Early Days of Backgammon
Lewis Deyong, 2009

Many trends in life are the result of measured evolutions, but the emergence of competition backgammon can be traced to one specific event: the 1965 International Backgammon Championship, staged at Lucayan Beach Hotel (Freeport, Bahamas).

The organiser was a Palm Beach aficionado of the game, Prince Alexis Obolensky and his idea proved wildly successful. It led to an explosion of interest in the game and a proliferation of such tournaments, first across the U.S.A., and later fanning out across Europe, although here most of the best events were held in private clubs, restricted to members and their friends.

After a few false starts elsewhere, Monte Carlo became the Continental centre of the game, and was supported by Merit, a cigarette brand from mega sponsors Philip Morris (now Altria). These parties decided to host the first European Open Championship in July 1976. Up to the last minute the organisers and sponsors were in a nail biting frenzy. Would our concept click? Happily the answer was a resounding “yes”, as over 400 avid gammoners showed up, and “EuroGammon” was underway.

Naturally, a big quotient were Americans, (in those days they were indisputably the best players), but even so, “multiculturalism” was the order of the day. The British contingent was next in line, but large groups flocked in from Holland, Iran, France, Brazil and Italy plus one lone Australian.

Remember that in those days the Iron Curtain was still firmly cordoning off Eastern Europe, and with the exception of a rather jolly bunch of Finns, Scandinavian interest was far below the radar. As the Director, I was responsible to the Merit (Europe) brand managers for all aspects of the event. When asked why German attendance was so low, I tried to explain “their interest was just getting started”, “not enough exposure”, etc., all of which was cut off by an ironic “yeah, but they smoke, don’t they?”

What helped most was media interest in our novelty, to the extent that one night we held a separate event for media only, with an attendance of about 30/40 press and T.V. people, including a few from Tele Monte Carlo which had featured several spots about our activities.

With various tournament dinners and cocktail parties, a tennis tournament, plus numerous private parties crammed into one very short week, by the end of it all exhaustion had felled most of the staff. Later, many of these aides became Directors in their own right. Robert Perry and Roland Jakober are now retired, but James Baillie still flies the flag in Monte Carlo, along with Patti Rubin. For the record, Joe Dwek (UK) defeated Kuimars Motakhasses (Iran) in the final, which included the first CCTV of backgammon in Europe

To my intense relief our efforts were judged a smashing success by players, sponsors and media. Everyone wanted more, and Open Backgammon was now on course for a very busy future. Jacoby and Crawford The Jacoby rule, now so popular in cash games, was not a name plucked idly from thin air. It was invented by the agile brain of Oswald Jacoby, perhaps the world’s most impatient human being, who just wanted to speed up the game.

His innovation has helped tremendously, and despite his fame at bridge and other club games, he will always be associated with backgammon.

Who was Jacoby? Well, facts first. As well as writing a daily bridge column for 1000s of newspapers, his profession was as an insurance actuary (a job 100% devoted to calculating odds). He lived in Dallas, flying around America to compete at his various games, and was one of the most outstanding characters I ever met.

At the time I write of, serious backgammon was concentrated in New York and London, with smaller offshoots in Paris, Los Angeles, Palm Beach and Monte Carlo. The Open Tournament scene was virtually non-existent (Nassau and a little later Monte Carlo - that was it). The rest were in private (with a capital P) clubs.

I lived then in New York and used to play a lot with Gino Scalamandre. One evening, he told me, “We are going on a little road trip.” I didn’t know where, but soon we entered a nice hotel suite, to be introduced to our opponent. Oz was then in his 70s, tall, vigorous with an unruly mop of white hair and talking a mile a minute. He looked like The Nutty Professor but was in fact, the legendary Jacoby, who had also invented the concept of the pip count for races.

His love of the game bubbled over from roll to roll and he transmitted a spontaneous excitement which I have never seen equalled - for those who follow tennis, his table persona was something akin to a septuagenarian Rafael Nadal (without the legs). His mental arithmetic approached warp speed. While Gino and I were pondering a racing double, Ozzie would save us the trouble, at a faster speed than any calculator.

“My count is 122, you are 14 behind Gino, so this is a definite take. Odds are 68% me, 32% you, way below 3/1, so you do not even have a hesitation.”

I learnt later that no one ever questioned his sums, he was deadly accurate and scrupulously fair to the other side. He was quite happy to surrender his advantage just to speed up the tempo.

Fittingly, the rule he invented has done a lot to achieve this end. How his impatience could cope with the tedious pauses of tournament bridge I never ever understood.

Incidentally, that night we broke even, which bored the pants off the other 2, but thrilled me.

