The Game of Pharaohs

Esquire Classic April 2019

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

APRIL 12019 DWIGHT GARNER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We start playing. Here my memory goes somewhat blank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paul Magriel, Who Was Called the Best in Backgammon, Dies at 71

Paul Magriel playing in a backgammon tournament in Boston in 1981. 

Paul Magriel, a former youth chess champion who traded game boards to become known as the world’s best backgammon player, then turned to poker as his passion for gambling grew, died on Monday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 71.

His death was confirmed by a former wife, Martine Oules. No cause was specified.

After winning the New York State Junior Chess Championship at 19, Mr. Magriel (pronounced ma-GRILL) became fixated by backgammon, the 5,000-year-old dice-and-disk board game that combines luck, skill and speed.

Before the 1970s ended, Mr. Magriel had won the world backgammon championship and published what was acclaimed as the bible of backgammon. He was also writing a weekly column about the game for The New York Times.

In 1977, The Boston Globe described Mr. Magriel, who by then had given up teaching math at a New Jersey college to play professionally, as “probably the best backgammon player in the world.”

 His quirkiness and cunning gave backgammon currency.

“He was a big part of the reason for the backgammon boom that happened in the late ′70s and ′80s,” Erik Seidel, a stock trader who became a professional backgammon and poker player, said in an email.

Mr. Magriel could be philosophical on the subject of games. “Games are controlled violence,” he told Gambling Times magazine in 1978. “You can take out your frustrations and hostilities over a backgammon set, where the rules are clearly defined — in contrast to life, where the rules are not so well defined. In games, you know what’s right and wrong, legal versus illegal; whereas in life, you don’t.”

Paul David Magriel Jr. was born on July 1, 1946, in Manhattan. His father, an immigrant from Latvia, was librarian at the American School of Ballet and curator of dance archives at the Museum of Modern Art. His mother, the former Christine Fairchild, was an architect.

As a child, Paul was remembered as a savant who rarely answered questions and spoke only when he had something to say. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and getting a perfect score on his college boards, he earned a bachelor’s degree in math from New York University. At. N.Y.U., he was a fellow of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Mr. Magriel at a poker tournament in 2012. He was known for uttering a signature “Quack, quack” when betting.CreditCard Player Magazine

He was later a National Science Foundation fellow at Princeton University, where he specialized in probability. He taught at the Newark College of Engineering (now part of the Newark Institute of Technology) from 1969 to 1973.

Mr. Magriel was married several times and divorced. His survivors include a son, Louis, with Ms. Oules, a French-born poker player, and a brother, Dr. Nicolas Magriel, a musician and teacher.

Mr. Magriel made his transition from chess to backgammon in Greenwich Village, at hangouts like the Olive Tree Cafe, while he was a doctoral student at Princeton and on track to become a math professor there.

“Psychologically, backgammon is very different from chess,” Mr. Magriel said. “It’s an exercise in frustration — you can make the right moves and lose, or you can make the wrong moves and win. And chess didn’t have the gambling that I like.”

Mr. Magriel grew increasingly gifted at backgammon, and consumed by it, cataloging, in the era before computers, thousands of potential playing strategies on index cards. And he ascended to more upscale venues, like the Mayfair Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where wagers might be made for $1,000 a point.

Gambling, too, became an obsession. Coupled with that were on-again-off-again brushes with substance abuse and a preoccupation with his own celebrity in the rarefied world of backgammon, his first wife, Renee Roberts, said.

“He had an incredible ability to concentrate his intellect on the things he wanted to know,” she said in a telephone interview. “He had so much promise, but the gambling took him to a place where everyone was relating to him because of his fame.”

With Ms. Roberts, he wrote the seminal “Backgammon” (1976) and “Introduction to Backgammon: A Step-By-Step Guide” (1978). His Times column appeared from 1977 to 1980.

