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

Double Sixes

A Prim Little Old Lady Battles for a Girl and a Baseball Club While Fate Scampers Over a Backgammon Board

By Otavus Roy Cohen

Reprinted from the August 27, 1933 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Miss Martha was Pine Ridge and Pine Ridge was Miss Martha; that’s all there was to it.  You couldn’t think of one without thinking of the other.

The town was little and prim, and so was she.  She lived in a big, rambling old house, a thing with two cupolas and a couple of stained glass windows, and I remember when I was a kid there was a melodeon in the parlor.  Well, when I visited that house again last summer, the melodeon was still there, but Pat had also installed a swell radio.

House

Pat was Miss Martha’s niece, and looking at her you couldn’t help getting the idea that if the old lady had been fifty years younger she would have been just as Pat was today; pretty and full of pep and fond of a good time and democratic as all get out.

That was the nice thing about both of them. They had so much class that they didn’t have to go around high-hatting folks just to prove they were better. In fact, they didn’t think they were better, although after Pat and I graduated from high school together and she went off to a finishing place in the East, I sort of got afraid of her and never visited up there. That is, not until last year when we had the mix up about the baseball team.

Imagine Miss Martha – almost seventy years old; tiny, fragile and prissy; a leader in the ladies’ clubs; the richest person in Pine Ridge; a grand little lady but kind of old-fashioned – imagine her, I say, owning a professional baseball club and trying to run it!

Well, that’s just what happened in Pine Ridge last summer, and while the hunch was swell to begin with, it brought us plenty of trouble. Things are so mixed up that it’s sort of hard to tell ‘em straight.

First of all, about me: I’m a native of Pine Ridge. I reckon my folks have lived in that town about as long as Miss Martha’s family; but whereas the Fosters were always very rich, the Averys (that’s my family) haven’t ever been able to do much in a financial way. I sort of oozed through high school, but then I had to go to work. I got a chance to take over the agency for a very popular low-priced car, and bank helped me raise the money to fit up a first-class machine shop and garage.

All through school I had been a pretty nice ball player. First summer after graduating I put in a season in the Class A league and managed to do pretty well. Then I quit and went to work.

Pine Ridge is pretty far down South. All around us is a flock of towns which are bigger than we are, and they have for years formed a regular Class D league – just as much a part of organized baseball as the majors, though maybe a mite less important. And the year before, one of the towns had been obliged to forfeit its franchise, and the suggestion had been made that Pine Ridge take it over.

team

Lots of hot sports live in Pine Ridge and they go nuts about having a regular team in a regular league. The prominent citizens get together and agree that we’re to take our place in the baseball world come spring, and that was when they appointed me Manager of the club.

But that winter, everything went bad. Two of our best banks closed up, and just before the season was due to get underway, it was decided that Pine Ridge couldn’t afford pro ball. Unless…


While we were waiting in the front parlor, Pat came in. She looked like ninety million dollars.

“Bill Avery!” she says. “How are you?”

“Fine, thank you. And you are looking as pretty as ever too.”

She speaks to the others and drapes herself on the arm of my chair.

“Calling on Aunty?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And maybe I’m de trop, eh?”

“Maybe. But you might stand by to pick up the pieces after the explosion occurs.”

“What are you planning?”

“Something terrible, Pat. We’re trying to get Miss Martha to finance the Pine Ridge Baseball Association.”

For a minute Pat stares. Then she turns loose a laugh that a feller could dream about.

“Aunty a baseball magnate! Oh, Bill! You haven’t changed. You’re the same idiot I was always crazy about!”

“Crazy, perhaps – but desperate, Pat. It’s either Miss Martha or else.”

We heard a light step in the hall, and Pat jumped up and squeezed my arm. “Hop to it Big Boy.”

Then Miss Martha came in – neat and trim and tidy, and smiling at all of us.

Well, it’s my funeral and I start to talk. I commence orating about Pine Ridge and how it had always claimed to be the finest little city in the state. I see that this is getting me way past first base.

I then orate about how all the other towns nearby have rubbed it into us about being old-fashioned and backward, and about how we have a chance to show them a thing or two, and then I paint a picture of her as being the one person in Pine Ridge who can make us stand out like nobody’s business, Finally I explain the baseball situation and tell her that we want her to finance the club, else we’ll appear ridiculous for having said we’d take it over – and then welshing.

I’ll say this for the old lady, there wasn’t any explosion. But she did look kind of queer.

“Isn’t it rather absurd, Bill – that I should finance a baseball team?”

“Yes’m. But if you don’t, nobody will and we’ll be laughed at.”

