The Life and Times of Gaby Horowitz
California's Controversial Backgammon Ace

Les B. Levi, 1982

From Backgammon Times, Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 1982.

Gaby Horowitz
He's probably the most controversial figure in American backgammon, so strongly loved and hated he is by the thousands who have played him and watched him play. A self-confessed hustler who claims now to be "interested only in helping backgammon," Gaby Horowitz, 34, talks freely about his past mistakes, emphasizing how he has changed.

As a Beverly Hills backgammon pro who has seen the most glamorous and opulent side of the game, Horowitz has for the last half-decade devoted his time to teaching, lecturing, writing, and recruiting new players for tournaments and clubs. He claims responsibility for teaching "the largest number of backgammon players on the planet," but even if the numbers aren't dazzling, the quality certainly is: among his students and proteges are several major tournament players from America and Europe.

The Israeli-born Horowitz learned backgammon from his father, a Polish-Jewish diamond dealer who emigrated to Palestine after the Second World War. Then, America's future cube master played only running games, honing his skill by rolling dice against Arab street urchins. Those youthful games were important: Horowitz gained a keen understanding of backgammon position and strategy that became second nature.

At 13, Gaby emigrated from Israel to join an American uncle in Philadelphia, but by 16 he left alone for the West Coast, determined to get rich. And there was no better place for that than Beverly Hills.

"All I wanted then was money," Gaby recalls, "and the things money could buy—big, beautiful cars, expensive clothes, and attractive women. My taste," he adds, "was not terribly refined."

Gaby started in $5-a-point games but soon wormed his way into the Beverly Hills big-money milieu by touting himself as the "best backgammon player in the world." Not one to sit and watch, he even paid commissions to contacts who got him into high-stake games. "I paid generously, and I still pay generously today," Gaby asserts.

"Most of the time I played backgammon in the homes of wealthy Beverly Hills families, and I entertained them," he continues. "I was their loved and hated boy, and in a way they enjoyed losing to me. I was cute, I was Jewish, I could speak four languages, and I seemed educated."

As for his education, Gaby had bought a high school diploma and conned his way into a university. "I could therefore claim I was a college boy, not a backgammon hustler," he explains, "so people thought I was using backgammon to put myself through school—they figured losing to me was for a good cause."

Part of Gaby's appeal, as he describes it, was his street manner: "It was my juvenile rudeness, my bluntness, my teenage lack of sophistication. If I had been more sophisticated, they would not have wanted me around."

By age 20, Horowitz was making more money than most college graduates. "I was a mercenary of the dollar," he says today. "I only associated with people I could make a buck off. Nothing else mattered. I was always very direct—I believed, because of my skill at the game, I should take money from people. I spent hours studying positions—somebody had to pay for that."

When backgammon got very big in the late '60s and early '70s, Gaby became rich. Earning over $200–$500 a day and investing the money wisely, he lived in a sleek Beverly Hills condo, acquired a fleet of high-priced cars—Cadillacs, Lincolns, Mercedes, Porsches, and even a Bently and a Maseratti—and began collecting antiques, expensive watches, Krugerrand, and guns.

Backgammon hustling was Gaby's game and he talks about it today with surprising candor. The skilled hustler, according to Gaby, is both a fine technician and a master of deception, a consummate magician who creates the illusion that allows him to win—and money, not fame or celebrity, is the only thing worth winning.

"The great player is not the guy who always makes the right moves," Gaby insists, "but the one who knows when to make a strong move in order to get the money and when to make a weak move in order to show the opponent that he has a chance at winning.

"Advertising," Gaby continues, "is an art that very few players can practice well. It's knowing when to elect a weaker move to create the impression that an opponent has an edge. Sometimes when I have a bad position, rather than struggle with it I will instead choose the weaker move and advertise for free. It's better to lose the $200–$300 initially and then go for the big kill rather than win all of the time."

