Playing for Keeps:
A Weekend With The Backgammon Sub-Culture

David Bauer


It’s not that I didn’t see backgammon coming. From the moment I first played some three years ago on a Florida beach, I’d wondered why this great game had so few followers. And in recent months I’d felt the rumblings of a rising fad: not only were the backgammon shelves at Neiman’s decimated at Christmas, but Hef and Barbi were caught playing backgammon up in the Playboy mansion. Sure signs. But little did I suspect that backgammon could be serious business – a way of life. Alas, it never occurred to me on the beach that day that backgammon, of all things, might have been my quick ticket to the good life – sipping champagne on TWA, first-class, non-stop to Monte Carlo, next stop on the backgammon circuit.

The eye-opening occasion was, officially, the 1975 Mid-Year Back-gammon Championship for the Challenger Cup; Bagatelle Restaurant, Dallas. The pre-tournament dinner was to begin at 7:30 p.m. and it was 7:25. An uncharacteristically prompt arrival. But alas, it seems that there had been a pre-tournament wine-tasting at 6:30 p.m. Into the room I marched, the complete and sober stranger, and found myself in the midst of a small, select gathering of well-heeled and obviously well-acquainted people. Oh-oh. No doubt about it: the jet-set. This was no sub-culture, this was an ultra-culture. A few heads turned, a few voices died. That sinking feeling. Like walking into the wrong bathroom.

Fortunately the sinking didn’t last long. There was still some wine left and dinner came graciously to the rescue. The tournament was set in a bright and cheerful private dining room and my tablemates turned out to be a friendly bunch. “So you’re going to write a story about backgammon, eh?” The gentleman across the table had deciphered the nametag that had been pinned on me at the registration table. My name had been misspelled, scratched through, and rewritten; my press credentials were proclaimed in capital letters. Whereas everybody else’s nametag was a simple two-word identification, mine read like a rough draft. I took it off after dessert. I wondered why there were nametags anyway, since most every-body seemed to know each other already.

“That’s right,” I responded, launching abruptly into my first investigative question, something about the sudden surge of interest in backgammon. “Oh, you shouldn’t ask us that if you want a good story,” came the reply from a friendly lady. “Talk to the Jacobys.”

The name Jacoby was not unfamiliar. I’d heard that Oswald Jacoby was one of the world’s better backgammon players and that his wife, Mary Zita, was one of the most respected teachers of the game. I knew that they lived in Dallas. “Are they playing in this tournament?” I asked. “No, but they may show up sometime.” “This really isn’t one of the big tournaments,” someone else whispered, as if to justify their absence.

The loud speaker sputtered as tournament director Jack Plunkett took the mike. “OK, we’re going to begin the auction now. In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know the procedures of a Calcutta auction, I’ll explain them briefly.” I, of course, didn’t and was grateful that he hadn’t asked for a show of hands, as mine would probably have been the only one. These people had obviously been through this before.

The Order of Calcutta Auction is becoming a popular and important prelude to many of the larger backgammon tournaments. Essentially the auction allows both players and spectators to wager on the outcome of the tournament. Each player’s name is put on the block and auctioned off. The highest bidder thus owns that player; should the player win, the owner receives the lion’s share of the prize money. Obviously many of the better players would want to bet on themselves and they’re allowed to do so; even if the highest bid is made by someone else, a player is entitled to buy back a certain set percentage of himself.

It is not a winner-take-all situation: there are usually three separate flights – beginner, intermediate, and championship – each of which eventually breaks down further into consolation and “last chance” flights. Even then, not only the winner but also the runner-up and, in some flights, the semifinalists are also awarded set percentages of the total prize money. The bulk of the total prize money is made up by that which is bid and paid in the auction.

It’s strange this buying and selling of human beings. One finds oneself foolishly but irresistibly drawn toward making ridiculous mental contrasts between the selling of “Bartholomew P. Freedlowe, recent winner of the Royal Governors Cup in the Caribbean Championships” and the selling of “this heah big ol’ buck-niggah with shoulders like a ox an’ a disposition sweet as a baby.” Even crazier is the notion of buying a piece of yourself. But whatever the auction may seem, there’s no question that it adds a great deal of drama – and a hell of a lot of incentive – to a backgammon tournament.

Having been told that the Challenger Cup was not one of the biggies, I figured the auction would just be a little social game and expected the bidding to peak at maybe $25 for the real hotshots. I thought I might even throw down 10 or 15 on somebody just for the fun of it. Joe Mills, the curly-haired, pudgy-faced auctioneer for the night, took the mike and sang out in an appropriate twang, “I got a young man here by the name of Leonard Burton – stand up Leonard so the folks can get a look atcha – who’s gonna have to be reckoned with here tonight. Leonard was runner-up in the Intermediate consolation last week at Oz and I know he ain’t gonna do no worse than that today, so I’m gonna start the biddin’ at 50 dollahs. Do I hear 75?”