“I broke even with the great Jacoby “whew! Perhaps I’m on the way.”

The other basic innovation of that era was the Crawford rule, devised by Ozzie’s bridge pal, New Yorker John Crawford, who won the first ever Open Tournament (Freeport, Bahamas, 1964). Together they wrote the first book of the modern era, “The Backgammon Book” and also numerous books on bridge and many other games. At one tournament Jacoby was steaming away on the blackjack tables, playing maximums, as he informed the Dealer, “I split.”

Crawford chanced by and couldn’t resist a little dig:

“But Oz, in your book it says never split 7s!”

Without a pause came the reply.

“Just forget my book, right now I need the money.”

During World War II Jacoby was commissioned in the United States Navy and worked in an elite group that broke the Japanese Military Code. He explained obliquely,

“Our greatest success was the Battle of Midway, I cannot tell you more, but I can confirm that we won.”

He must have been doing something right because back in the early days he did a “Tiger Woods” and won the Bahamas event 3 years running, no one else since has even come close. In a decathlon of club games Oz would have been unbeatable. Hef and the Playboy Mansion Years ago, further back than I enjoy counting, Hugh Hefner was bitten hard by the backgammon bug. His HQ, then as it is now, was Playboy Mansion West and $50 point chouette flourish almost every night, usually extending well into the next morning.

I spent one winter in LA and was introduced to The Mansion by a local real estate maven Stan Herman, at whose house I was staying.

The game was on, Hef gave a cheery welcome to the new face and I joined right in. Stan (who worked) was an early quitter at 3:00am but the rest were still rolling away until almost 8:00am, when Hef called it quits.

“If you feel tired stay over,” he volunteered, and sure enough I was shown up to bedroom #38 or some such, and woke up around 3:00pm to sample the house amenities. Believe it, the pix are all true: this was a bachelor pad extruded to the ultimate. Name it, they had it - pools, tennis courts, pool tables, slot machines galore, sauna (mixed!), plus 24 hour room service of just about anything you could dream of scoffing down. Also at your pleasure was Hef’s private film library which was amongst the largest in the world.

There was no satellite TV in those days, so all the big fights and other sports were piped in and Hollywood guests “hung out” for these shows. Regulars were Sonny and Cher, Diana Ross, Lucille Ball (who “just loved” backgammon) and Desi Arnaz, gridiron hero Jim Brown — the names didn’t stop.

It was during that winter Hef introduced a stunning blonde to the chouette. She watched for a while and within 2 months had become Mrs. Stan Herman. Her name? Linda Evans (you haven’t forgotten “Dynasty” already, have you?).

Another night Desi Arnaz stumbled in somewhat worse for wear. “I Love Lucy” was hovering near the top of US ratings, but at that moment Desi was looking for non-family entertainment. His Cubano accent sounded off a bit like this —

Desi: “Ow mooch you a-playin’?”

Hef: “Go away Desi, we’re playing but you’re not.”

Desi: “Ow mooch?! I play all you, one tousan a punto and now now now.”

Hef, not looking up from the board flicked his hand at the nuisance:

Hef: “Shoo Desi, these are the best players in California. I’ve already had dinner and don’t want to watch you get eaten alive.”

Desi staggered off heart broken but not as much as the resident pro (Bridge Ace Billy Eisenberg) and me. We looked at each other as if our pockets had been picked. Whoever wrote “The Sun always shines in Southern California” certainly did not play backgammon.

Hef loved to be in the action and enjoyed rolling the dice, so he had a special table designed with 2 boards inset side by side. In his chouette everyone was playing simultaneously at both tables, rather like internet poker on 2 screens. It was confusing, but fun and soon Hef installed a similar table in his private jet.

If you wanted a break you could always try your luck at the myriad of birds who flocked around the place like flamingos at a watering hole (I am sure bedroom #38 was not the only nesting spot).

After a few weeks Hef asked me to write a book about backgammon, which was duly published as Playboy’s Book of Backgammon, to which he wrote the foreward. The game featured in the Magazine from time to time, and of course Playboy had bought the exclusive Clermont Club from John Aspinall, and that venue remained the centre of London action for another 15–20 years — the tournaments were legendary.

Nowadays, Hef is portrayed as a comic icon of a bygone age and tolerates a lot of rubbish from snide journalists looking for an easy target. Let me set the record straight. He is a highly intelligent and friendly guy with a great sense of humour, unpretentious and hospitable beyond measure. What more do you want (except an invitation)?

If his private life is, shall we say, unorthodox, so what? Not many are qualified to cast any first stone in that direction. Rather, remember what Oscar Wilde said, which could have been the Playboy motto, “I can resist anything except temptation.”

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