“H-m-m! You’re a nice boy Bill Avery. In fact, I can’t understand why you’ve been avoiding us up here on the hill. But I wouldn’t dream of investing in anything I didn’t understand.”

“I’ll explain it to you Miss Martha. And then you can run the team.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“I’m not. Just think what it will mean to the town too.” Then I hesitated for just a moment. “But there’s one other thing I’ve got to make plain Miss Martha. This is not a good investment. Ball clubs in little towns like this don’t make money. Sometimes they lose.”

“How much?”

“Oh, you might lose four or five thousand during the season. If you were lucky, you’d break even. We’re not asking you because we think you’ll make money. We’re asking you because we figure you’re the only person in Pine Ridge who has enough money and pride to want to do a good deed for the town.”

Well sir, that decided her. Of course there was a lot more talk back and forth, but before the afternoon ended she had practically agreed – and that meant she would do it. On the way out – me feeling kind of dazed – I run slap into Pat Foster.

“Bill Avery!” she says. “It’s marvelous!” She went into a suppressed giggle. “Aunty running a ball club!”

“I’ll help her all I can, Pat.”

“And I’ll help too.” Then she smiles straight into my eyes. “If it’ll get you up here occasionally, you poor goof, her losses will be worthwhile.”

“You’re a sweet kid Pat.”

“Says you! But you haven’t acted that way since I came back from school.”

“Scared! You were too impressive.”

“Baloney!” says she.


There’s plenty to be done right after that. Miss Martha buys the franchise and spends some jack having the park fixed up. As a matter of fact, I can see she’s getting a big kick out of the whole idea, though she balks at having her picture taken with the team.

And that team! I get one old, broken-down major leaguer who is smart, and I make him field captain. He is still a pretty good catcher. For the rest, I dig around that territory and gather up a bunch of likely lads who can really play ball and will take any salary.

Then I sign Slats Morgan.

Nobody who hadn’t seen Slats could possibly appreciate him, either as a ball player or man. He was spotted at first base for us, and I’m on record as prophesying that before he’s through he will be in the record books as another Hal Chase. That guy could play the initial sack; and how!

Hal Chase

Hal Chase

But there ain’t nothing else good could be said about Slats. On the field he was a wizard; off he was just naturally the biggest, strongest, dumbest egg that ever came out of the Big Sticks. Pretty near six feet tall, and broad to match; he had a big chest, a receding forehead and a vacant look. Also, he had long ago elected himself the handsomest and most desirable man in the world.

Well, the season opens and we get away to a good start. The team is green, but they scrap plenty and I can see that once the rough edges get worn off, we’re going to make the other five clubs all sit up and take notice. In fact, I don’t see anything to stop us – which proves that a guy can never tell. You wouldn’t think I’d go and forget Miss Martha that quick.

The season is a month old when the bombshell busts. She sends for me when I come in off a road trip. “Bill Avery,” she asks, “is it true that some of my ball players drink beer and chew tobacco and swear and play pool and gamble?”

“Why yes’m – sort of. But they don’t do any of those things much.”

“It’s got to stop.”

I try to explain to her that they are just a harmless bunch of kids who ain’t really got any bad habits, only sort of like to play around, but I don’t get nowhere. Miss Martha is bent on making a bunch of gents out of the Pine Ridge Club. If they can’t act sweet and pretty, they’re gonna get canned, and I know better than to argue.

I call the boys together and tell ‘em what’s what. They let out a howl you could hear across the state, but I made it clear it’s that – or else.

charlie


Maybe what happened pleased Miss Martha, but it didn’t make any hit with the fans or the players. They were pretty desperate; no pool, no profanity, no gambling, and me enforcing the rules because Miss Martha trusted me. Anyway, the boys went kind of went melancholy. Their playing lost its pep.

I’m admitting that we had the most gentlemanly team in the league – but also we were rapidly becoming the worst. I talked things over with Pat, and she worked on her aunt, but reported back nothing doing. “And what’s still worse Bill,” she tells me, “tomorrow afternoon, following the game, she’s having all the players up for tea!”

That slew me! Also, it durn near gave the boys nervous prostration – all except Slats Morgan.

They were all introduced to Miss Martha, and they all shook hands and were very polite, and they drunk tea all right, but only that Pat was there, the afternoon would have been three degrees worse than a funeral.

Also, word gets around the circuit about what has happened, and some bright sports writer gives us the nickname of Tea Hounds, and that finishes whatever damage hadn’t been done before.

But, getting back to the tea party, that was the first time Pat ever met Slats Morgan. Slats had never had any judgement to begin with. He thought he was the original answer to a maiden’s prayer.