Fifty dollars? For an intermediate nobody? That was only the beginning. Nobody sold for less than $75 and the big favorite in the championship flight went for a cool $1,200. Hundred dollar bills were being tossed around like napkins. At one point, my date raised her hand to signal the cocktail waitress, and if I hadn’t yanked her arm down in the nick of time, we would have been out a quick 600 bucks. The total pot for the 45 players auctioned reached $7,875. At this point, a spectator who had missed some of the bidding came over to our table and asked what the total bid was. “I don’t know exactly,” someone answered, “but it wasn’t much.” I suddenly realized why backgammon is becoming so popular. This game is a goldmine.

Backgammon is hardly an overnight sensation. At age 5,000, it is the second oldest game in the world, second only to the tossing of dice. But the most important moment of its life did not occur until one historic day in the mid-1920’s in a men’s smoking club in New York City. On that day, “some unknown genius” was winning a game of backgammon when he suggested to his opponent that they double the original stake. His terms were these: “If you accept my offer, then we will continue the game to conclusion and whoever wins will win twice what we bet originally. If you do not accept my offer then the game is finished and I am the winner of the original amount bet.” A rather intimidating proposal, if you think about it, but his opponent, perhaps sensing a chance to turn the game around and lured by the doubled stakes, accepted the offer. Nobody knows how the game turned out, but from that incident came the doubling cube, a six-sided die marked 2, 4,8,16, 32, and 64, used to multiply the original stake (or point value of the game) in exactly the manner described above.

The doubling cube has added an entire new dimension of gaming psychology and gambler’s instinct to the game and has boosted its intrigue enormously. “The cube is the greatest thing about backgammon,” says one player. “The doubling principle ought to be used in all sports – tennis, golf, anything.”

In backgammon circles, the “some unknown genius” – he is commonly referred to in exactly that way, as if it were his name – is revered as an almost saint-like figure. It seems remarkable that some sly old timer has not come fraudulently forward claiming he was in truth the great “Some Unknown Genius,” to bask in the glory that would undoubtedly be heaped upon him. Surely some day soon contestants will clash in an international tournament for the prized SUG Cup.

As for the prized Challenger Cup, the auction was immediately followed by action. I was given a tournament tip by one of the local backgammon regulars. “The play tonight will be very casual and social and nice,” she said, “but the later rounds tomorrow will be another story. Tomorrow it gets intense.” Right she was. On Saturday night the mood was light. There were jokes across the tables, losing players accepted defeat without trauma. Play proceeded smoothly and the favored players were winning with few upsets.

Sunday afternoon was the second and final day of the tournament. Play had already begun when I walked in. It was different all right. Where there had been banter and laughter the night before, today there was only the chattering of dice and the silent meshing of mental gears. Where there had been wine and cocktails the night before, today there was ice water and coffee. Jackets and ties had given way to open collars and rolled up sleeves. Saturday night was fun, Sunday was serious business. Not so much the business of winning money (the auction had happened so loosely and nonchalantly that there were obviously no life savings on the line here); it was instead just the business of winning, the business of ego.

There are many who contend that backgammon is a better game than chess or bridge – and I’m one of them. Chess is a game for the mental giant. Its complexities are staggering and its demands are huge. It is unsociable and it is slow. (The average chess game takes 45 minutes; the average backgammon game takes 8 minutes.) In chess, the better player almost always wins; in backgammon, the chance factor often allows a novice to beat an expert.

Bridge too requires vast memory skills and years of practice to be played at its best. Backgammon, on the other hand, is easy to learn and quickly mastered, yet its subtleties are endless. Jack Plunkett, president of the local chapter of Backgammon Club International, puts it this way: “Backgammon is the only game or sport I know of that you can take up from scratch and six months later be a money earning pro. Yet even the finest players in the world are continually improving and refining their game.”

While bridge too has the chance factor – the luck of the draw – it is pretty well settled at the beginning of the game with the deal, or at least exposes itself with the bidding. From that point on, bridge is very much a matter of skillful execution. In backgammon, the chance factor – the roll of the dice – is ongoing; it affects every single play.

It’s that subtle blend of skill and chance – the constant interplay between the two – that is the essence of backgammon’s charm. While the expert will win most games from a beginner, even the best formed strategy can explode if the dice don’t cooperate. A foolish move by a novice might be turned into a gamewinner by a flukish roll of the dice.

