The Game of Pharaohs

Esquire Classic April 2019

The author may be one of the country’s most important book critics, but like the rest of us, there was something else he wanted to be good at, something else he didn’t want to transform from a dream into a regret. So he packed a bag and his backgammon board and headed to MONTE CARLO.

APRIL 12019 DWIGHT GARNER

Walking through the lobby of the Fairmont hotel in Monaco, home to the Backgammon World Championship, is like striding through an aquarium. Well-tended women, summa cum laude graduates of the Ivanka Trump School of Advanced Moisturizing, move through the first-floor casino as if in schools, their older boyfriends, many of them Russian, in tow. Call girls, only slightly less well tended, perch on couches and sip cocktails from long straws. There’s a throwback bad-taste glamour here in Monte Carlo, the Las Vegas of Europe. One waits for Engelbert Humperdinck or some other sideburned lothario of the 1970s to sidle past in a leisure suit. Yet the Fairmont, in its way, is an up-to-date sin palace. There’s the thumping of EDM from the hotel’s Nikki Beach roof bar. Out front there’s a crush of valet-parked Porches, Bentleys, and Maseratis glinting in the July sun. The hotel sits on a hairpin turn that bedevils Formula One Grand Prix racers and has caused countless crashes. The calm on my first morning is shattered by a distraught gambler who rocks the lobby’s ATM as if it were a pinball machine, slapping it and calling it his bitch because it refuses to dispense money he no longer has.

Among these beautiful people, the most elite backgammon players stand out, the way roadies do on an Ariana Grande tour. Some 190 players are here from all over the world competing for $250,000 in prize money. Nearly all of them are men. Many, if not most, are unshaven introverts in cargo pants or dad jeans. They’re “froggish men, unpleasant to see,” in the words of an old Randy Newman song. On the first morning, I see a crowd gathered around a match in the hotel’s conference room. I peer across the rows of heads. Akiko Yazawa, then the world’s number-three-ranked player and among the game’s few great female adepts, is competing. It’s fun to watch her play, in part because she’s brilliant and in part because, as one spectator tells me, “she’s attractive-attractive, not just backgammon-attractive.” Akiko wears a T-shirt with a backgammon board on it. The caption: “And they call this fun?”

I’ve traveled to Monaco to compete in the World Championship. I feel I am plausibly ready, at least in the sense that George Plimpton was plausibly ready to sub in for a few plays as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. I’ve been playing backgammon since I was a kid, often in all-night, low-stakes gambling binges with friends, lately I’ve been really working on my game. I live in New York and I’ve sat in with the hustlers in Washington Square Park and Bryant Park in Manhattan. I’ve devoured a pile of books with titles like Backgammon: The Crudest Game. I’ve watched classic matches on YouTube, the way a wide receiver studies game tape. I hired a tutor, a pro who lives in Virginia, and took online lessons. Additionally, I’m sickly addicted to a pro-level backgammon app on my iPhone. I play twenty or thirty games a day. It’s my go-to stress reliever. It beats a black-tar-heroin habit.

Just before I flew out—in a moment of pride or panic, I’m not sure which—I reached out to Victor Ashkenazi, the number-one-ranked backgammon player in America. Victor lives in New Jersey and at the time was a vice-president at Goldman Sachs. I’d read about him. I emailed Victor out of the blue, told him I was going to compete in Monaco, and asked: Would he agree to a match with a relative novice, to let a guy know what he was in for? Victor texted me back: “Haha why not?”

We meet on a warm spring Saturday at Bear and Birch, a Russian banya, or spa, in Freehold, not far from where he lives. It’s where Victor goes to unwind. The place is modern and well lit, yet it has that emotional five-o’clock shadow that clings to so many restaurants and other spaces in New Jersey. You can imagine a Sopranos-style hit going down in a corner sauna. Victor, who is in his late forties, is late and apologetic. He has a six-pack of beer under his arm. (The place is BYOB.) He’s so tall that he has to lean down to say hello, his shaved head gleaming. “You want to have sauna?” he asks. So we sit, towels around our waists, and bake. Victor’s family emigrated from Russia in 1995, he tells me, when he was twenty-five. Back then, he knew maybe twenty words of English. “I’d played chess as a kid, and I noticed the chess games in Bryant Park for small stakes,” he says. “Then I noticed this other game, one I’d never seen back home. They were playing for more money than in chess! Backgammon was more competitive and volatile. The crazy arguments helped me to learn English.”