Three days later I see him and her drinking ice cream sodas in Flynn’s drug store, and I call Pat on the carpet.

“He’s grand!” she says.

soda

“Be yourself! He’s dumb as an ox!”

“Which is what makes him so delicious! You may never have suspected it, Bill, but Mister Slats Morgan is cute. He’s a riot!”

We go on the road and are handed tons of raspberries everywhere we visit. The boys go nuts and play worse than ever – if possible.

I’m thinking I’ve got all the troubles in the world, but no sooner do we get back home than I discover I ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It was Pat and Slats. They start running around together – and how!

It ain’t so much what they did, but how often they did it. Rides in Pat’s car, ice cream sodas, movies…and the whole town talking about how Pat is making a spectacle of herself. I try talking to her, but it don’t get me anywhere. She sticks to the old line about finding Slats a delicious novelty and all that sort of hooey.


At first, Miss Martha couldn’t hardly take it in. Then she sent for me.

“What are we going to do about it Bill Avery?”

“I don’t know ma’am. I’m as worried as you are. I got you into this thing, and…”

“Tommyrot! I went into this thing myself, and I’ll face the consequences. But I feel helpless, and I figured that you would help me out.”

“Yes, ma’am…all I can. I’m fond of Pat…”

“I once had hopes that you were in love with her.”

That knocked me for a loop, because I’d have sworn that Miss Martha would hate the idea of her niece marrying a garage keeper.

“Is she in love with this Slats person?” asked Miss Martha.

“She couldn’t be.”

“H’mph!” Miss Martha sniffed. “You don’t know the Fosters very well Bill Avery.”

“I know no Foster could lose her head over a man like Slats Morgan.”

“But one could – that’s what worries me. I shall trust you with a secret Bill Avery. When I was Pat’s age, I fell in love with an atrocious looking young man who earned a living by going around the country wrestling bulls. My father smuggled me into one of his astounding exhibitions, and I met him later – secretly.”

bull

“He gave you a thrill Miss Martha. You would not have married him.”

“In a minute,” she snapped, “if he had asked me. Of course six weeks after he had departed from Pine Ridge my heart was mended, and I was glad I hadn’t become the wife of a professional bull wrestler, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I would have done so if he had given me the chance. So you can now understand Bill Avery why I’m so worried about Pat.”

I saw right enough. “Everything’s shot it seems Miss Martha. Pat running around with Slats and the team playing rotten ball, and all that razzing.”

“What do you mean – razzing?”

“It’s a slang word Miss Martha. It means kidding – joking.”

“Who is joking about what?”

“Well, you see, we’re kind of ridiculous in the league because you don’t allow the boys to act like real ball players. They can’t take a glass of beer or use cuss words or shoot pool or – well anyway that’s why we’ve been playing so badly.”

She gave me a hard, little smile. “I suppose I’ve been a fool Bill Avery paying attention to little things like that. Very well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do Bill Avery. If you’ll solve this Slats Morgan problem for me I’ll lift all the restrictions. And then, if I understand correctly, the boys will perform better.”

“They sure would Miss Martha. But you don’t have to bribe me to help about Pat. I’d do anything in the world…”

“You haven’t made any suggestions.”

“I’ve only got one. Slats is really a swell ball player. I think I can sell him.”

She looked kind of startled. “Sell him? What does that mean?”

Well I explained how organized baseball works. I could see she was shocked. She stated she wouldn’t be a party to any such thing. (She called it slavery.) And she said that after things adjusted themselves I could tell the boys that if they were sold up for good playing they could have all the purchase money.

“Besides,” finished Miss Martha, “selling Slats wouldn’t do any good. If I know anything about Pat – and if she in love with that person – she would follow him to wherever he went.” She looked at me hard. “Why don’t you make Pat marry you right away?”

“I’d like to. But I’m afraid I’m a trifle late.”

“H’mph! You don’t deserve a fine girl like Pat. You’re worried but you don’t do anything. You even confess you’re in love with her, and you haven’t the nerve to propose.” She walked across the room and stood there a minute; then whirled on me. “That’s the trouble with you Bill Avery. You’re too weak…I’m going to handle this thing myself!”

I ask her what she’s planning to do and she says she don’t know but that she’s going to handle it.

cow


I don’t sleep very well that night, and early next morning I’m called to the telephone. It’s Miss Martha. She tells me to come right up to her place.

She looks serene, but grim. “Bill Avery,” she starts, “I wish to ask a direct question and get a direct answer. Does this Slats person indulge in games of chance?”