The combined skill-chance effect does strange things to the mind of the backgammon player. When Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky clashed on the chess board, it was Bobby’s brain vs. Boris’ brain. Ego laid bare. On the backgammon board, the ego is not so directly threatened – blame it on the dice. But there is also the spectre of Lady Luck. When she’s with you, there’s that sense of almost mystical power; when she’s against you, it can be manically frustrating. Though the best backgammon players win with a game of calculating odds, they will all admit that the fun and excitement of the game are rooted in the surprises of chance and the psych-out that goes with it.

The psych-out first appeared in the quarterfinals of the Challenger Cup. The quarterfinals are the first direct shot at the money; the first time your “owners” are apt to be peering over your shoulder to see how much you’re going to rake in for them; the first time two of the very top players are likely to meet. There were some interesting match-ups.

The first was Tony Goble vs. I. Philip, two of Dallas’ better players. Goble is the owner of the Pawn Shop, a hotbed of Dallas backgammon. He’s the essence of the sex-appeal chic of jet-set backgammon: impeccably tailored and dressed, tanned and handsome; he exudes virility and is surrounded by an air of stern self-confidence. But he’s not vivacious; he plays his game quickly and silently, his eyes rarely leave the board, his face never relinquishes its slight frown. Goble is intense – he looks like he just doesn’t enjoy the game at all, yet he plays all the time. He hates to lose. I. Philip is called Philip by everyone because it seems that he is the only one who knows what the “I” stands for – apparently some nearly unpronounceable Israeli name. Philip plays a careful and intent game, but compared to Goble he seems loose as a goose.

The match had been neck and neck all the way. It was now 8-8 in a 12-point match, a crowd had gathered round, and the tournament’s first tenseness was in the air. Goble appeared to have the present game in hand; Philip was well-blocked and could only be helped at this point by a double-5. He rolled. Double-5. Goble did a good job of hiding his horror. Philip was still behind at his next turn; he needed some doubles to catch up. Double-6. His next turn, double-3. Goble looked angry, as if this were a trick of some kind. Philip was ahead now and placed the doubling cube in front of his opponent. Goble slapped the cube away in frustration. His virile charms held no sway over Lady Luck. Philip went on to win the match. At the conclusion there was no handshake, no congratulations. Goble, without a word, slowly put the playing pieces away, arranged the dice symmetrically in their cubicle, closed his board, picked it up, and disappeared. An hour later he was back, smiling.

At another table, Shay Robb, the only woman still in contention in the championship flight, was losing to Jim Murray, a fast-rising player who is relatively new to the game. Murray set the doubling cube before Robb, who went into trancelike concentration. Several minutes passed – she appeared nervous and unable to decide whether to accept or refuse the double. At that point, a spectator whispered in Murray’s ear and Robb immediately claimed spectator assistance and demanded a judge’s ruling. Spectator conduct is more a matter of etiquette than strict ruling and the tournament director decided in Murray’s favor. Murray went on to win the match; Robb went on to the bar and cried into her martinis for two anguished hours.

My appreciation for the game of backgammon was growing by the minute. The little ol’ Challenger Cup (“This really isn’t one of the big tournaments,” I kept remembering) was turning people inside out.

Paul Magriel was the tournament heavy. While most of the players were locals, Paul was the featured star attraction from New York. He was grandly announced and applauded when he arrived fashionably late, just before the auction. He didn’t appear particularly fashionable though, certainly not jet-set. In his tweed coat and corduroy pants he looked more like a mathematics professor. He is a mathematics professor. At least, he was a mathematics professor. It didn’t take a math whiz to figure out that there’s a lot more money in backgammon than there is in teaching. What he lacked in fashion, he made up for in self-assurance. (“I’m the number one seeded player here,” he explained to me, even though I hadn’t asked.) But his ranking was surely justified. He had just won a biggie at the Plaza Hotel – and the $30,000 first prize – and is considered one of the top five players in the world. Magriel didn’t hesitate to bid on himself at the $1,000 mark, but the high bid of $1,200 went to Joe the auctioneer himself, who figured he had a sure thing.

Magriel, like many top backgammon players, was originally a chess player. He used to play all day long in the chess clubs in New York. “On a winning day, I might end up a whole dollar richer.” He decided (that mathematical mind again) $30,000 is a more reasonable rate. He has only recently hit the tournament circuit full time and estimates that there are currently about 30 “worthwhile” tournaments each year, those with a first prize of $2,000 or more. Of those, some six or seven are in the $20,000 + category. Magriel sees $100,000 in winnings for the year as a conservative goal. (If only I’d listened to my dear grandmother. “You can’t go wrong if you study mathematics, David,” she once advised. “Sure, grandma.”)

