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.

Where the Rich And the Royal Play Their Games

The Washington Post

September 6, 1981

IN MONTE CARLO one day last July, a tanned, middle-aged woman stepped onto a private beach and spied an old acquaintance. “Darling, you look so pale,” she said with obvious concern. “You aren’t working for a living are you?”

While the rest of the world works, Monte Carlo plays. During summer days, everyone is on the beach, some of the women bathing topless, their men ordering champagne from refrigerated drink carts. At night, the sunbathers don resort white and fill the restaurants, discos and casinos, where Europeans play roulette while Americans crowd the blackjack tables.

And once a year, several thousand people arrive to play in the world’s richest and most prestigious backgammon tournament. This year, by chance, I was invited to compete in the Sixth Annual Merit World Backgammon Championship along with a bevy of countesses, princes and other professional sharpies.

In a hard-fought duel of the dice in Georgetown last fall, I’d beaten Helga Orfila, wife of Organization of American States chief Alejandro Orfila, to win a division of a backgammon tournament sponsored by Black & White scotch. As my prize, I was to have been sent to play in the national championship in Los Angeles. But before I could collect, the scotch folks decided to change their promotion strategy in North America and to stop underwriting backgammon competitions. As consolation, they suggested I compete in Monte Carlo, where Black & White of Europe annually joins Merit cigarettes in sponsoring what they like the press to refer to as “the Wimbledon of backgammon.”

To the Monte Carlo tournament come the world’s best backgammon players, including the tournament’s organizer from London, Lewis Deyong, a fast-talking gambler who knows every pro and can state odds at the drop of a bet.The feared Gino Scalamandre, backgammon book author and champion player, would be there, along with Joe Dwek — a British citizen born in Cairo with the fast, dark eyes of a cobra — who makes his living winning games of chance in the world’s capitals. A wealthy young Iranian couple no longer welcome in their homeland would be there. Players with last names like Maxaculi, Bellavita, Cojab and Abimerhi would mix with gamblers and their groupies at the bar of the Hotel de Paris.

Backgammon appeals to the wealthy because it is a fast game that lends itself easily to betting. Skill is critical to winning, but, unlike chess, the dice add an element of luck that makes the game exciting in its unpredictability.

Most of the best players feel right at home in Monte Carlo, because like many of the principality’s residents, they don’t hold regular jobs. And what labor expert players must do to stay solvent — rolling dice onto backgammon boards — is generally accomplished in the shade of palm trees; like congressional junkets, tournaments are held in sunny climes. Purses at big tournaments can total tens of thousands of dollars, and side bets can double or triple a player’s winnings.

I resisted the temptation to call Helga Orfila and gloat, packed my tuxedo, and left to find out what Monte Carlo had that Ocean City lacked.

Foremost, there is the gambling. Until 1860, Monaco was a scrubby principality blessed only with abundant sunshine, olive trees and fields of violets. Today, Rolls Royces joust for parking spaces outside the palacial casino that, as European aristocracy flocked to gamble there, made Monte Carlo the premiere jewel in the Cote d’Azur’s necklace. And free of income, property and inheritance taxes, Monaco quickly found favor among those who have the most to be taxed. Now, sandwiched in the one-half square mile between Monaco’s dramatic cliffs and the Mediterranean, studio apartments in high-rise condominiums begin at $300,000.

Monte Carlo’s harbor is filled with the yachts of the very rich. Saudi Arabian businessman Adnan Khashoggi often docks his boat there, a sleek, gray, villa-sized vessel called the Nabila that looks like the villain’s ship in an Ian Fleming novel. Its heating vents slant upward from the bridge, and a couple of $200,000-plus cigarette boats, as sleek as quick-looking as their mother ship, are tucked on the middle deck of the Nabila. I asked the captain if Monte Carlo was the Nabila’s home port.

“The entire world,” he said cooly, “is our home port.”

But residents say that with the opening of the American-style Loew’s hotel and casino a couple of years ago, Monte Carlo became appealing to people who, well, who actually work for a living.

“Monte Carlo is not just catering to the millionaires anymore,” said an American stockbroker who has lived there for a decade. “To survive, the hotels have began soliciting corporate meetings and conventions. Insurance brokers, investment bankers, textile concerns are meeting here.”

The place is run with an iron hand, despite the fairly tale image Monaco projects to the world, thanks in part to handsome Prince Ranier and his American-born actress wife, Princess Grace.

“It’s an extremely disciplined country — you can see it in the cleanliness of the streets,” says the American broker with admiration. “They don’t tolerate bums here . . . Monaco has benefited from the ills of the world. A lot of people used to go to Beruit, Africa, Spain or Italy on vacation, but because of the various troubles in those places, Monte Carlo has benefited. Let’s hope we can keep the place clean and that we don’t get annoyed by jealous or envious people.”

Long-haired hitchhikers or others not likely to carry an American Express card are politely shown to the border of Italy or France by the authorities; there is no poverty in Monaco, and the citizens like it that way. Because the state has an obligation to support any permanent resident who should find himself destitute, residents of Monaco are forbidden to gamble in the principality’s casinos.

The benevolent master of fun in Monte Carlo is the Societe des Bains de Mer, or sea bathing society, a quasi-government organization (the principality owns 69 percent of the SBM’s shares) that operates most of the grand hotels, the golf and tennis clubs, and more exclusive beaches, discos and other facilities. (Once, Aristotle Onassis tried to buy controlling interest in the SBM; the government thwarted him by simply issuing more stock and diluting his interest, though it is said he received a fair price when he sold out in defeat.)

When I checked into my hotel room, a card from Prince Louis de Polignac, the chairman of the SBM’s board, welcomed me to Monte Carlo. It wasn’t a note on scented stationery from Princess Caroline, but then, since she’d broken her marriage with that rogue, Philippe Junot, she was busy elsewhere. This summer she frolicked near Cannes on a yacht with Roberto Rossellini Jr. The young couple explained to the press they were just childhood friends, but le tout Europe hoped otherwise; after all, with Prince Charles’ marriage, Princess Caroline moved center stage for fans of royal romance.

Also waiting for me at the hotel was a bottle of Black & White Scotch and an SMB gold card, passport to the SBM’s facilities, including Jimmy’z, the disco of choice for Monte Carlo’s smart set.

With the gold card, I was admitted to Jimmy’z even though I was neither titled nor wealthy. But like your average marquis, I was permitted to pay $20 a drink — for any drink — at the bar. There, after midnight, I watched impossibly handsome young men in white suits dance with slim, bronze-skinned young women wearing the kind of clothes I thought they threw away after Helmut Newton photographed them on Vogue models. Jimmy’z is a dark room with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a tropical garden. A cramped dance floor and elegant bar are, along with the patrons, the disco’s focal points.

I confess I wanted to win the backgammon tournament if only so I could walk into Jimmy’z and get noticed. I wanted to show the European playboys that an American could gamble with ice water in his veins and win. I wanted to smirk across the table at my opponent the way James Bond does when he wins at chemin de fer.

I wanted to win the $44,640 in first place prize money and — when the world’s press asked me what it felt like — I’d look as bored as possible, shrug and say, “It’s a living.”

