgammon become widely popular. It’s not hard to learn. I’ve got no flair for math. Even a beginner can play well if he doesn’t let his ego defeat him. The doubling cube is what makes it so extraordinary.”

Martyn foresees pro backgammon leagues with players dressed in sweatshirts that say OMAHA or MADRID, competing with each other on TV. The final of the Las Vegas tournament, in which Martyn lost to Claude Beer, was on closed-circuit TV at the Hilton with a commentary by Lewis DeYoung (London, 39, Oxford, noted amateur tennis player and international gambler). “The tension of an international match would be terrific,” Martyn said, “and all there for the audience to see, millions of people watching and criticizing the moves.”

While Martyn was talking, Esmond Cooper-Key went to recoup his fortunes at the ship’s casino. But he was distracted by his friend the Baron, who had put down quite a few doubles at the bar and had decided to disrobe.

The Baron, it should be explained, is not actually a baron. He is a young London businessman who came on the voyage to be with some of his pals who were involved with the backgammon tournament. On a whim, he wrote on the booking form, in the space for titles, that he was a baron. As a result he was furnished with a dressing room, refrigerator and enormous stateroom at no extra charge, addressed as Baron by the staff and requested to dine in the smaller and more exclusive of the First-Class restaurants.

The Baron’s real name will not be mentioned here for reasons to be made clear. For now it is enough to say that when the Baron felt the urge to undress in the casino, he even removed his eyeglasses. The Baron trotted around the casino naked a couple of times and then careened into the Tourist-Class disco. There is an assumption in First Class that people in Tourist Class are probably having more fun, the swine, and the disco in the QE 2 was crowded every night with elegantini looking for a serving wench to pinch or a plumber’s apprentice to say hidy to. The Baron loped onto the dance floor and blinked at the laughter. Abruptly, he whirled and fled from the room.

When he was asked why he had chosen to put his clothes back on so suddenly after all the terrific trotting and loping, the Baron said, “It was really quite thrilling to be buffers in the casino, and it was a kick to arrive in the disco. But standing there nude on the dance floor without my glasses—couldn’t see a bloody thing in that violet light—I began to feel a small touch of paranoia.”

Mondo bizzarro, all right. By the second night out, when the captain’s cocktail party was held in the First-Class nightclub, the ship was already steaming half a day behind schedule with its impaired boilers. “Right now, at this moment, I can hopefully say that I think we’ll come out on top,” the captain assured his cocktail guests. His leeriness was as sensible as the sign posted in First-Class cabin bathrooms that said: DO NOT STEP INTO SHOWER BEFORE TESTING WATER TEMPERATURE.

There already had been open snarling about the food. Not that it was in short supply during the limited hours it was available, but a piece of fish, a filet of beef, a slice of veal, a Caesar salad, all seemed to taste pretty much like a piece of newspaper.

After having returned a few meals to the kitchen for further study, Clement Freud, who appears to examine everything placed before him as if it might be made of spiders, decided to investigate the source of this paper food. He went into the kitchen, lined up the staff and marched up and down peering around with his look of surprised disgruntlement. “These are the boilers back there, are they?” Freud asked the chef.

“No sir, those are the cookers.”

“Ah. I have been under the impression that you did the cooking in the boilers.”

Adding to the general feeling of oddness aboard the ship, it was soon discovered that one stateroom key would open many other staterooms; exactly how many is not known, but experimentation proved it true in dozens of cases, and a steward cheerfully admitted, “Saves us the trouble of different passkeys, and only old ladies lock their doors, anyway.” Patrick, the Earl of Lichfield, is not an old lady in any sense; he even has a tattoo on his arm. But he rushed to the captain to demand protection for his photographic equipment. There is a story in Dunhill publicity releases that the Earl of Lichfield, “coordinator” of the tournament, is forbidden by his family to play backgammon because an ancestor had lost a fortune at the game. True or not, the earl certainly had no desire to lose his cameras. “Outrageous,” is what he called the matter of the door keys. Mondo bizzarro is the way Esmond put it.

Charles Benson, the auctioneer, kept advancing in the backgammon tournament in the maroon and gold room, while better rated players like Tim Holland, Ted Bassett, Walter Cooke, Claude Beer, Philip Martyn, Joe Dwek, Gino Scalamandre. Porter Ijams, Lewis DeYoung, Michael Stoop and others fell out. In one match Benson needed to throw double sixes on the last roll to win, and he did it. Benson’s puckery smile grew steadily. A friend described Benson as “the sort of fellow who owns two coats, three shirts, a necktie and a Ford, but when the rest of us are betting ¬£2 on a race at the dog track, Benson will be betting ¬£200.” Lewis DeYoung said, “Benson has tremendous courage. He’s been whipped by every bookmaker in London, and he keeps coming back.”