I didn’t see what she was driving at exactly, but I admitted that Slats was usually very keen to lay a little something on the line when there was any action promised.

“Go get him,” she ordered.

Worried – that’s what I was. I found Slats at the boarding house and dragged him along with me.

Miss Martha was sitting at one end of her big reception room. She gave Slats a stare that made him fidget.

“You have been in my niece’s society a great deal,” accused Miss Martha in a voice like snapping icicles.

“Yes’m,” says Slats.

“You’re not her kind,” says Miss Martha, “nor is she yours. I know better than to approach you on those grounds, however. So, I’ve sent for you to find out whether or not you are a good gambler.”

He suspects a trick. “We’ve got a rule against gambling.”

“You and I are going to break that rule, Mr. Morgan. We’re going to make a bet and play a game for high stakes. We’ll play the game,” she continued bleakly, “to settle our problem. If you lose, you are to take your contract and leave the club and the town. And you are to give me your word that you will never again see my niece or communicate with her. Furthermore, if she follows you, you will refuse to speak to her.”

“And if I win?”

“Then as to my niece, you will have to take your chances – with the frank understanding that I will continue to oppose any alliance between you. But also, if you win, I will turn over the entire baseball club to you!”

“You mean,” he gasped, “that it would be mine?!”

“Absolutely.”

That’s where I jumped up and said a lot of things, but Miss Martha told me to shut up and mind my own business. Of course, Slats accepted the proposition.

“And now,” says Miss Martha, “what game shall we play?”

“Stud poker?” suggests Slats eagerly.

“I’m not familiar with that sport.”

“I – er – I don’t suppose you shoot pool do you?”

“No,” she answered primly, “I don’t.”

“Well I’ll be dog-goned if I can think of anything else except maybe matching pennies best three out of five.”

“That wouldn’t do Mr. Morgan.”  She thought for a minute and then looked up. “Do you play cribbage?”

“No ma’am.”

Suddenly her eyes lighted. “Surely you play backgammon?”

That was right up his alley, and he said so – never mentioning however, that he was one of those newfangled backgammon hounds who have the board all figured out. Anyway, they agreed to play the best four out of seven games of backgammon with a beautiful girl and a ball club as stakes. It was decided they would play that night after supper and I shooed Slats away.

I begged and argued and pleaded with Miss Martha but I never even budged her. She said she had been playing all her life and didn’t believe any such person as Slats could beat her. Then I explained that she couldn’t trust Slats, that he was a natural double-crosser, and even if he lost he would most likely make a play for Pat anyway, but she said she didn’t believe me – that no man would welsh on a bet, not even Slats Morgan.

Instead of going out to the ballpark, I telephoned for my field captain to handle the team that afternoon and did some heavy thinking. Somebody had to save Miss Martha. Slats was a whang at backgammon, and I knew it. Besides, I knew he’d double-cross her if he lost, and if he won…

Then suddenly an inspiration slapped me square in the brain and I hustled down to the Jimdandy Pool Room and backed Tim McSwan into a corner.

Tim ain’t one of our best citizens, but he’s a nice guy. He’s a hustler, a bird who makes a living by reading the backs of cards and shooting educated dice. Him and me have always liked each other, and I know he’s twice as tight lipped as a clam so I spill the story.

“You’ve got to help Tim.”

He looks at me kind of queer. “You used to be pretty good at doing tricks Bill.”

“I still am.”

“All right,” he says handing me a pair of dice. “As I know this game, each player shoots with a different pair of dice. See that Miss Martha uses these.”

I look ‘em over and don’t see nothing phony; so I ask him how come.

“They’re my private backgammon dice. If you inspect closely you’ll see that each die has two sixes. Also the ace is left off one and the deuce off the other. It makes backgammon a cinch – almost always high numbers and a lot of double sixes.”

I told him he was a genius and no kidding. He explained he’d never been willing to try ‘em himself because they were pretty crude, but that not even a guy like Slats would suspect a neat little old lady like Miss Martha – especially if she didn’t know she was using ‘em.

As to the ethics of the thing, I didn’t worry at all. Slats was a worm and was always hitting below the belt. I was merely fighting fire with fire, and anyway, when Slats lost I was gonna sell him and give him the purchase money, which was a grand thing for any ball player. I felt that whatever kept him and Pat apart was right – no matter how it was done.

dice


Well, that night after dinner I take Slats up to the big house on the hill. Miss Martha has the backgammon board all laid out. They sit down and she produces two dice cups. Slats selects a pair of bones and a cup. Then I start a last-minute plea, and while I’m doing it I fool with Miss Martha’s dice cup and when I put it back I have shifted dice.