The road to victory began each evening at 4, when a couple thousand players gathered in several halls to meet their opponents, selected by lot. An hour or so into the matches, as half the players began accumulating enough points to win that evening’s match (and half began losing), the rooms became quiet and smoke-filled. Muttered curses in Spanish, French, Arabic, German, Italian and English accompanied unlucky rolls of the dice. Cool blonds began biting perfectly manicured fingernails, men fiddled with the bands on their Rolex watches. And each night half the players advanced up their ladder, while the others had their names entered in consolation rounds.

Black & White spent about $50,000 to help Philip Morris (makers of Merit cigarettes) sponsor the tournament, according to Anthony Hal, merchandising and promotion manager for the scotch’s distiller, Buchannan & Co. of London.

“Like the tobacco industry,” said Hall, “we’re under so many controls that we’re gradually being forced out of advertising. So it’s logical that we get into sponsorship. We turned down motor racing because we didn’t want to associate liquor with driving cars. And we like to sponsor events rather than individuals, because individuals can get unlucky.”

Hall, in conjunction with Buchannan’s public relations firm, the London office of Burson-Marsteler, selected seven journalists from England, Germany, Holland, Italy and France to come as guests to report on the tournament. (One French magazine, displaying a kind of Gallic gall that would horrify American editors, declined to send a reporter on the junket unless the deal was sweetened by a payment of $10,000; Black & White declined.)

“We sponsor backgammon because it’s an old game with a new wave,” said Omar Laghzaoui, head of public relations for Philip Morris in the Middle East and Afica, who declined to say how much money his company spent to stage the seven day soiree.

Tobacco and alcohol marketing aside, my fortunes appeared mixed even before the tournament began. I was playing tennis on courts Black & White reserved for tournament entrants. Bjorn Borg calls them his home courts and the bougainvillea was in bloom on the courts’ retaining walls, but I still thought the $65-an-hour court fee even members must pay was steep. Between sets, I played some $20-a-point backgammon with Katie Wright, who along with her companion, Gino Scalamandre, is among the world’s top backgammon players. I quickly lost a couple of hundred dollars. The pain of this defeat, however, was eased by Scalalmandre.

“You haven’t made a mistake since I started watching,” he said at one point, and I swelled with pride. It was pride purchased rather expensively, of course, but it was pride nonetheless. Then Scalamandre and Wright asked if I cared to sell them a piece of myself.

In backgammon tournaments, a player can sell percentages of himself to others, who might, in turn, sell a percentage of their percentage to others. While that helps a player defray his expenses and entry fee, it also means sharing a percentage of any winnings.

I was flattered by the Scalamandre-Wright offer. I expecially liked the slightly sinister ring to the name “Scalamandre,” and didn’t mind the prospect of telling people that I was “Scalamandre’s horse” in the tournament. We agreed to consummate a deal that night.

It was Scalalmandre’s good fortune that we couldn’t find one another on the opening night of play. His would have been a borderline investment — I lost may first match and had to wait until the next night to resume play in a consolation match. Still, if I could win the first consolation match, I’d pocket more than $1,000, enough to buy a round for a few of the boys and girls at Jimmy’z.

All around me the show was dazzling. Players met each night in three, high-ceilinged rooms. Wooden backgammon boards the color of a pack of Merit cigarettes lined rows of long tables. Among women, Yorkshire terriers as decorative accessories, clutched to sides like handbags, were the rage. The pets seemed comfortable in the crook of the arms of their mistresses, though some impatient ones drew rebukes when they licked the face of their Cartier Santus sports watches, the heavy looking gold ones with the rivet-like stainless steel screws.

“The terriers’ mistresses tend to be blond, long and slinky, be they models, actresses or singers — or royalty, from the Duchess d’Orleans to Princess Caroline of Monaco,” reported the International Herald Tribune earlier this summer. In France, women pay $700 for the pick of the litter that best matches their wardrobes. Toward the end of the evening, as the little fellas grew impatient to leave the backgammon hall, their yapping mixed with the clatter of dice.

Livia Sylva Weintraub’s purse was not a terrier, but a small, jewel-encrusted brass elephant. Inside, in addition to the usual contents of a fashionable woman’s purse, were wads of $100 bills. I know this because Weintraub sat down next to me at a black-tie dinner held to auction the top-rated players to investors interested in creating a side betting pool. Weintraub opened her purse to dispense perfume samples with a note card that read “A Little Love With Livia.”

Livia Sylva Weintraub, of New York, looked like a quen bee in a black evening gown with white puffed sleeves. Her red hair was set dramatically against a complexion so pale Gloria Vanderbilt would look tan next to her. (Sun apparently never kisses Weintraub’s skin – I saw her the next day pool side in an ankle-length white peasant dress with a matching parasol.)

“I am the first in the United States to develop a complete bee pollen treatment,” she told me as she distributed samples from her purse to women at the dinner table. “The bee pollen was used by all Hungarian beauties.”

Weintraub explained tht she hailed lfrom Transylvania — “I can make you do anything I vant, darlink.” She said she inherited her mother’s secret Romanian recipe for bee pollen cream and four years ago began marketing a line of cosmetics under her name, with financial help from her husband, a real estate developer and financier. “They finally bottled Livia,” read a slogan on a promotional flyer called a “Liviagram”.

During dinner, Weintraub pointed out some of the other guests around the room. Over there was the wife of the man who created Las Brisas, the expensive resort hotel in Acapulco. Near her was the Milan manufacturer of an exclusive line of designer dresses. There, the elderly gentleman with silver hair, was the Marquis d’Arcangues, of Biarritz, and his blond girlfriend, the Baroness von Meks. I remarked that the marquis seemed a good deal older than the baroness.

“Yes,” cracked a male British gentleman seated near me, “and he doesn’t seem to mind at all, does he?”

Seated near the marquis and the baroness was a duke who told his dinner companions that people ate like savages before his ancestors invented the dinner fork. Someone dubbed him the duke of Fork, a possible rival to the earl of Sandwich.

While watching the rich and the royal, I notice Wientraub and a partner bid several thousand dollars to back several top-ranked backgammon players. Several days later, before flying back to New York to attend a private dinner with New York Gov. Hugh Carey, Weintraub earned back her bet many times as her players finished in the money. I also contributed in a small way to her good fortune, losing $150 in a small stakes side match with the queen of bee pollen-based cosmetics.

Never, I decided, play backgammon with a Transylvanian.

After a bad start, I began cutting a swatch through my opponents in the first consolation tournament. I beat an earnest young man from Austria and a British mum with orange lipstick, gold high-heeled shoes and glasses with rhinestones in the frames. A Mexican gentleman who looked like a 75-year-old George Hamilton lost to me, as did a beginning player from Los Angeles who sported a diamond pinkie ring, a wafer-thin Piaget watch and a brown suede jacket. I was hot.

In the quarter finals, on the brink of entering the semi-finals and the money, I batted a nervous, middle-aged British woman named Mary Wyndham to a 12-12 tie in a 13-point match. The last game decided our fates, and we played evenly until the end, when Wyndham rolled a heart-breaking double five to take the match. As protocol dictated, I congratulated her with a handshake and a smile. Inside, I was crushed. There would be no trimphant entrance at Jimmy’z, no cool comments for the press. There would be no telegram to my editor telling him I’d be taking an extra month off to tour the south of France — as the eventual winner of the tournament, a Long Island woman named Lee Genud, did after her victory.

