Ernest hemingway once wrote that the rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. But among the 500 or so of the game’s aficionados who descended on Monte Carlo last July, few, if any, remembered the writer’s words, and those who did weren’t likely to take umbrage. Drinking is one thing, but there could be no such thing as too much backgammon.
Last summer’s 16th World Backgammon Championship at the Loews Monte Carlo Hotel went on for seven very long days of rattling dice and rattled nerves. The event was something of a backgammon Super Bowl, in which Texas millionaires squared off against European gentry and tens of thousands of dollars changed hands during casual games by the hotel pool. In two enormous green-and-white playing salons, backgammon addicts from almost 40 countries gathered to take a crack at beating the game’s finest players.
If one was unlucky enough to lose in the single-elimination championship, there were three consolation rounds for losers on each successive day. Jackpots (minitournaments of eight or 16 players) ran nearly 24 hours a day. And there was side action — in the hotel hallways, lounge, private rooms, anywhere that a board and two players could be accommodated. Restaurants were about the only places that put a ban on playing. “It’s like an orgy of backgammon,” said a Frenchman who wouldn’t give his name. “You can’t get enough.”
In the end, Michael Meyburg, a quiet 27-year-old from Nuremberg, Germany, and a long shot at 100 to 1, used a surgeon’s concentration to knock off all the Kasparovs and Karpovs of the backgammon world and went home $60,000 richer.
Meyburg had never played in the world championship before. In fact, this was only his fourth tournament. A computer salesman who had married two months before the championship began, Meyburg had planned to enter the less expensive intermediate division, one of three categories. Just days before the tournament a friend from Munich agreed to provide Meyburg the money that he needed to upgrade to the championship draw, which cost each player about $750. The lanky, brown-haired Meyburg methodically worked his way through some of the best names in the game: Neil Kazaross, Paul Magriel and Perry Gartner, all from the U.S., and Georges Vadiakis of Greece.
Magriel, 45, a writer from New York, who, some consider, is the best all-around player in the world, didn’t give Meyburg much of a match, losing 21–8 in the round of 16. Gartner, a New Jersey native who is in the import-export business, had been summarily dismissed in the second round. But he was so impressed with the young German that after their match, Gartner put down a sizable bet on Meyburg at 70-to-1 odds. Meyburg then made Gartner’s trip to Monte Carlo worthwhile by thrashing fellow German Gerhard Mauerer in the final, 25–8.
Backgammon goes back to the 15th century, but it has always been treated as if it were chess’s disreputable cousin. Its detractors insist that it is nothing more than a dice game that ultimately comes down to whatever a player rolls. And yet hundreds of books and articles on backgammon strategy have been published. Those who take the game seriously argue that while the chance element looms large in any playing of the game, a backgammon player’s ability to use strategy is crucial to success.
“It’s a totally different game than chess,” said John Koonmen, 27, who was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo. Koonmen, a securities trader, learned backgammon as an undergraduate at MIT. “It’s a very random game,” he said. “Luck is probably 80 to 90 percent of it. But when you weigh that against casino games, where a two percent edge is big, then 10 to 20 percent becomes a huge edge.”
Despite receiving virtually no media attention, the world championship — sponsored by the Sociètè des Bains de Mer, the company that owns and operates most of the major tourist facilities in Monaco — made for an exhilarating week. The regulars came from France, Germany, Great Britain, the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries. But unexpected arrivals came from as far away as Brazil, New Zealand, the republics of the former Soviet Union, Panama, Egypt, Iran and Israel.
“Most of the players here are the best in their town or in their country or something,” said Billy Horan, a former semi-pro Softball player from New York who is considered to be among the top five in American backgammon. “I know a lot of Europeans, but these are all a new group to me.”
Americans have long been the best at the game, but lately the Europeans have come into their own, especially the Germans. Hal Heinrich, who won the 1990 championship in Monte Carlo; Phillip Marmorstein, who was the world’s top-rated player; Harald Johanni, who won the Monte Carlo preliminary tournament in San Remo, Italy; and the two Monte Carlo finalists were all German.
“The German players have gotten a lot better,” said Horan. “They’ve taken the game seriously for the last 10 years.”
But U.S. interest in the game has leveled off since its heyday in the 1970s when backgammon play was highly visible at beaches, bars and clubhouses around the country. Celebrities, Lucille Ball for one, were regularly spotted at the tournaments and often played in them. But after the recession of the early ‘80s, fewer tournaments were held and some backgammon clubs closed. “I think a lot of people lost a lot of money too quickly,” said Koonmen.
The game is kept alive in the U.S. through many tournaments and at a variety of clubs in cities and suburbs. New York City, for instance, has three clubs, including the Coterie Club and the Ace Point Club, where aficionados still play daily.
In Europe, however, the game’s popularity has grown considerably. And the tournaments that used to take place in the U.S. are now staged everywhere from Great Britain to Brazil.
Like the big U.S. tournaments, which are held in Reno and Las Vegas, the Monte Carlo event takes place with a casino close at hand because backgammon is essentially a money game, and its players tend to be gamblers. Most come with the hope of going home richer.
“All decent backgammon players have big egos,” says Kent Goulding of the U.S., who last July chose not to play at Monte Carlo and ran the betting book instead. “It’s very easy to think that when you win, it’s because you’re good, and when you lose, it’s because you’re unlucky.”
The early rounds went poorly for a lot of the big names, including the American contingent from the Coterie Club, which counts most of the world’s best players among its members. Top-ranked Americans and Europeans, several of whom had won the event in past years, were ousted in the first round.
“I don’t know what it is about this tournament,” said Horan. “A lot of nobodies get through. It seems to happen here more than anywhere else.”
Last year Horan was bested in the third round by Koonmen, his good friend from the Coterie. “This tournament seems to spawn more upsets than anywhere else,” Horan said. “For some reason it seems to be much more of a crapshoot.”
Goulding couldn’t help being pleased with the crash-and-burn performances of the favorites. “The experts did poorly, but that was good for me because most of the money came in on the experts.”
By the semifinals, the last chance for the U.S. to show its strength lay with Koonmen, a heavy favorite against Germany’s Mauerer. But the German won some early games and was suddenly up 11–4 in the 23-point contest.
“The guy turned around three key games, two of which involved six-point swings,” Koonmen said. “He was rolling pretty well.”
The American fought back to 16–14, but Mauerer closed him out, winning three of the last four games.
Meyburg, who had blitzed Greece’s Vadiakis in the other semifinal, was worried about Mauerer after watching him roll. “He seemed to have some mental power,” said Meyburg. “He didn’t play very well, but he had a mental force on the dice.”
Nonetheless, Meyburg, sporting a black baseball cap, trounced his compatriot. Meyburg jumped out to an early 13–4 lead after Mauerer made a crucial misplay in an early game and then took a questionable double at the four-level in a later game. Meyburg finished him off with a gammon in the last game to give him more than enough to win the match and the world title.
Last year at the awards party, Meyburg sipped champagne from his championship cup and smiled in response to the cheers from the crowd and to the cries of “Germany! Germany!” from his countrymen.
But not all the Germans at the party were ecstatic. Johanni, the editor of Germany’s Backgammon Magazine and a friend of Meyburg’s, sighed regretfully at his compatriot’s surprise victory. Before approaching his friend in Munich, Meyburg had asked Johanni whether he was interested in backing Meyburg’s championship entry.
Said a rueful Johanni after the match, “I wouldn’t loan him the money, but he won.”