Frontlines

A jet-set gambling streak turns dice into dollars

Nanci Rossov,Clive Endersby October 1 1979
Frontlines

A jet-set gambling streak turns dice into dollars

Nanci Rossov,Clive Endersby October 1 1979

A jet-set gambling streak turns dice into dollars

Surveying the scene from the gracious balcony 20 feet above the throng, the first impression is— diamonds. A man’s ear glitters with two studs; a woman in blue jeans flashes diamond fingers and wrists; and almost everyone else seems to be displaying at least one sparkling stone. The gems belie the second impression—that a huge bingo tournament is in progress. Besides, it’s a rare bingo binge where waiters at one end of the huge hall tend a bar and buffet, and where the ninth hole of a spectacular golf course lies just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. It is, in fact, the First International Backgammon Championships of Puerto Rico, where everyone who attended last month—even the spectators—went to win.

The money up front is a top prize of $18,000 with seven additional prizes ranging from $800 to $8,000. But away from the official gaming tables covered with deep blue linen, the dominant tone throughout the Cerromar Beach Hotel is the sound of money being fondled, folded and changing hands, to the beat of the dice.

On the beach, in the lobby and around the pool, men and women in tennis garb

or elegant beach cover-ups begin tossing the dice early on the first morning. Tournament co-director Sidney Jackson, who recently organized the Monte Carlo backgammon championships, reminds the crowds inside the hotel that boards have been set up in Salon Five, for anyone wishing to enjoy a private game. But there is no need for that: long before registration is completed, players have been warming up in games worth from $1 to $500 a point. During breakfast on the garden terrace overlooking the ocean, Oswald Jacoby, the granddad of backgammon and bridge, now in his 70s, can be seen matching his skill against a much younger opponent.

But facing down an opponent is not the only way to win at a backgammon tournament. The vicarious thrill of watching favorite players tangle over the boards is heightened by the tournament’s “Calcutta”—a hotly contested auction of competitors. British MC Alan Lorenz takes the microphone to “sell” the competitors to the assembled blacktie crowd—“owners” get a cut of the Calcutta pot if their players win or finish well. As the enthusiastic bidding begins, players such as former world

bridge champion Billy Eisenberg and Paul Magriel, another “seeded” contestant (also known as “the Human Computer” or X-22), are sold individually, and bring $2,000 apiece. The top field (a group of eight players), all women in this case, sells for $3,000. Within an hour, the bidding has raised the Calcutta purse to more than $60,000.

Backgammon, in which dark-colored and white chips represent opposing armies (the first player to remove all his chips from the board wins), is one of the hottest gambling games in the world. It dates back 4,000 to 5,000 years, and the presence of a crude, early version of the game in King Tutankhamun’s tomb suggests that the Egyptian ruler himself had a penchant for a roll of the dice. Caesar’s armies enjoyed the game between battles, and at the court of Louis XIV backgammon was a popular pastime.

But it wasn’t until the Russian émigré Prince Alexis Obolensky introduced the game to his socialite New York friends in the 1960s that the backgammon craze took hold in North America. And when Obolensky concocted the idea of an international tournament, which was held in 1964 in the Bahamas, backgammon as a competitive game became as hotly contested as bridge.

It was an innovation of the 1920s—

the doubling cube—that made the game such a potent lure for gamblers. At strategic moments in the game, players can challenge their opponents to increase the stakes by rolling a cube bearing numbers from 2 doubling up to 64. It is not uncommon for the cube to go rapidly from hand to hand, doubling the stakes every time. Thus, if a $l-perpoint game ends with a one-point difference, then $1 would change hands; but if the doubling cube has reached 64, then $64 is lost and won. As Paul Magriel, world champion until July of this year, has written, “The doubling cube holds the key to being a winner or a loser.” If King Tut had played and lost with the cube, museum-goers might well be visiting someone else’s tomb today.

Backgammon is easy to learn and the boards are portable, which accounts in large measure for its popularity. But to play it well is difficult, especially with a luck factor that experts estimate to be 20 per cent—considerably greater than chess but insignificant compared to roulette. (One virtuoso, Barclay Cooke, co-author of Backgammon: The Cruelest Game, has estimated that it may even be as high as 75 per cent.)

In Puerto Rico, as the week wears on, backgammon fever becomes almost palpable. As the losers are shunted aside and the stakes rise, the struggles to win turn to overt psychological warfare. Both sexes play to conquer. Women flaunt cleavages with plunging necklines to distract eyes and minds of the opposition; men display scowls and brusque gestures to intimidate their opponents. Some hide behind dark glasses; others chain-smoke until the ashtrays are heaped high. A few, hoping to disarm with the casual approach, bandy conversation, but they are in the minority—the trend, for most players, is a stonefaced, silent vigil over their pieces. Each match ends with a tense handshake.

By 10 p.m. the tournament matches are usually over, but the participants do not adjourn to the lounges, supper club or even the casino. In their suites or in Salon Five they are hedging their chances of winning the tournament with high-stakes games, or making side bets on the finalists with anyone who will give them attractive odds.

At the top, the championship level, most of the “superstars” have been eliminated by the week’s end, and the survivors play close games in which “psych” and technique are equally important. In the final match, Saturday morning, Peter Gold, an exuberant entrepreneur from England, faces Kal

Robinson, an American from the sybaritic Cavendish West Club in Los Angeles. Their table, the table where $18,000 in prize money would go up in smoke for one of them, is custom-designed and inlaid with ebony and silver. The spectators, excluded from the game room, watch the two men over closedcircuit television.

The first match goes to Gold, the second to Robinson. The dice roll; the cube is offered, accepted, redoubled. In the

next room the running commentary keeps pace with every move. Then it is over—the enigmatic Kal Robinson takes the final point. At the formal awards banquet more than $120,000 in cash prizes is distributed, and the tournament has finished. Well, almost. The next day, as the contestants fly home, the flight attendants can hear the dice rattling in the cups and see the diamonds—sparkling.

Nanci Rossov / Clive Endersby