But then I remembered Chico Kranz, with whom I’d played a pickup set of tennis earlier in the week.

Kranz, a heavyset and olive-complected man with a diamond ring on one hand, explained he was cooling his heels in Europe until America’s baseball strike ended and he could return to making his living betting on baseball games in Las Vegas.

Kranz talked to me about gambling.

“Most guys, they start losing, they start making bigger bets,” Kranz told me. “When you lose, you got to decrease your bets.”

Kranz told me the successful, disciplined gambler understands losing and winning are not emotional events. On the court next to Kranz and me, two professional backgammon players batted a tennis ball around like a couple of Sunday amateurs. They laughed at their mistakes and seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves. Only when the set was over did I learn they’d bet a friendly $4,000 on the outcome. After Monte Carlo, it was time to decrease my bets.

ON A DICEY CRUISE

Sports Illustrated – September 16, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No sir, those are the cookers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Benson joined the group at the table.

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

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

A sudden prattle burst from among the backsides.

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

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

A 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

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

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

CSI Final with Commentary by Gerry Tansey – Part III

Final of the  2015 Central States Invitational

CIMG4276

Tak Morioka and Gerry Tansey

13 point match

Game 12

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 9, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

Brown rolls 5-4, 24/15.

Picture190

There are times when making the 5-point is better than hitting the outfield blot with 31. This isn’t one of them, since I can also use the ace to split after hitting. For more information, read “Backgammon Openings, Vol. 1” by Nack Ballard and Paul Weaver.

Brown rolls 4-3, bar/21, 24/21.

Picture191

When your opponent has made an advanced anchor, the bar point goes down in value, and the point 6 pips away from the anchor goes up in value (at least in the early going). XG’s play is just better than mine here.

Brown rolls 4-2, 8/4, 6/4.

Picture192

My play strips the midpoint. I don’t typically like to run with a checker if it only gets to my opponent’s 9-point, but getting the back checkers moving and keeping a spare on the midpoint is more important here.

Brown rolls 3-1, 6/3*, 3/2*.  White rolls 5-1, bar/24, bar/20.

Picture193

Tak’s play puts a checker on the bar against a three-point board with no inner board blots. This would probably be the right play if he had more ammunition in the zone to follow up on the blitz, or if he had a big lead in the race. As it is, the backup isn’t there yet, and the race is close, so making the 5-point is a better play for the long term.

Picture194

What a swing number. Instead of dancing, I make the 20-point anchor and can heave a sigh of relief.

Brown rolls 3-2, 13/8.  White rolls 6-3, 8/2, 6/3.

Picture195

Brown can take advantage of the two blots in my board to put a checker on the 9-point. He might be able to make it next turn, or he can use it as a cover for the 3-point.

Picture196

I regretted this play as soon as I picked up my dice. While my play leaves no shots this turn, the follow-up is very difficult with all of my outfield points stripped. At a cost of just 4 hitting numbers, I create a much more flexible position, and I even create builders for the 5-point.

Picture197

Tak makes a good play, choosing “pretty” over “safe.” If I hit his blot, it comes at a price, and his play creates a smoother, more threatening position in the future.

Picture198

And on cue, I am forced to leave a shot. I chose to duplicate hitting and covering sixes.

Brown rolls 6-6, 21/15*, 13/7(2), 9/3.  White rolls 2-1, bar/24, 8/6.

Picture199

I like Tak’s decision to play on. I don’t care what XG says.

Picture200

I thought hitting loose just got me gammoned more, without giving me a realistic chance to win, so I played safe.

Brown rolls 6-1, 7/1*, 2/1.  White rolls 4-3, fanning.

Brown rolls 2-1, 15/13, 7/6.  White rolls 6-4, fanning.

Brown rolls 4-1, 21/17, 13/12.  White rolls 6-5, bar/20, 7/1.

Picture201

Weirdly, I now like Tak’s decision to cash, despite XG’s tiny preference for playing on. I’m not going to leave any blots next turn, but I could roll 66 and have some chances in the race.

Game 13

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 9, Tak Morioka (Brown): 10

White rolls 6-5, 24/13.  Brown rolls 3-1, 8/5, 6/5.

White rolls 6-5, 24/13.

Picture202

The minor split actually leads to more contact and more bad numbers for me. Since Brown is down in the race and has a better board, this is what he should strive for.

Picture203

Normally with a 51, it is not right to hit two (but it is right with a 65) because the double hit strips the 8-point, so there aren’t as many ways to cover the bar point blot while keeping the 8-point.

Here, the double hit has the benefit of minimizing shots in a position where getting hit is quite bad (I’m up in the race and have a worse board). But I decided that the seven-checker stack on the midpoint was too ugly to be left unremedied, so I played 13/7.

Brown rolls 6-5, bar/20, 24/18*.  White rolls 5-1, bar/24, 13/8.

Brown rolls 4-2, 20/16, 18/16.  White rolls 5-4, 13/4.

Brown rolls 6-5, 16/11, 16/10.

Picture204

My worst blunder of the match is brought to you by a nasty combination of oversight and positional misunderstanding.

I did see that this roll lets me hit the checker on the 15-point. Had I also seen that I could move 4/1, I would have made that play. Experienced players are not always accustomed to moving blots from desirable points to undesirable points, so in my mind, the blot on the 4-point was effectively nailed in place. But if I move it to the ace point, Black only has 19 hitting numbers (1’s and 3’s except 63, and 55). On the 17 non-hitters, I’m quite happy. I’m up in the race and have basically escaped all of my checkers.

Now, imagining my 4-point blot nailed down, I thought, “What am I trying to accomplish by hitting if I’m giving him 4s, 3s and 1s to hit back?” It turns out that if I play 24/15* 13/10, then Brown has 25 numbers that hit back (all 1s, 3s, and 4s, except 61 and 63, 22 and 55.). But again, I’m quite happy on the 11 nonhitters.

No, I thought, “Let’s make the big scary board and hit him later if he leaves a shot.” The trouble is that Brown has escaped all his checkers has a very nice, smooth position that is easy to improve safely. I’m giving him a chance to play 15 vs. 1. This is completely hopeless.

Picture205

I would have said that my big blunder last roll cost me the match, except that Tak rolled one of the few numbers where I would have ended up with a worse position had I made the right play!

White rolls 3-1, 8/4.  Brown rolls 2-1, 6/4, 5/4.

White rolls 6-2, 24/22, 13/7.  Brown rolls 4-3, 11/7, 10/7.

Brown rolls 5-3, 13/8, 7/4.

Picture206

Tak has a nice double here. His best number is 55, which buries me, gains in the race, and threatens to gammon me. 44, 42, 41, 22, and 21 make a 6-prime, after which I’m usually dead (and most of these numbers are not great racing numbers). 33 and 11 shift and put me in the air, after which I’m suffering if I roll badly from the bar. And Tak will gladly take 66 and 54 for various reasons.

So that’s 14 numbers I’d rather not see, many of which (but not all) are absolutely crushing. Tak is certainly favored on the remaining 22 numbers.