Mr. Magriel made a small fortune from backgammon and later low-stakes poker. Playing poker, sometimes huddled disheveled over a table, he was known for uttering a signature “Quack, quack” when betting (usually a bet beginning with 22, the pair of numbers known in backgammon as double ducks and in poker as ducks).

His more enduring legacy to the card game was his formulation of the M-ratio — a measure, named for him, of how many chips a player needs to sit passively and make only compulsory bets.

For all his expertise in any game that required mental acuity, Mr. Magriel found backgammon to be “the most frustrating, the cruelest.”

“The fascinating thing about backgammon is that it represents an interesting paradox,” he told The Boston Globe in 1977, adding: “People who want a sure thing don’t make it in backgammon. There are risks, yes, but on the other hand there is an enormous amount of control needed, something most gamblers lack.”

In 1977, he played a promotional match at the 21 Club in Manhattan against George Plimpton, the adventurous journalist and author who liked to slip into other careers and write about his experiences. (Mr. Magriel’s original backgammon tutor, years earlier, had been Mr. Plimpton’s wife, Freddy Espy, a decorator and artist.)

In this match Mr. Magriel had a serious handicap: He was playing Mr. Plimpton while blindfolded.

“I have nothing at stake except the honor of my psyche,” Mr. Plimpton told The New Yorker. “My tactics are going to be to talk as much as possible, ply him with drinks, and do everything else I can to befuddle him. If he loses track of a single piece on the board, I win.”

Mr. Plimpton lost.

Gambling Wizards – Conversations with the World’s Greatest Gamblers by Richard Munchkin

The following is a small excerpt from:

Gambling Wizards – Conversations with the World’s Greatest Gamblers
by Richard Munchkin

For those of you who didn’t know, Richard Munchkin is the brother of backgammon player and author Jake Jacobs.  Who has penned many backgammon books, but is also the author of a great fiction book, The Battered Butterfly.

In Gambling Wizards, Munchkin interviews gamblers from several disciplines.  Interviewees are Billy Walters, Chip Reese, Tommy Hyland, Mike Svobodny (BG!), Stan Tomchin, Cathy Hulbert, Alan Woods and Doyle Brunson.  There’s something for everybody in this book and all of it is entertaining and informative.

From Chapter 2 – Chip Reese (He is speaking of Nick Vachiano, poker and pool player).

The only downside he (Vachiano) had was that when he was winning, he was a hit-and-run guy.  He’s win a little bit and if he lost, he would go for a number (take a big loss).  Most of the time he won, because usually, during the course of a session you get ahead a little bit.  So he booked a lot of winners and very few losers, but when he did book a loser it was a big one.

I remember one time we were playing $300-$600 (seven card stud) at the Flamingo and Nick was losing about $40,000. …The game had been going on a long time and I quit,  There were a couple of other guys who didn’t want to play short-handed, so the game was going to break up.  Nick says, “Hold it.”  …He gets up and takes me to the cage.  He goes to his safe deposit box, and he’s got a big box.  I only had a little safety deposit box – I had about $300,000 in it and I was proud as hell….He opens this big box and he probably had a million dollars in it.  He says, “See this here.  You know me.  I always win and I leave.  This is the only time you get a shot at this money – when I’m going off (losing and steaming).”  He says, “Are you sure you want to quit?”  You can tell when a guy is in heat from gambling.  I smiled and said, “You’re right.  Let’s go back and play.”  He went off for about $200,000 in that game.  He talked me into staying and winning a bunch of money.

You can get Gambling Wizards from Flint’s Carol Cole here Flint Backgammon Boutique  or any online bookstore.

Othello Quiz

Othello 5Cliff Smith:

cliff 5

Gerry Tansey:

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

Matt Easley:

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

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

 othello 51

Othello 4

Matt Easley:

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

Gerry Tansey:

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

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

Othello 41

Othello 3

Gerry Tansey’s analysis:

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

And Gerry was 100% right!

Othello 31

Othello Quiz 2

Matt Easley’s take:

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

Gerry Tansey:

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

Good for Matt & Gerry!

