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.

A Maximum Gain in Control With a Minimum of Danger – Paul Magriel

(Another golden oldie from the New York Times of December 7, 1978.)

by Paul Magriel

In the last 5 years, the enormous growth in the popularity of backgammon has resulted in many significant theoretical advances.  Even though the game is thousands of years old, many fundamental concepts have only recently been discovered.  A new generation of talented young players is spearheading this advance.

Foremost among this new breed is 21-year-old Roger Low.  His play combines exceptional analytical ability with a tough competitive spirit.  He alone, among all the world’s best players, seems to have the uncanny capacity to effortlessly remember whole series of games roll by roll and move by move.  This same capacity has helped make him the uncontested top player in the world at blindfold backgammon.

Roger Low and Paul Magriel play blindfoldedin a demonstration match withDenise Hemingway and George Plimpton.  Low is on the left, Magriel at right.

Roger Low and Paul Magriel play blindfolded in a demonstration match with Denise Hemingway and George Plimpton. Low is on the left, Magriel at right.

After attending Cornell University, where he learned to play, he is now on Wall Street training to be  a broker, so that he can divide his time between the backgammon board and the Big Board.

Low1

In the position above, Low showed his ability to visualize all possible plays.  With the roll of 1-1, Black seemingly has little choice because he cannot move the men on the 20-point or 13-point.  The routine play is to hit 24/23* with the first 1, and then break the 16-point and move 16/13, putting another man safely on the midpoint (13-point).

Low discovered a better play, which many players would have overlooked – 24/23*, 16/14, 16/15.  Again, Black hits with his first 1 and then breaks his 16-point, but now he intentionally leaves 2 blots in Red’s outfield.

Low2

By leaving spare men on the 14 and 15-points, Black is able to exert more control over his own outfield.  Specifically, Black gains an extra builder to make his 8-point, and 2 extra builders for his 9-point.  Black and Red are engaged in a 2-way holding game – in which both players have anchors in each other’s home boards.  In such positions, outfield control is often a vital winning factor.

The additional danger incurred by leaving 2 blots is minimal.  Surprisingly, the possibility of being hit is only slightly increased (8 chances out of a possible 36 instead of 7) by this play.  (Note that the duplication principle is at work here.  Red needs 2s and 3s to re-enter, and 2s and 3s to hit.)  Even if Red does re-enter and hit, Black has little to fear because he has security of owning the 20-point and the prospect of return shots at Red’s blot on the 21-point.

(This play hold up today as you can see from the eXtreme Gammon analysis below.
The other candidate play mentioned of 24/23* ,16/13 is second best.)Low3

Bold Building Blocks Escape To Produce a Crucial Victory – Paul Magriel

(This article appeared on May 10, 1979.
Back when Peaches and Herb topped the charts with Reunited, Woody Allen rocked the box office with Manhattan,
and backgammon had a weekly column in the the New York Times!)

by Paul Magriel

The American Stock Exchange Annual Tournament under the direction of Susan Bender was completed recently after several months of elimination rounds.  First place went to 25-year-old Michael Rosenberg, a talented young Scotsman from Glasgow, who took up backgammon seriously just a year ago when he moved to New York City.  A natural games player, he had previously gained international recognition as a bridge expert and member of the British Bridge Team.  The runner-up was Charles Silverman, semi-finalists were Robin Katz and Mel Weiss.

The diagrammed position illustrates a critical situation that arose in the 21-point finals between Rosenberg (Black) and Silverman (Red).  Many of their co-workers on the Amex watched as the lead changed hands several times in this hard fought contest.  Finally, after more than 4 hours and 20 games, the score was tied 19-19.  In the next game, Black built an early lead and doubled.  Red accepted and later the position shown in the diagram was reached.  The outcome of the match now depended on the next few rolls.

Rosenberg

Black has a definite advantage, despite Red’s lead in the race.  Red’s home board has deteriorated and, of greater importance, Red has a man stuck in Black’s home board.  This man sits on the 2-point behind Black’s broken 5-point prime but is able to run out with a 5.  To win the game, Black must contain this last man.

With the roll of 4-1, Black’s immediate concern is to deploy his men in the outfield in order to get the best possible coverage to hit Red if he leaps out.  Black, however, must plan ahead and consider how to permanently prevent Red from escaping – as long as Red is sitting unmolested on the 2-point, he will constantly threated to run out.  One method is to prepare to attack Red and close him out.  To implement this plan, Black can bring a builder into his home board, 11/6 to hit Red later.  Another game plan to prevent Red from escaping permanently is to form a full 6-point prime.  Accordingly, Black might consider playing 14/10, 11/10 in order to keep all his men in the outfield as builders for the bar point (7 point).

After much thought, Rosenberg rejected both these plays.  Instead, he boldly and correctly played 11/7, 8/7 making the bar point, but leaving a blot on the 8-point exposed to a direct 6-shot by Red.  Rather than wait and give Red chances to escape, Black goes directly for the prime, and so forces the issue at once.  If Red fails to roll a 6 immediately, Black will then be a strong favorite (29 combinations out of 36) to cover the 8-point thus ending Red’s chances.  Further, even if Red rolls the 6 and hits Black, Black may still re-enter and hit Red back.  In the actual game, Rosenberg’s play succeeded.  Silverman failed to throw the needed 6.  Rosenberg covered next roll and easily went on to win.