Victor has a gift for numbers. He landed a job as a computer programmer, and at night he played online backgammon. “I have a good visual memory,” he says. “I remember positions and patterns. And I’m a sports guy. Backgammon is a sport. There are long hours playing—long, long, long. It’s like a boxing match. You have to have stamina and a strategy and the will to win.” He played in his first major tournament in 2007 in Las Vegas, the largest one in the United States at the time. He won it and he was hooked.

We climb out of the sauna. Victor pulls out a shiny black-and-red backgammon set that looks like it belongs to a Bond villain. (James Bond plays backgammon. In Octopussy, Roger Moore suavely defeats a cheating Middle Eastern cad.) The pieces on his board— these are called stones, blots, men, or checkers—are marble and have an agreeable heft. Hurling one, you could stop a charging Pussy Galore in her tracks. Backgammon is a racing game. You want to get your fifteen checkers around the board and then remove them, a process that’s called “bearing off.” If you get your checkers off the board first, you win.

I have a small shot against Victor, I think, because backgammon involves some luck. About 80 percent of the game is chance. This is one way it differs from chess. If you sit down opposite Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top chess player, you have zero hope of winning a game. Chess is 100 percent skill. A casino game like roulette, on the other hand, is entirely luck. Backgammon sits, tantalizingly, in between. It allows enough luck that, if only in the short term, David can slay Goliath.

We start playing. Here my memory goes somewhat blank.

I am reminded of Mike Tyson’s comment that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

During the first five or six games, Victor doesn’t just beat me; he does to me what Sherman did to Atlanta. After about thirty minutes of abject defeats, I begin to pull my wits together. I slow down and analyze the entire board before moving, as the pro I’d studied with had taught me to do. I start counting my “pips”—the total number of places I need to move to win—to determine whether to use the doubling cube. I start to win the occasional game. My eyeglasses unsteam. Victor begins to heckle me. “What a luck-box,” he says, grinning, when I roll a series of doubles. He says it with a lingering Russian accent, so it’s like having Count Chocula dis you. Then his girlfriend (now his wife), Alia, who’s watching, chimes in. “Look at this guy, Victor—he thinks he’s a tiger.” Later, she says, “Look at his big balls. Hear his big balls clacking.” Victor adds, “What a luck-box.” Soon I realize we’ve been playing for five hours. (We’ll play for eight.) I begin to appreciate once again why backgammon has more juice than any other game I know. Its highs and lows are intense. With its weird mix of luck and skill, it’s the game that most resembles life. Like life, it offers extreme reversals of fate—fate that can rain down on you like magic or bury you entirely. It’s a game that small children can play, yet it takes a lifetime to begin to master.

It’s the only thing I know, besides sex and skiing, that you can do for eight hours and still want to keep doing.

There’s something oddly moving about the game, too. In order to win, you merely need to find your way home.

By now it’s dark. We get up to leave. I see that Victor has barely touched his first beer, while I’ve had several. Don’t drink and play; that was my first unspoken pro tip. I think I’ve done moderately well until Victor remarks that my checkers play was poor and my use of the doubling cube was dismal. A game of backgammon may be only 20 percent skill, but if you put that number in Las Vegas terms, you realize how overwhelming that percentage is. In a craps game, the house is a favorite by only 1 percent, yet it rakes in the money. Imagine if the house were a 20 percent favorite. I never had a chance. Victor looks down at me and shakes his head. “My friend,” he says, smiling, “you are like a little child lost in the woods.”

The Backgammon World Championship in Monaco unfolds over nine days. The first three days are given over to preliminary tournaments in which the top prize is $22,000. The championship takes place over the final six. After observing the talent in the room, I decide to play in the intermediate division. I want a fighting chance to land in the money. Here we go!