Othello 2

Gerry Tansey’s play:

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

And Gerry was right!

Othello 1 roll

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

More Funny Papers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles_Peace_penny_dreadful_1Burglar Bill


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

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

bg book set

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

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

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

Whereupon Eve remarked:

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

waldorf


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

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

bdh-13887-(pk)_large


Backgammon in the News

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

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

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

And they weren’t even playing with the cube!

BG Match

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

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

London Public Advertiser, November 14, 1760

These penalties included transportation to America – oh the horror!

George ii

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

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

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

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

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

The Times of London, August 11, 1815

Napoleon

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

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

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

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

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

The Times of London, November 12, 1816

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

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

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

SCIENCE VS. LUCK

From Sketches New and Old, Complete

By Mark Twain

Mark-Twain-Ship

Written about 1867

At that time, in Kentucky (said the Hon. Mr. K.); the law was very strict against what is termed “games of chance.” About a dozen of the boys were detected playing “Seven Up” or “Old Sledge” for money, and the grand jury found a true bill against them. Jim Sturgis was retained to defend them when the case came up, of course. The more he studied over the matter, and looked into the evidence, the plainer it was that he must lose a case at last–there was no getting around that painful fact. Those boys had certainly been betting money on a game of chance. Even public sympathy was roused in behalf of Sturgis. People said it was a pity to see him mar his successful career with a big prominent case like this, which must go against him.

But after several restless nights an inspired idea flashed upon Sturgis, and he sprang out of bed delighted. He thought he saw his way through. The next day he whispered around a little among his clients and a few friends, and then when the case came up in court he acknowledged the Seven-up and the betting, and, as his sole defense, had the astounding effrontery to put in the plea that Old Sledge was not a game of chance! There was the broadest sort of a smile all over the faces of that sophisticated audience. The judge smiled with the rest. But Sturgis maintained a countenance whose earnestness was even severe. The opposite counsel tried to ridicule him out of his position, and did not succeed. The judge jested in a ponderous judicial way about the thing, but did not move him. The matter was becoming grave. The judge lost a little of his patience, and said the joke had gone far enough. Jim Sturgis said he knew of no joke in the matter–his clients could not be punished for indulging in what some people chose to consider a game of chance until it was proven that it was a game of chance. Judge and counsel said that would be an easy matter, and forthwith called Deacons Job, Peters, Burke  and Johnson, and Dominies Wirt and Miggles, to testify; and they unanimously and with strong feeling put down the legal quibble of Sturgis by pronouncing that Old Sledge was a game of chance.

“What do you call it now?” said the judge.

“I call it a game of science!” retorted Sturgis; “and I’ll prove it, too!”

They saw his little game.

He brought in a cloud of witnesses, and produced an overwhelming mass of testimony, to show that Old Sledge was not a game of chance but a game of science.

Instead of being the simplest case in the world, it had somehow turned out to be an excessively knotty one. The judge scratched his head over it awhile, and said there was no way of coming to a determination, because just as many men could be brought into court who would testify on one side as could be found to testify on the other. But he said he was willing to do the fair thing by all parties, and would act upon any suggestion Mr. Sturgis would make for the solution of the difficulty.

Mr. Sturgis was on his feet in a second.

“Impanel a jury of six of each, Luck versus Science. Give them candles and a couple of decks of cards. Send them into the jury-room, and just abide by the result!”

There was no disputing the fairness of the proposition. The four deacons and the two dominies were sworn in as the “chance” jurymen, and six inveterate old Seven-up professors were chosen to represent the “science” side of the issue. They retired to the jury-room.

In about two hours Deacon Peters sent into court to borrow three dollars from a friend. [Sensation.] In about two hours more Dominie Miggles sent into court to borrow a “stake” from a friend. [Sensation.] During the next three or four hours the other dominie and the other deacons sent into court for small loans. And still the packed audience waited, for it was a prodigious occasion in Bull’s Corners, and one in which every father of a family was necessarily interested.