But Gaby didn't always understand the dynamics of big-money hustling, as he's the first to admit: "There were many people I played against arrogantly and vindictively. I would say to them, 'Bet against me and you'll lose.' Eager to prove otherwise, they lost anyway—I kept my promise.

"Today, ten years later, I say the same thing," Gaby adds, "except I'm willing to allow people to bet with me by giving them lessons—then they'll win."

Ferreting out the wealthy was all part of Gaby's strategy. He used credit services to check the financial status of players and actually had his wealthiest opponent's followed at tournaments and clubs. "I did not want them to fall in the hands of other sharks," says Gaby. "In a way I did them a service.

"As a pro, I actively sought customers, groomed them, and was there when they wanted to play," he admits. "I eventually learned that you have to be sure they come back."

Gaby has always felt strongly about playing only those who could afford to lose, but at the same time has never had qualms about playing weak players. "Even today I will not turn down a bad player as long as he has money," he claims, "but I never have gone after someone who couldn't afford to lose.

"I've never been stiffed my whole life," he continues, "and I've never made a killing that I wasn't paid for. It's because I can tell how much cash a player has in his pocket by how he moves his pieces."

Horowitz's reputation as a relentless opponent has scared off many. "I'm probably the fastest player in the world," Gaby boasts, "and I can endure the longest sessions. By the time I finish playing you, you'll be tired, depressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, and empty-pocketed."

Why do people choose to play the formidible pro?

"When a person comes to Vegas to gamble," says Gaby, "he knows that the house has an edge, but he plays anyway, trying to beat the odds. The player who plays me or any other pro does the same thing: he plays me although he knows I'm better. Of course he may win, but I've got the edge."

Like many who play backgammon for a living and travel in a world of pigeons, welchers, sharks, and chronic losers, Gaby has his detractors—some will never play with him again and several have even declared war on his reputation. As Gaby himself reasons, "The aim of a pro is to take money, and if you take money there are those who will despise you. After all those years of delivering losses to people, it's not wonder."

A well-known California backgammon author who laces his game strategy literature with crude sexual humor has smeared Horowitz's reputation more than once in newsletters to subscribers. Gaby speaks of him with undisguised disdain: "The man may know something about the theory behind backgammon, but he has never really played, he has never really moved checkers around the board, and he cannot understand or appreciate what goes on in a money game between two players because he's never played for money. I would challenge him to play any one of a dozen of my intermediate students—I will personally back them in a match for $10,000 or more, and I will ask that the match be recorded so the backgammon community may see once and for all how he plays.

"But I can understand his animosity toward me," Gaby continues. "If I looked like him, dressed like him, and played backgammon like him, I too would be envious of Gaby Horowitz. I am famous because I can produce results as a teacher and player. He is a 'kibitzer' who might be a talented writer and mathematician, but not a player."

Steeped in controversy as he is, Gaby nontheless has his admirers, something that becomes apparent when you listen to the crowds of people gathered to watch him play at tournaments and clubs. One of his most devoted fans is the actress Lucille Ball, a determined intermediate player who has taken lessons from him and came to roll dice for him at the Doubles event in this June's World Amateur Tournament.

"Gaby is one of the finest gentlemen in the backgammon world," Lucy insists. "There is no one else like him. He is not only a marvelous player, but he's got taste."

Horowitz, after all, has never been a stranger to celebrities like Lucille Ball. When backgammon got off the ground in the early '70s and laid claim to Hollywood's glitterati, Gaby was right there coaching and coddling the stars. He is reluctant to name the celebrities he played with, fearful that any association with his name today would be controversial—and unwanted. But as an instructor at the posh Beverly Hills club Pips, Horowitz handled many of Hollywood's heavyweights—and sometimes mishandled them as well.

"There were many who played for fun and were then outsmarted," he recalls. "They became bitter about backgammon. They could not take being taken, and I squeezed them for a lot of money. It is something I regret. Then I was only in the business of delivering losses. Today I'm also in the business of delivering wins—to my students."