My first match in the preliminary tournament is a breeze. I play a cocky little Frenchman in a polo jersey, and all the breaks go my way. We play a nine-point match, which ostensibly means the winner must win nine individual games. But when the doubling cube is laid down, you can quickly find yourself playing for two, four, or, more rarely, eight or more points. In backgammon, you double if you’re in a winning position. The other player can accept or resign. If they accept, only they can double the next time. The Frenchman is annoyed at my dominance. He’s annoyed, too, at my sloppy backgammon etiquette. He reminds me that dice must be shaken vigorously, as if you were making a margarita. He reminds me to roll only on my side of the board. Back in Bryant Park, these niceties matter less. I win in about an hour.

The next afternoon, my second match also goes well. My opponent is again French, a woman in her late forties. She casts a certain Mrs. Robinson or Jackie Onassis glamour. It occurs to me that much of the game’s lingo has sexual overtones. When you roll a five and six early in a game, for example, so that your checker sails over the board like Evel Knievel over a row of school buses, it’s called a “lover’s leap.” When one of your open checkers gets hit by an opponent and put out of action, on the game’s center bar, you are “dancing on the bar.” I’m in the zone. I double aggressively, and it pays off. I win the match after about forty-five minutes. When I report the results, I look at the brackets on the wall and realize I am only one victory away from finishing in the money. Hot damn. I decide to look for Victor to give him the news.

It takes me a while to find him across the expanse of the conference room. But here he is, midmatch. His T-shirt says, “I bought this T-shirt with your money.” He’s winning. But as I stand over him, watching, he begins to falter. He shakes his head after making a minor counting mistake. His dice rolls turn sour. I fear I’m his cooler, so I walk away. When I see him much later that night, he’s irritable. He’s not doing well in the tournament. But he’s scanning for something more important: men and women known in the backgammon world as fish or pigeons or marks, wealthy players who might want to test themselves for large stakes against a pro. He finds one and disappears.

I look around for a private game myself, but most people have left. The atmosphere in the hall, with its fluorescent lights, is grim. I can’t find a player, and the bars are mostly empty. And not for the first time, I wonder: What happened to backgammon? When did it lose its chic and fall off the cultural map? Can we get those days back?

The game itself is as old as the pharaohs. According to The Backgammon Game, by Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford, Homer mentions a version of it in The Odyssey. The Roman emperor Claudius had a built-in set on his chariot so that he could play while on the move. Shakespeare and Chaucer each cited the game in his work, and Thomas Jefferson played while drafting the Declaration of Independence. In a notebook of his expenses during the summer of 1776, Jefferson wrote:

Lost at backgammon 7 / 6
Won at backgammon 7d / 1 / 3

As recently as the 1970s, backgammon was a pop-culture obsession. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul Newman, Tina Turner, and the members of Pink Floyd were photographed hovering over boards. Thousands of players flocked to tournaments in Las Vegas and the Bahamas, where winners took home million-dollar prizes. (The top prize money at tournaments today rarely reaches one-twentieth of that sum.) From 1977 to 1980, The New York Times ran a weekly backgammon column by Paul Magriel, a master of the game.

Backgammon became a jet-set phenomenon, but its popularity first took off in private clubs in London and Manhattan. The game had an aura of cigar smoke and black tie; it was something you might play while eating a haunch of venison and sipping Madeira. In 1966, the Times sent a reporter to cover the burgeoning backgammon scene at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Club. He came away with unintentionally hilarious quotes like “All these men are members of the different Ivy League clubs. You see the type of men they are” and “There’s always been a backgammon game available in the good families.” Backgammon seemed like just the thing to play if you wanted to be the first to lose your head when the revolution came.

In Playboy, Hugh Hefner began to print photographs of tanned celebrities playing the game with adoring women. Sports Illustrated sent reporters to cover backgammon tournaments. The attention was good for backgammon—and bad for backgammon. The secret was out. The wider world had discovered the game, but like airplane travel, it slowly lost its cachet. To put it in Yogi Berra terms, backgammon got so popular that no one wanted to play anymore.

Shady players such as the Israeli-born Gaby Horowitz invaded the scene. Horowitz—who at one point was married to Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson murder trial—was a West Coast hustler who seemed to have walked out of an Elmore Leonard novel. He was a brown-eyed ladies’ man who was accused of cheating by manipulating magnets under his board. In a bizarre twist of fate, Horowitz was accidentally shot by another backgammon player, a gun collector, in a freak accident in 1989, when a bullet ricocheted off a ceiling and into his head. He was paralyzed and never heard from again.

