As I wandered through the playing hall at the World Championships at the Fairmont Hotel in Monaco I calculated that there must have been close to 40 backgammon matches going on, but one clearly stood out from the rest: there was a big swarm of people around the table. It was clearly a big match and one of the competitors was clearly larger-than-life. It was Falafel Natanzon (known simply as Falafel) is one of the most famous backgammon players in the world.
Falafel’s opponent looked nervous; I watched him spill a pint of orange juice all over the table. Falafel has that effect on people; he is disarmingly brilliant. He’s an intuitive player who came from nowhere to dominate the world of backgammon in only a few short years. After a game, Falafel’s demeanour always changes; he is friendly and ready to talk to anyone about the game he’s just played (and won). Falafel is globally recognised as a fearsome competitor and consistently ranks in the top three in the world. He explains his passion, saying, ‘I used to play chess until I discovered backgammon. I instantly fell in love with the game, and have been totally consumed and obsessed with it ever since. I play, practice, review and analyse, and I’m always looking to learn something new.’
Many backgammon players love to gamble and not exclusively on the game. Falafel and another modern great Matt Cohn-Geier reportedly had a $1 million bet with a well-known international gambler that the two backgammon players could become the same weight through Falafel dieting and Matt increasing his calorie intake (Matt weighed about half as much as Falafel at the time of the bet). It’s rumoured that the players won the bet… but shortly after, resumed their original shapes!
Most people think of backgammon, if they think of it at all, as a game for high-rollers that’s cooler than chess or bridge. In the film Octopussy, James Bond did not take on the suave baddie Kamal Khan at chess or challenge him to a race to finish the Telegraph jumbo crossword… they played backgammon. But is the glamorous label justified? Well, yes and no. Backgammon is definitely more exciting than chess because of the element of luck. In a short match, anyone is in with a chance if they know the basic moves. However, at its highest level the game demands just as much from your intellect as chess. Backgammon tournaments don’t look so different from chess tournaments, they are just much louder.
Every sport has a Hall of Fame, and backgammon is no exception. As with all other sports, there is an illustrious list of backgammon giants, the most famous backgammon players. Every two years the best players and tournament directors in the world are asked which players they most respect in their peer group. From their answers, a list of the top 64 players in the world is compiled (the number reflecting the 64 on the doubling cube).
Some of them become famous backgammon players within the international backgammon community and many appear on the list year in, year out. Falafel has appeared on the list consistently in recent years. Then there is US player, Nack Ballard, who has even invented his own version of the game called Nackgammon.The top Japanese players include Masayuki Mochizuki, known as Mochy, Michihito Kageyama known as Michy, and Akiko Yazawa, the 2014 World Champion. Akiko is only the third Japanese player to win the world championship and the fourth ever female winner.
The USA has traditionally produced many of the world’s top players, although with the game’s popularity rising, Japan and Denmark have also emerged as strong nations. Some of the main tournaments are held in these countries; there are numerous tournaments in the USA, and now worldwide most notably the Japan Open and the Nordic Open, amongst many others. (see Chapter 17, playing for real).
Only one player has won the world championship three times; the USA’s Tim Holland, who first won the tournament when it was held in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Given the fierce competition these days, and the many professional-level players, it seems statistically unlikely that anyone will achieve this hat-trick again.
Tim Holland was something of a golf hustler in the 1950s. When he discovered that the older, richer members of his club were playing backgammon, he quickly got involved. Apparently he lost $30,000 as he was learning the ropes, but by the 1970s he was making $60,000 a year from the game and gained a reputation as a very cool customer. John Bradshaw recalls, ‘He did not speak, he did not smile; his eyes rarely left the table.’
January 2015 saw the inaugural induction of the American Backgammon Hall of Fame. The inaugural 13 players include many of the most famous backgammon players over the last few decades. I am indebted to the USBGF (a wonderful organisation that I recommend joining for its great resources) for the following list of these greats and many of the details about them. You can also watch the video of the inauguration.
Nack Ballard – not only a true backgammon great but also famed for skill at other games such as Go and Scrabble. Mike Senkiewicz at the inauguration described Ballard as ‘the best games player I’ve ever encountered… kind of a genius.’
Carol Joy Cole. Founder of the famous Flint Area Backgammon Club in 1978, which has the longest-running newsletter dedicated to backgammon in the world, and former US open champion.
Barclay Cooke (1912-1981). Named by Sports Illustrated as “the father of modern backgammon” and author of the brilliantly titled ‘Backgammon:The Cruellest Game.’