Here are a couple of mitigating factors. The less important one is that my board strength does not make his building of a 6-prime an automatic win. Tak may have to think carefully about hitting loose to roll the prime forward.

But the greater source of concern is the fact that I am up 10 pips here. If I can jump his prime safely and turn this into a race while holding a 2 cube, I usually win. More often than you may think, in fact. That’s because Tak’s take point on a 4-cube at this score is 40 percent. That’s really high! Remember that I would have roughly a 50 percent chance to win the game if I am on roll and DOWN 4 pips in a typical race. For a race in which we both have a pip count of 100, I usually have a big redouble and Tak has a take. If I have a 1 pip lead, it usually turns into a pass!

Then there’s this issue. How do you play your duds if you are Brown? For instance, how do you play 53? How do you play 31? Answers next roll…

Picture207

Give yourself a thousand lashes with a wet noodle if you failed to point of White’s head with this roll. The 6 numbers that hit back from the roof are scary, but not nearly as scary as the possibility of my rolling a 6 and winning immediately.

Now, for the duds. With a 31, Brown should play 13/9, slotting the back of the prime. A 6 from White is bad anyway, so why not give White one chance to roll it, then prime him forever if he fails. This play does lose more gammons than a quiet play like 10/6, but the increased number of wins is worth it.

With a 53, one might be tempted to hit loose, but this gives White 14 immediate great numbers. It’s better to play 13/10 11/6. Then at least White’s 61 and 64 still run into a double shot.

White rolls 6-4, fanning.  Brown rolls 4-3, 13/10, 11/7.

White rolls 4-3, fanning, Brown rolls, 5-4, 13/9, 13/8.

White rolls 2-2, bar/23, 13/11, 13/9.  Brown rolls 4-3, 10/7, 9/5.

Picture208

Brown rolls 5-3, 7/2, 5/2.  White rolls 6-4, fanning.

Brown rolls 5-2, 10/5, 8/6.  White rolls 3-1, bar/24, 8/5,

Brown rolls 6-2, 8/2, 6/4.  White rolls 5-3, 7/2, 5/2.

Picture209

White rolls 4-3, 11/7, 4/1.  Brown rolls 4-2, 5/3, 4/off.

White rolls 5-3, 7/4, 6/1.  Brown rolls 5-3, takes 2 off.

Picture210

It’s a bit better to save a 6 here. I’m not in much gammon danger.

Brown rolls 6-1, 6/5, 6/off.  White rolls 6-5, 24/13.

Brown rolls 2-2, takes 3 off.  White rolls 6-5, 13/2.

Brown rolls 5-3, takes 2 off.  White rolls 5-3, takes 2 off.

Picture211

White rolls 4-2 takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 3-2, 5/off.

White rolls 2-2, , takes 3 off.  Brown rolls 6-6, takes 3 off.

Game 14

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 9, Tak Morioka (Brown): 12

Crawford Game

Brown rolls 5-4, 24/20, 13/8.

Picture212

A gammon is valuable here, although actually not too much more than for money. What makes the aggressive hitting play so competitive here is that Tak’s gammons are worthless.

Brown rolls 6-2, 20/14, 13/11.  White rolls 2-2, 13/11(2)*, 6/4(2).

Brown rolls 6-1, bar/24, 11/5.  White rolls 6-1, 11/5, 6/5.

Brown rolls 5/3, 13/5, White rolls 5-2, 24/22, 11/6.

Picture213

Tak should try to get to the edge of my prime while it is not too dangerous. Hitting here does nothing about the back checkers and often just gets another checker sent back behind the prime.

White rolls 3-1, bar/22*, 22/21.  Brown rolls 5-4, fanning.

Picture214

Looks like someone figured out escaping is important! The blots do not matter much. Even if one is hit, that usually leads to a ton of return shots.

Brown rolls 5-4, fanning.  White rolls 6-2, 24/16.

Picture215

44 is a problem. I should split the checkers on the 16-point. It is very unlikely Tak will be able to win by hitting and containing my checkers.

Brown rolls 4-2, 8/4, 6/4.  White rolls 4-1, 16/11.

Picture216

Very close decision. Hitting wins more, but loses more gammons too.

White rolls 4-1, bar/24, 11/7.  Brown rolls 5-1, 24/23, 8/3.

Picture217

I have to prevent Tak from getting the bar point. I think that’s why hitting is essential, even if it is ugly.

Picture218

Yikes! I have some ugly numbers now.

White rolls 4-1, 24/23, 5/1*.  Brown rolls 5-4, fanning.

Picture219

Whew! I escaped, and now have great gammon chances.

Picture220

I think Tak would rather have fanned than come in like this.

Picture221

There is relatively little danger in slotting the three point. If I’m hit, Brown usually crunches before he can get all of his back checkers out. The real danger is in never making the 3-point. Then Brown gets to play a phantom 2-3 backgame.

Brown rolls 3-3, 7/1(2).

Picture222

What a horrible shake! I bet the spectators loved it!

Brown rolls 3-1, 23/22*, 5/2.  White rolls 4-3, fanning.

Picture223

The bot says to lift the blot, but leaving it definitely wins more games. Tak wants to close me out.

White rolls 3-1, fanning.  Brown rolls 5-2, 23/18, 16/14.

White rolls 5-2, bar/20*, 20/18.  Brown rolls 4-4, fanning.

White rolls 6-1, 18/11*.  Brown rolls 5-1, fanning.

Picture224

Slotting the 3-point is safer than it looks. Brown has three on the bar against a 4-point board. Even if he hits me, I still usually just have to enter one checker on a 5-point board before he enters 2 checkers on a 4-point board.

The real danger, again, is what happens if I never make the 3-point. Then Brown has a phantom 2-3 backgame…while I have 4 checkers on the ace point. That’s quite dangerous, and that’s why this decision is not even close.

Picture225

Rats! Okay, who will get his checkers in first?

White rolls 6-2, fanning.  Brown rolls 4-1, fanning.

White rolls 2-1, fanning, Brown rolls 6-5, fanning.

White rolls 3-1, fanning.  Brown rolls 6-5, fanning.

White rolls 6-4, fanning.  Brown rolls 4-1, fanning.

Picture226

I got in! Now this three was the source of some controversy. Some players thought I went “too hard for the gammon” by hitting here. I hit not because hitting wins more gammons (although it certainly does) but because it wins more games! This position is terribly problematic if I don’t make the 3-point (or worse, if Black does), so I need to fight for it now. Once again, hitting is much safer than it looks (and not hitting much more dangerous).

Picture227

Ho boy! I did not want to see this!

White rolls 2-1, fanning,  Brown rolls 6-2, bar/23. 22/16.

Picture228

I’m going to be honest. I thought there was a chance I might lose this game after this number 🙂

White rolls 6-5, bar/19.  Brown rolls 6-3, 23/13.

White rolls 5-4, fanning, Brown rolls 5-1, 23/18*,

White rolls 6/5, bar/19.  Brown rolls 3-2, 18/15, 16/14.

White rolls 4-2, fanning.  Brown rolls 5-5, 23/13, 15/5.

