Travelling Light : Monaco, mano-a-mano

In backgammon, they take no prisoners

by Conor MacHugh

“Do they play backgammon in New Zealand?” someone in Monaco asked me with surprise. I guessed so – at least two of my friends do. As the only Kiwi at the 34th World Backgammon Championship I suddenly felt the nation’s latent expectations upon my shoulders. It was a shame I had limited experience and am generally considered a bit crap, but stranger things have happened at sea. And we were almost at sea – the Fairmont Grand Hotel and Casino perches on the point of Monte Carlo, which separates the port from the bay of Monaco.

In the Salle’d’Or three hundred acolytes of fate and statistics were gathered to see who is the greatest, and they were putting their money where their dice rolled. After a month of half-hearted practice, I had come to test my mettle. For one thousand euros you could enter the main draw, and pit yourself against the best. Four hundred euros let you compete intermediately, and I parted with two hundred to see if I was the best beginner there ever was.

The championship was born in the high-flying, jet-setting days of old money. In the sixties, an exiled White Russian by the fantastic name of Prince Alexis Obolensky brought backgammon to high society New York and began the first big tournaments. The game became trendy as clubs and tournaments sprang up all over the world – and the two biggest tournaments fused into the Monaco Championships. It dipped in popularity but has bounced back with internet play and online gambling. Now it’s possible to be a professional player, and most good players hone their skills with computer analysis. Backgammon is back, but not so sexy. The board is set for the revenge of the nerds.

My first opponent was Silvia Pasquanol, a fifty-one year old pharmacist from Venice. She was out to a brisk lead and the fightback was long and tedious (for Silvia) but I manage to scrape back to within one point. I then mustered up a two point win for victory and those watching (yes – watching!) congratulated me. But I discovered a mistake on my score card, and tracked down Silvia to arrange a decider. She won easily, and I was one of the few gamblers whose bad luck story is to arrange to be beaten outside extra time. As it stood, I had simply bored her into submission – a tactic I will refine throughout the tournament.

The enormous spread and five thousand year history of backgammon mean that in one week I was to hear a smorgasbord of strange stories. There was Najib the giant Afghan, whose fat fingers flashed the checkers with such speed and delicacy. Rumour has it he made a fortune in the rebuilding of Kabul, and was fond of ten thousand euro side bets. There were Greeks who continuously smoked unlit cigars. Savio of Brazil used the break to stride the hall hooting, yelling and slapping his face.

I meet professors, students, businessmen and shysters. Upstairs I drank with hyperactive Shahab, from Iran by way of refugee status in Norway, who escaped across the mountains of Kurdistan before traveling to Ankara dressed as a woman. He plays online, but would fly anywhere to play a ‘fish’ – a rich player who wants to try his luck. Grown men and natural mathematicians were shaking their dice for that special roll. The cup moved from hand to hand, invocations were made in divers tongues and dice released with a final flourish. But the stats were king – and if you knew the odds and the frequencies, you had a huge advantage.

Masayuki Mochizuki is one of Japan’s new breed; thirty years old, raised on probabilities and analysis. ‘Mochy’ moved his slight frame fast, efficiently; his hands had a robotic, insect-like fluency. In the quarter final he was up against the grizzled Israeli Shimon Kagan, who chewed his tongue and lingered over the board like a child playing general. I asked him, a civil engineer and veteran of two wars, if he believed in luck. The answer was immediate, “Of course! Why not?” Every little helps, or perhaps Shimon meant that if he believed in luck, it would repay the favour. But luck couldn’t carry the day against the wunderkind from Japan. The robot marched on.

My next match was against Joan Grunwald from the suburbs of New Jersey, who won easily. She was smart and apologetic and couldn’t help but mother me with tactics, and herbal tea. Crowds gathered at complex or tense games, their silence punctuated by gasps at risky moves or great dice. At one in the morning the atmosphere was manic and things wouldn’t finish here until four. The room took on strange, soft lighting; everything deep red and gold. Sounds seemed muted, though always the dice rattled in their shakers.

Crossing the floor, I bumped into the lumbering ‘Falafel’. Michael Natanzon was a larger than life American Israeli who is ranked World No. 1 by his peers, though the dice were fickle and Falafel had bombed in all draws at these champs. But he cut his teeth hustling small stakes in Central Park, and Falafel was night fishing.

The main draw was into the semifinals, and both were instructive. Mochy was up against Philippe Lecomte, as true a representative of old backgammon as could be. He was in his sixties and wore only white linen, his unlit cigarette placed in unsmiling lips. A large part of his game appeared to be icy intimidation, never touching the checkers until he moved and always looking down a perma-tanned nose at his opponent.

Against Mochy it was a useless tactic; Mochy studied only the board and the heavens, and duly recorded a victory. The other semi pitted the defending champ Lars Trabolt of Denmark against his friend Roland Herrera, a violinist from Bristol. Lars felt that Roland was underrated and paid his entry fees in return for seventy five percent of his winnings – a typical deal in a game where players can bet on their opponents. Lars won a close match, and collected on both sides of the ledger.

Meanwhile I missed my second consolation match due to a late train; my bad luck was holding, or perhaps it was never meant to be. In the final last chance round I played another Roland, a German who imported furniture and stone Buddhas from Bali. He was probably better than me, but I held my nerve in an important game, and was up heading into the decider.

And then the dice took over and my last chance was up, or maybe Roland had built up such good karma in his line of work that he was invincible? He went on to place second in the final, and got his money back, along with a tiny cup. It was so small he should have got a bigger cup for receiving the world’s smallest cup. But I was just jealous- never have I been so close to possibly being runner up in the fourth division of the beginner’s section in a real World Championship.

Lars and Mochy played the final in a side room, with a live relay in the main hall. I was learning the most I have all week, as commentary was provided by Falafel. At first they level pegged, then the Japanese went out to a lead before Lars fought back and got within two points. The final game came down to the wire, but Lars couldn’t t roll the dice to hit Mochy and lost the race to bear off his checkers.

He had just lost the chance to make history and retain the championship, but he pocketed thirty thousand euros plus his percentage of Roland’s semifinal winnings. Mochy took home sixty-three thousand and the world title. A victory for the new robotics over more creative play, though later I chatted with the new champ and he talked with a Zen-like reverence for the game’s possibilities and the indifference of the dice. At the prize-giving he said he could not have done it without his girlfriend – and efficiently yet elegantly, he had proposed.

My week on a whim was over, and I headed back to the cheaper surrounds of Nice. I’m not sure why I came, but I learned a lot about the quirky world of backgammon, and how it’s played. Tomorrow would bring fresh decisions and there were dice out there rolling for me, good or bad. In the words of Mochy, the new World Champion : “It’s a fantastic game. There are so many possibilities.”