The rest of the story can be told briefly. About daylight the jury came in, and Deacon Job, the foreman, read the following:

VERDICT:

We, the jury in the case of the Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. John Wheeler et al., have carefully considered the points of the case, and tested the merits of the several theories advanced, and do hereby unanimously decide that the game commonly known as Old Sledge or Seven-up is eminently a game of science and not of chance. In demonstration whereof it is hereby and herein stated, iterated, reiterated, set forth, and made manifest that, during the entire night, the “chance” men never won a game or turned a jack, although both feats were common and frequent to the opposition; and furthermore, in support of this our verdict, we call attention to the significant fact that the “chance” men are all busted, and the “science” men have got the money. It is the deliberate opinion of this jury, that the “chance” theory concerning Seven-up is a pernicious doctrine, and calculated to inflict untold suffering and pecuniary loss upon any community that takes stock in it.

“That is the way that Seven-up came to be set apart and particularized in the statute-books of Kentucky as being a game not of chance but of science, and therefore not punishable under the law,” said Mr. K. “That verdict is of record, and holds good to this day.”

An 8 Cube From Chicago

by Gerry Tansey

Winner-Gerry Tansey

The championship division of the Chicago Open this past Memorial Day weekend was run using the “More Swiss” format.  In each round, the organizers try to pair players with the same record.  Players with four losses cannot cash and are eliminated, but players with two losses or fewer can still win the title.

My tournament started out well.  I managed to win my first four matches on Saturday, including one against the number two Giant of Backgammon, Michihito Kageyama, known to the world as “Michy”  (you can see this match on the USBGF channel on YouTube if you would like to see just how good my dice were at the start of the tournament).  My fifth round opponent was Paul Weaver, who has been named one of the top 32 Giants of Backgammon in every incarnation of the list since its 1993 inception.  Our 9-point match only lasted two games, but there was plenty of excitement.

In the first game, Paul rolled an unfortunate 66, and eventually we reached this position.  I am White and on roll, considering a double.  Scroll down slowly if you want to consider your own decision, as XG’s opinion immediately follows.

Picture1

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Here I decided to “double on ugly.”  I figured that Paul’s position was dangerously awkward.  I can make another offensive point or attack the lone checker on the ace point.  If Paul cannot escape his back checker quickly, he may be forced to leave blots where he does not want to, since he does not have a great deal of flexibility in his position.

However, Paul is up in the race, and he often can make a three-point board, which is strong enough to fight back with in a blot-hitting contest.  The true “danger time” for Brown is often two or three rolls away, when I have more ammunition near my home board, and Brown has perhaps stripped his midpoint.  Basically, I need to improve my position a bit more in order for Paul to seriously consider passing.

I did not roll this position out to statistical significance in XG because it really isn’t necessary to get the practical verdict.  This position is on the border between a double and no double, and it is a trivially easy take.  Whether it is a technical double or not, I think I would cube this against anyone.  A lot of players on the Brown side will look at the state of their home board and just not feel like playing it out.  But, as someone once said, “Backgammon ain’t no beauty contest.”  Brown needs to take this, and Paul correctly did.

Well, I ended up having to attack Paul’s back checker, and it didn’t go very well.  Paul turned the game around, and we reached this position, with Brown on roll.

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Picture3

 

Paul is leading by 10 pips in the raw pip count, but his racing advantage is not quite that large.  He has a few more checkers buried on low points, and those gaps on the 4 and 5 points will hurt him in the bearoff, since he will be forced to bury checkers when he rolls 4s and 5s rather than bearing checkers off.  But still, Paul is a solid favorite, and he will lose his market if he points on me, or if he rolls a lot of pips and I don’t respond well, so he redoubled now.  Facing this cube, I decided that I was not dead in the race, and I noticed that Paul leaves a direct shot when he rolls 63, 62, 53, 43, 44, 55, and 66, so I took.  If I had to rely solely on my racing chances, or solely on hitting a shot in order to win the game, I would be less thrilled about taking this cube, but my combined chances make this a huge take.