Picture229

I saw the banana split play. I just didn’t think it was right given my awful forward structure. If I make the play, and if Brown fans, I guess I’m happy. I’ve got all those blots to shoot at, and plenty of hit-and cover numbers. But if I’m hit, I’m dead, since it is nearly impossible to put the front structure back together again with those 4 checkers on the ace point.

I thought that by playing Bar/18, I could keep the forward structure intact, even though it walks into a ton of shots. If I enter again after being hit, I can maybe survive.

I found this impossible to weigh accurately over the board, and the additional gammons I win with the banana split play make that play hugely right. Fortunately, this probably won’t ever come up again. If it does, two of my checkers on the ace will be on the deuce, and it will be crystal clear to hit!

Picture230

Tak missed! He told me later that he didn’t mind, because it let him clean up his blots.

White rolls 4-3, 18/11.  Brown rolls 4-2, 22/16.

Picture231

Hitting is clear. I thought it was time to start moving the back checkers while Brown was on the bar, but the rollout says otherwise.

Brown rolls 4-2, bar/23, 5/1.  White rolls 4-3, 19/15, 9/6.

Brown rolls 4-2, 12/16,

Picture232

What a number! Well, even though my plan of eschewing the banana split to keep my structure was bad, it looks like it is working.

Brown rolls 6-4, fanning.  White rolls 6-4, 15/11, 15/9.

Brown rolls 6-5, fanning.  White rolls 6-3, 11/5, 9/6.

Brown rolls 3-2, bar/22, 12/10.  White rolls 6-4, 8/4, 6/off.

Brown rolls 5/1, 12/6.  White rolls 4-3, 5/2, 4/off.

Brown rolls 6/3, 10/1.  White rolls 5-4, 6/2, 6/1.

Picture233

Again, Tak should stay, even if he has to break his board. It is his best chance to win, and there is virtually no gammon danger.

White rolls 3-2, 5/off.  Brown rolls 6-3, 16/7.

White rolls 6-4, takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 5-3, 7/4, 5/off.

White rolls 6-5, takes 2 off.  Brown resigns a single game and 1 point.

Game 15

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 10, Tak Morioka (Brown): 12

White rolls 3-1, 8/5, 6/5.  Brown rolls 2-1, 13/11, 6/5.

Double/Take

White rolls 5-5, 13/3(2).  Brown rolls 5-5, 13/3(2).

Picture234

Running duplicates Brown’s 1s and 3s to hit and cover.

Picture235

The last deuce 6/4 stacking is bad enough, even at the score, that it might be right to risk a shot to slot the 4 point. I really like Tak’s play.

Picture236

But I should take advantage of Tak’s blot to leave two blots in the outfield aiming at my 4-point, rather than one blot that doesn’t aim at my 4-point.

Picture237

No choice for Tak here. He creates a strong board and puts it to use by putting me in the air. He can’t let me have my whole roll to do what I want.

White rolls 6-2, bar/23, 11/5.

Picture238

How many of you would have played 5/1 5/2*?

Tak’s play loses the fewest gammons, so it has to be a contender at the score. The one-blot play of 13/6, keeping the nice structure is also a contender, even though it leaves a direct shot. I was just glad it wasn’t my decision!

White rolls 4-2, 8/4, 6/4.

Picture239

The DMP play is 9/2*, hitting and leaving two blots. The DMP play is 9/2*, hitting and leaving two blots. But a hit from the bar is usually fatal, and often leads to a gammon. Tak’s safe play looks best by a little bit at the score.

White rolls 2-2, 13/9(2).  Brown rolls 5-3, 6/3, 6/1.

White rolls 6-5, 23/12.  Brown rolls 2-2, 8/2, 4/2.

White rolls 6-4, 8/2, 6/2.  Brown rolls 5-1, 8/2.

Picture240

I need to keep a goalkeeper back on the 12-point to try to hit a Brown checker that is forced to run with a 6. Although this does risk losing when Brown hits a fly shot, the extra gammons that result when I can close out two checkers makes it worth it, even for money.

Brown rolls 3-1, 4/1, 2/1.  White rolls 6/2, 9/3, 6/4.

Brown rolls 6-5, 24/13.

Picture241

This one surprised me. For money, hitting loose is not right. But at the score, when I am willing to make a 1-to-1 trade of wins for gammons, hitting is right. I thought that I would be sacrificing far more wins than I actually am if I hit. But I guess Black still has a bit of racing equity (indeed, I will be very sad if he rolls 66).

Brown rolls 2-1, 13/10.  White rolls 3-1, 8/5, 3/2.

Brown rolls 4-3, 10/3.

Picture242

 

One more shot for the fans!

Picture243

He missed. It’s DMP time.

White rolls 6-3, takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 5-3, 14/6.

White rolls 6-6, takes 4 off.  Brown rolls 5-2, takes 2 off.

White rolls 6-1, takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 5-2,takes 2 off.

Picture244

 

Brown rolls 3-1, takes 2 off.  White rolls 5-2,takes 2 off.

Brown resigns a single game and 2 points.

Game 16

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 12, Tak Morioka (Brown): 12

Brown rolls 6-5, 24/13.  White rolls 2-2, 13/11(2), 6/3(2).

Picture245

I like Tak’s play of unstacking the heavy midpoint.

Picture246

It’s close between my play, running, and slotting the 5, going for the prime. One good thing about the slot is that even if I’m hit, it is tough for that straggler to get out. Another is that I’m not ahead in the race, slotting avoids making a racing play.

Picture247

Wish I’d slotted the five now. Sure it would have been hit, but the six is no fun for Brown. This is too easy for Tak.

White rolls 4-3, bar/21, 24/21.  Brown rolls 5-2, 24/22, 8/3.

Picture248

Hitting is mandatory. Brown can’t be allowed to leave easily.

Picture249

There are two strange things about this roll. First, I would be in much better shape if I hadn’t hit with the previous roll. Second, although most players would ask for something that hit if they could call their roll, this non-hitting roll is Tak’s very best number.

Picture250

I failed to hit, and now I’m a huge dog.

Picture251

The ace is clear. With the deuce, Brown should absolutely not leave a blot in the outfield. He doesn’t need to build anymore. If he can come home safely, he will win. So even though plays like 8/6 and 3/1 are ugly, they are much better than leaving me 4 shots of hope.

White rolls 3-1, 11/10, 8/5.  Brown rolls 4-3, 11/7, 6/3.

White rolls 2-1, 10/7.  Brown rolls 3-2, 8/3.

White rolls 3-1, 11/7.  Brown rolls 3-3, 13/7(2).

White rolls 2-2, 13/5.

Picture252

Even though Kit Woolsey’s “Clear from the rear and ask no questions” usually rules the day, here the result is an ugly stack on the 7 point. If Brown rolls too many 3s, this can become a problem.

White rolls 6-4, 13/7, 6/2.  Brown rolls 6-4, 7/3, 7/1.

White rolls 5-2, 7/5, 7/2.  Brown rolls 4-4, 7/3(3), 6/2.

White rolls 2-2, 5/1(2). Brown rolls 4-3 6/2, 3/off.

Picture253

Brown rolls 6-3 (2), 5/2(2). White rolls 2-2 21/17, 15/11.

Brown rolls 5-5, takes 4 off. White rolls 3-2, 11/6.