Then the number crunchers began to arrive, as they have in all professional sports. The game started to be broken down by computer programs. The first of these, created by IBM’s Gerald Tesauro in 1992, used neural networking to teach itself to play. These programs, over time, have thoroughly deconstructed the game by assigning equity values to every possible position. No one used to know what the best move was; now they do. The game has become one of memorization and mathematics, increasingly for whey-complexioned nerds who play and study all day in their basements. Nowadays playing with your heart or with your instincts will get you nowhere.

The final blow came with the advent of online poker and the live broadcasts of poker tournaments on cable television, beginning in 2003. Poker stole what little thunder backgammon had left. It offered higher stakes and a shot at fame. It’s a casino game, and backgammon can’t really be played in casinos. There’s no place for a dealer in backgammon, for one thing. For another, a game involves only two players and can take a long time. It simply isn’t profitable. One former backgammon champion, Erik Seidel, is now a poker legend, having won eight World Series of Poker bracelets. He made the switch partly because it was easier to find poker games. Players flock to poker, he tells me, because cards are familiar to them and because poker appears to have, at first glance, a lower barrier to entry. “With poker, people can delude themselves for a longer period of time in terms of their skill,” he says. “In backgammon, a novice will get killed constantly. In poker, a newbie might think he can actually play.”

I’ve still got a shot in the preliminary tournament. But then I get knocked off by a stringy fellow with an unplaceable accent who rolls double sixes the way Roger Federer fires aces. As he does this, he shakes his head philosophically and says, “Eh, it’s backgammon” just as Jack Nicholson’s partner said, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” I lose again later that day and then again the following morning. I’m out.

I wake up early the next morning, the first day of the World Championship, and seek wisdom from the Israeli-born Matvey Natanzon, better known as Falafel. He got his nickname from his favorite cheap lunch. Falafel is a backgammon-world superstar, a man who became a world champion while homeless and playing in Washington Square Park. He’s almost certainly the only living backgammon player to have been profiled in The New Yorker.

Falafel is an endearing slob who’s a treat to watch play. He rubs his belly, rocks back and forth like a diviner, and grimaces and sighs as if he were Zero Mostel. He’s as close as backgammon has to a celebrity. He won’t confirm it, but he’s said to have been hired by Leonardo DiCaprio as a tutor. “I keep trying to get out of this game, but they keep pulling me back in,” he tells me. The prize money in backgammon these days is barely enough to make it worthwhile, he says. I ask him if he has any advice for me. He encourages me to take my time, to study the whole board before moving. Then he says, “You will also need the gods on your side.”

Sitting with Falafel, I wonder: What does this guy have, in terms of ability, that I don’t? An inborn gift for numbers, for one. Plus, he became a champion because he was literally hungry—desperation can bring a lot out in a person. It’s why good boxers rarely grow up in houses with manicured lawns.

The championship starts. I’m nervous. I suddenly want this thing. First I play a sweet older man who resembles my father-in-law and played in the 1973 Backgammon World Championship in Las Vegas, nearly winning. This fellow is in his eighties. I later discover he is gravely ill with cancer. He genially destroys me. My next match is in the evening. I badly want a martini to steady my nerves, but drinking and professional backgammon don’t mix. I pace. In my room, I consult my backgammon books. I try to keep my wits about me.

The next day, I lose again. And the next day. I burn through my consolation rounds and then my last-chance rounds. My luck, and my focus, have gone to hell. My tournament is over. All that’s left to do is swim in the Mediterranean, play blackjack, eat oysters, and watch the others.

I brood over my bad math skills. It doesn’t surprise me that the tournament is ultimately won by a little-known Frenchman, Didier Assaraf, who other players say is savant-like and has an aptitude for numbers. It’s the last day. Victor has been avoiding me. He hasn’t done well in the tournament, either, but he’s apparently done well in his extracurricular matches. He asks me if I can carry a wad of money back to the States for him. I make a face that says, “Really?” He says never mind.

I fly home and mope about my game. I buy more instruction books and upgrade my computer program. I text Victor: “How about another match?” We meet again at Bear and Birch, this time in early fall. We take some steams. We eat chewy Russian dried fish. We begin to play. He annihilates me, but not as definitively as he did earlier in the year. He calls me a luck-box once in a while. In the end, he admits that there’s a fair to middling chance I might find my way out of the woods.


