The Washington Post
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.