“Going to the track with Benson is a thrilling experience,” said Takis Theodorocopulos. “If people find out he’s the famous Bendex whose tips they’ve bet their life savings on, they’ll try to kill him.”

At last it was the final, and Benson was still in. His opponent was Barclay Cooke, who could hardly be more unlike Benson. Cooke, 61, an American, is from Yale, a gentleman gambler, coauthor of a backgammon book, winner of the Clermont Club British Championship in 1972 and co-holder, with his son Walter, of the World Cup Duplicate Backgammon Championship. “Barclay Cooke was the best player in the game until about 10 years ago,” says his friend Porter Ijams. “Then a number of people went past him, but in the last two or three years Barclay has become the most improved player in the game.”

Barclay Cooke does not drink or smoke. Benson, on the other hand, was furnished for the final with all the Moet champagne he could put away, and that turned out to be an amount that would have floored a goat. Where did this champagne come from? The donor was Esmond Cooper-Key, who had taken the waiters aside and told them to keep Benson’s glass full no matter what the cost.

Esmond, it developed, is married to the sister of Benson’s dear friend. Lady Charlotte Anne Curzon, a lovely blonde girl who was sitting at Benson’s side during the final match. Why did Esmond do this with the champagne? Was he for Benson or against him? “I’m totally for him, old man,” Esmond explained. “I don’t own a piece of him, and it’s costing me a bloody fortune the way he drinks. But I want Benson to win, and he plays best when he’s loaded to the ears.”

“Merry Christmas,” Benson said to Cooke before the match. “Let’s shake hands now. It’s liable to turn ugly later.” That morning Benson had left the Tourist-Class disco at 5 a.m., at the gentle urging of Lady Curzon and Victor Lownes, a 46-year-old American who is managing director of the Clermont Club and of Playboy’s European enterprises, of which the Clermont is one. “Look at Benson’s eyes. He’s in absolutely perfect shape for the match,” Esmond said as the two opponents faced each other across one of the $1,000 leather boards that the Dunhill company had supplied for the tournament.

Whether a spectator cared much for backgammon or not, there was excitement in the Benson-Cooke match—two greatly different personalities opposing each other in the glare of movie lights, with the audience crowded close around and the waiters pushing to get through with trays of champagne. Benson started poorly but recovered to tie the 29-point match at 27-all. Cooke won the next point, and Benson tied the match again. The last point developed into a running game in which each player had his disks clear of his opponent’s end of the board. The winner would be the one who threw the highest dice.

Benson looked at the board and took a thoughtful gulp of champagne. Cooke toasted him with a glass of ice water.

Benson spoke in a low voice to Cooke. He was asking if Cooke would care to split the prize money. That meant each would receive £7,500 instead of the £10,000 that was to go to the winner and the £5,000 to the runner-up. Cooke agreed. That done, Benson shook the dice cup and rolled double fours. Benson had won the tournament.

At the black-tie gala that night, wine was thrown about, large splashes of it landing on chests, laps and faces, and a great many speeches were made, including the one by Obolensky that was interrupted by Esmond Cooper-Key, champagne glass in hand. Later, Benson capered madly through the noisy Tourist disco with his shirt off, buying drinks as fast as they could be poured, howling and singing, unreservedly celebrating his victory.

“This was definitely not a triumph for clean living,” Philip Martyn said, grinning as he watched his permanent guest crash through the dancers. “One drinks milk and is hard as nails. The other dunks champagne and is soft as butter, and wins.”

In another room Barclay Cooke stood quietly in a corner, replaying the match in his mind. “I wanted to win,” he said. “It wasn’t the money, though that was pretty nice. I just wanted to win. My son, Walter, thinks I played the six-four move wrong. I don’t think so. What do you think?”

Some people said they thought he was wrong. Some said they thought he was right. Benson hardly seemed to care.

Under its previous owner, the celebrated London gambler John Aspinall, the Clermont Club on Berkeley Square was an 18th-century Palladian mansion where one could gamble for very high stakes and might also be invited to parties that included entertainment by lions, tigers and midgets. Now the Clermont is a Playboy property renting out its basement to an outstandingly snotty private disco called Annabel’s. Upstairs from Annabel’s the gambling continues with roulette and craps and chemin de fer, and there is a good restaurant, but the preoccupation of most of the Clermont clientele appears to be backgammon.