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.

Othello Quiz

Othello 5Cliff Smith:

cliff 5

Gerry Tansey:

13/10 6/1*.  I’ve turned the cube.  I’m down in the race, but I’ve got a better board.  You’ve got two blots in your board.  I’m anchored.  I’m going after you.

Matt Easley:

6-1, 8-5. With 2 blots exposed, the hit feels right.

However the bot disagrees with all 3 and says 13/10, 13/8.

 othello 51

Othello 4

Matt Easley:

Problem 4 – bar-24, 2-1 (2), 8-7. Need time to escape. Only leaves 5-3 to hit the advanced blot. 

Gerry Tansey:

Bar/24, 2/1*(2), 8/7.  I think I need to put White on the bar since he will attack me otherwise.  This does that in the safest way possible.

But it looks like the bot disagrees and says bar/24, 8/7, 8/6.

Othello 41

Othello 3

Gerry Tansey’s analysis:

6/1* 2/1.  Hitting loose on the ace point is problematic not only because you can get hit back and lose (sometimes a gammon, but lots of these games end with a cube turn), but when you hit, you may not cover.  Not hitting is problematic because you can lose the race (or get hit with a fly shot).  And you don’t win any gammons.  But the shifting play vastly increases the number of covering rolls, and if you survive, you will very likely cover and/or hit the second checker.  I’m 80% sure I got this one right.

And Gerry was 100% right!

Othello 31

Othello Quiz 2

Matt Easley’s take:

8/5, 2/1. Need to make progress getting in.  Opponent has too much timing.  I’m not willing to slot the 4 point and give a lot of shots.

Gerry Tansey:

8/5, 2/1.  This was really tough for me.  If White’s board were stronger, it would be a no-brainer to make the safe play.  If White’s front position were weaker, I’d take the plunge and slot 8/4 (Hey, I can win a gammon if he breaks his anchor and hits me).  I decided that White’s position is just strong enough that leaving no shots now (and no shots next time) is attractive.  The fact that the value of my gammons is slightly reduced at the score is another factor, though I play safe for money too.  I could easily be wrong here.

Good for Matt & Gerry!

Othello 2

Gerry Tansey’s play:

1.  15/9 6/1*.  I don’t think I could bring myself to make this play for money (where I’d probably just make the 4), but the reduced cost of losing a gammon makes it more attractive now.  I prevent my opponent from escaping completely next roll, plus I give him numbers like 46, 45, 36, 35, 26, 24, and 44 to shake another blot loose.

And Gerry was right!

Othello 1 roll

Trumped Up Backgammon

(If Donald Trump played backgammon, what might it sound like?  Here is one possibility.)

So I guess you know we’re live on the Whittenburg Network. They’ve got this camera here and we’re live. The other players never have their matches covered live. You know 24 million people watched my last match.

Live Match

I’m leading in the race by the way. Everyone’s counted and Trump is ahead on every count. It’s amazing. Gerry counted, and in Gerry’s count we’re leading big. Another count just came out from Cliff and we’re leading even more in that one, and Trump’s lead is tremendously big in Litton’s count. So we’re winning the race.

Winning Race

So I see this guy Michael, a total lightweight, was talking about Trump. You know Michael. What a stiff. I hear this guy Michael calls me a pigeon. I said to myself it’s amazing, here’s a guy who must not be a very bright guy. Anyway, he said some terrible things about the way Trump plays. Where is Michael on the scoresheet? Zero.

He might be smarter than DT, but what do I know. I saw DT the other day. He’s doing very poorly on the scoresheet, by the way. And he puts on glasses so people will think he’s smart. But lots of people have tried to come after Trump and they all go down on the scoresheet. Trump is leading on the scoresheet, by the way. We have a tremendous score. It will make your head spin.

Candidates

The other day, I played Jana. By the way, look at that face. What a face. Is that a face you want to sit across the board from? Anyway, I’m playing her and I think she got some very unfair dice against me. It was clear they were gotcha dice. You could just tell there she was there to beat Trump. I mean she had dice coming out of her…wherever.