Gaby's dramatic change happened in the mid-seventies. Teaching not only became an alternative to the money games he found increasingly difficult to get, but also a form of penance. "I found I could be both entertaining and instructive with students. It was also my way of making amends for the damage I had done earlier to backgammon."

He also found he could command over $100–$200 an hour, considerably more when he taught group seminars. And his clients were among the elite.

"I've probably been in the dens and living rooms of some of the wealthiest people on this planet," Gaby boasts. Along with a handful of players-teachers like Paul Magriel and Lee Genud, Gaby is flown all over the world by wealthy clients to teach, lecture, and play.

"I have a rich Venezuelan student who lost ten thousand dollars in Vegas against a good player," Gaby recalls. "He was determined to go back and win, so he flew me to Caracas for lessons." The Venezuelan eventually went back to beat the good player.

"Several of my students have gotten good quickly," Gaby continues, "but I urge them to stay out of the limelight. They play in games where I would not be accepted and they give me a percentage. Even as I speak there are twelve people in Los Angeles making money for me."

As L.A.'s backgammon Svengali, Horowitz claims he can create backgammon stars, or at the very least, competent players: "If you have the time and the motivation," says Gaby, "I can make you a good player. I don't believe the fallacy that backgammon ability requires a very special mathematical mind."

In fact, Gaby has compared mathematics in backgammon to changing a flat tire. "Just as you cannot base your concept of driving on changing a flat," Gaby explains, "you cannot acquire an understanding of positional flow in backgammon through mathematics—math has a tendency to create confusion for most players."

So sure of his teaching ability, Gaby claims to be "the only backgammon teacher in the world who financially backs his students." There are few vocational schools that can make that claim.

Gaby's teaching tactics are designed to make the student money, he explains. Coaching backgammon beginners to master propositions—for instance, playing with an opening roll of 4-2 or 3-1—is meant to mislead the better player who is willing to spot a weaker opponent. Unethical? Well, who's to say.

From the start, Gaby advises his students to decide on their goals as players: "I'll ask if you want to be a tournament player, a money player in heads-on competition, or a chouette player," he explains. "Then I'll design lessons to fit your needs. It takes me a half hour to find out what a person needs to know and how that can be accomplished.

Gaby himself is primarily a heads-on player who enters few tournaments. But when he does, he's sure to attract attention. "I'm a very impatient tournament player," he says. "I play for the show, to provide entertainment for the crowds. I'm not at my best.

"When I do make it to the semifinals, though, I never lose," he remarks. He claims to have won more consolations than anyone else, the most recent being the California Open.

More than anything else, Gaby believes the cube to be critical in backgammon, and in collaboration with Dr. Bruce Roman, a California dentist and player, Gaby has written Dynamic Cube Strategy, a book which examines and sets forth an aggressive approach to cube play.

Gaby approaches life outside backgammon with the same dogged intensity. As a strict vegetarian who does not smoke, drink, or take drugs, Gaby claims to have witnessed the self-destruction through drugs of several top-flight Californa players. He also has a strong interest in preventive medicine and is currently studying nutrition. A runner for the last several years, Gaby competes regularly in 10 kilometers races, which he can do in under 40 minutes. Add to that racquetball and sharpshooting.

Confident of his skills, Gaby has offered the following challenge to anyone foolish enough to try: he will compete in a two-event competition that must include a 25-point backgammon match and the choice of a ten-kilometer race or a target shoot with semiautomatics or handguns.

Despite all of his interests, Gaby still has time for an active social life. Divorced after a nine-year marriage to "an attractive Jewish attorney," he now plays the field. His requirements are simple: "I will only date women who are beautiful, extremely intelligent, atheletic, and wealthy."

What does Gaby see for backgammon's future? "If the economy continues to decline," he maintains, "backgamon will have a wonderful upsurge. Historically, gambling increases as the economy declines. And as the dollar gets weaker, backgammon will get stronger."

And as backgammon gets stronger, veterans like Gaby Horowitz will thrive, as they've done before.

More articles by Les B. Levi
More biographies
Return to: 
Backgammon Galore