In fact, only a few hours after the QE 2 docked at Southampton a full day late, the Dunhill tournament was no longer the richest backgammon tournament ever held. The Clermont tournament, with Charles Benson acting as auctioneer, quickly surpassed the Dunhill. With the players’ pool and auction pool, the prize money rose to more than $50,000.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Tim Holland. “It’s like golf a few years ago. Soon we’ll have regular $150,000 tournaments. Sponsors are signing up all the time. You can become a good player without spending a lifetime at it. That is an important point.”

Holland was rated at 12 to 1 in the Clermont, in which there were 80 players, a number of them women. Benson was 22 to 1 and had spent part of his QE 2 winnings buying a piece of a player named M. Baquiche (20 to 1).

A private backgammon game was already under way in which one of the Dunhill players would lose close to $200,000 before the following night. “The biggest gambling games in the world are in London,” said Lewis DeYoung, who came downstairs shaking his head over the beating he had just been watching. “London makes Las Vegas look like very small change. I’ve seen $312,000 wagered on one spin at roulette in a club here, the man going from $400,000 loser to $150,000 winner in a few hours.”

A little later a visitor walked out in front of the Clermont, where Rolls-Royces and Bentleys were double-parked and gleaming under the lamps. The visitor saw several banknotes fall onto the sidewalk and thought he saw who had dropped them. The visitor picked them up, but before he could call to the person he thought had lost the money, one of the best-known backgammon players in the world snatched the bills out of his hands and said, “Thank you, I’d hate to lose those.”

“But you didn’t lose them,” the visitor said.

“Of course I did,” said the backgammon player and entered a chauffeured Bentley with a bar in the back.

“Now you see what it takes to become an international shark,” another well-known player told the bemused visitor.

At cocktails at the S.W. 1 area home of the Baron, people were betting on how many times a certain letter appeared on the back of a particular cigarette package. The Baron wasn’t playing. The letter he was interested in was the one he had just received from an aunt, who had read in a London newspaper about the Baron’s naked romp on the QE 2. The story had been radioed from the ship to a London columnist by an unidentified snitch who was among the Baron’s crowd. “You are a spoiled rich kid with more money than brains,” the letter from the aunt said. “You have given your family a right royal black eye. Your uncle has gone into a silence.”

“All my mother said was she had looked at my body for quite a number of years, and couldn’t understand why I would want to show it around,” the Baron said.

Later, back again at the Clermont, one could see across the room the backsides of many people pressing in to watch the final of the tournament. “I would like to see what they are doing,” said Esmond Cooper-Key, “but I would rather need to be a giraffe, wouldn’t I?”

“With a grasp of the game,” the Baron said.

Charles Benson joined the group at the table.

“Are you doing well, Charles?” asked Esmond.

“We’ll know in a few minutes. You know I bought Baquiche at the auction,” Benson said.

A sudden prattle burst from among the backsides.

“Baquiche has won,” someone said, heading for the bar.

“Not too bad a week, all in all,” said Benson.

A Sly Look at Tino vs. Senkiewicz

by Sly Sylvester (Courtesy of the Flint Area Backgammon News, January, 1993)IMG_4598[1]

Senk1

11 Point Match

Score tied at 7-7

Red doubles, should Black take?

A deceptive position indeed!  (At least for me!)

When I first viewed this position, I thought Black had a trivial take.  After further analysis, however, I’m not so sure.  Read on…

When faced with match cube decisions, the first thing that needs to be determined is Black’s Take Point.

At 7-7 in a match to 11:

Score Match Equity
Black Passes (7-8) 41%
Black Takes & Wins (9-7) 67%
Black Takes & Loses (7-9) 33%
67% – 41% = 26% Reward
41% – 33% = 8% Risk

This 26-8 ratio represents approximately a 23% Take Point,  (Take Points are determined by dividing Risk + Reward into Risk.)

Risk = Take 8 = .235
Risk + Reward Point 8 + 26

“So what’s the problem here?” I asked.  Black is slightly ahead in the race 80-83.  And there is still contact.  Surely the contact must help the one owning the cube, right?

Wrong!  Not only does contact not favor Black at all in this position, but the mere prospect of contact greatly inhibits an already poor race.  The two long crossovers that Black is down, plus his poor distribution in his inner board, translate his original 3-pip lead into a racing nightmare.

In my original tinkering with the position, I tried clearing Red’s back checker as soon as possible.  But just relying on Black’s poor distribution is clearly wrong, as I found Black was winning over 30% of the games.