Carly

And we’re going to do some amazing things, I have tremendous plans for this match. It’s going to be terrific, we’re going to do great things. I don’t want to talk about it too much now in terms of specifics, but I’m very smart. I went to the Magriel School. So you’re going to see some amazing things in this match.

Trump smart

So one problem we’re having in this game is checker security. It’s a tremendous problem. Huge.

And by the way, I love checkers. I have a lot of respect for checkers. A lot of people say, “Oh, Trump doesn’t like checkers.” But I do. I’ve had thousands of checkers working for me. I’ve built points with checkers. They love Trump. Seriously, they love me. And by the way, a poll just came out, and your checkers love me more than they love you, they want me to win. I’m gonna win with the support of your checkers. But anyway, I love checkers. They’re great.

But one thing checkers do is they make anchors. We’ve got to talk about the anchor checkers. And so now people will say, “Trump hates anchor checkers.” But that’s not true, I love them, they’re tremendous checkers, but we can’t have that. Just because they start over here, they think they have a right to stay here and make an anchor but that’s not right. A lot of smart people have looked at this and I think we’re gonna find out that we need to change the rules on allowing anchor checkers.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump makes a point as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RTX1GRB9

So anyway, we’ve got this real problem with checker security. The checkers are being sent from over there and they’re coming over here and hitting other checkers and we’ve got to stop that, and I will stop that. We’re gonna build a prime, the most amazing prime. It’s going to be terrific, beautiful. You’re gonna love it. Because Trump builds primes, I know how to build a prime, I’ve built the most amazing primes. We’re gonna call it the Great Prime of Trump. And it’s not gonna be the kind of prime you can just come out and leap over. No, it’s going to be a smart, strong, amazing prime. You’re not gonna believe how great it’s going to be.

And I’m gonna make you pay for it.

pay

A Few Vingnettes

Games of Chance

I have heard a story of two persons playing backgammon, one of whom became so enraged at losing his match at a particular point of the game, that he took his board and threw it out of the window.  It fell upon the head of one of the passengers in the street, who came up to demand instant satisfaction for the affront and injury he had sustained.  The losing gambler only asked him if he understood backgammon, and finding that he did, said that if upon seeing the state of the game he did not excuse the extravagance of his conduct, he would give him any other satisfaction he wished for.  The tables were accordingly brought, and the situation of the two contending parties being explained, the gentleman put up his sword and went away perfectly satisfied.

me

The Manitowoc Herald, May 5, 1859

Tom Browne Says

“A woman may learn one useful doctrine from the game of backgammon, which is, not to take up any man ‘til she’s sure of him.”

The Athens Post, June 3, 1859

Tric trac

Treatment of the Insane in Russia

The behavior of the attendants is polite and courteous; every patient is received very respectfully, and first taken into the society of the most rational of the lunatics, who have likewise acquired the same tone of politeness.  Here the patient is shown the interesting collections and productions of art; refreshments are brought in; he is invited to a game of billiards or backgammon…

Asylum

Burlington Weekly Free Press, February 17, 1843

How I Became a Gambler

Although I belong to the despised fraternity called gamblers, I have always made it a rule to advise young men to avoid the gaming table that they might avoid the rock upon which I split; and I will now offer, through your paper, some suggestions to the heads of families on the subject of social card playing.

Rhett

I was twenty years of age and had lived some months in New York before I even knew the names of the ordinary playing cards. But the importance of a thorough education in the science of games was soon made apparent to me – and from a quarter where I had least expected it.

Boarding on Broadway, I made the acquaintance of a number of highly respectable families. By one of these, I was invited to attend a social party. The heads of this family I knew to be members of an Evangelical church. And you will readily judge of my surprise when I made my entrée into the parlor to behold most of the company – and my pious friends – deeply engaged at play!

gods

Not the plays of innocence! But the plays of depraved gamblers! The father of the family was engaged at chess, whilst his wife presided at a card table! Their children were among the whist players and others of the company were engaged at backgammon, dominoes and checkers!
dominoesdevil

The wine circulated freely and all seemed happy but myself, who in such a party was a barbarian. I could do nothing but look on and confess my ignorance, or occasionally engage in conversation with some old lady, whilst

“The young and gay
Were all engaged at play.”

craps
It is needless to say that I spent a very unhappy evening; and that I resolved to acquire at once an education so necessary to the maintenance of a respectable good standing in society!

