NEW YORK — That rattle-rattle, plop-plop that’s being heard in living rooms and clubs so much these days is the sound of the dice in backgammon, a game that may date back to 3,000 B.C. and is increasingly popular in the 1970s.
Backgammon’s renaissance began in the 1960s in the circle of Prince Alexis Obolensky, Russian emigre, socialite and now president of the World Backgammon Club. It is said that as many as 20 million American now play the game. And 300 of them will compete in a World Backgammon Championship at St. Maarteen in the Netherlands Antilles, April 20-24.
“Oh gosh, has there been a resurgence!” said Joseph Pasternack, executive director of the World Backgammon Club. “Everybody is playing. First it was the big names, Now it’s the average guy.”
Three hundred or so more-or-less average people show up regularly at the very modern establishment of Mayfair Bridge and Game Club on New York’s East 57th Street, to play the two-person board game in which the moving of pieces like checkers toward a goal is determined by the toss of the dice. They say the game nicely balances two elements: “It takes luck and skill,” said Richard Soleno, a businessman from Bombay, India. “I come here evenings for the relaxation, the excitement, the hustle, the gambling.
“There are so many subtle moves. So much can depend on one throw of the dice. You can be coasting to a very comfortable win and one throw later you can be staring disaster in the face.”
The question of skill versus luck is much argued in backgammon circles. People who are initially attracted by the element of chance later get caught up in the analysis of the mathematical probabilities in play; others talk up the importance of being able to recognize visual patterns, “what looks good.”
Paul Magriel, mathematics professor, winning of backgammon’s major tournaments, and author of “Backgammon,” (Quadrangle, The New York Times Book Co., 1976) believes that, in the long run, skill will win out.
“Playing one game against an average player, my skill would give me a 55 per cent chance of winning, little better that a coin flip,” he said. “An hour’s worth of games would make the odds two or three to one in my favor, and if we played all day, my opponent wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“My faith in backgammon hinges on the chouette ... the excitement that generates from all those minds working together,” Alvin Roth, owner of Mayfair, said. “When amateurs play in a chouette, they get unconscious lessons from superior players.”
With stakes as high as $25 a point in some chouettes, players stand to win or lose as much as $1,000 in a session.
Membership in Mayfair where, according to Roth, “the best players in the world can be found,” costs $250 for the first year, $100 a year subsequently. Playing fees begin at $4 and graduate upward, based on the stakes.
But no money changes hands at the tables, Roth pointed out. Almost all members have accounts and they charge food (dinners and snacks), playing fees, winnings and losses. “Of course we run a check on the bank rating first,” Roth said.
“But backgammon is not only a game, it’s sociability.” Roth added. “You have to make it so that as soon as they finish the dishes, they want to come to the club. All those people — single women, divorcees, retired people sitting in an apartment — they don’t know anybody. They walk in and say, “I want to be part of this action.
Sociability is emphasized also at the Bar Point House of Backgammon at 69 West 14th Street, which opened in October and has about 300 members.
“What the city sorely lacks is a place people can socialize,” said George Fechter, one of the co-directors. “We had in mind a homelike, old-fashioned club where people could kibitz for a while, read a newspaper, watch TV, meet new people — an alternative to the bar scene.”
A monthly trial membership at Bar Point is $15; annual membership is $75. Lessons are given Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. A guest fee of $3 can be credited against membership, and there is a regular charge of $1 for a non-stake session and $2 for those who play for money.
“We don’t encourage high-stake games,” said Stephen Carr, co-director of the club. “Most players play for 25 cents to $2 a point and most chouettes are from 50 cents to $2 a point. We have people playing at 10 cents a point, which means they can play all night and lose $5.”
Bar Point patrons who don’t gamble play for club points, and a monthly tournament is held for the 20 best point players.