However, when I left Red’s rear checker alone and built his inner board as quickly as possible, contact started paying dividends.  Numbers such as 6-2 should be played 9/1 by Red; 6-3 : 9/3, 5/2; 6-4 : 9/3, 5/1.  As for 6-5, frankly, I’m not sure: 17/6 or 9/4, 9/3?

To help find a solution to this problem, Butch Meese was enlisted to play out the position on the IBM version of Expert Backgammon™.  12,924 rollouts yielded:

Red wins 8,995 single games = 69.6%
Red wins 595 gammons = 4.6%
Black wins 3,434 single games = 26.8%

If we multiply these figures out from Black’s point of view, we find the following:

Black Loses: 69.6% x 33% Match Equity = 23.2%
4.6% x 0% Match Equity = 0%
26.8% x 67% Match Equity = 17.8%
+41.0%

It would appear from these results that taking the cube yields 41% Match Equity and that passing yields 41% Match Equity!  Close decision, eh?!

Still, there are some factors that favor Black.  First of all, the computer rollouts are cubeless – clearly a disadvantage for Black who has a redouble point of 50%+,  Also, Red should pass a redouble at <33%, so any positions where Black goes from <50% to >67% should be counted as Black wins, whereas the computer continues to roll them out, giving Red some wins he doesn’t deserve.

Furthermore, Red may not play the position to his greatest advantage, as I alluded to above.  This is not something you can count on, but carefully factor it into your judgment of the position.

In summary, this position is clearly a strong double and not-so-clearly a close take.

 

Note:  This decision was correct in 1993 and is still correct today.  Here is the eXtreme Gammon analysis:

Senk

There are a couple of notes on the checker plays mentioned in the article.  The 6-2 played 9/3, 5/2 is correct according to eXteme Gammon.  For the 6-3 the computer prefers 9/6, 9/3 by a small margin.  The computer plays the 6-4 16/6.  According to the computer, the answer to Sly’s question on how to play the 6-5 (either 17/6 or 9/4, 9/3) is 9/4, 9/3.

 

The Dictionary – Part One

by Jana Bohrer

Back Game
Noun The Wonderland one wanders into after rolling an opening 4-1 creatively played by splitting and slotting the 5 “as an experiment to see how it turns out”.  Followed by an opponent’s 4-3 hitting twice. Then fanning, coming in, getting hit again somewhere else, and repeating this sequence until one achieves a number of men in the opponent’s board for a “well-timed” game.  At some point during which, one takes the cube because:
1.  One is a masochist whose hobbies include watching Nickolodeon marathons of Gilligan’s Island and patronizing a holistic dentist who believes betel leaves are an anestheticgilligan
2.  One is off one’s meds
(See also:  Backgammoned and Creative)

Backgammon(ed)
1.  Verb Losing 3x the amount of the cube.  Frequently occurring in a 5 way chouette in which one is holding 4 sixteen cubes in the box. This often results voluntary homelessness, as one is too frightened reveal that one has lost a significant amount of the household grocery money and all of the little tyke’s college fund;  (See also: Back Game, Chouette)

bilbo
2.  Noun The game on the back of the checkers board variously known as:
a. Jacoby’s Bane
b.  The One Game
c.  The Game of Power
d.  The Precious

Builder
Noun  A checker you anticipate  using to build a useful point.  It should be noted that Builders must be used sparingly and while still in earliest stage of their development.   If the metamorphosis of a builder is not interrupted;  or if a hive of Builders is allowed to form; the Builders transform into Blots.  These Blots will in time emerge from their chrysalises as Gammons.
(See also:  Blot, Gammoned, Creative)

gammon

Chouette
Noun A type of backgammon game which allows more than two players.  Side effects include, but are not limited to:
1.  Superiority Complex – “Every other player in this chouette is a creative idiot.”
2.  Inferiority Complex – “I should say something about leaving 5 blots, but I’m losing, and they’ve been playing so many more years than I have.  He keeps saying they’re builders…”
3. Rage Complex – “Well, if he hadn’t refused to hit twice when I told him too, I wouldn’t have had to hit him with the baffle box.”
4. Sleeping in the Car Complex – “I told you.   I checked out of the room already and now we don’t have the money to check back in.  The car’s perfectly comfortable, just imagine you’re shorter.”
(See also: Creative, Builder, Gammoned, Backgammoned, Back Game)

Chouette is derived from the French for “Train”.t2

Creative
tut
Adjective  Term used by experienced players to describe various plays made by less experienced players.  Most commonly used by one’s spouse/significant other, as in it’s first known written usage found on the wall of King Tut’s tomb which depicts Queen Ankhesenamun saying:
(See also:  Sarcasm)

The Nightstalker

by Jana Bohrer

which is which

Bruce Becker was a lawyer and sometime movie producer.
He is also the alter ego of the spine chilling super-villain known as the Nightstalker.

nightstalker

Okay.  Not so much.  But, it is a fact that in 1974 Bruce Becker did to backgammon books what Richard Ramirez did in 1980’s to the peaceful sleep of Los Angelinas.  (And you have to admit, the resemblance is striking.)