Brown rolls 3-1, takes 2 off. White rolls 6-1, 17/10.

Picture254

Tak Morioka wins his second ABT title in less than a year (he also won in Peoria in 2014). A very impressive performance indeed!

White resigns a single game and the match.

CSI Final with Commentary by Gerry Tansey – Part II

Final of the  2015 Central States Invitational

CIMG4276

Tak Morioka and Gerry Tansey

13 point match

Game 6 of 13 point match

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 1, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

Picture120

Coming down with two checkers is not a bad play for money. Trailing big in the match, I think it’s clearly right.

Brown rolls 6-6, 24/18(2), 13/7(2).  White rolls 6-5, 11/5, 8/3.

Brown rolls 3-3, 8/5(2), 6/3(2).  White rolls 5-1, 8/3, 6/5.

Picture121

For money, this is a double and a big pass. Tak is about a 3-to-1 favorite, and quite a few of those wins are gammons. At the score, Tak should not double here, since his gammon threat is less useful as leverage here. If the game turns around a bit, I can (and will) recube to 4 to “kill” his gammons (i.e., make them useless to him) while making my gammons more powerful.

As to the checker play, XG dings Tak very hard here. The 8 point is a nice addition to Brown’s priming formation, and 13/9 provides a nice builder for the 4-point, even at the cost of a direct shot. In fact, if White rolls something like 52 after the best play, Brown really does have a double, and I have a pass.

Tak’s play places a builder on the 3-point where it doesn’t belong, and it makes it more difficult to improve the position. In particular, it is very hard to make the 4-point naturally after the what was played in the game.

Picture122

My turn to screw things up. It seems unnatural to run when one is down in the race, but I’m actually running out of time here since I have 48 pips locked up in my anchor. I should run out from behind Tak’s blockade, and expect to get hit. It is not the end of the world if this happens, since I usually come in right away, either remaking my anchor, or “splitting,” hoping to make a better anchor.

My actual play leaves a blot anyway, of course, but I should run even if I my roll were 63.

Brown rolls 4-2, 13/11, 13/9.  White rolls 5-2, 13/8, 6/4.

Picture123

Making the 4-point should be Brown’s overarching priority. The best play maximizes builders for it. Even if White hits a fly shot, Brown will have two blots to shoot at from the bar.

After the best play, if White doesn’t roll anything special, Brown’s threat of making the 4-point should lead him to cash the game.

Picture124

After this roll, the game should be over. Brown will take control of the outfield and play 15 vs 2 against White’s back checkers.

Picture125

I don’t know whether Tak thought he was too good or not good enough here. I could imagine a player thinking either one. But now I have almost no game left. Mostly I’m relying on eventually hitting a shot from my ace point game for my winning chances, and I win almost no gammons. Brown shouldn’t be afraid of doubling.

At the same time, Brown may never make the 4-point, and this could lead to some awkwardness down the line. Tak should make me pay to see that though.

White rolls 5-4, 6/1, 5/1.

Picture126

For the next few rolls, XG says that Brown should cash, but just barely. I think Tak is strong enough (and I’m weak enough) to make playing on a reasonable choice. If I roll something that kind of escapes, Tak can usually cash the game.

White rolls 4-4, 6/2(2), 5/1(2).  Brown rolls 3-2, 15/13, 12/9.

White rolls 5-4, 5/1.  Brown rolls 6-6, 13/7, 9/3(3).

White rolls 5-3, 24/16.

Picture127

So you think you know how to play backgammon? What do you do with this cube decision? There are certainly some blotting numbers for Brown here. 63 is an especially fun number, leaving a shot a two blots from the roof. White also has a little bit of racing equity here.

But even when Brown is forced to blot, White still has to hit it, and then win the game from there. Brown still has a big edge here, and it is very hard for White to win a gammon. Brown has a huge cube here, and XG says that White should pass. I think I would have taken, thinking that I had enough slimy variations that led to a win.

White rolls 5-5, 16/1.

Picture128

Well, things have improved a bit in the race for me. It is still a big double, but now I can take.

Brown rolls 3-1, 5/2, 3/2.  White rolls 2-1, 5/3, 4/3.

Picture129

 

Still a big cube, but now a huge take. All of Brown’s threes except 33 leave a blot, as well as 65 and 64. 63 leaves a double shot. In fact, if Tak had cubed me and rolled 63, I would have a small, but correct redouble at the score. With a centered cube, I don’t have a double no matter what Tak rolls.

Brown rolls 6-4, 7/3, 7/1*.

Picture130

A pretty good miss. I am only a small underdog now.

Brown rolls 1-1, 5/4, 2/off, 1/off.  White rolls 5-4, 9/off.

Brown rolls, 4-3, takes 2 off.  White rolls 6-1, takes 2 off.

Brown rolls 6-4, 6/off, 5/1.  White rolls 6-4, takes 2 off.

Brown rolls 3-1, takes 2 off.

Picture131

I rolled one of my four absolute crushers. Tak will pass unless he rolls something special.

Brown rolls 6-3, takes 2 off.

White doubles, Brown passes.

Game 7 of 13 point match

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 2, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

Picture132

This is an old school play that has fallen out of favor in the post-bot era. It tends to be more appropriate when one is trailing (and it is definitely right in my mind when trailing 4-away/2-away). But this play sacrifices some wins for a more gammonish position, which the leader should not seek to do.

Perhaps Tak believed he was playing a weaker player, and thus tried for a prime-vs-prime game, which tends to lead to more complications.

White rolls 6-6, 24/18(2), 13/7(2).  Brown rolls 5-3, 13/5.

Picture133

When you roll 66 on the second roll of the game, then turn the cube on your next turn, it is known as an “Atlanta Double.” Since Atlanta is the place where I first started playing backgammon seriously, I can tell you that I have absolutely no idea why this is the case. Players in Atlanta weren’t particularly prone to offering Atlanta Doubles.

You should know that for money, the Atlanta Double is usually wrong. The rule of thumb that I use is one I read on Stick’s site, bgonline.org: “Double sixes plus another net improvement is a cube.”

Now, trailing big in the match, I can be a bit looser with that cube. Apparently I don’t quite have a double in this position, but it is very close. If Tak did not have his 5-point made, I’m pretty sure I would have a correct cube. Note that if I roll 31, 42, 11, 22, 33, 44, or 55 here, Brown would be very hard-pressed to take a cube if he didn’t roll something great in response.

White rolls 6-1, 13/7, 8/7.

Picture134

I don’t know why XG says it is okay to split here. My position has stacks that would love nothing more than to have targets to shoot at.

Picture135

Picture136

For money, one might consider making the 22-point anchor and then the 4-point, noting that the additional contact might favor the player trailing the race. But with a big lead and the cube turned, Tak makes the 20-point, in effect telling me, “You shall not gammon me!” This tends to be the right idea at the score.

Picture137

Tak must be pleased with his previous play, as this 21 would have allowed me to make the 5-point otherwise.

Brown rolls 6-3, 13/4.  White rolls 6-5, 13/8, 13/7.

Brown rolls 4-2, 6/4, 6/2.

Picture138

 

I think I’m supposed to keep a spare outside my board, so that I don’t have to break one of my outside points should I roll 6x. Of course, XG’s play leaves a blot on 66.