I was not long therefore, in mastering the mysteries of High, Low Jack, and The Game, and Whist – and a slight knowledge let to a desire for further information, until at last, I was adept at a variety of games and a favorite partner wherever I went.

I was exceedingly fond of cards as they were introduced into every social circle I was in. And the fondness ripened into a passion which clings to me even in this hour.

blog-demon_

No better illustration of the dangers of social card playing can be given than my own history. In the parlors of respectable families I acquired a taste for play which became an all-consuming passion knowing no bounds and rapidly hurrying me down the road to ruin, desolation and hell.

But my case is not a solitary one; thousands of gamblers have been made in the same way, and tens of thousands have fallen before this terrible vice, in consequence of a taste for play formed in the family circle!

sin of gam

The Biblical Recorder, Raleigh, North Carolina, September 8, 1849

More Funny Papers!

On October 11, 1821, the Times of London gives us an account of two people who loved the game a little too much.

It appears that one fine day, a certain Mrs. Kahl of London went out visiting in the morning around 11:00 am and returned about 7:00 pm the same evening.

But Mrs. Kahl returned home to a bit of a shock. She was:

Struck with astonishment at seeing a light appearing and disappearing at the windows of her house.

And as she knew no one was home, Mrs. Kahl leapt to the only logical conclusion. Burglars! But she did NOT panic.

Instead of making a noise that might alert the thieves as most other females would have done, she quietly went to some of her neighbors and communicated her suspicions…

The troupe of neighborly Good Samaritans reconnoitered the house, procured a ladder, and entered quietly as mice through a second floor window. They crept down the stairs and tiptoed to the parlor door where:

They saw to their great surprise the two thieves playing a game of backgammon. They were sitting on a sofa and had the backgammon table between them. One of them instantly started up and said, “We’ll make no resistance.” On examination it was found that the house had been ransacked from top to bottom!

If only one of them hadn’t steered for a backgame and successfully executed the coup classique they would have gotten clean away! The moral of the story is, that if you MUST play backgammon while burgling a home, try for racing games!

Charles_Peace_penny_dreadful_1Burglar Bill


In November of 1822, The Hagerstown, Maryland Torch and Light Public Advertiser gives us a punny backgammon tale.

Apparently, it was the fashion of the era to make backgammon boards in the form of books like so:

bg book set

One day, a gentleman named Adam purchased one of these sets that was housed in the shell of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Upon taking the set home to his fair Eve, it was found that the dice cups and checkers were all present and accounted for, but:

The magical cubes (proverbially the device of the Old Serpent) which give life to the whole system were missing!

Whereupon Eve remarked:

In truth, my dear, this is Milton’s pair o’dice lost!

waldorf


In June 1840 the New York Evening Post reported an unfortunate occurrence in the life of a player who was loving but not much loved in return:

On Saturday evening last, Major John Loving, proprietor of the Commercial Hotel in this place, was dangerously wounded with a dirk, in a personal affray with Dr. E.E. Slade.  The misunderstanding arose respecting a game of backgammon they had been playing together.

bdh-13887-(pk)_large


Backgammon in the News

One of the first mentions of backgammon I could find was in the gossip column of the Pennsylvania Gazette of August 23, 1739.

Apparently, the Players Gone Wild phenomenon is not exclusively a product of the modern era:

We hear, that here are private letters from Rome which advise that the Pope and the Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie Stewart, Pretender to the British throne), had an unlucky quarrel over a game of backgammon, so that the boxes, dice and tables were thrown about the room, and the Pretender left the city next morning in high disgust.

And they weren’t even playing with the cube!

BG Match

On November 14, 1760, King George II appears to have settled the question, “Backgammon – Skill or Luck?”  (I always thought Georgie II was smart, George III must have been a regression to the mean.)

George II enacts that the game of Passage, and all and every other game or games invented or to be invented with one or more die or dice, or with any other instrument, engine or device in the nature of dice having one of more numbers thereon, (Backgammon or other games played with a Backgammon table excepted), are and shall be deemed to be games or lotteries by dice, within the intent and meaning of the foregoing Act and persons keeping any house of place for such purpose and persons playing at any of the said games shall be liable to the several penalties inflicted by the Act.