There soooo many things one could say about this book.  But I think the following charming anecdote told by Becker himself sums up quite a lot:

“My eleven year old daughter, who is a very good player, lost a gammon to me in a game she that she thought she had a good chance to pull off.  She was furious at both of us (herself for losing and me for winning); she turned on me with venom and blurted out, “I hate you!”  I knew then that she would be a great player someday.”exorsict

I know, I’m verklempt too.  After all, isn’t it every proud papa’s dream to sire backgammon’s first little Tonya Harding? Tonya Harding pumps her fists as she finishes her

“Backgammon for Blood” continues in the same vein with more pithy advice on winning gracefully.

“This is one game where even the pretenses of ‘sportsmanship’ are eliminated.  Outright hostility prevails, and in my opinion the world is better for it…”

The Emily Post of backgammon goes on to suggest the proper way of correcting an opponent’s illegal move:

“I like to add a slight leer when I do; the implication that my opponent may not be quite as smart (or as honest) as I am can sometimes rattle him.”

To be fair, Becker does seem to realize there may be consequences for following his advice, and tells the reader how to deal with any twinges of conscience one may feel after acting like a complete !@*$@*#!:

“You should never feel guilty because you’re hated.”hate

After thoroughly covering how to be a success in backgammon by channeling your inner Attila the Hun, Becker attempts to tackle strategy.  He sums up his philosophy thus:

“Most modern day writers on backgammon recommend a running game as their basic strategy: get your men moving as fast as possible out of your opponent’s board; bring them around quickly; avoid a back game like the plague.

“I don’t agree.”

Um…memo to Bruce – 1. Move men  2.  Bring men around  3.  Bear men off………Can you say OBJECT OF THE GAME DUDE!?

As for this back game hypothesis, I have been testing this strategy for a number of years.  Not willingly, not purposefully, not mindfully – but testing it nonetheless.  A lot.  And the only benefit I have derived from the experiment is perfecting methods of getting off the gammon without wasting any pips.

I do not have enough space to speak of Becker’s treatise on opening rolls.  But the highlight reel includes:

5-3 making the 3 point is “a waste”

6-5 played with a lover’s leap to the 13 is “…a death jump.  Play this roll in this fashion and you are virtually destined to doom.”

To be perfectly fair to Becker, I did ask my backgammon guru Jim Painter if anyone in the old days (before computers or slide rules were invented) ever played openings as this book depicts.

As we went through them he commented, “Yeah, 6-2 slotting the 5, everybody did that…4-1 slot the 5 and down was popular…3-2 two down, a lot of guys did that….etc.”

But when we got to the 6-2, 6-3 and 6-5 moves, and I explained that Becker played them all by bringing two down, he exclaimed, “NOBODY did that!”  (Pause, followed by wistful sigh.) “At least nobody I ever played.”

The Chapter on conducting a proper bear off begins:rosemary

“In talking of bearing off, I like to think of my home board as pregnant and ready to bring forth,  Unfortunately some pregnancies miscarry.”

Get that image out of your head.  I dare you.

Any finally my favorite sentence from the book:

“First, seriously consider throwing the doubling cube at him.”

I could add context.  But isn’t it perfect just the way it is?

There are a few other things you should know.

Becker tried to do to Hollywood what he did to books.  United Artists in a fit of insanity gave him a deal to make three movies, the first of which was “Three”. (One cannot make this stuff up.  Same Bruce Becker, I checked.)

three.jpg

Of this opus, the New York Times said:

“Three” strives for amateur status without ever quite achieving it.”

Mr. Becker’s contract was cancelled.

In parting, please do not take this review as suggesting that you not purchase “Backgammon for Blood”.  Au contraire – buy as many copies as you can find.  (Contact me for the best prices.)  They are wonderful gifts, and are especially suited for presentation to obnoxious in-laws.   Make sure the in-law in question has time to thoroughly read and digest the book.  Then play them for money.  Be careful of winning so much that they are forced to move in with you.

PS – “Backgammon for Blood” by Becker should in no way be confused with an excellent book of the same name by Chris Bray, available through Amazon.

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