Beat that for a goofy game; a prim, proper little old lady and the world’s worst roughneck battling over a backgammon board for a girl and a baseball club…and the nice little old lady shooting crooked dice, all unbeknownst to herself!

The game started. Slats was rolling lucky, but Miss Martha’s dice were phenomenal. She starts with a six four, then a double six then a pair of fives. She wins that first game so fast that it wasn’t anybody’s business.

She also wins the second. But Slats gets lucky in the third and wins a close game. The air in that room was pretty tense. Miss Martha didn’t show how excited she was, but her lips were set in a firm, straight line and her hand was trembling.

The fourth game went to Miss Martha and the fifth game starts.

That game is a bird…and when finally Miss Martha takes her last man off I feel like yelling. Slats flings away from the table and sort of swears under his breath, and then Miss Martha looks up at him coldly.

“Permit me to remind you of your promise Mr. Morgan. You are to leave town immediately without again seeing my niece. Moreover, you are not to communicate with her now or ever. Is that clear?”

Slats says uh-huh and takes it on the lam. Miss Martha is dimpling and twinkling at me.

Well, she then tells me that everything is jake with the ball club. Now that she has got rid of Slats Morgan, she don’t care how the fellers have a good time, so long as they don’t over-do it. Also, she repeats her permission for me to tell the boys that they can have any purchase money the club gets for them, which I know will make them play like streaks. I am up in the clouds when Pat busts into the room.

slide


She stops in the doorway, looking pretty as seven pictures, and asks what’s what. I tell her about all the restrictions being lifted on the club, and with that she sits down suddenly and says, “Hallelujah!”

I tell her I didn’t know she was interested and she gives me the kind of look out of the corners of her eyes which is enough to drive any poor goof nuts.

“And also,” she says, “I have a little news myself.”

“What is it?” inquires Miss Martha.

She looks straight at us. “I’ve just had a proposal of marriage.”

“A what?!” Then: “From who?”

“Slats Morgan.”

We can piece the story together easy. Just like I had figured, Slats had played both ends against the middle. Having lost the backgammon game and his chance to own the club, he had done just what I expected and made a play for Pat. “What did you say?” I ask.

“What do you think silly? I turned him down cold.”

Miss Martha and I looked at each other then we both commenced getting sore. The fact that things had turned out all right didn’t make Slats any sweeter…and believe me, I was happy that I had switched those dice, because if Miss Martha had lost she’d have handed him her ball club with never a whimper.

Pat is looking at us kind of queer, and finally she asks what it is all about. Miss Martha – in her prim precise way – tells the whole story. Pat. smiles, then chuckles, and finally rolls over on the sofa laughing.

“Aunty and Slats Morgan playing backgammon for my future. She howls, “Can you ever tie it?”

“It seemed necessary.” stated Miss Martha, “You were acting like an idiot.”

“I had a reason.” Little spots of pink show in her cheeks. “I was trying to help Bill Avery.”

“Some help.” I grunted.

“It was some help,” she said sharply. “Aunty was interfering with a good ball club and making you look ridiculous as a manager. I thought if she started worrying about something worthwhile she would give you a free hand with the club. I was only waiting until the time was ripe to drive a bargain with her…and then you two butted in with a crazy backgammon game…”

Miss Martha looked at me and then at Pat. Her expression was stern – all except her eyes.

“You two children,” she remarked coldly, “are both so crazy that you ought to be married.”

Pat and I started to grin. Then we looked at each other and stopped grinning. My knees felt kind of wobbly and we were staring at each other like a couple of saps.

Miss Martha was impatient. That’s Miss Martha all over. She’s going to run things, and run them her own way.

“You laughed at me, Pat, for playing backgammon with your future as the stake. Are you willing to take the same chance?”

“I-I…” For the first time in her life Pat was at a loss for words.

“Sit down and play,” ordered Miss Martha. “If Bill Avery wins he is to marry you. Are you both willing?”

I couldn’t say a thing and Pat answered with the same words. But we sat down and prepared to play.

Miss Martha is hovering over us, trying to keep from showing how delighted she is with herself. She finally makes me look straight at her and I see in her eyes the keen, mischievous light that I love.

I thought I knew Miss Martha pretty well. Nice and sweet and innocent and guileless. But I guess I was mistaken in her. Because with a broad wink, she handed me the same pair of dice she had used in winning the backgammon game against Slats Morgan,

“Better use these magic dice yourself Bill Avery,” she smiled. “There’s no sense taking a chance if you don’t have to.”

gable