London Public Advertiser, November 14, 1760

These penalties included transportation to America – oh the horror!

George ii

The July 13, 1786 edition of the Belfast Evening Post tells us that O’Carolan, the celebrated Irish bard:

…though blind, was eminently skilled in the game of backgammon.

All I can say  is that O’Carolan must’ve REALLY trusted the guys in the local chouette.

Backgammon has certainly had some distinguished players.  As Napoleon was en route to exile on St. Helena, the British ambassador asked General Bertrand (he was to be Napoleon’s companion on the island) if there was anything Bonaparte wanted to take with him.  The reply was:

…20 packs of cards, a backgammon and a domino table and some articles of furniture.

The Times of London, August 11, 1815

Napoleon

And sometimes, you just REALLY, REALLY want a new backgammon board – and flowers.

A SWINDLER – On Saturday afternoon a man of gentlemanly appearance went into Mrs. Morton’s filagree shop and ordered a backgammon board to be sent to 39 Tavistock Street and said it would be paid for on delivery.  (25 pounds sterling or $2,358.58 in today’s dollars)  He stated his name was Kenny.

A lad was accordingly sent with it.  On his arrival near the house, the “Kenny” accosted him and inquired if he was going to #39.  The lad answered in the affirmative and recognized him to be the person who had ordered the board.  He delivered the board to him and walked with the swindler to #39.  On their arrival, the “Kenny” knocked and while waiting for the door to be opened, directed the boy to go back to the shop and return with another board of smaller size that he would purchase as well.  The door was opened and the boy saw the swindler enter the home after which he returned to the shop to fetch the second board.

On his arriving the 2nd time at #39, the boy knocked and the door was answered by a female servant who said no person of the name of Kenny lived there.  An altercation ensued between the boy and the female which brought the master of the house into the hall.  He stated that a man had been there a short time before carrying a backgammon board.  The man had inquired if anyone named Kenny lived in the home, and being told “No” went away again.

The man further reported that a flower woman had been also been swindled the week before in the same way.

The Times of London, November 12, 1816

Handmade backgammon board made of walnut tree with mother-of-pearl and filigree

Handmade backgammon board made of walnut tree with mother-of-pearl and filigree

Maverick Solitaire

An early form of Poker solitaire is actually a puzzle of sorts, one which has been called Maverick solitaire (after its appearance on the 1950’s/1960’s Western T.V. show Maverick, in the first season episode Rope of Cards).

Maverick

Twenty five cards are dealt from a shuffled 52-card deck. The object is to divide the 25 cards into five groups of five cards so that each is a pat hand in draw poker (a hand which does not need to be drawn to).

The pat hands we need to consider are four of a kind, full house, flush, and straight. The best place to start in solving a problem in Maverick solitaire is to divide the cards into suits, checking to see which suits have five or more cards, enough to make a flush. When each suit has five or more cards (which should happen in slightly over 50 percent of deals), it is often possible to make four flushes, and then a fifth hand using the excess cards over five in each suit. For example, if the suit distribution is 7-6-6-6, any two cards from the long suit and one card from each other suit can be selected in an attempt to make a full house or straight. A card can be matched in six ways: as part of a flush, as part of a straight, in a pair combined with another three-of-a-kind, in three-of-a-kind combined with another pair, in four-of-a-kind, or as the fifth card added to another four-of-a-kind. Martin Gardner discussed the game and showed an example of an unmatchable card, but such cards are rare. The most common type of unsolvable deal seems to be a hand with one or two four-card suits, with cards widely spread to make straights difficult.

Maverick Solitaire is well-known as a sucker bet, as the probability of success with a random group of 25 cards would seem low, but is actually quite high: the eponymous author of Maverick’s Guide to Poker estimates the odds to be at least 98% (he disallows four of a kind). This is remarkably accurate: Mark Masten’s computer solver, allowing four of a kind, solved about 98.1 percent of a random set of 1,000 deals. Deals with unique solutions are even less common than impossible ones: the sample above had 19 impossible deals and only 8 with unique solutions.

cartoon_dogs_playing_poker_by_bendoodlin-d7o8quw