Brown rolls 5-2, 8/6, 8/3.  White rolls 6-2, 8/6, 8/2.

Brown rolls 6-2, 20/14, 6/4.  White rolls 6-6, 7/1(2).

Picture139

XG’s play is very clever. It duplicates my three’s to hit and cover the 3-point. Look at how badly my non-hitting sixes play after the right play. Yikes!

Picture140

I failed to hit with this 52, and it is just an inexcusable error. I was afraid of getting gammoned, and I thought, “I’m ahead in the race; I don’t need to put all my eggs in one basket with the big play.”

The problem is that I do have a 4-point board, so hitting plays start to pan out more often than with weaker boards. Also, I am basically out of time here. This is actually an excellent opportunity to leave my anchor while getting a “risk discount.” Hitting only leaves Brown with 13 hitting numbers, fewer than the 17 (or more) numbers I will probably have to leave later if I don’t hit.

After I made my play, Tak asked me whether I would have hit if he had played 20/16 5/2 the roll before. I said I probably would have with the extra blot lying around. I would have been correct by a small margin. So Tak’s blunder induced an even bigger blunder on my part. Well played, sir.

Picture141

Here, there’s no duplication involved, but Tak should take advantage of the blot in my board to give a double shot on my bad sixes.

White rolls 3-1, 6/3, 2/1.

Picture142

Brown rolls a good racing number, but he is not yet ahead in the race. If he stays back, I will either have to leave a shot or crack my board next turn. Tak’s play reduces the pressure on my back checkers.

Picture143

This was a hard choice for me, and apparently I got it badly wrong. I did not like the idea of breaking my board and burying another checker with the 5. The race is close, and I’d like to use my pips for racing if possible. I’m still giving Tak bad aces if I stay with one checker, but now his twos are really good. Too good, in fact. I should stand pat and force him to play inside with a “small-big” combination (or leave a shot with 61 and 62.

Picture144

Tak’s dice reward me for my bad play.

Picture145

Gotta go now. I’m up 9 raw pips after the roll, but my gap on the 5-point and stack on the ace point make me a small underdog.

Brown rolls 4-1, 9/8, 9/5.  White rolls 5-3, 15/12, 10/5.

Brown rolls 5-2, 8/3, 2/off.  White rolls 3-1, 12/9, 6/5.

Brown rolls 6-2, takes 2 off.  White rolls 4-2, 9/5, 2/off.

Picture146

White rolls 1-1, takes 4 off.  Brown rolls 6-3, takes 2 off.

White rolls 4-1, 5/off.  Brown rolls 3-3, 5/2, 4/1, 3/off(2).

White rolls 3-2, takes 2 off.

Picture147

White rolls 5-4, takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 6-1, 5/4, 5/off.

White rolls 5-4, takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 5-1, 5/off, 2/1.

White rolls 4-4, takes 3 off and wins a single game – 2 points.

Game 8 of 13 point match

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 4, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

White rolls 5-1, 24/23, 13/8.

Picture148

Although the default play with a 62 is to split with the 6 and come down from the midpoint with the 2, once I have split with 51, it is right by a surprising amount to run all the way with the 62. I have too many good numbers against the other play.

White rolls 6-5, 24/18, 23/18.  Brown rolls 4-2, 8/4, 6/4.

White rolls 6-1, 13/7, 8/7.

Picture149

Brown tries to keep his back checkers connected. XG thinks he should just run with the 16-point checker and leave junior to fend for himself. Hitting a blot on the 10-point comes usually gives Brown return shots. Tak’s play runs when he’s down in the race, and leaves me great hitting deuces, plus numbers to hit loose on my five-point.

White rolls 3-1, 8/5*, 6/5.  Brown rolls 5-1, bar/24, 14/9.

Picture150

I’m surprised the take is this close. I think most players would pass this quickly as the leader. Heck, I think a lot of players would pass this for money (they shouldn’t; it is a big take).

Game 9 of 13 point match

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 5, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

Picture151

Again, it is a bit anti-thematic for the leader to make the more gammonish play here with the 43. Most players would split here.

Picture152

After 43 down, the bots these days favor the play I made with this 33 for money. Sometimes you put more pressure on your opponent by not hitting. I make an anchor right in front of his two builders that would like to make an offensive point. And although we shouldn’t usually like sacrificing the 8-point to make an inner board point, Tak will have to use his whole roll if he hits the 8-point blot left behind, giving me a lot of return shots from the bar.

If your opponent plays 43 down with the opening roll, 33 is a response he does not want to see. Make sure you know how to play it properly.

Picture153

Hitting is right. It does come with a cost.

Picture154

Usually the outfield hit is right, since it gains more in the race. But here it gives up the anchor when I have a perfectly good hit that keeps the anchor. This is a silly mistake for me to make.

Picture155

Normally, putting me on the bar is not a bad tactical move. The trouble is that I have a good six to play here, so this doesn’t cut down too much on my shots. All my numbers containing a 1, 5, or 6 hit except for 66. Tak should just keep the blot count down and slot his 5-point with 10/5.

Picture156

I’m going to be honest here. I didn’t do much analysis over the board in this position. I just saw that I had a better board and Tak had 3 blots lying around, so I just doubled from the roof without thinking any more about it. It is not good to trail in matches, but there are some perks. One of them is that you can be super-aggressive with initial doubles that have some gammon potential. It’s only fair. A player who is trailing by a large margin might be prone to steaming, but in turn the steaming plays are often correct at the score!

Tak may have hit on the ace point last turn to try to stave off this cube (it is tougher to cube when you are on the bar than otherwise). But he is not supposed to pass this one. There is a ton of game left. I don’t have the 8-point, and I have only 7 checkers in the zone. Even if the worst happens and I hit two blots, my lack of ammunition up front will usually mean that Tak can establish a second anchor, and it will be difficult for me to bring this home safely.

Although I was disappointed not to have the chance to win a gammon here, I was very happy to take the point.

Game 10 of 13 point match

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 6, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

Picture157

If I had to pick a game where I felt I threw away my best chance to win the match, I would choose this one. Even though I made bigger mistakes in other games, I hated the way I played this game the most.

But I don’t hate the way I played this 43. I’m down in the match, so I make the gammonish play of two down.

Brown rolls 6-1, 13/7, 8/7.

Picture158

Three of the fives are clear. XG doesn’t know whether to slot the 5 or the 4. I slotted the 5, since it is the better point.

Picture159

 

My 55 put Black 20 pips down in the race, so auto-piloting this 65 with the Lover’s Leap play of 24/13 is a serious mistake. It is better not to run when down in the race. Counter-priming is better, so two down is the play.

White rolls 4-3, 24/21, 9/5.

Picture160

Of course, if you roll TWO 65s, running is the right idea!

Picture161

I just build my board and see if Tak rolls something that coughs up a blot.

Picture162

And Brown has to leave a shot! I am glad it was not my decision as to how to play this roll. Tak’s play leaves only 12 immediate hitting numbers, which is safer than XG’s play, which leaves 15 numbers. And it is quite bad to get hit here. However, 13/10 13/8 unstacks the heavy point and is easier to clean up if Tak gets away with it. How do you determine which one is better? Beats me.