Magriel’s strength is his comprehensive understanding of mathematical odds. “You can just hear his brain clicking away like a little computer while he’s playing,” said one envious observer. But Magriel knows the value of the psychological game: “I like to play with a little razzle-dazzle.” Razzle-dazzle to an ex-mathematics professor means such crazed shenanigans as making an unorthodox opening move. But it works: he figures that especially if the move is not a very sound one, it will befuddle his opponent by making him worry that Magriel knows something he doesn’t. The fear element. Intimidation is a big part of the psychological game. Magriel’s favorite little trick is to change into his mirrored sunglasses just before a match begins. Not only does it hide his own eyes from scrutiny, but each time his opponents look up, they find themselves staring at their own reflection – not exactly conducive to great concentration. Magriel slipped on his mirrors Sunday just before a quarterfinal match. His opponent, Tom McRae, looked up and said “I wish you’d take off those damn sunglasses.” Magriel stared at him for a moment, took off the glasses, and won the match.

When I arrived on Sunday, Magriel was playing opposite a gentleman with thick black glasses and curly white hair who hadn’t been there the night before. A quick practice round for the favorite, it seemed. Magriel made a move and then glanced up at his opponent. “You just might win this one, Ozzie.” Ozzie? As in Oswald? As in Jacoby? My suspicions were confirmed a few moments later when a stout gray-haired woman came up behind him and watched him roll the dice and move. Then, in that special cheerful nagging tone reserved for a wife of many years, she chided, “Why did you do that? You want to have these two pieces in position over here, not there.” Mary Zita Jacoby, backgammon teacher.

Oswald Jacoby is called “Jake” by some, but “Ozzie” fits him much better. Ozzie is a gambler – and a winner. “I played my first game of poker when I was nine years old. I won 30 cents and I’ve been hooked ever since.” Among his credits are two world bridge championships with the Dallas Aces and three world backgammon championships. But the achievement he seems most proud of had nothing to do with games. At age 21, he was the youngest ever to pass the actuarial exams. “That record still stands,” he beams. Ozzie’s interest in backgammon is a natural ex-tension of his infatuation with mathematical odds and probability. He claims that of the top-ranking backgammon players, only he and Magriel have formal mathematical training. “I was reading a manuscript of the backgammon book Magriel has just finished,” says Ozzie, “and I found a move he recommended that was 1 /36th wrong.” 1 /36th wrong? That’s the way Ozzie’s mind works. He says things like “approximately 106 to 94.”

When Ozzie gets down to opinion, he comes through loud and clear. “The young players have taken over backgammon,” he says not wistfully, but admiringly. “They take what us old timers know and expand on it. And the young backgammon players are heterosexual. Unlike the young bridge players….” His voice trails off with a touch of disdain. Ozzie doesn’t seem particularly concerned with being modern. He’s refreshingly candid. “Men are better games players than women. Men’s minds are more mathematical. Americans are better games players than Europeans; Americans put more effort into their games than Europeans. That’s why most of the best backgammon players in the world are American men.”

There are exceptions – such as his wife. “She’s the best backgammon teacher there is,” declares Ozzie. “No doubt about it.” Mary Zita believes that backgammon will soon take over bridge in mass popularity. “Backgammon has long been a game of the aristocracy,” she says. “Even in recent years it’s been mainly a jet-set fad. But now it’s reaching the average people. It’s going to boom, just like tennis has.”

Ozzie, whose first love is bridge (he won the first bridge tournament he ever entered), doesn’t agree. “There’s nothing better than a high caliber bridge game for high stakes. Bridge will stay on top.” But there’s a distinct note of uncertainty in his voice. He’s seen the signs. He’s seen the backgammon clubs springing up in New York and Chicago and Florida. He’s seen the empty backgammon shelves not only at Neiman’s but also at Sears. He’s heard talk of backgammon tables in Vegas. He’s seen people playing backgammon at lunch time at Dallas Country Club and Brookhaven and others. He’s played with the Lone Star Chouettes, a private group of 150 Dallas members who get together once a month to play backgammon the way bridge clubs have in the past. And he’s seen $7,875 bid on the Challenger Cup.

The championship final on Sunday was between Paul “The Computer” Magriel and Jim “The Relative New-comer” Murray. Murray is a calm character who wasn’t the least bit rattled by Magriel’s mirrors or the pressures of the final match. He went off to an early lead and held the margin to win the Cup (which, incidentally, was a bowl). Magriel was, of course, not at all happy about coming all the way to Dallas to lose to a small-time local. For a short while after the match he seemed irked and distracted as he silently paced the room, twirling his runner-up cup on his finger with a touch of disrespect. But quickly his mood cleared (perhaps he suddenly remembered what it used to be like grading those math tests on Sunday nights) and realizing that things weren’t all that bad, sat down to a jovial post-toumament drink with the others.

Meanwhile, Jim Murray, who had bid on himself in the auction, picked up $2,500 from the Calcutta plus a $500 first prize for a tidy little total of $3,000. Not bad for a relative new-comer. I immediately drove home, pulled out my backgammon board, and started practicing.