Backgammon History
Oswald Jacoby, 1981
Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine, December 1981
Oswald Jacoby The invention of the doubling cube some time in the roaring twenties changed backgammon into an interesting game. It had always been played at many of our leading men's clubs, but with doubling it moved further into upper class society.

I was taught the game by the late Worthington Davis in 1928 or 1929. Play in those days was terrible. I remember Worthy taught that 5-2, 4-3, 4-1, and 3-2 should all be played safe. It didn't take me long to improve on those plays but I did follow him with 6-4 to make the two point. Exposing an early blot in your home board was a last resort play.

There was an Egyptian speakeasy owner named George Mabardi who was considered the great authority of those early days. He was a trifle superior to my teacher, but still played as safe as possible at all times. He would point out the number of pips you lost when a blot was hit in your home board, etc.

There were no formal laws in those days and Wheaton Vaughan, secretary of the Racquet Club Backgammon and Card Committee, decided there should be some. He invited all interested clubs to form a committee and the New York Men's Clubs, the Philadelphia Racquet, and the Longwood Cricket Club all sent representatives, while many out of ten clubs such as the Pacific Union in San Francisco, wrote saying they would accept those new laws.

I got on the committee as representative of the Knickerbocker Whist Club, and the committee, largely due to indefatigable work by Wheaton Vaughan, did such a good job that current laws show practically no changes.

The big argument was whether or not in bearing off you could play 6-1 by moving a man from the six point to the five point and then bearing him off, or if you had to bear him from the six point and play the one with some other man.

Due to strong support by Vaughan, Walter Beinecke, Grosvenor Nicholas, and Phil Randolph, the right decision was made. I was the youngest man on the committee, and while I was in total agreement, I was just one minor vote on the right side.

I was lucky enough to get married in April, 1932. Mary Zita (the boss) had to learn bridge and backgammon. She loved backgammon and we played a lot at home. We had a teacher, the late Leon Medem, a Persian who had gone broke in the depression. He told us he was a great expert — he was (by 1932 standards), and soon had taught us things about the game we hadn't suspected. We quickly became better than anyone else, and even improved enough to beat him.

Incidentally, we got Medem pupils. He spent the rest of his life teaching in New York in the spring and fall, Palm Beach in the winter, and various resorts in the summer.

As a result of this, the Boss became the only woman in history ever able to gamble against men and win. Her greatest triumph was against a young Englishman (related by marriage to the royal family) who had a racket. He would get hold of a rich woman and play her for five cents or maybe tuppence a point just for fun. They would play unlimited optional doubles — you could keep taking your first roll over until satisfied with it. He would take a lot of rolls so games would start at such numbers as 4096 or maybe higher. Eventually he would tell his victim, too bad. You owe me so many thousand dollars or pounds. I would have paid if I had lost. Eventually the husband would pay up.

Introduced to the Regency Club by Fritz Gahagan, whose family owned half the tugs in New York Harbor, he got hold of the Boss. She agreed to play at $5 with automatic doubles to eight and proceeded to win $10,000. He ran off to England without paying, but we told the story in the right circles and his racket was ruined.

By the time I went away to war in 1942 the game had improved. There were a lot of good players. I will mention a few. (Asterisks indicate that they are dead.) Archille Gourialli*, Fred McEvoy*, Stephen Raphael, Buddy Simonson*, Ogden Phipps, Earl E.T. Smith, Tommy Tailer, Walter Beineck*, Harold Richard*, Barclay Cooke. If I have forgotten anyone I ask his forgiveness.

I will get into more modern history with my next article.

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