The game continued and turned into a race.  I was able to bear in my last checker relatively quickly, and then I rolled 22 in the bearoff, to reach this position, as White, holding a 4-cube:

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Picture5

There is quite a bit going on here.  Most experienced players will know that the 5-roll vs. 5-roll position (where both players have 10 checkers on the ace point) is an initial double in a money game, but not quite a redouble, as seen in the XG diagram below.

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However, the main reason this is not a redouble for money is that by redoubling, White is giving Brown access to the cube that he did not have before. So if White redoubles and Brown takes, consider the sequence where White rolls a non-doublet, Brown rolls a doublet, and White rolls a non-doublet. Brown is now on roll, holding the cube, in a 3-roll vs 3-roll position, and so Brown will redouble, and White should pass. If White had held on to the cube, Brown would have had to play this game out to the end, giving White a chance to get lucky and win the game. It is the fear of Brown’s potential use of the cube that makes a redouble slightly wrong for White in a money game.

Now what should White do in that 5-roll vs. 5-roll position holding a 4-cube at 0-0 in a 9-point match? The first thing to note is that if Brown takes White’s 8-cube, White should not fear Brown’s 16 cube. White is never going to pass a meaningful 16-cube in this game. This is because if White passes a 16-cube, he will be trailing 8-0 Crawford, a score from which he wins only about 5.6% of the time. Thus the value of Brown’s cube ownership is reduced to almost nothing, so at 0-0 in a 9-point match, White should redouble the 5-roll vs. 5-roll position to 8.

Picture10

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Now that we know what to do with the 5-roll vs 5-roll position at the score, we can return to the position that arose during the match. Both White and Brown have worse positions than in the 5-roll vs 5-roll position.

White can fail to bear off in 5 rolls or fewer if he “misses” (fails to bear off two checkers in one roll) twice. This will typically happen when he leaves a gap on the ace or deuce points, and then rolls an ace or deuce. Further, 11 and 22 do not save a roll for White, and while White will welcome rolling 33, this will leave a gap on the three-point, which will end up not saving White a roll if he rolls another 3.

Brown can fail to bear off in 5 rolls or fewer if he misses once. This will only happen if he rolls a single ace on two distinct rolls. As for Brown’s doublets, only 11 fails to save a roll.

The upshot of all this is that while both Brown and White are worse off than in the 5-roll vs 5-roll position, White is quite a bit *more* worse off than Brown is. So Brown has a trivially easy take.

I confess I did not analyze it quite this calmly over the board. I basically said to myself, “I’m favored. I don’t have to worry about his recube to 8. I’m playing Paul Weaver. I double!” It turns out I was right, by a razor-thin margin.

Paul thought about the take for quite a while, as is good practice when facing what is almost certainly the last and most important decision of the match, and then correctly took. I then rolled…21! This one roll dropped me from nearly a 2-to-1 favorite in the game to a 52-48 favorite. Fortunately, in spite of creating two gaps in my board, I only missed once in the bearoff, and Paul never rolled a set of doublets, so I won that game, and then later the match. Sometimes an 8-cube decides matches when neither player is crazy or otherwise out of line. Paul was very unlucky to lose this one, although he did get some measure of revenge against me in the After-Tournament Tournament. It’s hard to beat a Giant twice in a row.

As for the rest of my tournament, I became the only undefeated player in the field on Sunday afternoon at 6-0, and then won my next match to go to 7-0. Then, I crashed and burned, losing my next four matches to finish out of the money. My dice just ran out of magic, although I do believe that my last four opponents, Di Di, Neil Kazaross, Matt Cohn-Geier, and Carol Joy Cole, played very well in beating me. Dorn Bishop, a very strong player from California, was the deserving champion of the event.