Picture163

Mostly I’m going to tear my plays apart this game, but I will pat myself on the back for this double. XG 4-ply says this is a small double, but a rollout turns it into a monster cube at the score (it is actually a correct initial double for money). Over the board, I knew that my 12 hitting numbers were crushing. So I basically just counted the race to make sure I wasn’t horribly behind (and then counted again, then a third time, since my first two counts didn’t agree). Since I was actually up 7 pips, I was very comfortable shipping the cube here.

Since Tak is fine the 2/3 of the time I don’t hit, it is a super-easy take.

White rolls 1-1, 24/22*, 22/21, 6/5.  Brown rolls 6-3, fanning.

Picture164

But here is a big blunder. Let me explain how this happens.

When conducting a blitz, your emphasis should usually be on bringing builders down first, moving the back checkers second. However, in this position, I already have a four-point board and well diversified builders to attack the open points. Although the bar point has some value if Black comes in deep, it is terrible if he rolls something like 54, escaping. The best improvement I can make to my position is to hop out with the 6. This gets the back checkers moving and provides some outfield coverage. The best ace is then 21/20, making it easier for this checker to escape.

Brown rolls 6-3, fanning.  White rolls 5-3, 21/13.

Picture165

Again, I’ve got enough builders (especially if 13/10 is the 3). Jumping is the most pressing problem.

Brown rolls 5-3, fanning.

Picture166

The last ace after making the 4-point is 7/6 to diversify attackers on the ace point.

Brown rolls 6-1, bar/24, 13/7.

Picture167

 

Hitting loose is clear to maximize gammons.

Picture168

Tak makes a good play here. Putting two in the air by hitting loose with the deuce gives Brown excellent counter-priming chances if he gets away with it.

Picture169

Even though it breaks the 6-prime, I have to shift 2/1* after entering with both checkers. It should be clear that this play wins the most gammons, as it gives me chances to shoot at Brown’s blot while he is on the bar. It may be less clear that this play wins the most games. Tak’s counter-priming threat is very real, and very serious.

Brown rolls 6-3, fanning.  White rolls 6-2, 24/16.

Picture170

A tremendous shot from Tak. If I don’t hit him, he has great chances to not only run off the gammon, but also to win the game.

Picture171

Here I provoked a fight when the terms were most favorable to me by running all the way out.

First, we must reject the “safe” play 16/6, as this lets Black play 15 vs 1 against my back checker, which is just awful. Death may not come swiftly, but it does come often in the end.

My play runs into a hail of shots. The trouble for Brown is that he has to hit right now, or probably not hit at all. He usually can’t do this completely safely, as there is a blot in his board. This leads to return shots (and resulting gammons if those shots are hit). How good do you feel as Brown after my play if you roll 61?

The rollout suggests that the DMP play might be the compromise play of 24/20, 16/10. This limits the number of shots that send a checker back to 12.

Picture172

Tak correctly hits, because hitting wins quite often, while not hitting basically gives up. However, at the gammon-save score of 1-away/2-away Crawford, Brown should make the wimpy play, since the additional wins from hitting are not as numerous as the additional gammon losses.

Picture173

Well, I didn’t hit, but I did get to the edge of Brown’s three-prime, so I’m still a favorite.

Brown rolls 6-6, 13/1(2).  White rolls 3-1, 15/11.

Picture174

Critical roll coming up. I’m a big dog if I roll poorly.

Picture175

A great roll for me, and the gammon is back on.

Brown rolls 6-3, fanning.  White rolls 6-1, 16/9.

Brown rolls 5-2, bar/23, 13/8.

Picture176

Although it’s not my biggest error, this is my most disappointing error of the whole match.

If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me how to play this 43, I would say, “Hit! And how did you get in here?” I win many more gammons if I hit than if I don’t. And I’m not dead if Black hits me from the bar, so I’m not giving up too many wins.

I was clearly influenced by earlier events in this game. I hit loose in nearly the safest possible situation earlier and almost lost the game. I thought something along the lines of, “I can play safe this turn. I win a few gammons if I close him out later.” But I won’t close him out later unless I roll a number that points on his head (if I was going to hit loose, I would have done it now), and in the meantime, Brown is bringing his checkers home and reducing the percentage of gammons I can win.

I made many mistakes in this match. Some were due to an oversight. Some were due to my misunderstanding of a position. This particular mistake was a choke.

Brown rolls 4-3, 13/9, 8/5.

Picture177

One roll later and it is already wrong to hit loose here. The moment has passed.

Brown rolls 5-4, 9/4, 8/4.  White rolls 6-4, 7/3, 7/1.

Picture178

Brown has almost all of his checkers home. He can afford to stay and wait for a shot. There is minuscule gammon danger now. This play just gives up.

White rolls 1-1, 3/2, 1/off(3).  Brown rolls 6-5, 18/7.

White rolls 5-4, takes 2 off.  Brown rolls 5-2, 8/3, 7/5.

White rolls 3-1, 5/4, 3/off.  Brown rolls 3-1, 7/4, 1/off.

Picture179

 

Brown rolls 6-4, takes 2 off.  White rolls 6-2, takes 2 off.

Brown rolls 6-6, takes 4 off.  White rolls 3-3, takes 3 off.

Brown rolls 5-1, takes 2 off, White rolls 6-4, takes 2 off.

Picture180

White rolls 3-1, 5/1.  Brown rolls 3-1,  resigns a single game – 2 points.

Game 11 of 13 point match

Score is Gerry Tansey (White): 8, Tak Morioka (Brown): 9

White rolls 5-3, 8/3, 6/3.

Picture181

Splitting with the 51 is right after your opponent has made the three point.

Picture182

After hitting, the 5 is 13/8. This unstacks the heavy midpoint and leaves the 20-point slotted so I can make it later.

Picture183

Bar/23 24/20 looks scary, but it gives the best chance to get an advanced anchor. I have some sympathy for Tak’s play though. My front structure is looking very “blitzy.” I have nine checkers in the zone already, and some spare checkers that would love to attack blots.

Picture184

Emotionally, I hate lifting with aces. Backgammon is supposed to be pretty. We slot the points we want, our opponent obliges us by not hitting, we cover, and our opponent graciously slips into a losing position.

But I didn’t like any of my other aces, and getting hit here takes a lot of air out of the attack in a situation where I might be one good exchange away from a cube. The bots have convinced me to lift in situations like this, and it looks like it might be right.

Picture185

Tak duplicates my threes and unstacks his 6-point.

White rolls 2-1, 24/21*.  Brown rolls 6-6, fanning.

Picture186

Even if you were not sure whether this was a double, you simply have to double in this spot. Your opponent has four men back, no board, and has just fanned against a two-point board. You’re going to get some passes.

But it is a big take. Although I’ve technically got 9 in the zone, that dilly builder on the 3-point is of questionable value. Brown has an anchor, and if he wins the fight for the 20-point, or makes any other anchor, he will be in fine shape. White has a lot of work to do, and Brown is no longer so far ahead that he should drop cubes that have some gammon threat attached.

At this stage, having tied the match at 9 after being down 9-1, I really thought I was going to win. Tak had other ideas.