Bill Davis. Widely respected for his contributions, innovations, and promotion of the game. He is the founder of the American Backgammon Tour, and runs the excellent backgammon website Chicago Point.
Malcolm Davis. He has won many tournaments in the US and has had books written about his matches; he spends a huge amount of time learning how to play better. In the basement of his house he runs a collection of computer servers running different rollouts and match situations; it helps to be this thorough if you want to get to the top. (A rollout is a game that is completed from the same position many times, usually by a computer, to analyse the best possible moves in that position, or to determine the correct doubling decisions.) Malcolm has placed first or second in a major tournament 75 times in the past 40 years.
Kent Goulding. Introduced the first U.S. backgammon rating system, and as director of the World Cup, he instituted the use of clocks and recorded matches.
Oswald Jacoby (1902 – 1984). A leading backgammon player and co-author of ‘The Backgammon Book’ (1970) with John R. Crawford. Namesake of the <a href=”http://www.bkgm.com/gloss/lookup.cgi?jacoby+rule”>Jacoby Rule</a>.
Neil Kazaross. Noted for his brilliant analytical mind, Neil is one of only seven players to have been voted onto every Giants of Backgammon listing since its inception and he leads the field in a number tournament results categories.
Paul Magriel. Wrote the groundbreaking book ‘Backgammon’, was one of the first backgammon celebrities and helped popularize the game. World Champion, 1978, Bahamas.
Bill Robertie. A prolific author, and also a publisher at The Gammon Press, Bill Robertie was World Champion in 1983 and 1987. His book ‘Backgammon for Winners’ is a great way to learn for beginners and intermediates as it takes you through several fascinating games move by move.
Mike Senkiewicz. A writer as well as player, and one of only seven players to have been voted onto every Giants of Backgammon listing since its inception.
Walter Trice (1948 – 2009). A renowned mathematical theorist, Walter Trice is known for development of the Effective Pip Count and his best-selling book, ‘Backgammon Boot Camp’.
Kit Woolsey. A famous bridge and backgammon player and author, Kit Woolsey is one of backgammon’s leading experts on the doubling cube and tournament play. Woolsey is the namesake of Woolsey’s law.
We may wonder what all these famous backgammon players have in common. As far as I can see, there are two common threads. Firstly, and not surprisingly, they are all rather good at mathematics. Secondly, they have spent an immeasurable number of hours playing and studying the game. In his excellent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the theory that to be superbly good at anything you will need to spend more than 10,000 hours doing it. He applies the theory to the Beatles, Michael Jordan and Bill Gates. I believe you could also apply it to the leading backgammon players.
In recent times, some of the famous backgammon players have gone to extremes to improve their game. Matt Cohn-Geier, one of the greats in the modern game, became a giant only four years after he took up backgammon, a unique feat that is rather encouraging for the rest of us. Matt, who is one of the youngest top professionals, spent his college years playing backgammon for many hours a day. He says, ‘Early on, I spent my spare time getting drunk and playing chess. Later, I spent it getting drunk and playing backgammon. Still later, I gave up drinking altogether and just spent it playing backgammon.’
According to Mochy, one of the modern game’s greats, ‘If you want to be among the top ten players in the world, you have to do a lot more work. You should devote all of your time and life to the game for at least a few years. Backgammon is a difficult game; we are not sure how to play some of the opening rolls, even though this game has a history of 5000 years.’ He goes on to admit, ‘I have just kept studying, playing, reading and thinking about the game every day, for years and years. I must admit that I’m lazy and I compromised a lot in my life, but never in backgammon. I spend a lot of time not just playing backgammon, but studying and teaching, as well. I am not sure exactly how many hours per week, but most of my waking hours are spent in backgammon activities.’
Hardy Huebener quotes a couple of Hall of Famers on his brilliant website that help explain the simple truth: working at the game will pay off. Neil Kazaross says, ‘The best way to improve at backgammon is to get your hands dirty and really work to learn to understand this game,’ while Paul Magriel simply states, ‘The best way to learn backgammon is to play it.’
Some of the top backgammon players find that their family life suffers as a result of their obsession. Phil Simborg once said, ‘I have never let any of my marriages interfere with my backgammon.’
Obviously I’m not trying to encourage you to get so obsessive about the game that you sacrifice your marriage (unless that is a desirable goal for you!) This book isn’t about making it hard work, it’s about learning how to play good backgammon whilst keeping it fun. Backgammon is the best way I know to compete fiercely whilst still (as Andy Roddick put it, while being thrashed 6-3, 6-1 by Andy Murray at the Queen’s Club tennis tournament) ‘keeping it social.’